A Conversation with a Lebanese Clown

July 16, 2019

As I sit at my desk writing about peacebuilding in Lebanon, I realise that the most effective peacebuilding method is frequently overlooked: creativity. Creativity and culture are usually neglected in large peacebuilding initiatives, even though working together in activities that promote wellbeing and dialogue can be key tools of peacebuilding. Rebuilding a community is, after all, paramount once a conflict is over. Luckily, there are exceptions. Programmes such as the Tiro Association of Arts, founded by Lebanese Palestinian Kassem Istanbouli, have noticed the value of culture and creativity. Istanbouli calls himself a cultural activist and has been creating free and independent cultural spaces in the south of Lebanon as a way of rebuilding local communities and promoting social change.

Lebanon is a country recovering from a civil war, conflicts with Israel, and leadership crises. The country has also had to cope with vast numbers of refugees from Palestine and Syria. In the capital, Beirut, theatre, culture and the arts flourish, but creativity is concentrated in the capital – the rest of Lebanon has been neglected. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Istanbouli about his experiences trying to engage Lebanese communities in creativity. We discussed one of the groups’ most recent projects: the Peace Bus, an old American school van that goes from place to place, spreading joy and happiness and raising awareness about the importance of culture and the arts.

Hey Kassem, how is it going? So can you tell me a bit the peace bus and how this all came about?

We decided to buy this bus and when we went to places with the bus we would bring music and cinema and theatre. We wanted people to laugh and to find joy and beauty. The people love to draw and paint and act but if there are no theatres or cinemas in their villages then they cannot do this. With the bus we can bring it to them.

Nice, so how come it is so important to for these people to be more creative?

In Beirut there are many programmes about art and music and theatre because most of the aid goes to Beirut, and the government and most of the universities are there. This means that the rest of Lebanon doesn’t have as many creative programmes so they get left behind. This isn’t unique here in Lebanon – it happens in lots of countries. It can make it seem like a country is progressive, when actually these programmes are concentrated in one place. If you create schools in one place, for example, you should create schools everywhere. We all share the same things in Lebanon, so it should be equal.

Yes definitely. So tell us about the Peace Bus…

We go to many different marginalised areas where we work with children and their parents. We teach them and we train them and this gives them skills that they can use for other things. Last month we went on tour with the Peace Bus and stopped at Ain el Rummaneh in East Beirut. There was fighting and shooting in this place in 1975, which contributed to the beginning of the Lebanese civil war. So we went to this same street where this happened and where this war began and we brought people together to dance and involve themselves in theatre on this same street. This changed the way that the people could see this street and the memories that went with it. When we went to this place, the children came out onto the street — they knew the sound of the Peace Bus, and that it was bringing culture and the arts.

And what affect do you think this has?

This is the culture of life, cinema and theatre can change your life, it will show you how you can get to know about different cultures. Art and culture is a human language, we can all understand this language. In this country we don’t speak about nationality or religion or sex or share emotion, but culture and the arts are human and together we can share this.

Talking to Kassem, I come to understand the true and profound value that culture and art have in Lebanon. His experiences demonstrate how small creative initiatives can transform painful memories and bring communities together.

Watch a video of the Peace Bus going to Ain el Rummaneh to help people work through memories of violence

Read about PAX’s work in Lebanon

Freya Wordsworth, a British student studying at the University of Amsterdam, is conducting research for PAX about the capabilities of creative programs in promoting social change.

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