BEIRUT: When kids play war in Tripoli’s Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, they point their plastic guns up. On the hill above in the Alawite Jabal Mohsen, they pretend to shoot their toys downwards.
They’ve learned from watching their dads, who’ve been fighting each other for decades. In a new BBC Arabic film set to air Monday, “My Neighbours, My Enemies,” co-producers Darius Bazargan and Wadih al-Hayek delve into the lives of the fathers, fighters and families stuck in the conflict between the rival neighborhoods.
With five weeks in the area talking football, politics and war, Bazargan and Hayek got to know the locals. Bazargan believes they were able to have frank discussions on both sides of Syria Street, the thoroughfare that divides the neighborhoods, in part because he is not Lebanese.
The Lebanese Hayek, who began as a fixer and morphed into a co-producer, puts much of their access down to chance. He recounts sipping coffee in a Jabal Mohsen cafe with Bazargan, hashing out their frustration after an unsuccessful week without filming much of anything.
“One of the local militia commanders heard our conversation, liked us, and offered to give us a tour of the Jabal.”
They accepted, and the commander, Abu Rami, a battle-weary dad with multiple gunshot wounds and presumably an equally scarred past, became one of the stars of the film.
His Bab al-Tabbaneh counterpart, Sheikh Bilal, is a fighter and a father too. Both say they don’t want their children affected by the fighting.
But the enmity between the neighbors goes back generations; The Alawites and Sunnis both have grudges to bear. In this and many other ways – including devastating poverty – they are similar.
“When you talk to the average person caught up in it you can’t easily tell which side they are on,” says Bazargan. “They all want it to stop, they all want jobs, investment ... they all suspect the other side has loads of money and foreign arms from a mystery source, and the other side always started it.”
Bazargan, who has reported on gang culture in the United Kingdom, also saw parallels between those who pick up arms in Tripoli under the banner of religion and those who do the same in Britain on behalf of gangs.
“You have the same very marginalized young men ... take their weapons away and they are probably just a guy without a job. But for the moments of the clashes they feel like they are part of something bigger.”
Although the deadly battles of the past two years have been deemed a Syrian spillover, Bazargan believes it has just given the clashes an existential feel.
The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, who are surrounded on their hill and tend to support Syrian President Bashar Assad, are concerned that if Assad falls they could go down with him.
For some fighters from the mostly pro-uprising Bab al-Tabbaneh, Bazargan says, “some of them think this is winnable. They think ‘one day we can get up that hill.’”
Perhaps not originally predisposed to sympathize with the pro-Assad residents of Jabal Mohsen, Hayek says the filming gave him a new perspective. “Before I met them and got to know them they were some sort of alien species, and now they are very human to me,” he explains. “Their plight and their suffering is very real ... now I understand what goes on up there.”
“For people who watch this on TV, to them it might seem ridiculous or a bit surreal. But this is basically a conflict between citizens of the same country who are being played with by politicians and this is what every character [in the film] agrees with.”
“It’s something that people from Belfast to Bosnia would probably recognize,” Bazargan believes. “It’s what localized sectarian conflicts do to people who end up on the sharp end.”
“My Neighbours, My Enemies,” will air on BBC Arabic Monday, 7:05 p.m. GMT, 9:05 p.m. Beirut time