Archive for July, 2012

Imagining New Sectual Relations

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

You are the inheritor of hate. Hate bred through scenes seen in blood, torn in screams, erased from land. You are the inheritor of experience had over 20 years ago. You have heard the words “Muslim,” “Christian,” and “Druze” refer to people your whole entire life. And when you lived through the 2006 Lebanon War, you might have been partying in Faraya or outside the country or only just heard a whisper of the sound of the bombs and only tasted the hate that your parents ate and breathed for 15 years. So how do you hate? And how can you unlearn it?

Joanna Choukeir wants to help you find out. She will not tell you, nor force you to tell her. But she will design a way for you to interact with the “other” – because you have inherited hate, not created it. As a “social designer,” Choukeir uses “innovative and creative projects to tackle social issues.” Her latest pilot project, which was co-created with volunteers made up of students, activists, and creatives, lasted for 48 hours, in the form of an “Imagination Market, ” where 5 pop-up tents addressed the five key social barriers, as Choukeir has identified through research, which contribute to a sectarian-divided Lebanon. Why, according to her, she “as an 18-year-old hadn’t met any Muslims.” I joined her and her team of “Imaginers” in Baakline and witnessed the optimism of a group so ready to show others the vibrancy of the new path they had found.

The moment I walked up to the “Market,” which comprised 5 booths – Gharam (Love), Moushwar (Trip), Khabriyeh (Story), Dardasheh (Chat), and Souhba (Friendship), I was met with red excitement of volunteers and team leaders. They each wanted to explain “Imagination Studio” to me – the incubator that yielded “Imagination Market” and was created by Choukeir – and their investment in it. Aisha Habli put it simply: “We want to fix the social situation in Lebanon.” She fizzed as she spoke about the project and its audience: “of the youth and for the youth” which echoes Choukeir’s commitment that it is not “experts” who come up with solutions for youth, but rather youth coming up with solutions “for themselves with one another.” Yossef Chaker, her fellow “Imaginer,” as Choukeir has coined the volunteers, says “What the studio promotes is what I’ve lived.” His mother is a religious Muslim and his father is a religious Christian. As a result of this mixed upbringing, he says he’s “lived the good experience in Lebanon.” He, like Aisha, was introduced to Imagination Studio at Tedx Beirut where Choukeir’s presentation inspired them to volunteer their time towards bringing youth of all sects closer together. This does not seem elusive to them, as they proudly claim the proof in the bond that has grown between them as team members who have come from all corners of Lebanon.

Choukeir’s realization at 18 years old that “there is an issue of social segregation” in Lebanon led her to a PhD program, where she could have the structure to “make something happen.” Her research question was: “How can we use communication design methods for social integration with youth in Lebanon?” Her first step toward the answer was an intervention called “Expressions Corner” – a pop-up tent in which she conducted blind interviews with people of different religions and regions over Skype. Participants, whom she was linked to as “influential youth” in their town, had a deck of cards that each had a religion or region on it. Their task was to simply respond in any way they wanted, and thus they spoke about experiences, ideologies, or prejudices; while others had “nothing to say.” From these responses, she found the five major barriers, upon which “Imagination Market” is based and which the Studio builds their designs around. The divisive combination includes sect and marriage, region and mobility, politics and friendship, media and influence, and language and prejudice.

“Souk ek Khayal! Souk el Khayal!”


“Come closer so I can tell you a story; one from me, one from you!”


“Hizb el Sushi! Hizb el Hummus!”


Imaginers called out by the side of the main road in Baakline, a quiet town in the Chouf populated predominately by Druze, where young people started emerging after their Sunday lunches. Two young men were coaxed out of their convertible over to the dardashe booth where they sang “Imagine,” by the Beatles in Arabic, English, and French with the help of flashcards. Not of course before one walked away and had to be pulled back, his cigarette in tact between his fingers. They sang the song with Imaginers’ help and moved from booth to booth, laughing though reluctant. They visited moushwar where Imaginers proposed taking them on a trip to an old Maronite Church in the village that had been closed for years – and which by the end of the day only 2 of 50 participants knew existed! The day before, the trip was from Jbail to a fish tavern owned by a woman named Maggie, who opened up shop just after her husband passed. Visitors had wondered how they could find more of these authentic places in a country that had less and less of them.

