BEIRUT - A heart-shaped pillow clutched to her chest, Ziza the clown weeps for the camera and tries to ignore the stench emanating from the mountain of trash piled up just meters away.
Uncertain of quite how to deal with these red-nosed visitors to his dump site on the outskirts of Beirut, some of whom are now dancing the tango, the trash crane operator offers a wry smile.
It is not the traditional way to mark Valentine's Day, but, then again, Lebanon’s clown activists are not really ones for convention.
A different approach
“Sometimes people think we’re completely crazy or idiotic for what we’re doing” explained Sara Berjawi, whose clown name is Ziza.
“But I feel like it is our duty to do something about the social issues we have in our country, and clowning is a helpful tool to help broach these subjects," Berjawi said.
She and her fellow clowns are part of Clown Me In, a group that takes a decidedly different approach when it comes to tackling Lebanon’s many social issues.
This time, they are putting their clowning skills to use by making a video playing on the theme of Valentine's Day to raise public awareness of the country’s ongoing trash crisis.
Mounds of trash
Sparked by the closure of an over-capacity landfill last summer, Lebanon’s garbage crisis saw towering mounds of litter piling up across the capital and beyond.
With many blaming the country’s perennially deadlocked and bickering political class for the problem, the You Stink popular movement was born.
Among the demonstrations, which were marred by violence and drew tens of thousands of Lebanese, Clown Me In was there on the streets, raising a smile and making a stand.
Since summer, the protest movement has died down and Lebanon’s politicians have yet to find an effective solution, attracting ridicule amid recent efforts to export the trash.
“We’re here because this crisis is still going on, and it’s getting worse day by day,” Berjawi said. "We felt we needed to broach this subject again, and make use of the fact that the Lebanese will go out and celebrate Valentine's Day, and everything is rosy and happy, yet we are surrounded by trash everywhere we go.”
“We live in an absurd world as clowns and as people,” said Clown Me In founder Sabine Choucair, “and what’s better than laughter to deal with problems?”
In using clowning for activism, she simply brought together two of her passions, Choucair told VOA.View full gallery
The video is just the latest by the group to address Lebanon’s trash crisis, with others created last year being widely shared online.
However, their efforts don’t stop at making protest videos.
Not always easy
Choucair has performed with Clowns Without Borders, entertaining Syrian families on the Greek island of Lesbos.
The third night the troupe was there, a boat capsized and 100 people died, she said. “People had lost family members and volunteers were depressed, but I like to think our presence helped.”
Clown Me In has worked with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, hosts regular clowning workshops, and carries out "clown attacks," deploying their light-hearted brand of campaigning on an unsuspecting public.
But it’s not always easy.
Although Lebanon is more receptive to their work than some other countries in the region, Choucair said this form of activism can be a bit of a challenge. She recalled with a grin the frosty reception given the troupe by the VIPs that frequent Beirut’s downtown district as well as nearly being run over by an irate taxi driver.
But the benefits work both ways, said Layal Ghanem, who goes by the clown name of Lulu.
“Clowning allows you to search for yourself. It helps you be more open and deal with challenges,” Ghanem told VOA. "Clowning made me realize that there are two ways of seeing life or approaching things – with love or with fear.”
Plenty of love
Despite the odors, there is plenty of love in the air at Clown Me In’s video shoot at the dump site.
While Ghanem, Choucair and the others are twirling each other around for the camera and bursting into fits of giggles between takes, one of many onlookers approaches to see what they’re up to.
Aydar Adar has nothing but scorn for politics, and is “disgusted” at the trash crisis, but having heard the clowns’ antics from the church she was attending, she wanders over to see what is going on.
“What you are doing is really helpful, so I left the church and came back to thank you. It’s the minimum one can do,” Adar said.
With that, and like so many others who encounter the troupe, she wanders off chuckling; equally confused, amused and grateful for their efforts.