A Love Story From The War-Torn Rooftops of Tripoli To Lebanon

Love and War on the Rooftop - a Tripolitan tale

Welcome to Lebanon’s Tripoli, the city most of the country loves to hate.

A few months ago, whenever Tripoli was mentioned in casual conversation, it would be surrounded by a spew of sectarian hate speech. That conversation you heard or maybe even pa
rticipated in probably lacked depth, was never in context, always judgmental and served to further deepen the chasm between this Northern city and the rest of the country.

There’s nothing in this country that’s a more heart-breaking story or tragedy than the current state of Tripoli. Boasting the country’s biggest old souks, richest people, most important architectural feats and second largest population, it is also the country’s poorest, least developed, least cared for and least acknowledged place.

A lot can be said about that city, and I have over, and over, and over again. One thing for sure, however, is that the potential that Tripoli has is gigantic, if only we can tap into it. Lebanon’s NGO March, which you’d know from the popular Stop Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon page, have done just that. 

Over the past 4 months, director Lucien Abou Rjeili gathered together 16 young men and women from Tripoli’s Bab el Tebbeneh, Ebbeh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods and embarked on a conflict resolution project with them, in order to build bridges and see what can come out of it.

Those men and women were, prior to those 4 months, on opposite sides of Syria Street, witnesses to the bullets and rockets being fired by people they perhaps know, convinced that the person across that green line was their enemy until Kingdom come. Well, kingdom came.

Through acting exercises with the likes of Nadine Labaki, Georges Khabbaz, Rafic Ali Ahmad, those 16 men and women found themselves not looking at each other as enemies, but as friends. Instead of being wary of going to the sessions, they became excited. They’d want to go, see their friend from Jabal Mohsen or Bab el Tebbaneh, and maybe even hang out with them afterwards.

In the midst of that, those 16 men and women got threats. What they were doing did not sit well with higher up forces who know that their true power can only be fed by hate being present all the time between Jabal Mohsen and Bab el Tebbaneh: friendship, amicability and humanity should not be allowed.

Those young heroes stuck through it anyway. They knew what they were doing was more important than threats: they were setting an example, coming up with a beautiful story for their city and the country, a story that had to be told.

The result of those 4 months was a play called “Love and War on the Rooftop – A Tripolitan Tale,” featuring every single one of those 16 men and women in roles that tell the story, in satire, of their lives on the rooftops of their neighborhoods, as they try to be friends to the backdrop of bombs, snipers, death and inter-sectarian love.

Meet the cast:

In the play’s one hour duration, those young men and women, through their humor, their Northern accent, their interaction and the sheer passion with which they performed showed a jam-packed room a side of Tripoli that those people had probably never seen before: a city whose youth just want to have fun, be friends with each other, love each other and give you something to laugh at in the process.

This Tripolitan cast is not a bunch of professional actors, but they might as well have been. They gave it their all on stage, so much so that when the crowds gave them a standing ovation, many of them were in tears. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing, that there were people applauding them.

As the play ended, the main actor Khodor, who plays the play within a play’s director, had a few words to say. He probably meant what he said as a joke, but they resonated with me because his words were the embodiment of my deepest convictions about his city, and what the country fails to grasp.

He said: “I think I speak for all of us when I say we never dreamt, in our whole life, of watching a play. And now we’re acting in one.”

Behind the apparent joke that people cheered for is the true problem facing Tripoli. The problem is not just Sunni versus Alawite, Syria-lover versus Syria-hater. It’s a clash that stems from the lack of prospects and opportunities that the youth of Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen call every day life.

“After practice,” Khodor continued, “I’d feel a hollowness inside as I ached to see my new friends again, people I’d never dreamt of being friends with. My favorite guy of the bunch Ali (the main protagonist in the play within a play) became my best friend. I’d call him up, ask him where he was. He’d say he’s in Jabal and I’d visit and we’d go wasted. The following day he’d call me and ask me where I was. He’d visit me in Tebbaneh, and we’d get wasted too.”

Can you believe it? Those people that many in the country readily dismiss as neo-terrorists or extremists are people just like everyone else? Could it be?

Following the play, people went down to congratulate those “actors” on a job well done. Some gave them a hug. Others gave them a tap on the back to tell them how great they were. Khodor, Ali, Fatima and their friends were in tears. They never thought, not in a million years, that they’d be where they were that night, and that they’d have strangers coming to them to tell them how great, beautiful, bright and shining they all were.

Yesterday, as Lebanon’s Beirutis cheered, I felt happy that maybe, just maybe, they could finally see the Tripoli I see: a wonderful city, with kind-hearted people whose only fault in life was being born in a place that is forcibly forgotten, and ignored. But still they live, and tell stories and laugh at their own misery.

I congratulate March on a job truly well-done.

Today, those 16 young men and women are heroes we should all be talking about. Unlike everyone else in Lebanon, they rose beyond their sects, beyond their neighborhoods, beyond everything they know and took a leap.

