Capitalizing on the living laboratory of archaeological sites and their surrounding communities and natural environment, Joanne Bajjaly is building a new sentiment of empathy, solidarity, and national unity in post-conflict Lebanon.
The New Idea
In a country where geographic and sectarian isolation have prevented the development of national unity, Joanne Bajjaly is creating a new and larger sense of wonder and pride in being Lebanese. Her goal goes beyond tolerance, to appreciation of the country's rich heritage, grounded in its diversity. Joanne is a pioneer is using heritage as a tool for building citizenship and harmony in post conflict countries where confessional divides and psychological barriers prevail. Where history is used by politicians to divide, Joanne uses it to unite by building a national identity to replace existing confessional-based identities. Her approach, now applied in Lebanon equips youth, their teachers and parents with historical knowledge that enables them to move beyond confessional tension to realize they belong to one nation. Initiating school-based field trips through her enterprise "Biladi", Joanne guides children to venture into the unknown - employing historic sites beyond their small towns, to experience culture outside their own sect and environment. Here, in addition to seeing and role-playing in a different time and part of society, they safely begin to interact with and accept Lebanese of different religious and social practices who they otherwise would never meet. This is a preventive and progressive program, extending over time and into new areas of the country. To spread the impact of her initiative, Joanne trains school teachers and local guides to use her methodology and toolkits to present history in an attractive format and use alternative educational methods to introduce students to their common heritage. Joanne also plans to replicate her model by sharing knowledge with other CSOs concerned with peaceful coexistence in ethnic ridden countries in the region, such as Sudan and Iraq, or with countries where citizens do not feel a strong bond with their heritage, such as Egypt. Joanne's efforts to promote peaceful coexistence among Lebanese citizens contrasts with existing approaches; as other initiatives focus primarily on conflict resolution thereby adopting a curative approach as opposed to Joanne's preventive approach, and focusing on dividing factors rather than uniting factors.
Between 1975 and 1992, Lebanon witnessed a civil war, where the country was divided and people of different confessions were locked in their villages. As borders and checkpoints were dismantled, the psychological barriers in people’s minds remained and they were confined to their small towns. Many generations grew up belonging to their town, village or tribe which has a distinct confession; countless youth have never set foot in towns belonging to a different confession nor interacted with other Lebanese citizens belonging to different confessions.
Lebanon's population make-up is comprised of 60% Muslims and 40% Christians, each in turn divided to different sects. Shiites comprise the largest Muslim group, and other Muslims include Sunnis and Druses. Christians include Maronite, Eastern/ Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholics, and Armenians.
In Lebanon, parents raise their children to focus on the differences distinguishing them from others, giving priority to their confessional identity over their identity as Lebanese. As a consequence, youth find it hard to relate to others from different confessions, a fact that undermines any sentiments of national unity and causes a feeling of disconnection from the land, its history and heritage.
Historical knowledge is the basis for building common grounds for citizens. In Lebanon, history is often neglected, and the same history textbooks are used in schools since 1960, before the civil war. As a result history becomes one more boring and abstract subject that students cannot relate to.
As conflicts prevailed in the post-civil war era, a number of initiatives –mostly foreign- tried to build peace by attempting to resolve conflicts. In parallel, a number of programs -also established by international organizations- emerged to preserve Lebanese archaeological heritage per se. However, all of these initiatives neglect the notion of solidarity building among youth on the long term by linking them to their common history; existing programs either focus on conflict resolution or on heritage preservation as separate goals.
Among the initiatives which propagate conflict resolution practices throughout the region is the Euro-Med Youth Program which operates in numerous partner countries across the Middle East, including Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria through CSOs working in the field. In Lebanon, many of these activities raise youth's awareness on their rights, particularly equal employment opportunities and on the hazards they face (such as drug-abuse).
A number of programs are concerned with heritage protection, such as the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue; the Lebanese Foundation for Permanent Civil Peace; and Horizon for Research and Development. Those programs work on youth inclusion practices and organize trips to areas of interest in the country, whilst reminding youth of the importance of historical sites. Another project is the US- funded Lebanon Mountain Trail, which links rural communities and national parks that fall along ancient trade routes through Lebanon's central mountain range. The trail promotes eco-tourism and brings the local communities together.
