Tripoli, Lebanon – Soldiers stood on nearby rooftops, automatic weapons at the ready – but instead of violence, there was music in the air.
Children dressed as clowns ran around with painted faces, and on a small stage, two young men rapped Arabic verses to the tune of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ being strummed on a guitar. People of all ages joined in to sing the chorus.
We thought that creating this platform ... would allow people to unite around ideas of peace, of art, of culture.
Last week’s grand opening of a cafe on Tripoli’s Syria Street – the former frontline of fighting between residents of the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhoods – was attended by a capacity crowd that spilled out into an adjacent carpark.
The culmination of a year-long peacekeeping project by the Beirut-based NGO March, Our Cafe: Hand in Hand is intended to encourage reconciliation between the two warring neighbourhoods, beset by sporadic clashes since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990.
“We wanted this project to be sustainable,” March cofounder Lea Baroudi told Al Jazeera. “We thought that creating this platform, which is nonexistent in this area of Tripoli, would allow people to unite around ideas of peace, of art, of culture.”
Just a few months ago, the building that now houses the cafe was pockmarked with bullet holes, with all the window glass blown out. Today, its smooth walls are painted yellow, green, purple and pink. A colourful mural features the cafe’s name alongside two linked hands.
Inside, the walls are covered with paintings of famous singers. The cafe can seat up to 60 people and includes a professional sound system and a small stage, where live concerts, plays, stand-up comedy shows and rap battles will be staged twice weekly, along with regular film screenings.
Recurring clashes in this area of Tripoli have been exacerbated by Syria’s ongoing civil war. The residents of Jabal Mohsen, many of whom are Alawite, support the Syrian regime, while the mostly-Sunni residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh support the opposition.
In late 2014, after the Lebanese army set up a permanent presence on Syria Street, March organised a play based on the lives of the young performers, many of whom were former fighters. Initially, the actors turned up to rehearsals with knives and guns, but once they began talking about their experiences, they realised they had a lot in common – particularly issues surrounding unemployment.
According to a 2015 UN survey, 69 percent of families in Jabal Mohsen and 87 percent in Bab al-Tabbaneh live in poverty.
Now, 30 young people from the two neighbourhoods are coming together to run the cafe, which marks the final stage in March’s peacekeeping initiative.
In addition to fostering unity, “it would partly resolve the unemployment issue because they will be managing the cafe themselves”, Baroudi noted.
“We realised that the problems in Tripoli and in many poor and marginalised areas are not ideological,” she added. “It is poverty, injustice and marginalisation that push these people to resort to violence. So the best way to tackle this issue is to approach the problem in an economical, educational, even social way. They need parks. They need cafes. They need cinemas. And they need jobs.”
For now, March is training the team on how to run the business, but eventually, they will work independently, splitting the profits among the 30 workers.
“I’ve met a lot of friends from the other side, which I never thought I would, and I look at things differently now. I have a different lifestyle,” Khodor Mukhaiber, who organises live entertainment for the cafe, told Al Jazeera. “I used to spend all my time hanging around on the streets, and now I’m involved in more activities. My days are more productive.”
But it will take time to change attitudes throughout the broader neighbourhoods. Some of the young men now working in the cafe said they received death threats after collaborating on the play last year, but they remain determined to forge ahead.
“The cafe is a job opportunity for us, as well as a new project that allows us all to spend time together,” Samir Hussein, who works behind the counter at the cafe, told Al Jazeera. “Everyone here is from Tripoli, and they’ve all come to support us … As long as the army is protecting us, the cafe will be safe.”
Rayanne Ahmar, who also staffs the counter, says she hopes the venue will ultimately reunite the two neighbourhoods.
“For me, the cafe is a symbol of peace, and it’s the first step in the bigger reconciliation between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh,” she told Al Jazeera. “A friend will bring another friend, and another, and another, and they will start breaking the ice and become once again one family.”