Lebanon 2013

Thomas the Tank Engine...
and the Koran

For two months at the end of 2008, Peter Mortimer lived in Shatila Refugee Camp, Beirut. During his time there, he created a children's drama group at the Shatila school, and adapted one of his own fables, Croak The King & a Change in the Weather into a 30-minute theatre piece, incorporating dance, music, and mime. In November 2013, he visited Lebanon again, and on his return wrote about his visit, and the ideas it sparked in him, for Newcastle's Journal.

In an editorial, the Journal commented that "Mr Mortimer is a man of optimism and idealism - and there aren't too many of those in the Middle East. ... he is making an effort - and a few more people doing that in the Middle East would be most welcome."

The checkpoint guard at Ein el Hilweh, one of Lebanon's most sensitive and radicalised Palestinian refugee camps, stuck his head in the car window and pointed at me.

"Passport", he said. No such luck. It was back on the bedside table in Beirut.

"Passport", he repeated. I hastily fumbled through my wallet.

"How about this?" I asked. He took a critical look at the photo, stared hard at me and asked, "Peter Mortimer?" "That's me!" I said as cheerful as I could. The soldier handed back my Tyne & Wear Metro Pass and waved the vehicle through.

Anomalies abound in Lebanon. I was watching a local TV channel where a recitation from the Koran was followed by an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. And in one taxi, the driver pushed a button to change the radio channel and up on the dashboard came the illuminated word FATWA which is what they took out on Salman Rushdie. Neither myself nor the driver mentioned it.

Up to one million Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon over the past two years - and this in a country with a population of only four million.

Imagine Nigel Farage grappling with that immigrant ratio in the UK (a much more affluent country). Many refugees are in tents as the country prepares for its coldest winter in 100 years.

Some have squeezed into the already crowded Palestinian Refugee Camps - the cheapest place to live in Lebanon. I was in Shatila Camp, a teeming noisy mass of humanity I've visited several times since 2008, helping create theatre with the camp's young people.

There's no more room in Shatila but the people keep coming from Syria anyway - both Syrians and more Palestinians.

The UN agency UNRWA is overwhelmed, schools run extra shifts, bring in more teachers. Meanwhile last week was the festival of Ashoura where Shia Muslims mark the murder of Hussain, the prophet Mohamad's grandson, around a millennium and a half ago. In the centre of Beirut some radicals flagellate themselves till blood flows freely.

In a sensible move one government department has suggested that in a ravaged country always short of donors, the same people could donate blood rather than spilling it.

The Muslim Shia/ Sunni split which poses an increasingly bloody threat in the Middle East can seem baffling to westerners, who fail to understand how members of the same religion can resort to such violence.

But nearer home consider what the outsider might make of the years of Catholic/ Protestant violence in Northern Ireland (happily less so now) - and jolly good Christians all of them. I've helped run cultural projects for three separate groups of young Palestinians, twice performing theatre and once creating a series of street art murals both in Lebanon and the UK. Hard work but rewarding when it comes off.

There's also a dream to make some contribution, however small, towards breaking the seemingly intractable deadlock between Israelis and Palestinans, a running sore in the region since the 1948 creation of Israel and displacement of thousands of Palestinians from their own erstwhile country. I grew excited on this visit by an idea slowly forming of inviting members of the Tyneside Jewish community to some future performance here by the Palestinians.

Most Palestinians go through life barely seeing or speaking to a Jew, and vice-versa. Understanding between the two groups is virtually non-existent and the dream of them living together in a joint Israeli/ Palestinian nation never seems to grow nearer to fruition. Might this tiny gesture not serve some small purpose? My own inspiration comes from two sources: the musician and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who formed the Divan Orchestra, which includes young Jewish and Palestinian musicians. The orchestra plays worldwide, despite the enormous obstacles it must have faced and still faces. And secondly, the recent book Embracing Israel/ Palestine, by Rabbi Michael Lerner, a passionate though wonderfully balanced book which looks at assumingly intractable situations from a position of expansive historical knowledge, offering suggestions as to how both sides might free themselves from the current impasse.

Nothing much would happen because of one play performance, but no matter. The British Council in Beirut liked the idea of the Tyneside performance bringing sides together. So too did Tom Fletcher, the British Ambassador to Lebanon in Beirut, who also suggested the Palestinians might perform the play there in the embassy grounds. Onwards - the play, as they say, is the thing.

More about Peter Mortimer's Shatila journal.