If there’s anything that can make anyone hopeful in Lebanon today, it’s “Love and War on the Rooftop.” It’s the story of how yesterday’s enemies are today’s best friends, of how actually knowing someone you’ve been forcibly taught to hate can alter your entire perception towards that person, of how all the burned bridges in this country can be repaired if only we were open enough to the possibility, of how up north, in that forgotten land beyond the Madfoun checkpoint, is a city with a heart that’s still beating, still fighting, and only asking you to keep an open mind to it.

“Love and War on the Rooftop” will tour the country post Ramadan. The following are some pictures from the play:

 

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One Month Phoneless

On March 12th, my iPhone’s power button decided to sink in and become unusable. After asking around, it seemed that any attempt to fix it in Lebanon would render the warranty void, so my friend Ali agreed to do me a favor and I sent him the phone on March 14th to Canada so Apple could check it out.

Ali postponed his flight to Lebanon due to unforeseen complications and Apple eventually replaced my phone with a new one. How awesome is that?

But I’ve been without phone for a month.

Many people asked why I didn’t just use any other phone. Apart from the unavailability of any other phone (I’m not going to buy a phone just to use it for a few weeks), I also have to get my simcard replaced since my iPhone uses a microsim, which I decided not to do.

Instead, I convinced myself that I’d be sort of giving up my iPhone for lent.

So what did I learn from a month of being phoneless?

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Remember, Remember The 26th Of March…

I’ve been breathing for 21 years and a few months. This totals to more than 7700 days of me being alive. Out of those 7700 days, the one that’s imprinted in my mind the most is a cold, grey and dark day in March, 12 years ago.

March 26th, 1999.

I remember it was a rainy day. One of those days that start off wrong for a nine year old because his favorite TV station was not showing his favorite TV show that night. They were showing an award show for ads, instead. So I was discussing how horrible that was with a friend as we were going back to class after a recess.

So I came back home on a Friday and I postpone doing my homework because, well, it is Friday. An hour later, around 6 pm, my mom comes into the house in a near state of hysteria. She was crying while shouting: “They’re lying to me…. Something happened to my brother, they’re lying to me”

I looked at my mom with a sense of disbelief. What was going on?

My grandma gets my mom to sit down and she hands her a glass of water. My mom was still shaking. Then, my dad comes inside. He sits next to my mom and hugs her.

She asks “Is Hanna dead?”

Hanna and my uncle had gone hunting.

My dad nods and says “but I’m not sure about Elias (my uncle)”.

My mom starts crying even more. It got to a point that a nine year old like me can’t handle so I went to my room and cried. When I came out, my mother had left with my dad. They had gone to tell my uncle’s wife about what happened.

So I go outside, still crying. My aunt (his sister) comes to our place and she sees us all distressed. She shouts from the top of the stairs: “Elie, what’s going on?”

I couldn’t answer her. I had no idea what was going on in the first place, let alone what to say to her. So my aunt left immediately.

That was the last I saw of my mom, aunt and dad for the next two days.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept hearing gunfire and I knew it had something to do with my uncle. I remember looking out from my room’s window and seeing people on our balcony. I asked them: “what’s going on? Is my uncle okay?”

They replied “Yes, Elie, don’t worry. Go back to sleep”.

Naturally, nothing was okay. The following day, the whole village was dead quiet. My cousins were brought over and we all had no idea what was going on. We were told my uncle had died but not the reason. So my cousin Perla, his daughter, started drawing on a board how her dad was now in heaven.

That night, there was a full blown report on the news about the events in my town. Toni Rouhana, a fifty year old man, had opened fire on my uncle and another man when they were hunting outside his property. The army was held in a crossfire with him all night. They had received orders from the president Emile Lahoud to keep him alive at all costs. They fired grenades at him, he fired grenades back. They fired smoke bombs, he was well prepared against them. He was trained in the civil war with Marada (Sleiman Frangieh’s party). Meanwhile, while the army fought him to attempt to capture him alive, my uncle bled to death because the man did not allow anyone to pick his body up, even the Red Cross. Later on that night, when the army realized it’s near impossible to capture a man so well-prepared alive, they blew open his house with an RPG missile and shot him down. They discovered a human skull inside his house and a book about devil worshiping. They also discovered the food my uncle had given him earlier that day, because he did not have enough money to buy it.

That Sunday was Palm Sunday. I woke up and saw my mother looking at the coffee she was supposed to drink. I went over and hugged her. She started crying and asked if I knew what happened. I nodded. She said my uncle was turned into a pincushion. She said he had pleaded for his life when the man opened fire and killed his hunting buddy. And I kept on hugging her.

Then they dressed us up in our Palm Sunday clothes and took us to my grandma’s house. My aunt was sitting in a corner alone, rocking her head back and forth. My uncle’s wife was sitting next to my grandma crying for her kids. My grandma was crying, telling everyone how “Elias from under the dirt wants them to go to church for Palm Sunday”.

So we were taken to church. Mass had already started. We opened the door and entered. The church fell quiet.

My grandma had worn black for twelve years till 1999. She started to move towards brighter shades of color early in January and April. I have not seen my grandma not wearing black since that day in March, 1999.