By Ty Joplin
With his placed ominously on the table, Romeo asked ‘why are we here?’ He hailed from Jabal Muhsin, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lebanon. At 15, he left school to become a fighter and even joined the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.
Now, he was picked to play the leading man in a theater production—a local spin off of Romeo and Juliet. Lea Baroudi, who was seated across the table, had assigned herself a task many deemed impossible: bring two warring parties of a decades-long conflict together, and have them perform side-by-side in a play.
Baroudi, the co-founder and director of March, an NGO in Lebanon focused on promoting human rights and conflict resolution, defied expectations and helped to produce Love and War on the Rooftop, a comedy play dramatizing their own lives.
It premiered in 2015 with a ten-minute standing ovation, and in the process, de-stigmatized the actors as people who were more than just the guns they and their fathers carried while giving them hope in a city where none could be found. The play was a hit and the actors became a source of inspiration for Lebanon.
Love and War on the Rooftop is heralded as a successful example of using cultural production as a means of reconciliation. As such, Al Bawaba spoke with Lea Baroudi about the process of creating the play and asked her about what lessons from her experience could be applied to other conflict zones around the region and the world.
The Stage: Tripoli
A funeral process for the victims of two suicide bombings that targeted a cafe in the Jabal Mohsen Alawite neighbourhood of Tripoli, on January 11, 2015 (AFP/FILE)
Tripoli is Lebanon’s second biggest city. It boasts one of the best preserved crusader castles in the world, a history that spans thousands of years and countless civilizations and two neighborhoods that have been at war with each other for decades.
The Alawite Shia-majority Jabal Mohsen and Sunni-majority Bab al-Tabbaneh are separated only by a narrow street. In the road between them rests an uneasy sense that violence could come any minute, even as life bustles around and within both communities.
At the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war (1976-1990), both neighborhoods self-segregated and began battling each other.
Since then, thousands have died due to intermittent fighting, militias have organized and become a permanent fixture in daily life, pockmarks from bullets and other small-arms fire checker buildings, army outposts line each, some structures are entirely abandoned save for their occasional use as sniper’s nests, and a sense that the conflict will go on forever, feeding off its fear, resentment and its own momentum, pervades throughout.
Baroudi had only been to Tripoli twice before she decided she would help create play there, but thought it was the perfect place to stage it.
She had been thinking of new, experimental ways to reconcile warring parties, but her desire to try and connect the fighters in Tripoli with each other was largely dismissed, she recalls. She was told “Fighters don’t act anyway, fighters fight, they hold guns… They won’t go along with the process,” but after about six months of convincing people to help her, then convincing the fighters to go along, she began hosting auditions.
Making Love and War on the Rooftop
March organizers discuss the play with actors/fighters in Tripoli (March)
After Baroudi and others with March were able to convince some of the militiamen that it wasn’t already a lost cause, they had 100 men and women lined up to act in it, even though the script for the play hadn’t been written yet. They eventually narrowed it down to 16 individuals who would all take different parts in the play.
“Most of them had never seen a play in their lives, let alone act in one,” says Baroudi.
She notes that sheer curiosity is what brought most of them to the auditions, including the man who eventually went on to play Romeo.
Actually keeping the fighters engaged in the arduous process of writing, modifying, rehearsing and memorizing a script full of dialogues, monologues, actions and cues to perform something entirely novel to their lives is another task entirely.
Accomplishing this, Baroudi recalls, took a gargantuan effort.
Most actors, already reluctant to act in a play, were even more reluctant to wake up early in the morning to rehearse for one. In the beginning, many were woken up and essentially dragged from their beds into buses, gaining consciousness somewhere en route to the rehearsal hall.
There, March took extraordinary measures to ensure the space was safe and neutral to both sides.
Most of the actors were armed as a means of self defense, so every morning they put their weapons in a plastic bag for the day. The actors, still distrustful of one another, hid razor blades under the tongues, knives in their socks and kept smaller guns in their pockets.
