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Love and War On The Rooftops

Amidst vicious conflict, Tripoli is fighting to bring reconciliation to a shattered community.
words + photography – roisin maire taylor
location – beirut, lebanon

When the eye of the international community is turned to Lebanon, it is normally focused on Beirut – the country’s frenetic capital – or the South, which is controlled mainly by Hezbollah, a militant Islamist group. Very little attention is paid to the North of the country. But don’t mistake this lack of attention for a lack of activity. Nestled in the North-Western corner of the country lies Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Home to an estimated 1.1 million people, life in the city is deeply symbolic of Lebanon’s massively divided society and of the difficulties faced by the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees currently living in the country. Amid both internal and external conflict, Tripoli has become home to a flourishing arts scene that is carving a new path forwards for its community – particularly its youth – and playing a key role in the city’s reconciliation efforts.

But to understand the significance of this, it’s essential to first appreciate the historical context that has given rise to the incredible resilience of the people of the city. Lebanon may be a small country – weighing in at just over four thousand square miles – but in terms of experience, it packs a serious punch. From 1967 to 2006, the country endured two Israeli invasions, a multi-faceted civil war, and a second conflict between Hezbollah and Israel which escalated and eventually involved the entire state. Jean- Marie Quemener, the Lebanon Correspondent for France 24, titled his recent memoir on his time in Lebanon ‘Liban, La Guerre Sans Fin’ – or ‘Lebanon, the War without End.’ Tragically, this title is more than appropriate.

The country still visibly bears many of the physical scars from these conflicts. In downtown Beirut, the bombed-out shell of the Holiday Inn – which was used as a prime sniper location during the civil war – now forms a key part of the skyline, in sharp contrast to the five-star Phoenician Hotel that sits next to it. But Tripoli hasn’t ever experienced the kind of post-conflict international attention and investment that Beirut has, not least because up until 2014, the city was experiencing its own internal conflict.

From 2008 to 2014, two of Tripoli’s neighbourhoods, Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, were locked in a series of recurring battles. You’d be more than forgiven if you’d never heard of the conflict. It received incredibly little international attention, and internally within Lebanon there was little activity at the senior Governmental level to address the situation. So when the conflict ended in a fragile ceasefire in 2014 – which has held so far – Lebanese organisations, ordinary citizens and residents within the city took reconciliation efforts into their own hands. 

Arguably the most significant of these efforts have been carried out by a civil society organisation called March Lebanon. March, who have offices in both Beirut and Tripoli, were founded in 2011, partially in response to the ongoing violence in Tripoli. Their mission statement is

“to educate, motivate and empower citizens to recognise and fight for their basic human rights,

raise a tolerant open Lebanese society to foster diversity and equality and reach a genuine reconciliation among the various communities.” And in Tripoli, reconciliation is exactly the issue at hand.

In late 2014, March Lebanon launched the first of a series of projects that aimed to use a new medium to bridge the divides between the two communities – and show them that they might have more in common than they initially thought. It was an ambitious project: a play, written by Lebanese playwright Lucien Bourjeily, that explored the conflict itself and which would bring together community members and former fighters from either side as actors. One of the aims of the project was to show the multi- faceted nature of the impacts of the violence on Tripoli, and to debunk the myths surrounding the grievances between the two communities.

Divisions within Lebanese society are often chalked up as social and religious differences between its Christian and Muslim communities. But the reality is far more complex. Class, as well as sectarian and political divisions associated with the war in Syria, are also key driving factors – nowhere more so than in Tripoli. According to a 2015 United Nations Social and Economic Study, 56% of families in Tripoli live in poverty – but this figure rises to 69% in Jabal Mohsen, and 87% in Bab al-Tabbaneh. One of the main aims of March Lebanon was to show the major impact that these socio-economic challenges were having upon the violence. While working in Tripoli, many community members in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen explained to me that

the conflict had brought prosperity to their communities.

There were jobs, supplies and ways to make income in a very economically underprivileged area. These had been among their main motivating factors for getting involved in the conflict – it hadn’t simply been deep rooted inter-community rivalry.

Another key facet of the violence in Tripoli was that it was sectarian – Bab al-Tabbaneh is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and Jabal Mohsen is predominantly Alawite Muslim. Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, hundreds of fighters from both neighbourhoods have travelled to the country to fight on opposing sides – with many of the Sunnis joining ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, and Alawites supporting the Syrian Government’s forces. Some of these fighters have since returned to their communities. Many have not. This movement has greatly influenced tensions within the city. So, by bringing together community members on both sides who had been impacted by the violence to address their grievances through theatre, March was sending a message not only to Lebanese society, but to the whole region.

‘Love and War On The Rooftops’ premiered in Beirut to enormous critical acclaim – but it came at a certain cost. Several of the cast members from the two communities, who had become close throughout the production and who appeared in the Lebanese media promoting the show, received anonymous threatening phone calls asking them why they were spending so much time with individuals from the other side. One cast member, Ali Amoun, was stabbed by an unknown assailant the day after he’d made a media appearance promoting the play.

Nonetheless buoyed by the success of ‘Love and War,’ March have recently opened a café on the literal front lines of the conflict that aims to give youth a space to engage with theatre, music and other activities. Syria Street in Tripoli acted as the physical barrier between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen during the violent clashes. The café that March purchased has two entrance ways from this very street – each on the wall which opens onto either community. This allows easy and open access for any youth who are interested in getting involved in the organisation’s activities – or simply just coming to hang out somewhere new. The café has become one of Tripoli’s hubs for artistic and social activity, widening its scope of activities to include graphic design classes and English lessons. March have just acquired a new, larger space right next to the café which they plan on turning into a performance space and music studio for the youth of the city. When I was given a tour of the building, my colleagues from March pointed out the bullet holes in the building walls. “They used to use this place during the battles,” Mohammed Serhan of March remarked, “so it seems fitting that we’re going to be using this space.”

And one of the best parts of this arts-based civil society development? Many of those leading the charge are the cast members from ‘Love and War On The Rooftops,’ whose relationships have continued to grow since the initial production. “Before, I could barely think of those living in Tabbaneh as people,” commented Mokhrji, one of the production members.

“But now, they are like brothers.”

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