It was a situation I was used to. An event hall is an event hall after all, and photographers face the same obstacles in each one; tripping tablecloths, floral centre pieces, stray lawn chairs, loose wires, red and green lights. The tiered floor led down to the stage. On every table crumpled cigarettes lay in glass ashtrays gasping their last breaths.
Rebellious, isn’t it, to smoke inside nowadays? Well, how apt. We were in the city of Baalbek. Nestled in Lebanon’s North Bekaa Valley, this Iranian financed, Hezbollah controlled corner of the country is a launching pad for soldiers sympathetic to the Syrian regime. That very afternoon, before the show, the streets were clogged by a funeral procession for a returning local.
But the flow of people across the mountainous border is far greater from the other direction. Over a million Syrian and re-re-located Palestinians are in Lebanon seeking shelter from the war next-door. Some of these people were sitting on the lawn chairs around the round tables, crumpling cigarettes in to the glass ashtrays and moving the flower pieces in order to see each other better in the red and green lights.
A crowd had gathered in Baalbek’s function hall to see the final show of a year’s worth of film, theatre and music workshops facilitated by the NGO Better Together: Search for Common Ground. The program saw young Syrians and Lebanese come together to tell their stories of escaping war and accommodating those who have, respectively. As the name suggests, Better Together: Search for Common Ground seeks to iron out the tensions that inevitably arise when communities are involuntarily thrust upon one another.
Readers of Western media are, by now, accustomed to the images of those escaping terror; children peeking from behind tarpaulin doors, families being hauled onto dry land from rickety vessels, bodies on the sand. However, this event endowed the young participants with new creative skills and returned the power of representation back to those affected. This wasn’t swampy Macedonian fields nor was it hysterical parents. This was black-tie, crisp shirts, special occasion head-scarves, heavy make-up, laughter.
One film, done in the style of an old silent movie, told the story of a Syrian girl and her father’s struggle to earn money selling milk from their cow. The father became exhausted so the daughter started to sell milk herself, too. To avoid damaging her father’s pride, she would do it secretly; getting up early to milk the cow, walking to the shop and returning before her father woke up. The secret was out when the father found his daughter collapsed outside. She was stricken with exhaustion, too. Escaping the war is often just the beginning of the struggle.
Official discourse in the West is preoccupied with refugees on the move and how we divert these humans humanely. We’re less bothered about the sedentary people in the refugee camps within ear-shot of the Syrian border. They’re safe, what more do they want? Refugees face the constant threat of fading into a statistic. For most Europeans, the humans who inhabit the camps that litter the Levant as well as the migrants trudging through the Balkan barriers are merely faceless blobs on a map.
I sat down next to Mahmoud, 21, who told me that in the dead of night in Baalbek, he can hear the dull thudding of shells on the other side of the mountain. His besieged home town, Zabadani, where the majority of his family remain, is a mere 32km away from our conversation. He made the difficult decision to leave two years ago. He told me he taught himself English by watching super-hero films, which became evident from the Hollywood twang in his voice as he reeled through a list of people he knew working at the NGO Action Aid. He wanted to see if I knew any of them. It’s a small world for the Syrians in Lebanon. There are restrictions on who is allowed to drive, curfews, and most of the jobs on offer are badly paid, arduous and illegal—something that the recruiters of Jihad use to their advantage.
However, Mahmoud tells me that although it can be boring from time to time in Baalbek he at least has more to do than he did in Zabadani. He spends his days making films, taking photographs for Action Aid, playing music or otherwise “just doing as much as I can before I go to sleep”. He has aspirations to join his brother in Germany but, without the means, for now he is just trying to stay busy. For Mahmoud the show was an opportunity to break his routine and to forge friendships. How necessary companionship is.
But that night in Baalbek wasn’t just an opportunity to celebrate conviviality; it was an excuse to party. Shoulder to shoulder, arms around shoulders and, at one point, a tower of three people on each other’s shoulders. Mahmoud captured that for me on my camera as I no longer had free reign of my arms. The dancing was ferocious and the smiles were contagious. I stood still and took in the screams of joy, the greedy embraces and the dripping mascara. This was a shared history. A shared story. Perhaps the most important of our times. Step outside the hall and the empty streets filled with rain. Drive for half an hour East and the streets are stained with blood.
This night to forget reality, if for just a couple of hours, was a night to remember. People are people, after all. What we have in common is revealed in the way we deal with the obstacles put in front of us.