Another project is "Offre-Joie" which works on the restoration of peace in Lebanon. Offre-Joie is one of the few organizations open to working with Lebanese citizens from different areas and different confessions. Offre Joie organizes summer camps for youth where it tries to instil the values of mutual respect among youth from different regions in Lebanon and gets them to interact together once a year.
In contrast with existing initiatives. Joanne Bajjaly's Biladi builds solidarity and national unity using heritage preservation as a tool. Her approach is applicable in other post-conflict countries in the region such as Sudan and Iraq and in countries where citizens are not bonded with their history.
Joanne believes that understanding, accepting and internalizing common heritage will help Lebanese youth expand their views and ultimately strengthen their sense of belonging to Lebanon over primary sectarian loyalties. Her sense of urgency to preserve the past first found expression as an archaeology student. Joanne realized that her society was in a rush to literally bulldoze its history as it cleared out the rubble of war. Great monuments and structures discovered underneath were covered over. Believing that this common heritage was the foundation for a true national rebuilding, she became a journalist to alert the public and decision makers as to what was about to be lost forever. To her surprise, her calls fell on deaf ears, and so she decided to turn her attention to young citizens.
Joanne's experience as a history teacher and her interaction with fellow teachers led her to uncover the reason for young citizens' disconnection from their country's history. For political reasons, no new history books had been written since 1960. History was taught as an abstraction. School trips to heritage sites were lecture-based. The only relevant source of information for students was oral history, and stories of conflict and wars between the different ethnicities which children heard from their parents and grandparents.
Joanne wanted to save her students from being manipulated and wanted them to form their own opinions about others, while also seeing the beauty and depth of their national culture.
Joanne chose interactive learning techniques and games over direct classroom teaching in order to make history fun for students. And public heritage can neutralize history and open up a national dialogue. Encouraged by the success of early pilot programs in the more experimental and open private schools, and the positive impact on students, teachers, and parents, Joanne founded Biladi (Arabic for My Country) to reach students and schools all over Lebanon.
The model has three core components. First are the school trips to sites of national heritage to acquaint children with their history and their fellow citizens from different confessions. Next, are organized extracurricular activities to complement and enrich in-school history classes, with rigorous teacher training to use her methodology. Last, Joanne trains and coaches local tourist guides and professional archaeologists on using her tool kits and methodology to make heritage sites alive to all their clients.
During the trips, students relive history as they role-play, impersonating historical figures, donning costumes of the era, and creating objects historically used in daily life. Joanne eases psychological barriers which could inhibit children from interacting with others from different confessions, entering their sites of worship or eating their food. Her approach enables students to view places of worship through a different lens; for example she encourages students to examine a mosque from an architectural view point, takes children on an archaeological tour of a Jewish temple with the Rabbi as guide, or enters a Christian church to see a mummy. The children's perceptions of "the other" shift as they actually interact with people from different sects and visit their homes and houses of worship. They are then able to make their own judgments instead of fearing others or basing their judgment on stereotypes. The children and their teachers research heritage (food, clothing, customs, dance) and look to what is common. They look to the "trunk, not the branches". First are the school trips to sites of national heritage to acquaint children with their history and their fellow citizens from different confessions. Next, are organized extracurricular activities to complement and enrich in-school history classes, with rigorous teacher training to use her methodology. Last, Joanne trains and coaches local tourist guides and professional archaeologists on using her tool kits and methodology to make heritage sites alive to all their clients.
During the trips, students relive history as they role-play, impersonating historical figures, donning costumes of the era. and creating objects historically used in daily life. Joanne eases psychological barriers which could inhibit children from interacting with others from different confessions, entering their sites of worship or eating their food. Her approach enables students to view places of worship through a different lens; for example she encourages students to examine a mosque from an architectural view point, takes children on an archaeological tour of a Jewish temple with the Rabbi as guide, or enters a Christian church to see a mummy. The children's perceptions of "the other" shift as they actually interact with people from different sects and visit their homes and houses of worship. They are then able to make their own judgments instead of fearing others or basing their judgment on stereotypes. The children and their teachers research heritage (food, clothing, customs, dance) and look to what is common. They look to the "Trunk, not the branches".
To date about 5,000 students -from international schools, public schools and orphanages- have discovered another face of Lebanon through Biladi, and so have their parents who began requesting to join the trips or who responded to the children's request to visit the site again.
