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Drama Helps Lebanese Bridge Tripoli's Divides

Youths from Tripoli, north Lebanon, perform in the play, "Love and War on the Rooftops," in Beirut, Lebanon, July 28, 2015.

Young people from two warring districts in the Lebanese city of Tripoli are taking to the stage in a comedy inspired by their own lives, trying to turn their backs on old rivalries inflamed by Syria's civil war.

"Love and War on the Rooftops" played to a full house in the capital Beirut on Tuesday, a rollicking play within a play about a Sunni Muslim and an Alawite district in the coastal city of Tripoli.

Some locals have welcomed the project but others have accused actors from both sides of being traitors, a reflection of the daily tension between the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh district and the inhabitants of Jabal Mohsen, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

It worsened four years ago when conflict erupted across the border in Syria, pitting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, against an insurgency dominated by Sunni Islamists. The tension often boils over into violence, and sometimes claims lives.

At first, Khodor Mukhaiber, 19, refused to act in the play with Jabal Mohsen residents. He never expected he would end up having friends in the Alawite part of the city, on the other side of the aptly-named Syria Street.

"I believed they were our enemies because that's how we were raised," said Khodor, who plays the part of an exasperated director. "After I met them in this play ... I saw that we were alike. We're all young people - they don't have work, we don't have work, we have the same crises."

Around 57 percent of Tripoli's residents are classified as "deprived" in a United Nations poverty report published in January.

"Before the play we did nothing, there was no work, nothing, just sitting in the street," said Ali Amoun, 23, whose character falls in love with a Sunni, sparking a scandal.

Director Lucien Bourjeily (C) talks alongside youth actors from Tripoli, North Lebanon, after their performance in a play he directed in Beirut, July 28, 2015.
Director Lucien Bourjeily (C) talks alongside youth actors from Tripoli, North Lebanon, after their performance in a play he directed in Beirut, July 28, 2015.

The drama unfolds on Tripoli's rooftops in a whirl of music, card games, violence and secret romantic rendezvous, revolving around a play in which the actors are constantly arguing with the director.

Fatima Mukhaiber, 23, who plays Amoun's love Aisha, describes how, after becoming involved in the play, the new friends met in each other's districts to break the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"I used to have this thought - why are we enemies? Now I'm doing something about it," she said.

The play is a project by March, a Lebanese civil rights advocacy group, and is described by the play's director Lucien Bourjeily as a form of "drama therapy."

Back on the streets, communal tensions have been eased by a security plan implemented last year, but Ali said it been hard for some friends to accept his participation in the play.

Ali lost his brother in the violence, but has put his anger aside.

"Both sides lost martyrs," he said.

He recently got a tattoo on his left arm of two masks representing tragedy and comedy - the classical symbol of the theater - to cover his old scars.