Promoting unity in Lebanon through a cultural cafe

Crowds at "Hand in Hand" cafe in Lebanon's Tripoli. (Youtube screenshot)

Crowds at “Hand in Hand” cafe in Lebanon’s Tripoli. (Youtube screenshot)

Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhoods in Lebanon have been warring since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990. But the opening of “Hand in Hand” cafe in Tripoli’s Syria Street, the former frontline of fighting between the two neighbourhoods was met with a big crowd from the residents.

As the residents of Jabal Mohsen support the Syrian regime, while the mostly-Sunni residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh support the opposition. This has resulted in recurring clashes between the two neighbourhoods fueled by Syria’s civil war and the poverty the suffer from.

This cafe is the result of a year-long peacekeeping project by the Beirut-based NGO March in an effort to spread unity between the two neighbourhoods.  “We wanted this project to be sustainable,” March cofounder Lea Baroudi told Al Jazeera. “We thought that creating this platform, which is nonexistent in this area of Tripoli, would allow people to unite around ideas of peace, of art, of culture.”

The cafe which could seat up to 60 people used to be an old abandoned building which was renovated and painted yellow, green, purple and pink; and is now run by 30 young people from the two neighbourhoods. According to Al-Jazeera report, “it includes a professional sound system and a small stage, where live concerts, plays, stand-up comedy shows and rap battles will be staged twice weekly, along with regular film screenings.”

In addition to fostering unity, “it would partly resolve the unemployment issue because they will be managing the cafe themselves”, Baroudi noted.

“We realised that the problems in Tripoli and in many poor and marginalised areas are not ideological,” she added. “It is poverty, injustice and marginalisation that push these people to resort to violence. So the best way to tackle this issue is to approach the problem in an economical, educational, even social way. They need parks. They need cafes. They need cinemas. And they need jobs.”

For now, March is training the team on how to run the business, but eventually, they will work independently, splitting the profits among the 30 workers.

“The cafe is a job opportunity for us, as well as a new project that allows us all to spend time together,” Samir Hussein, who works behind the counter at the cafe, told Al Jazeera. “Everyone here is from Tripoli, and they’ve all come to support us … As long as the army is protecting us, the cafe will be safe.”

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