Beirut, Lebanon – The audience burst into laughter – and nearly burst into tears – as 18 youth and young adults from across Lebanon shared their life stories and struggles against identity, bigotry, racism and social marginalization.
It was the story of a young Druze man who was bullied for being poor, a Syrian-Lebanese woman born and raised in Beirut struggling with the country’s discriminatory nationality law, a Sunni from Tripoli raised in a Shia orphanage on the outskirts of the capital for 14 years without ever knowing his identity – and more.
Taarafou – Arabic for “Get to know yourself” – is a piece that, according to Lea Baroudi, co-founder and director of the non-profit organization MARCH Lebanon, is more crucial than ever for the struggling country. She brought in famed playwright and poet Yehia Jaber to write and direct the play, based on the real-life experiences of the 18 actors.
“After the Tayouneh clashes, growing friction, polarization and hatred – working on the ground is important, but sometimes you need a tool that sends a message,” Baroudi told Al Jazeera.
“The idea was to show the main issues plaguing our country, even through the new generation, and to remove all the stigma attached to regions and to highlight how important it is to agree that we don’t need to fight on the basis of a certain identity.”
The play is part of a larger social program and includes group psychological support. Baroudi and MARCH Lebanon have worked for a decade on a variety of community building and conflict resolution projects in Tripoli and the capital Beirut.
The performances took place at Beirut’s Théâtre du Tournesol, just off the Tayouneh roundabout where armed clashes between Lebanese Christian affiliates and the Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal took place last October.
“I was hesitant at first, but after meeting Yehia Jaber and Lea Baroudi, I decided to go for it,” Ibrahim Nazha, 31, told Al Jazeera. The aspiring tattoo artist and rapper was the eldest of the actors, who had never performed on stage before.
Nazha shared his story of how he experienced racism in his hometown of Baalbek, as his mother was from Liberia. “They called me ‘coal’,” he told the audience.
The actors clapped hands and kissed after another full performance, but Baroudi and Nazha say it took a while to get to that point.
“Even the young people involved in the play were not all in this state of mind at the beginning,” admits Baroudi. “Some people wanted to quit, and there were arguments.”
Nazha originally doubted that the coin would amount to anything.
“At first, I felt like I was neglecting my family and I didn’t know if this piece would mean anything,” Nazha says, admitting that the long rehearsals and time involved had exhausted him. “But something kept bringing me back.”
Lebanon at a “turning point”
Baroudi says Lebanon has been “quartered” since the end of the civil war in 1990, deepening existing societal divisions based on sect, religion and even region. The country has implemented a reconciliation process, as most of the war fighters remain among Lebanon’s most influential political leaders, with huge economic stakes.
Almost all of the performers were born more than a decade after the end of the civil war, but are still reeling from deep societal divisions.
“I am convinced that we are at a turning point for Lebanon,” Baroudi said. “People say the problems are corruption, politicians, [no] independence of the judiciary – but for me there are underlying issues that are at the root of each one of them.
Lebanon continues to suffer from a crippling two-year economic crisis that has plunged more than three-quarters of the population into poverty. The Lebanese pound has lost around 90% of its value and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese families are now in need of humanitarian aid.
Baroudi says the country will never recover without people breaking down these divisions and making connections based on their shared experiences.
Nazha echoes similar sentiments and says he hopes the piece inspires people to put aside preconceived notions of each other.
“Everyone comes from a different sect or region, but we all go through the same thing,” Nazha says. “We’re all human at the end of the day.”