Between the Fronts
A Border Walk of Hope
Before we crash into the inner life of the Café, here is some background. Why exactly Tripoli and what is it with Syria street? I've just arrived here and I'm still very confused, we better ask Khaled, the blogger and human rights activist (he sings with the guys on the previous photos). He comes from Tripoli and is a great story-teller, mediator and at the same time a very brave doer, who does not miss out on any opportunity, regarding working for diversity. (So make sure you meet him when you happen to be in the region). Here is Khaled's Tripoli crash course:
Before I knew where Tripoli was, I saw this picture.
I did not even want to get started with my project, but then there was this picture and this story that tempted me to travel to the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, to explore a completely different culture.
Arrival at the bus station Tripoli. Through the window, we can only see thick rain drops and clogged streets. As we crawl so slowly forward, we have time to watch the crowds, out of the bus. Another traffic shock that surpasses everything I have seen so far: the cars are driving in both directions at the roundabout! One simply takes the shorter route. I start to get dizzy, fortunately I do not have to drive here.
Taxis are not lacking here, but the difference to Beirut is immediately noticeable. Our English is not very helpful. I feel bad that I can’t say a single word in the local language, since it is so beautiful. In my, already, endless list of tasks for this year I note in the header "Arabic Core Vocabulary". We must go to the Syrian road. Unfortunately the excited gesticulated people do not know which road we are talking about. Luckily, I remember the little note that Mohammad (what we would do without Mohammad!) had scribbled the directions. The pencil marks on a torn scrap of paper are more like hieroglyphs, but they seem to be effective and we soon find ourselves in a car on the road to the notorious street.
It follows a journey through mixed feelings. The pictures I have seen so far from Tripoli come back to me: shot blocks of flats, perforated gates, heavily armed youths firing on opposite balconies. Fortunately, I do not have much time to think about the images. We are inevitably getting closer to the destination.
In spite of the rain, we see the colourfully painted wall with the two holding hands. In fact, it emerges from the gray desolate environment and draws the attention towards itself, just like a magnet. I remember a German lesson in which the college teacher tried to convey to us somehow what an "erratic block" was. I have never had to use the word again, but right here, yes, it would fit. A lost block! Completely different than the time and the environment. And at the same time, this wall is already creating, from the first glance on, something like "It’s possible despite everything” and also puts warmth in the damp cold.
I am traveling with my entire luggage, which I want to get to a dry place as fast as possible, so I hurry into the café, which seems to offer the only protection. And so I am suddenly in the middle, almost unexpected, because so long expected. And I cannot really get it right. Behind the wall which is spreading hope, a cheerful mood awaits me. I would have liked to understand the joke that brought the Allawites, Sunnis and agnostics laughing together:
During the Syrian occupation (1976-2005!), especially during the 80s, the region of Bab El Tabbaneh (of Sunni majority) witnesse oppression by the Syrian occupiers and blamed the neighbouring occupiers of Jabal Mohsen (of Alawite majority) for they were supporting the Syrian Regime.
During the Syrian war (since 2011) many rounds of bloody clashes occurred between the two regions that left many casualties from the two regions and fueled hate between the two sects. The clashes and hate was empowered by the Tripolitan politicians that are pro and against the Syrian regime.
With the arrival of Rafic Hariri (former Prime Minister, sunni) to Lebanon he reinforced the Sunni feeling that went stronger after his assassination (2005) and turned hate against the Shia and Alawite. Tripoli was turning into a stronghold for Sunnis (opposing the city of Dahieh which is a stronghold for Shias) and through that most of the Christians and non religious were oppressed under the label of Tripoli as a Sunni city and many minorities left the city and all those who had to stay in the city had to live by the muslim habits.
These tensions between the Alawitian (mainly in the city district "Jabal Mohsen") and Sunni ("Bab El Tabbaneh") are very clear on Syria street, which runs as a front line between the two populations and became the scene of bloody shootings. By the entry of the Lebanese army, the situation in the spring of 2015 could be stabilized.
However, the situation remains very tense, the basic problem - poverty and lack of prospects - has not been solved. The military presence is high, exchange between the two quarters hardly takes place. By 2016 this Culture Café emerged, where a shattered space became a colourful and open place of encounter.
How was this transformation possible, is what I wanted to find out form my namesake, founder of the premises and head of the NGO March, Lea Baroudi. I’m sorry, that the guys (mainly in the first video) in the background made some noise but I think that shows the atmosphere in the café in a very authentic way:).
"They started to realize that they were more alike than different."
I would also like to know, from Lea Baroudi herself, where she sees the effect of culture in conflict situations. The concept of March combines different art forms. Graffiti, rap, theater and film. In the foreground, however, was the theater. What is so special about performing arts in peace building?
"In arts there is no fear."
Lea Baroudi had her projects filmed on a regular basis, well before she knew how the project would go. The result was a documentary film, which plays its own role in the peace process. Here is the alluring trailer. The full film can be watched on vimeo, contact March for the access code.
What was the function of the film for Lea Baroudi? Why did it seem important to her to film the project right from the start?
"I wanted to create something positive, something that gives hope"
"We were treated like traitors"
The strings of conflict are closely intertwined, the scars are deep and the memory long. The main difficulties Lea Baroudi's team had to deal with in order to realize the vision of a cultural café are as follows:
A success project despite the most adverse circumstances. If it is possible here, would it be possible to build a similar café in other countries? Lea Baroudi likes to share what she has learned in these two years and is optimistic that her project could also bear fruit elsewhere:
"We never talk about reconciliation"
The opening of the so-called Syria Street project follows. In the meantime, a group of men of all ages arrive (no women around, except for Lea and Zeinab, who radiate so radiantly, as if they were to shine here for all women of creation). Bahaa Nasr and Mohammad Serhan are local coordinators and responsible for the project:
Re-build the street together
Afterwards, a short excursion to Syrian street. Filming is problematic. But March is used to problems, and the team quickly gets us a person from the secret service to accompany us and actually control that we are filming the right things. But it seems as if he wouldn’t take us too seriously, with our small cameras and I'm very glad that we are traveling so "lightly" and that there is no camera and device to hide. All we have to do is wait for a meteorological light. Matar, matar, indeed, lots of rain, at least this word we have learned that day.
Who protects whom is not very clear at this point. Anyway, the good gentleman in the hoody seems to indicate the tone here and I feel more protected than restricted by his "shading".
The short march through the street makes the contrast even more distinct between the two realities that flow into one another. The war traces are ubiquitous, and at the same time people life their everyday life. Not even by the tanks with a 100-meters gap, can normality be suppressed. People are opposed to me, very helpful and active.
What does it take to transform a life normality from shooting normality?
As I walk on the ascent between the two lanes, I feel myself on a border walk: between the two neighborhoods, between the two religions, between the past and the future, between violence and peace.
Depending on whether I look in the direction of the insulated buildings or the direction of the Cultural Café, I am either hopeless or confident.
Everything is a question of perspective, I think and decide for the colorful wall.