Street art taken to the youngsters of West Beirut

Peter Mortimer with street artists Faye Oliver and Anthony Downie and the young people of Shatila Camp in West Beirut.
Peter Mortimer with street artists Faye Oliver and Anthony Downie and the young people of Shatila Camp in West Beirut.
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WITH neighbouring Syria in seeming meltdown, Gaza in turmoil, a highly charged vote at the UN over Palestinian statehood, followed by a confrontational response by Israel to build more settlements in the occupied territories, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps are hardly a haven of calm and serenity right now.

This fact is accentuated as you pull the covers over your head and shrink down in your bunk at the midnight outbreak of gunfire.

Still, when you’ve got to paint a wall, you’ve got to paint a wall … or to be accurate, three walls, the task of our two street artists Faye Oliver and Anthony Downie, working with the young people of Shatila Camp in West Beirut.

This is part of the ongoing work of Shatila Theatre Trust, which has already seen two Palestinian stage productions mounted in both Beirut and the UK, and now the second half of the street art project which earlier in the year left its colourful mark on North Tyneside (visit Tynemouth Station to view the main mural).

The fourth member of our party was opera singer Rachel Dyson from the Sage Gateshead, helping check out possibilities for a future Shatila Choir to sing both Arabic and western music in Lebanon and the UK.

And I was itching to get moving on another future theatre project.

All of which seemed to please the British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher, who issued a personal invitation for we scruffy quartet to visit the well-protected British Embassy. Here we were served tea in delicate cups while he talked of the importance of such ‘soft power’, and later wrote of us in his blog, ‘They are Brits doing brilliant work on the ground, showing real solidarity with camp residents whose story is as troubled as any in the region’.

The camp has suffered various atrocities such as the l982 Shatila Massacre where up to 3,000 men women and children were murdered by right-wing Falangists forces. In the l985 War of the Camps many people starved to death.

Shatila is not an easy place to create works of art. Most of its people are friendly, but it’s dirty, squalid and claustrophobic, stuffed full of guns, its young people often heaving with the impatience a caged animal might show. Things could kick off here and often have.

For Faye and Anthony, disciplining the camp’s young people into creative pursuits was no easy task, even with help from teachers.

There was always the likelihood the youngsters would nick off with the cans or spray one another instead, so it was a minor miracle that in four days they all transformed the tatty peeling walls on the camps’ only open space into glorious technicolor murals, something for the young people now to see and be proud of on a daily basis.

We also visited Ain al Hilweh, a refugee camp 30 miles closer to the volatile border with Palestine/Israel; with a population of 60,000 as against Shatila’s 17,000, it is the biggest camp in Lebanon. Ain al Hilweh (it means ‘Eye of the Beauty’) has two check-points at each entrance, the outer one Lebanese soldiers, the inner Palestinians (Lebanese never set foot in these camps). We had to apply in advance to gain entrance, and there was a deal of huffing and puffing before we got in.

Inside, its teeming streets are ‘edgy’, its population, (unlike Shatila which is now diluted with fleeing Syrians and other Arabs), more or less full-on Palestinian. When our car, conspicuously full of Westerners, got trapped in the throng of a funeral crowd who peered in through the windows, the moment was disconcerting.

As was the aforementioned midnight gunfire in Shatila. Most of we Brits, happily, are firearm virgins and the boom-boom-boom of powerful weapons under the window is not part of our usual experience.

Luckily the occasion was celebratory, to mark the UN’s crucial vote which brought Palestinian nationhood one step nearer. Back home, such celebrations would involve waving flags and possibly a brass band.

In the Middle-East they get out the Kalashnikovs and let rip. The cultural divide is often wide.

Anyway, we had our own humble celebrations; for three walls of vibrant optimistic colour were before there had been only tatty grey.