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Wherefore Art Thou Baghdadi?
In fair Tripoli, where we lay our scene, ancient grudges and new mutinies are being broken by a radical experiment to turn young would-be radicals into Romeos and Juliets.
Lea Baroudi is not your typical peacemaker. A business graduate and former Deloitte consultant, it’s hard to imagine her sitting with hardened militiamen who fight on opposite sides of a war, trying to persuade them to star in a play about their own lives in the poorest neighborhoods of the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli.
But that’s exactly what she did, putting on a show with 16 current or former fighters and working with the community to help them find jobs. She then opened a cultural cafe on the front line between the warring factions, and is now working to revamp the main street dividing their neighbourhoods.
A few years ago, Baroudi quit her job as a consultant and founded MARCH, a Lebanese NGO focused on empowering civil society through culture and performing arts. Her experience in Tripoli — specifically the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen — provides invaluable insights on countering violent extremism (CVE) and preventing more lone-wolf attacks inspired by the Islamic State.
The Sunnis of Bab al-Tebbaneh and the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen have been at odds for decades, fighting each other repeatedly during the Lebanese civil war. Clashes have broken out sporadically in recent years: In the last eruption in 2014, at least 25 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. Unemployment is sky high at almost 70 percent, and poverty is inescapable.
Tripoli, a conservative Sunni city with powerful Islamist political parties, has become inextricably tied to the Syrian conflict next door. It is only a two-hour drive to Homs, and Syrian influence has always run deep here. Since 2012, young men from both neighborhoods where Baroudi recruited her actors have also gone across the border to fight in Syria: The Sunnis joined ranks with the anti-Assad rebels — including the Free Syrian Army; Jabhat al-Nusra, which is now called the Nusra Front; and the Islamic State — and the Alawites fought with Hezbollah, which has been a key supporter of President Bashar al-Assad. There is no Lebanese city in greater need of a successful CVE program.
Poverty, unemployment, local grievances, and a raging war next door make for a combustible combination. When the army imposed a cease-fire in the area after the last clashes in 2014, locals may have welcomed the calm — but it also took away a sense of purpose and adrenaline from bored young men. As a result, it was even easier to recruit them to militant groups in Syria.
Enter Baroudi. Seeing the situation in Tripoli as a potential tinderbox, but also as an opportunity, she decided to take her skills as a peacemaker to the northern city and started recruiting young men — as actors in a play.
I met Baroudi over coffee during her recent visit to the United States and listened to her explain why she opted to use art as an approach to CVE. She said she had been inspired by another Lebanese activist who had used art as therapy with prisoners, producing a play that was a twist on 12 Angry Men. Baroudi wanted to help the young men in Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen find a way to connect with each other without making them sit through a formal reconciliation effort, which she described as “condescending.”
Baroudi commuted to Tripoli several times a week during the project and documented her work with the young recruits in a documentary, Love and War on the Rooftops, which she showed during talks at the State Department, World Bank, and various think tanks in Washington. (You can watch a trailer here.)
Baroudi’s career in the private sector gives a unique edge to her peacemaking. Before she even started recruiting for the play, she was already thinking about how the results could be made sustainable.
“We wanted a holistic approach, because art and culture is a temporary fix, [and] reconciliation can be quickly reversed if you don’t address the underlying issues,” she told me. “The idea was never that we would just come and do a play and leave. But we didn’t know what the next step would be initially.”
The recruitment part was the first and possibly hardest step. Baroudi, a petite and somewhat unassuming woman with a mane of light auburn hair, recounted her slightly surreal experience standing at the door of the makeshift rehearsal hall with her teammates performing body searches on religiously conservative, hardened fighters to make sure they were unarmed. Knives, guns, even a grenade were confiscated.
The mood was tense: These were men who lived separate lives, saw each other as enemies, and had fought each other across the dividing line separating their neighborhoods. Some had been carrying a gun since they were as young as 15. The word “reconciliation’’ was never mentioned as a desired outcome in front of the group.
Persuading the recruits to stick to the rehearsals was tough. “I’ve never been to a play and you want me to act in one,” one of them said flippantly, unable to fathom he could perform on stage or that anyone cared enough to watch him perform.
That one sentence is a clue to a lot of what is at issue. The purpose of the play was twofold — to give the young men a sense of worth, and to channel their anger and grievances into a useful pursuit. Much of the countermessaging in CVE by the United States and other governments, by contrast, fails to offer a tangible counternarrative for how to build a better life.
The play became a local take on Romeo and Juliet, inspired by the lives of the actors themselves. At first the young men — and a few women — had a hard time believing their lives could inspire anything, let alone a play. Then they began to come around to the idea.
“There is unfortunately something ‘cool’ about ISIS in the eyes of some — an allure about carrying a gun,” Baroudi said. “We wanted to create something that was also cool, channel the anger into our own angry, cool alternative.”
