Peace of Art, a humanitarian organization and fine arts academy, offers the people of the northern Bekaa Valley an artistic and pacifist outlet in a region plagued by conflict.
“Art is not a priority for many in the northern Bekaa Valley. But we see art as the solution, especially in a region where we have a high level of crime and violence,” Mehdi Yehya, founder of Peace of Art (PoA), told Al-Monitor. “People, especially teenagers, see arms — they see conflict. The ideal person for them is someone holding a gun, a killer. But we are trying to give another example, someone holding a guitar.”
PoA, founded in 2016, is both a humanitarian organization and a fine arts academy. It aims to bring together people from different religions, sects, nationalities and backgrounds in the tumultous Baalbek district in the northern Bekaa Valley.
PoA established the first, and only, art school in the region, in the small northern Bekaa Valley town of al-Fakiha, with volunteers teaching over 200 students a month. The courses include photography, film-making, painting and dance, as well as musical instruments such as the oud, a Middle Eastern and North African stringed instrument, guitar and piano.
“We started with three small rooms and we faced many challenges,” Yehya said. “Because in this region we don’t have art teachers or music teachers, it was one of the first places where people gathered from different [backgrounds] and nationalities.”
The Bekaa Valley is a long, flat and fertile valley, with the snowcapped Mount Lebanon on its west and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains forming the Syrian border on its east. The region has been an agricultural hub going back to antiquity, and despite its diversity, villages are often isolated from each other based on sect.
Yehya, whose hometown al-Ain is only a short walk from al-Fakiha, explained, “There are no public spaces here, especially where different sects and genders can mingle. … We were interested in finding a solution as citizens of the region. PoA was the solution to discrimination in the small villages.”
“We have Sunnis and Shiites, and Christians from different sects [in the region], but the Syrian refugees were a new experience and something we are not adapting to easily. Syrians and people from the outside are subjected to racism,” he said.
In 2011, following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict many Syrians fled across the border into the Bekaa Valley, where it is estimated that Syrian refugees make up half of the population there. This demographic change let to tension between the local and refugee communities, which was only heightened by the large number of Syrians settling in Lebanon.
In 2014, the town of Arsal, neighboring al-Fakiha, was seized by the Islamic State, before being pushed back by Lebanese forces, kicking off years of conflict between extremist groups and the military. This climaxed in the 2017 Qalamoun offensive that saw Hezbollah and Syrian government forces, and later the Lebanese military, repel extremist groups from the border region.
During the conflict, PoA started the project “Art Against Discrimination.” This ongoing project has brought together 100 young people from around the Bekaa Valley with refugees from both Syria and Palestine, to partake in a series of intensive art workshops culminating in a photography exhibition, short film and the formation of a band.
Yehya explained that the project, like the organization itself, seeks “to show the importance of art in fighting violence and discrimination, especially fighting extremism and extreme violence in the region.” The project is not limited to the sectarian conflict but also tackles gender-based violence and inequality.
Hiba Soukarieh, who grew up in al-Fakiha and volunteered for the project in the summer of 2018, told Al-Monitor, “The north Bekaa region is very strict for girls. There is a lot of gender discrimination between girls and boys, and I think that by working with PoA I am starting to break down this discrimination.”
She said, “I was isolated from other people. … If I talked or spoke loud, people would say, ‘You are a girl, don’t be like this.’ I don’t feel free outside. But here I feel very free.”
PoA also offered Soukarieh, 16, a way to follow her passion. “I have many hobbies, but I love music very much, especially the violin. … I started to attend some classes and learn to play the violin in order to achieve my dream.”
Soukarieh added that she hopes the activities of PoA will change misconceptions about the people who live in the region, and not reduce the population to the violence that surrounds them.
“I live right next to death and so many conflicts,” Soukarieh said. “When I go to Beirut, they say, ‘She is from Baalbek, she only knows weapons and drugs.’ But I am not like that,” Soukarieh added, referring to the cannabis and illegal drug trade in the Bekaa Valley.
She noted, “I like art and I know how to communicate with people normally. I want to get rid of these [negative] ideas [about the Bekaa Valley] and I found PoA was very suitable for that.”
Despite the opportunities PoA offers, Yehya worries that many students like Soukarieh will not remain in the northern Bekaa Valley.
“We don’t have musicians and music teachers from the region, or a very small number,” Yehya said. “We are trying to get people to come back when they finish their studies. But it is very difficult because there are no places to work. It is not easy to tell young people to come back to their home town, especially when they see how people are living elsewhere. Even for me it is not easy.”
However, there is hope that the current students at PoA will become the teachers of the next generation, to continue guiding young people in art.
Mohammad Shreif, who took classes at PoA himself and now teaches guitar, told Al-Monitor, “It is still hard to find a place where we can play, improve ourselves, learn and show people [our music]. … But [the success of] PoA shows that people want this.”
Over the last four months, at least seven students, some of whom have never held an instrument before, take Shreif’s weekly guitar classes.
“Musically speaking they are improving in terms of rhythm and time measures,” Shreif said. “In terms of mindfulness, the music is getting into their head, and they are getting to know each other in a more cooperative way … and overcoming social problems.”