Battle-scarred Lebanese teens reconcile through theatre | AFP

[Published here August 7, 2015 with photos]

Beirut (AFP) – The young man cowered behind a barrel on the barely lit stage, as his companion pointed a fake weapon towards a roaring audience in a Beirut theatre.

The amateur actors were re-enacting a familiar scene from their native Tripoli, one of Lebanon’s most volatile cities.

For decades, but with increasing frequency since the Syrian conflict erupted next door, fighters from the city’s mostly Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood and the Sunni-majority Bab al-Tebbaneh have clashed in recurring bouts of violence.

Men, young and old, fire at each other from the rooftops of pockmarked buildings. Sheets are hung across streets to stop snipers targeting passers-by.

Even during peaceful periods, residents often avoid passing through rival districts.

Tensions between the two neighbourhoods worsened as Syria’s war dragged on, with Sunnis identifying with the Sunni-led uprising in Syria, and Alawites siding with their religious kin of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

It is against that backdrop that a local NGO and director brought together battle-scarred teens from the two districts to perform in “Love and War on the Rooftop: a Tripolitan Tale”.

For four months, the young residents — some of them former fighters — worked with conflict-resolution group March and Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily to produce a modern-day tale of romance and reconciliation.

“I was really hesitant in the beginning because there was something I didn’t like — that there were guys from Jabal (Mohsen),” said Tarek Hebbawi, a 24-year-old from Bab al-Tebbaneh.

He saw all young men from Jabal Mohsen as “thugs,” he said.

“But then I saw that just like there are good people in Bab al-Tebbaneh, there are good people in Jabal Mohsen.”

– ‘We’ve become family’ –

The play tells the story of a frustrated director attempting to put together his own performance in which Ali, from Jabal Mohsen, falls in love with Aisha, from Bab al-Tebbaneh.

The play’s debut in Beirut was received with a standing ovation for the actors, who hugged each other tearfully on stage.

“It’s the world of theatre that creates this common space for them to gather, talk, discuss,” said Bourjeily, the director.

Putting the play together was fraught with challenges.

On the day of the first rehearsal, violence broke out in Bab al-Tebbaneh — where the rehearsals were to be held — so none of the youth from Jabal Mohsen left their neighbourhood.

For the second rehearsal, the participants attended but immediately divided themselves into two groups based on their neighbourhood, Bourjeily said.

Yet when they began sharing their stories as part of the playwriting process, “they saw that they’re like each other,” said March head Lea Baroudi.

“They saw that they have the same problems. They suffer from the same things,” Baroudi told AFP.

Some of the shared problems — unemployment, unfair stereotypes — feature prominently in “Love and War”.

“I got a job, but as soon as they found out I was from Bab al-Tebbaneh they fired me,” one young man said to his nodding companions as they gathered to play cards in one scene.

“We’ve all become family, and thankfully we can all sit together — we go down (to Bab al-Tebbaneh) and they come to us,” said Ahmad Suleiman, a slender 20-year old from Jabal Mohsen.

– ‘We want to work’ –

Relations between Lebanon’s 18 religious communities, mainly Christian and Muslim, are tense and have driven the country to political paralysis.

The multi-confessional fabric has been further strained by the spillover from the four-year war in neighbouring Syria, sparking violence elsewhere in the country, though not as recurrent and infamous as in Tripoli.

Hebbawi said he hoped other young residents of the city might see the value in spending time with each other and laying down their guns.

“These weapons aren’t for us. They’re for thugs,” Hebbawi said.

The play’s organisers say political wrangling and high youth unemployment — not sectarianism — drive Tripoli’s tensions.

“The problem in Tripoli isn’t the result of an ideological struggle. The problem is a lack of employment opportunities,” Baroudi said.

She called on officials to reduce youth unemployment to “get them out of this vicious cycle they’re living in.”

March is considering opening a cafe, run by the cast, between Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen where teens could build bonds and plan events instead of joining local militias.

Baroudi and the actors also blamed Lebanon’s political class for aggravating tensions in the city by supporting armed groups.

“The first thing I want to say is to all the politicians: ‘Don’t stir things up like you did before’,” said Suleiman.

“My message for Lebanon is… why all these wars?” said Hebbawi.

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