By Manal el-Tayar
Her voice quivered as she started speaking. One could sense how intimidating it must have felt for a twenty-year-old to address a crowd of religious leaders, politicians, ambassadors, civil society leaders, academicians and other notable delegates about her vision for a united Lebanon. As Alaa spoke, she glimpsed back a couple of times at Jennifer who stood by her. Jennifer’s beaming smile reassured her friend. Slowly, Alaa grew more confident in her speech and her words resonated with the audience.
The contribution of Alaa and Jennifer to the Celebration of the Annunciation[i] in downtown Beirut on Sunday 26th of March 2017 seemed to be the highlight for many in attendance. “You are the hope of the future,” said one ex- combatant in the civil war:
“As we look back on our past, we say ‘never again’. But we cannot even imagine what the future might look like. Your friendship is a symbol of the way forward. Thank you for inspiring us!”
Normally, Alaa, a veiled young woman who grew up in Shia Dahiyeh (Beirut’s southern suburbs), and Jennifer, an active church goer and member of Youth for Christ (YFC) who grew up in Christian Dekwaneh (Beirut’s eastern suburbs), would have had very few chances to meet as a result of a variety of social and historical factors, let alone interact in such a way as to create a lasting friendship. Social scientist Robert Putnam calls these relationships the “social capital” within a community.
Four years ago, Jennifer and Alaa met within the framework of an IMES initiative called Khebz w Meleh. Khebz w Meleh literally means “Bread and Salt” in Arabic. It’s an expression used to signify strong bonds of trust between individuals or groups who become close friends. Friendships that remain strong through thick and thin.
When youth come for a Khebz w Meleh meeting, the concept is very simple: they come as small groups of Muslims and Christians (usually six of each) to discuss their faith together while sharing a meal.
When I joined IMES about five months ago, two concepts within the ethos of Khebz w Meleh made me a little nervous:
Before joining IMES, I had been involved in many peacebuilding and social cohesion initiatives. We’d bring very different people into the same room: Muslims, Christians, Druze, Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, etc. However, we consistently shied away from speaking about the things that made us different. Instead, we chose to discuss issues that had the potential to bring us closer together. We organized training workshops around leadership, entrepreneurship, communication, mediation, etc. After all, choosing to speak about faith, one of the very factors that seemed to instigate various factions in the Lebanese civil war to take up arms, seems quite foolish.
Yet back then, I felt that something wasn’t quite right. My main motivation for getting involved in peacemaking was my faith. Yet, I almost always felt that I needed to leave my faith at the door if I were to be a mediator, a trainer, a facilitator in this domain.
IMES follows 11 guidelines for dialogue to make it possible for youth to speak about faith without it becoming a volatile topic. My colleague, Dr. Arthur Brown, calls them “the DNA of Khebz w Meleh.”
For instance, one guideline for dialogue states:
“I will speak positively about my own faith rather than negatively about another person’s faith.”
In a session that focused on “Faith and Worship,” we asked the youth to sit in mixed-faith pairs (one Muslim and one Christian), then to describe to each other what their typical Friday (for Muslims) and Sunday (for Christians) looks like, and what they do at the mosque and the church respectively. Such questions allow each person to speak positively about his or her own faith rather than negatively about the other’s.
A couple minutes later, I asked the youth to share, in a plenary session, if they had learned anything new about each other. Zahraa, a fourteen-year-old Muslim girl shared:
“Yes, I had heard that you Christians have alcohol at church. I finally understood why you do.”
Her group partner, Jenny, had shared with Zahraa that on a normal Sunday, at church, they’d have communion. Zahraa was not familiar with that word, so Jenny told her the story of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and that partaking in communion, the bread and wine (alcohol), was a symbol of our remembrance of Christ’s body and blood that were sacrificed for the atonement of our sins.
As Zahraa spoke, I realized that this was one of the most honest, simple and non-offensive ways that any follower of Christ could have shared what s/he believed was the essence of his/her salvation with any Muslim.
I then asked if anyone else had learned something new. This time, Jenny shared that she had, for the first time, heard the term woodoo’. Zahraa had mentioned to her that before they go into the mosque, they wash themselves as a symbol of purification before walking into the holy place. An image that is equally inspiring for a follower of Christ.
This simple guideline had allowed for these two young ladies to be honest, listen to the “other,” correct some of the stereotypes that were passed on to them from their respective communities, and appreciate elements in the faith of the other person. These guidelines make it possible to talk about faith in an enriching way.
In fact, this year, we are working with 4 groups of 12 young people each. So in total, I’ve been investing my time this year with 48 people. Just 48!
This contrasts sharply, again, with my previous experience. My understanding was that donor agencies are mostly concerned that the financial contribution they make translates into numbers and impact. I was used to working with thousands of beneficiaries per year in order to satisfy donors’ requirements of reaching ‘x’ number of beneficiaries.
I was very pleasantly surprised and challenged to see that IMES carefully chooses its partners — ones that are not disinterested in numbers, but at the same time not driven by numbers.
Impact, however, is something we seek to achieve — the kind that would turn strangers (if not enemies) into friends.
We’ve begun to see the seeds of friendship in various groups. A Muslim facilitator in our Saida/Maghdousheh group mentioned:
“It’s very obvious that the Christians and Muslim young people care about each other. They are planning for a trip together on a day off. In the first couple of sessions, there was a sense of tension and rejection, it was clear to see. Now, in today’s session, the two groups have formed a new group, without either group losing its identity. Respect is clearly shown in addition to care.”
Two main commandments God gives us: to love God and love our neighbor. When asked “who is my neighbor,” Christ responds with the parable of the good Samaritan. The good Samaritan did not convert the person he met along the way. Instead, he loved him – not in words, but in deeds. He spent time with him. He gave him his own means of transportation to get him to a hostel. He spent money on getting him medical help and a shelter over his head. He didn’t just do it once; he came back and checked on him again. Basically, he befriended him. This is the kind of love we want to see in the next generation in Lebanon.
This year’s Khebz w Meleh curriculum is designed around 6 sessions. The topics of each session build on each other in order and conclude with a session on “Faith and Deeds.” This session focuses on providing youth the opportunity to draw on their particular faith’s call to action to address problems within their community. Youth identify the social problems and together design and implement youth-led social initiatives in response to these challenges.
While Khebz w Meleh is not the only IMES initiative, we are currently looking ahead to the challenge of turning this social capital investment of friendships into a national movement for reconciliation in Lebanon.
Manal El Tayar joined the IMES team as the Peacebuilding Initiatives Leader in November 2016. She holds a postgraduate degree in Mediation from Saint Joseph University, Beirut, and a BA in Political Science and International Affairs from the Lebanese American University, Beirut.
[i] The Day of the Annunciation is the only common Christian and Muslim religious holiday in the world. Lebanon has made it a national religious holiday. It celebrates the annunciation to Mary through the angel Gabriel that she will bare Jesus as a son.
 This is especially complex as the Muslim group from Saida [Sidon] have different weekend days than the Christian group from Maghdousheh.
 That was the fifth of six sessions, and before the youth had even carried out the social initiative together.