When they sat down for the short skit at the souhba booth, where two friends get in an argument over their political allegiances – Hizb Sushi and Hizb Hummus – the guys participated in the post-performance discussion which focused on conjuring up ways the conversation could have been civil. But ultimately they said, “We already know all of this.”

However, Choukeir does not feel pressure to change these people. What seems to be most particular about the ideas behind this project is Choukeir’s hypothesis that of the five personalities she has divided people on the subject of sectarian divisions in Lebanon – open-minded, curious, stubborn, distant, and skeptic – she believes that Imagination Studio’s efforts will have the most impact on the “curious” and the “skeptic,” both of whom just need a little “nudge” to see a “new path.”

“We had some ‘distant’ and ‘stubborn’ yesterday. The distant don’t even want to acknowledge that there’s a problem in Lebanon; they’re living in their closed social circles – they don’t think anything is wrong with that. The stubborn realize that there’s a whole other community in Lebanon that they don’t know but they don’t even want to have anything to do with it. They are very politicized; they’ve made up their mind. At the market they said, ‘This activity isn’t going to change anything.’ And we know that – with them, it’s not going to change anything. But with the curious and skeptics, there is potential. Sometimes they just haven’t had the exposure. Seeing something optimistic like this could trigger the change.”

Imagination Studio has been an ongoing project of workshops that led to the Imagination Market, which was a pilot to prove that some of the ideas have potential for nudging minds. For example, the khabriyeh booth, a 48-hour user generated blog, could be an ongoing project where people share their stories and experiences, and make connections. All of the ideas are registered with Creative Commons, so anyone can use them, as “Change has to be something continuous. A one-off thing will only affect those who were there at the right time and the right place,” says Choukeir.

Attendance was low after a few hours (as opposed to previous day in Jbail), when two girls, aged 18, walked up to the gharaam booth, where a fortuneteller awaited them in full glittery gear. She fluttered her ringed fingers over the cards as they sat expectantly. She flipped over two cards, which revealed a Sunni man and a Druze woman. Although the fortuneteller was to brief them on the rights of the individuals if they were to be married – conversion, kids, inheritance, custody, etc, she only gave them their options in terms of how two different sects could get married. One of the young women asked if she could choose the combination, so she chose a Druze woman and a Druze man. “This is the best option,” she said. Here, again, the fortuneteller told them “That’s easy. These two can get married, no problem.” I believe she missed an opportunity to be detailed about their rights.

The young women walked away and wrote their complaint on the chalkboard on their way out: “We wish there could have been more than just choices for marriage.” But they also wrote that “The idea is awesome.” When I asked her what she expected, she said, “We already know the stuff the fortuneteller told us. I thought I would have my fortune read.” I really don’t know what to think about this response (except that it’s kinda funny – and made sense :).

Will any of these ideas have potential for “nudging” the minds of skeptic and curious youth who know they should think or feel something, but do not know why – or that there’s an alternative? Could more and more people just like Joanna, who grew up in a small mountain village dominated by the same sect, went to religious schools and university, and met someone from another sect for the first time at 18 years old – besides the latter nowadays (I presume), an apt description of many Lebanese – also open their lives to accepting the others, past a simple tolerance, in a country that largely frowns upon the union of these sects? Could this fascinating co-creative project evolve and tighten the execution of its ideas and actually make an impact on the youth and future social situation in Lebanon? The Imagination Studio plans to take on the challenge. And use these learning opportunities, such as at the Imagination Market, to build on them, imagining and imagining, that a better country is possible.