Six years ago, two Lebanese militia groups met on the theater stage, in a play about their own lives. The play made the former arch-enemies national symbols of how to build a bombed-out city. In October 2014, the fiercest fighting broke out in several years in the Lebanese city Tripoli, XNUMX km south of the Syrian border. The civil war in the neighboring country had ignited old tensions between the city's two rival parts, separated by the dreaded Shari 'Souriyya, Syria Street.
A few weeks later, this street was transformed into an invisible front line in a small meeting room, furnished with white plastic chairs. On the line itself was the theater director Lucien Bourjeily. On each side of him sat 16 young people from the two warring factions and the atmosphere was tense. Their faces seemed to be filled with disbelief as Lucien Bourjeily tried to persuade them to create a play under his leadership, along with his enemies on the opposite row of seats.
The young people started talking to each other, they realized how similar they are.
"On the first day, both groups came with their weapons, because they were afraid of each other. They had never met and gotten to know anyone from the other side. I had to try to tell them that they would benefit from playing theater together ", says Lucien Bourjeily.
A few months earlier, he had received a call from the Lebanese peace organization March. They devised a grassroots project that could help break the spiral of violence in Tripoli. Lucien Bourjeily thought it was a great idea to use theater as a form.
When the 16 young people from each side of Syriengatan met on their white plastic chairs, they had never seen a play. Some had dropped out of school early, others had never sat in a school desk. "If I had come in and talked about stage analysis and Molière and Shakespeare, they would have left the room," Lucien Bourjeily said in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, ahead of the rehearsal. Therefore, he decided to build up the story together with the participants and start from their personal stories, instead of giving them a finished script.
"It served two purposes. On the one hand, it was a method of conflict resolution, because it brought them together and forced them to cooperate. In part, it served as inspiration for the play's content, which was later performed by themselves. "
Most of the participants had spent most of their young lives with automatic weapons on their shoulders. Both groups have clashed on several occasions since Lebanon's civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. From the first rehearsal, the youths received death threats, and people around them called them traitors.
Reconciliation is a taboo subject because those who rule Lebanon today are the same people who ruled during the civil war. Those in power know that people fear each other more than they do and do not want to be reminded of the abuses they committed. Those who disapprove of the project are those with power, those who act as intermediaries, those who benefit from the fighting continuing. "
The war years were never followed by any tribunals or truth commissions. Just a simple call from the country's leaders: Try to forget what has happened. That way, Lucien says, the war was never over.
Lucien and his countrymen have not been able to forget. The memories of the shelters, in which Lucien spent a significant part of his first 18 years, make him happy to opt out of dark theaters or scenes below ground level. He believes that many Lebanese avoid theater for the same reason: "Since most people have not seen a play, they think it is something very sad."
Actors from both sides
In Love and war on the roof decided Lucien Bourjeily to take a step back and let the young people play themselves. He alternated scenes from the rehearsed play with discussions and acts that showed their journey from actors in a bloody conflict, to actors and co-creators: «During the play's construction, a participant told about how he fell in love with a girl from the rival side of Tripoli. They decided to get married, but the protests were so strong that the conflict between the neighborhoods escalated, just because of them. That story came to lay the foundation for the play's main plot », says Lucien Bourjeily.
The result was a comedy on Tripolislang, about how actors from both sides of Syriengatan, like the participants themselves, try to put together a performance about Ali and Aisha, the play's Romeo and Juliet couple. In Lucien's love dilemma, Shakespeare's Montague and Capulet families have been replaced by the Muslim branches Shia and Sunni.
But in the theaters where the show was played, the barricades soon began to fall. Suddenly the acting rebels ate together, laughed at the same joke, rejoiced and were horrified by each other's stories: “I will always remember one of their stories in particular. A young man told me that he could not take care of his sick daughter, so he took his Kalashnikov in frustration and headed towards Syriengatan. He shot everywhere around him, wanted to start a fight, but no one answered his fire. Then he started firing shots at his neighborhood and hoped that his own people would shoot back. But nothing happened. "
The man told how at that moment he understood that the fighting did not arise from the militiamen's weapons. They were ruled by powerful people who made plans under the table, and who controlled the war with the young rebel soldiers as fuel. During the rehearsals, he realized that everything they told about his neighbors, on the other side of Syriengatan, was a lie. It was not long before Ali's theater colleagues came to the same insight.
"As soon as the young people started talking to each other and starting work on the story, they realized how similar they are. Because they share living conditions, their daily lives, how they love, how they hate, the motives behind their choices in life. They are almost like siblings, but from each side of the fence, so they became very good friends ", says Lucien Bourjeily.
In July and August 2015, Lucien Bourjeily toured the homeland with the new actors. In sold-out salons, their friends and families sat side by side, laughing doubly at what a local newspaper described as "a hysterically funny show": "Of course you can change society with the help of theater, albeit on a smaller scale. These people would still be fighting each other today, and now they say they are reluctant to go back to war. For them and their friends, parents and relatives, the theater was an eye-opener. "
When the performances ended, the next dilemma arose. How would young people spend their time without rehearsals? How could they continue to feel accepted without the applause of the audience and how would they support themselves?
At the same time as the theater curtains were drawn down, the fighting in Tripoli ceased. The March founder of the organization, Lea Baroudi, realized that the young men risked continuing their warfare in Syria if they were not helped to find employment:
"We wanted the project to be sustainable. We devised a new platform, of a kind that does not exist in Tripoli, and that unites people around ideas of reconciliation through art and culture ", she told Al Jazeera then, 2014.
Said and done. The following year, March opened a cultural café on the militia groups' old front line, where the newly trained actors, in addition to serving food, took courses in English, Arabic, math, computer science, and conflict management. Six of them soon supported themselves full time by working at the café.
The facade of the building, which was plotted with bullet holes from the militia groups' previous battles, was painted in yellow, green, purple and pink, and with a symbolic image of a handshake. The restoration went hand in hand with another project from March: Letting the young people restore Tripoli's torn front line. The organization raised money to be able to pay about 40 people from both sides of the street. They were trained in everything from electrical knowledge to graphic design were paid to build the once glorious Syriengatan, which they themselves helped to destroy.
The project, the play, the café and the renovation work included, received attention far beyond Lebanon's borders. Last year, Lea Baroudi was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for the March initiative. At that time, no one still knew that Lebanon's worst crisis was imminent.
August 4, 2020
On August 6, 2020, March announced on social media that the young people from Tripoli had traveled to Beirut to "clean up broken glass, repair doors, steel and power lines." We stand with our people in Beirut to overcome these difficult times, "the statement added.
What had happened?
On August 4, 2020, nearly 3000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a substance used to make bombs, detonated by mistake in a storage facility located a stone's throw from Beirut's business and cultural district. About 6000 people were injured and hundreds of thousands lost their homes, as far as a mile from the crash site, according to witnesses.
In most countries, state firefighters, paramedics and clearing workers had pulled out. Not in Lebanon. Here, the relief and clearing work instead consisted of volunteers. Beirut residents united across ethnic and religious boundaries to rebuild their shattered city.
It was not for nothing that the young people from the culture café in Tripoli immediately focused on repairing the artists' quarters. Beirut is known as the hub of the Middle East for art and culture. The old quarters are crowded with art galleries, and Syrian writers use the city as a valve to promote literature banned in their homeland. Now galleries, Beirut's historical museum and the city theater were in ruins.
Just as the Tripoli initiative once showed the Lebanese how barricades can be destroyed through art and the simplest encounters, it may once again serve as a model – for how to patch a city and its inhabitants' mental and physical wounds.