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Creativity Melts Syrian-Lebanese Barriers

By Abdul Rahim Al-Uji


Beirut - Muhammad, who arrived from the Syrian city of Homs, lost his leg in the Syrian war. At the border, he was met by Lebanese who treated and cared for him until he could walk on his prosthetic leg. He then went to the market looking for a job, where he was hit with racism. He could not find any work and store owners kicked him out, cursing him and throwing accusations that he would rob them for sure. This discrimination and oppression made him hate all the Lebanese without exception, forgetting those who cared for him and who extended a helping hand. 

Marcella, a Lebanese woman, ran away with her family during the July 2006 war to hide with her relatives in Syria. These relatives then came to Lebanon, running away from death to hide in her house. Their large numbers made her lose feelings of security and freedom inside her house – a feeling which many Lebanese now have as a result of the large numbers of Syrian refugees in a small country like Lebanon. Marcella forgot all the help extended by her Syrian relatives and her loss of security turned into hatred for all Syrians. 

Muhammad and Marcella are not guilty for feeling as they do, for this is a trick played on us by our society. It is called “Imagined Communities,” about which the Irish writer Benedict Anderson spoke. In his book, Anderson explains the concept of “Imagined Communities,” that nationality is a coincidence that turns into a common destiny. The fact that a person was born in Lebanon means that he belongs to the Lebanese only in an imagined sense. He never met those Lebanese and he does not know them. The truth is that he belongs to his family and friends only, who represent a miniscule percentage of the Lebanese. This imagined sense of belonging makes us perceive ourselves and others according to what our groups decide. Hence, we make prior judgments, identify enemies, and specify friends as measured by the group to which we belong.

Meeting Each Other

I met Muhammad and Marcella at the “Better Together” summer camp, organized by Search for Common Ground, which attempts to create common ground between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts through meeting and living common experiences, and, more importantly, through methods of self-expression such as music, films, painting, and theater. 

A Search for Common Ground summer team – Photo: SFCG

A Search for Common Ground summer team – Photo: SFCG

I saw them stand side-by-side during arts classes, to learn that the only way to shed sorrow is by sharing it with others, and that the only way to live in peace with others is by knowing oneself better. I saw them learn self-confidence and confidence in others and transcend the barriers built between them during theater rehearsals. I saw them express the fears inside them, such as fear of losing everything and the continuous search for happiness through painting. I watched them talk about their concerns on video, to discover that the war did not cancel their simple fears, and that what they are primarily searching for is not only the homeland and belonging, but also love and self-fulfillment. 

Watching them, I discovered how the use of the arts is capable of building peace, because it is capable of fighting the “Imagined Communities” trick. In addition to the fact that art is a common language, it always strives to reveal the reality of things to people and trains the mind to see other dimensions. Man’s need for belonging makes him become a tool of society, learning how to hate. The arts, however, have the ability to purge us from all the fake accumulations of society and to learn how to reconcile our feelings by looking inside ourselves. 

It is said that art is incapable of saving the world. It certainly is capable of changing it. This is what happened with Muhammad and Marcella. They did not fall in love, if this is what you were expecting, and I cannot be sure that they will be friends forever. What happened is more important. They learned how to question everything, how to start building their own opinions about what happens around them – without being influenced by their own affiliations – and how to judge everyone according to their behavior and personalities, not their affiliation, because a person's real affiliation is to humanity. 

At the conclusion of the camp, Muhammad saw a short video made by a Lebanese participant named Bachar, showing Muhammad’s suffering. After the video, Muhammad said that he was happy because a Lebanese decided to talk about his life. He said that he was happy, as if a new leg grew in place of the one he lost. At that point, Marcella cried. She cried as if she were Muhammad.

This article was first published September 22, 2014 by the Common Ground News Service.