How culture and the arts help peace

September 19, 2019

Working as an intern in the Middle East team of PAX has opened my eyes to many of the different strategies, programs and methods PAX staff use with their partners across the globe. Many of my colleagues have shown me how valuable and effective culture and the arts can be for peacebuilding and social change. While there are many ways peace organisations can mobilise social change, I have learnt through PAX that using cultural and artistic activities, especially activities that promote fun and laughter, can be helpful in engaging local actors. In environments where there is ongoing conflict, or where people are recovering from conflict, adults, youth and even children can be deprived of playful community-oriented activities that highlight people’s commonalities and shared experiences.

Through my research into these programs, I have encountered several academics who highlight the ability of culture and the arts to provide spaces where traumatic events can be discussed in a positive environment. These academics suggest that this can change the associations people have with these experiences into memories that include their positive experience of participating in a fun and social program. These spaces can also be immensely helpful for people to reconnect to their heritage and culture and in doing so, develop their own identity through empowering conversations and activities.

Over the past few months, as I have continued my research, I have had the opportunity to speak with several programme coordinators and participants of cultural and arts orientated programs. One young man from Lebanon – a country with a history of conflict over the past century – told me of his experiences of playback theatre and the impact that it can have amongst the youth that he has worked with:

Hey Hani, so can you tell me what you do in Lebanon?

So, I started training in the playback theatre a few years ago. It’s a method of theatre that started in 1975 in the US that uses the stories of the audience and improvisation from the actors to create plays on the street. I started in Tripoli with a peacebuilding program funded by the UNDP. We’ve had more than twenty five performances for local community members in Tripoli and around Lebanon. There are lots of destroyed building around because of the war in Lebanon. Part of the project was to clean these places up and make them settings for performances for the local community. We do this to change the feeling of these spaces from somewhere that fighting took place to a place of performance and fun.

 And why is this so important? 

It’s important because people lived through conflict and they have no place to express themselves or any sense of community. Not everyone can go to classes and there’s no funding to go to theatre classes. Playback theatre can be done on the street. It has an artistic side but also a social change side where people can begin to feel empowered and talk about their problems and their successes and enjoy themselves in a safe atmosphere. Playback theatre in general is a space where storytelling happens. Storytelling brings a lot of empathy — when people listen to stories they can understand other people’s experiences. It’s important in places of conflict to raise awareness of social issues and encourage social justice, as well as give people space to express frustration.

I’ve had several conversations similar to this one and this has really underlined for me the value and potential of creative activities to improve the wellbeing and lives for those who live in hostile environments. Using these interviews, I am really looking forward to drawing connections between academic research and practical programmes being carried out on the ground. I hope that this joint analysis can benefit both sides, providing insights and examples where success has been achieved as well as indications of where challenges can arise.

Get involved with our peace work.
Subscribe to the PAX Action Alert.