Not all the men Baroudi interviewed ended up in the play — but all of them are connected to the project today in different ways. Some own shops on the street that will be revamped, while the stories of others made it into the play.
One the men Baroudi met came from a deeply religious family and was planning to join the Nusra Front when the project started. He had previously fought in Syria with a Free Syrian Army-affiliated brigade. One of his cousins joined the Islamic State and dragged his two sisters along with him. Another man fought with Hezbollah in Syria alongside Assad’s forces, but became disillusioned with the party.
After recruiting her actors, Baroudi introduced her new troupe to some of the leading lights in Lebanon’s cultural scene. She brought in a top Lebanese director, Lucien Bourjeily, to write and direct the play, and beloved actress and director Nadine Labaki to give acting classes and workshops. The intention was to make the group of Tripolitan recruits feel valued. Their reaction? Baroudi told me it could be summed up as: “Wow, Nadine Labaki thinks we’re important enough to teach us acting?”
It wasn’t easy to keep the new recruits on board. Not everyone in the area was happy with the budding friendships that were being forged between the former rivals. One actor was even stabbed by unknown assailants outside his home. But the play was finally presented on stage in Tripoli in June 2015, and then Baroudi took it to the capital, making sure to invite the crème de la crème of Beirut society. The actors received a standing ovation for all four performances. Some of those in attendance asked how they could pitch in to keep the project alive. Baroudi responded: The young men need jobs.
It was not an easy task to get them employment. If there is Islamophobia in the West or suspicion toward Muslims, there are prejudices within Arab and Muslim societies, too. Within Lebanon, Tripolitans are often dismissed wholesale as extremists. Eventually, with the help of Baroudi’s network, 25 young people from Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen found a variety of jobs, mostly in factories.
All of these men were looking for income, but also a sense of purpose and hope in the future. Whether it’s the poor neighborhoods of Tripoli or the inner city of Chicago, a paying job is not always enough to pave the way for upward mobility or foster hope that a better life is possible. And it’s just that sort of hopelessness that extremist groups seize upon to attract new recruits.
“The same reason that people join gangs is the reason why people join terror groups; it’s about whoever catches you first,” Baroudi said. “We need to recruit the marginalized to our camp. … We need these people for a better country and a better community.”
But the work that came after the play was possibly even more crucial. Baroudi recounted a conversation with one of the actors after the performances concluded last year: “He told me, ‘Well, I guess we won’t see you anymore now.’ These people are used to being abandoned and let down. Organizations come in with a project, and then they leave. We had to stay.”
Baroudi’s visits to Tripoli have only become more frequent. Her first idea was a cultural cafe, where the newly trained actors could show off their skills and showcase other people’s talents, from music to photography. There were a lot of naysayers in Tripoli’s conservative environment, but Our Cafe opened earlier this year, smack on the demarcation line between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh and now employs six people full time.
The next step was to widen the circle of people who had a stake in maintaining the calm in the area, while creating further employment opportunities. So MARCH raised funds to help with the rehabilitation of the main street dividing the two areas, ironically named Syria Street. Baroudi insisted that all the painters, carpenters, and metalworkers who would be needed for the project had to come from the area, and her organization is working to train and recruit 40 people from the two neighborhoods to do the work.
No businesses are thriving on Syria Street today, but Baroudi aims to fix that. After improving the façades, the organization will assess with the shopkeepers how they can improve their business by teaching them some basics like better accounting, diversifying their stocks, and understanding markets and competition. This is where Baroudi’s work as a consultant is key.
Baroudi knows her success is tenuous. Any day, she could wake up to the news that fighting has resumed, or that one of her recruits has picked up a gun again and maybe traveled to Syria. But even if one or two leave, she told me, there are still 33 from her initial core group of 35 who remain involved in the project and have a stake in it. That’s 33 young men — a full military platoon, or three soccer teams — who are not in the ranks of an extremist group. Since her project started 18 months ago, everyone Baroudi has worked with is still on board.
Baroudi’s approach will not work with the hardcore Islamist leaders of any movement, whether the Islamic State or the Nusra Front. But the key is to deprive them of recruits. At a time when policymakers are struggling with the big and often theoretical question about radicalization — or even experimenting with deradicalization centers — it’s worth going back to the basics and addressing the reasons young people feel disenfranchised, whether in Tripoli or the banlieues of Paris.
Different parts of this approach have been tried before. But rarely do all the aspects of a successful strategy come together at once. Baroudi’s program leverages her knowledge of her culture and society to resolve conflict through art. Now, she’s building on her initial successes by providing her recruits with jobs that offer concrete avenues for a better future. The approach offers a clear counternarrative to the allure of groups like the Islamic State — and could help not only Tripoli’s impoverished, strife-ridden neighborhoods break the cycle of violence, but perhaps provide a model to be replicated elsewhere.
Photo credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images