More stories from Lebanon's forgotten city – Tripoli

In November 2008, MENASSAT and Arab Images Foundation© organized a series of multimedia workshops with young people from the rival neighborhoods of Bab al Tabaneh and Jabal Mohsen in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli.  On January 25, MENASSAT held a screening of the video footage shot by both groups with the aim of confronting long-held misunderstandings that have often led to ethnic strife.
Participants at the January 25 video screening and debate that was the culmination of series of multimedia workshops with marginalized youth in Tripoli. © Arab Images Foundation

TRIPOLI, January 30, 2009 (MENASSAT) – In Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, it’s always a rare thing to see youth from Bab al Tabeneh, a Sunni neighborhood, together with youth from Jabal Mohsen, their rival Alawite (Shia Muslim sect) neighborhood - unless there are newspaper headlines involved. After years of massacres on both sides, the two neighborhoods are none too fond of each other.

Fierce sectarian fighting with youth from the two impoverished areas claimed at least 90 lives last year – and that was after a 2008 powersharing agreement helped avert a near civil war in Lebanon last May.

So it was not a total shock when Sunni youth from Bab al Tabaneh failed to show up to a January 25 video screening in Tripoli with youth from Jabal Mohsen, even if the screening featured video footage shot by both groups during a series of multi-media trainings conducted by MENASSAT last November - workshops aimed at helping marginalized youth from both communities tell their own "untold stories."

Scenes from the debate that took place between Tripoli youth on January 25.
© Arab Images Foundation

While there were no youth from Bab al Tabaneh physically present at the January 25 screening, their stories were at least partially represented on the screen during a 23-minute video montage that featured the work of youth from both neighborhoods as well as input from a group of students from Al-Jinan University who also took part in the November workshops.

As a result, Sunday’s screening still managed to spark a discussion that few have been willing to entertain in Tripoli - namely that the two neighborhoods - Bab al Tabaneh and Jabal Mohsen - are affected by the same institutional neglect and political lip service that has divided the them since before the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

Two sides of the same coin

Following the screening on Sunday, Jabal Mohsen resident Abu Khalil, an ex-officer in the Lebanese army was first to point out that aspects of life in both neighborhoods were surprisingly similar.

Scenes of street life - auto-mechanics shops, vegetable stands, barbershops, and computer gaming centers were ubiquitous images in the 23-minute video.

“Officially, I am registered as living in Bab al Tabeneh," Abu Khalil said after the screening. "I can say that you would not be able to tell the difference between the two neighborhoods if you saw Sunday's film.”

Saleh a 23-year old workshop participant from Al-Jinan University echoed Abu Khalil's thoughts.

“I'm not from Jabal Mohsen or Tabaneh. But at the beginning of the film, we were able to tell the difference between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al Tabaneh.

"Later on, when scenes started to mix, I noticed I could not tell the difference anymore. They are both the same, the only difference is geographical, but what's inside these houses are similar people," Saleh said.

Of course, seeing similarities in the neighborhoods is a long way from ushering an age of understanding when sectarian differences are so deeply rooted, according to Abu Khalil.

“Some people would say that people in my neighborhood deserve to die for religious reasons,” he said, adding, “But the poor areas of both neighborhoods have gotten mixed together through the years. It is the same environment, and we share the same streets, we deal with each other.”

"We deal with each other"

But Abu Khalil's message of simply “dealing with each other” didn’t sit well with workshop participant, Balsem Saleh, one of Tripoli’s prodigal rapper sons who goes by the name of Bolo B (a kind of knife).

In one song featured in Sunday’s video montage, he raps:

“Since we are only good at insulting each other

Since words between brothers are full of hatred

The situation has been set, to turn the good into evil

Look at those morals, soaking in vinegar”

Saleh said that violence was a part of both societies, and that it was a symptom of the political and social neglect that needed immediate attention "if there is to be any lasting change in relations between the two neighborhoods."

Balsam told MENASSAT that his perspective of Jabal Mohsen was “poisoned” from an early age.

“My community – which is Sunni – taught us from day one that people from Jabal Mohsen were criminals because they were backed by Syria,” a charge that stems from the backing the Alawite community received during and after the Lebanese civil war - something that anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon still accuse Jabal Mohsen of accepting.

“So it was good to meet and discuss things at the video screening with youth from Jabal Mohsen. I can’t believe I had the impression that youth from Jabal Mohsen were somehow more aggressive. I got to see a bit of how they live, the misery the have to live through,” he said.

“I think the kids from Jabal Mohsen were also surprised by the things that they saw on Sunday.”

Indeed, 21-year old Ali from Jabal Mohsen said he was forced to view Bab al Tabaneh and the problems in both communities as being more similar than he had previously thought.

"They're (Bab al Tabeneh youth) not here. But I want to thank you all who helped with this because you helped us see something new. I just hope lots of other people think like this, and try to do similar things."

Ali did, however, tell MENASSAT that he might not have been as open to viewing Bab al Tabaneh's problems if there had been youth representation there.

Political pawns

Rascha Rustom, a second year mass communications major from Al-Jinan University was among the more visible participants during the November MENASSAT-led multimedia workshops.

Her story was unique among the university students in large part because she took a keen interest in the lives of the youth from Bab al Tabaneh.

“During the two days that I spent with the youth from Bab el Tabaneh, I had a chance to listen to their personal lives and learn about some of the issues they have to deal with on a daily basis,” Rustom told MENASSAT in November.

“I wanted to be involved in facilitating their process of healing by showing them that there were people who could see past their exterior posture of being tough.”

Rustom said she was disappointed that there were no youth from Bab al Tabaneh at the January 25 screening. “But I was happy to have an opportunity to hear perspectives from Jabal Mohsen youth – something we aren’t exposed to at our university.”

Meanwhile, Rustom told MENASSAT that one clear theme that emerged in the discussions after the screening was the fact that with no work and no social safety net in Tripoli – youth in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al Tabaneh are often left to rely on the patronage of political leaders.

At the January 25 screening, video footage taken from both neighborhoods were rife with scenes of well-dressed politicians pictured on huge banners in areas where even the most basic social amenities were absent.

“The leaders…they use us,” Abu Khalil said at the screening.

“The elections are in June, and you’ll see. They start offering jobs, buying votes. But when the elections are over, they abandon you, only to use you again later.”


Trace the evolution of the joint MENASSAT/Arab Images Foundation© project by checking out:

      'My name is Racha and I'm from Akkar'

      Living the 'ghetto life' in Tripoli [ + ]

      Interviewing techniques 

      The view from Jabal Mohsen [ + ]

      The view from Jabal Mohsen, part II [ + ]

      MultiMina workshops on Arab Media Community [ + + ]