TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Near Sainte Famille, a French Catholic school, a wall stands covered with bubbly bright graffiti painted by a group of young high school girls trying to bring awareness to and make a difference in their community by expressing themselves through a positive outlet. The girls are taking part in a program called Cross Arts, which promotes street art through musical expression and graffiti. The program helps students develop their own projects and works with local schools in Tripoli to provide workshops to help young people develop skills based on their personal interests.
“We went out really early in the morning, and we started drawing on the walls. The people from Cross Arts came and helped us. They instructed us and fixed our mistakes. They taught us how to color it in with spray paint,” Haffar said.
Cross Arts began in 2010 as a way to reach out to youth caught up in drug activity and street violence, but it has since expanded to give more kids an outlet. Program co-founder Kamal Abbas told Al-Monitor, “We initiated this project not expecting it to become a foundation. It was just a collective effort by a small number of people. Then we had to make it legal by registering with the municipality.”
Tripoli has become known for violent confrontations between the Lebanese army and various armed militant groups, such as the clashes last fall that lasted several days and resulted in the destruction of the central souk. Cross Arts hopes to reach young people before they get involved in conflict.
“The most important issues we work on are peace and abolishing violence and sectarianism,” Abbas said. “We work with girls on very sensitive issues, because girls in our country, especially in cities like Tripoli, have stopped walking on the streets.” They have done so out of fear of assault or harassment.
According to a United Nations study released November 2014 on security in Lebanon, more men than women were concerned about such crimes as petty theft and property-related violence, while women were more anxious about sex- and gender-based violence. The report recommended that “women’s heightened sense of anxiety should be studied more” to identify their specific fears. Of note, “only 13% of respondents [men and women] admit to being actual victims of crimes.”
A woman who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor that she is afraid to send her two daughters to school. The girls had told her of being harassed and teased by boys selling drugs on the street. Abbas, however, is in a position to see things somewhat differently. He observed, “Tripoli is portrayed to the world as a terrorist city, but to the contrary, Tripoli is a cultural city.”
Cross Arts, he said, is working hard to show young people how to interact through artistic expression. “We have girls who dance hip-hop, rap, paint, act and a lot of other things. When people saw the girls drawing graffiti on the walls, they were surprised because graffiti is considered a purely male activity. But we say girls also have the right to do whatever they choose.”
Abir Massoud put her first music video together with the help of Cross Arts. In it, she lip-syncs and dances to the song “Bitch Better Have My Money,” by Rihanna, whom she says is an artistic inspiration for her. She chose the song because she finds it “powerful,” and she could put “all of her emotions behind it.”
Massoud was introduced to Cross Arts by her brother and some of his friends. After meeting Abbas, she wanted to participate and find a way to express herself. “I love to do videos and be in front of the camera,” she said.
Many of the girls at Sainte Famille are optimistic that their message is reaching members of their community, and they feel empowered by Cross Arts. Perla al-Ahmed said, “The themes we’ve been working on are women and peace. We wanted to convey, through our drawings, that a woman could do anything a man can do. She can go down to the street, draw and work.”
Equality is the most pressing issue the girls have. When Al-Monitor asked a group of some 12 girls in Cross Arts if they felt appreciated by boys in their class or men in their lives, the overwhelming sentiment was “not always.”
Jana Moussawel said, “Men here have all the power, but women raise their kids and work outside the house, and they have more duties than men. Men don’t suffer.” Moussawel also said that she felt more pressure to be a good student than boys her age and was held to a higher standard and disciplined more harshly.