It was a very, very surreal experience,” Baroudi says as she laughs. “Usually, you say ‘no phones, no food,’ you don’t say ‘no weapons, no guns no razor blades.”
But by checking in their weapons at the door, fighters were given the opportunity to temporarily change their identity and outlook, to shift their perspective from one dominated by local politics and violent contestations of power, to another that took a decidedly more peaceful albeit theatrical bend.
In the rehearsal space, fighters shared stories of their lives with each other and shared cynical banter with one another—the kind of jokes that seemed natural only to those who grew up in the middle of an intractable conflict and find humor within it.
The script was written over two months, then they rehearsed for three months and the play slowly took its form.
Theatrical poster for the play (March)
The theater production was a play within a play, and told the story of a director from Tripoli trying to make a local version of Romeo and Juliet, where the Romeo-figure is an Alawite Shia from Jabal Mohsen and Juliet is a Sunni from Bab al-Tabbaneh. What the audiences watched unfold was the day before this fictitious Romeo and Juliet adaptation was meant to debut, but “everything goes wrong, basically,” according to Baroudi.
The play subtly and comedically explores the actual tensions between the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Tabbaneh through the Shakespearean lens of the feuding Montague and Capulet families, and the struggle for two young lovers to maintain their relationship in the face of hate and violence.
An actor performs Love and War on the Rooftop for a crowd in the Metro Theatre in Beirut, 201 (AFP/FILE)
After about a year of planning and rehearsing, Love and War on the Rooftop premiered to a packed, curious crowd who had heard stories of violence in Tripoli and never thought of its perpetrators as anything but militants. But there they were, on stage in front of them, performing a meta, Tripoli-ized version of Romeo and Juliet.
“No one expected [it],” says Baroudi who remembers countless members of the audience coming up to the cast members after giving them a ten-minute standing ovation, to ask them about their lives.
Actors perform Love and War on the Rooftop in Beirut (AFP/FILE)
“They didn’t feel stigmatized like they always were. At the same time, they felt this incredible feeling of someone who never believed he could do anything besides fight, or take drugs or spend time in the street was able to perform and learn a script and act beautifully.”
The play and the audience’s reaction spontaneously broke down the myth that these men were nothing more than brute fighters.
Lacking hope is one of the main factors that drives individuals to violence. “When you feel you cannot change your life; this is it… when you feel you have no identity whatsoever... this is why extremist groups succeed in recruiting many of these people, because they give them a new identity and a cause to fight for in addition to income,” says Baroudi.
Romeo, the same man who joined al-Nusra in Syria only to return as a leading man in a hit play, learned through the process of acting in a play that he has a set of skills he could apply to a life outside of fighting. More specifically, he learned that he had great organizational skills.
An actor performs Love and War on the Rooftop in Beirut (AFP/FILE)
He went into a rehabilitation program for his drug addiction, learned English and some basic skills for computers, and is now an administrative officer and volunteers in a drug awareness NGO.
There is no one formula to apply the model Baroudi found to be so successful at disengaging individuals from violence to other conflict zones around the globe.
While common themes of hopelessness and poverty pervade most of them, there are always local factors separating effective reconciliation plans from failures.
“I think the problem when we approach these things and try to resolve any conflict; we take it from a very impersonal approach; there’s guidelines, there’s things to do, there’s a process to follow,” Baroudi says.
“I didn't have a process, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I came to know the lives of each and every one of these young men… And they felt heard at the end of the day.”
The most important lesson Baroudi took from her experience with Love and War on the Rooftop was simply that listening is paramount: “It succeeds if you listen to them and you adapt accordingly.”
March eventually helped to open a cafe called Kahwetna right on the street that separates Jabal Mohsen from Bab al-Tabbaneh; an idea that the actors themselves proposed.
The conflict is by no means solved: the poverty and social tensions remain as they have for decades. But the play helped the neighborhoods and fighters within them in ways that could not have been predicted.
If only during their time in the play’s production and performance, they were no longer fighters: they were actors.
Listen to Al Bawaba's conversation with Lea Baroudi here:
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