Joanne had to surmount a number of challenges. She first had to find ways for her students to overcome their fear of interacting with people and places alien to them. Parents were quite reluctant to let their children visit a town in a different part of the city or country and transmitted their fear to their children. School directors were equally hesitant to organize and fund trips to heritage sites in the area of a different group. Moreover, Joanne had to convince school directors that her unconventional trips were a valuable educational investment.
To work in schools, Joanne first approached the management of secular international schools in Lebanon -such as the American Community School and the French Lycee- and succeeded in convincing them to allow her to organize heritage trips. The success of initial trips allowed her to put together a small portfolio to present to other institutions, which could now become convinced of the value of the trips by observing photos of how students were both learning and enjoying themselves. When national public school officials saw the portfolio they were interested but still apprehensive about the inter-cultural aspect. To reassure them Joanne told them that the trips were purely pedagogical.
As parents started witnessing how instructive and fun the trips were for their children they became more open. More than 15 families joined their children to visit areas they had never ventured to before. Joanne is organizing a competition for students to write stories with an historical backdrop, the prize being a week's stay in a resort in Lebanon with their parents - to the other side of Lebanon.
Joanne plans to focus in the coming year on underprivileged youth from orphanages around Lebanon and conduct an extensive program where children will roam the country to get to know their land and engage in exchange programs where they would get to interact with children from other confessions on a regular basis. Joanne feels that only such periodical interaction can bring youth together and provide the enabling environment for friendships to develop -as opposed to one off camps which different children attend every year.
Joanne insists that her program is non-partisan and apolitical. For her this means too that it is financially independent. The social enterprise is now financially sustainable, partly through segmenting the school market where privileged schools' fees cover the cost for underprivileged schools and orphanages. It is a business that feeds her social change work and covers the costs for expanding her idea. Joanne presents and protects her work under the banner of promoting Lebanon, education and tourism.
Developing the human resources to deliver her program is another challenge. The basis of each trip is archaeological evidence and details. They are interactive and attempt to have no boundaries or prejudice in the mind of the guide who must know what she is talking about. Joanne continuously trained guides and archaeologists only to lose them due to the seasonality of business. She decided to minimize fulltime staff and increasingly train freelancers, school teachers and local guides throughout the country. Coaching teachers and local guides has produced a multiplier effect accelerating spread of Joanne's model, as she has trained 6 teachers and 4 local guides to date.
Joanne is currently documenting her methodology and preparing more "toolkits" to be used by other CSOs working in post conflict countries. Joanne's model can apply to countries such as Iraq, Sudan and the Balkans that remain dominated with ethnic and confessional divides. Her approach can also be replicated in other countries where people do not render enough appreciation for their heritage. Joanne also plans to license this kit to universities in order to build a more informed generation of archaeologists and guides.
Joanne has extensive plans for expansion of Biladi that include forming a training school for local guides and establishing a walk-in heritage center for children to visit. The center will feature a "miniature Lebanon" museum and a craft-center where children can produce objects from the different historical eras. At the same time, Joanne plans to spread Biladi far and wide by establishing Biladouna in the Arab World, to give different ethnic groups across the region the opportunity to build up solidarity amongst the population.
Joanne was born when the Lebanese civil war broke out. She was raised in the village of Zgharta (a town of a strong Maronite Christine majority) within a feudalistic culture thinking that it was the centre of the universe. Joanne like many of her neighbours, last two brothers to the war, and was warned like other her age that they would face danger if they ventured outside their town.
Joanne came to love her country and its history through her father. He was a farmer who worked extra hours as a school-bus driver. He invited Joanne along on trips when he drove children to holiday destinations. He pointed out the many treasures of the country. Joanne discovered a Lebanon and a world beyond her conservative village. She recalls meeting a tour guide who "made the stones speak", a rare occurrence during war when tourist sites were abandoned. Right then, at the age of 12, Joanne decided to become an archaeologist. She had come to see that "history affects my life but does not make me who I am if I know how to look at it". As the war ended she left home to follow her dream.
Joanne witnessed Lebanon leaders' rush to rebuild their capital turning their backs on what lay below - their own heritage. She felt that an academic life would not preserve the country she loved. So, taking her knowledge of history and archaeology she decided to sound the alarm through journalism. If people just became aware, she
thought, they would care. Joanne reported tirelessly against the heritage destruction of the new "nation builders". She was also one of the first journalists to enter war-torn Iraq. She would talk with the antiquity looters, asking them if they knew what they were stealing. "A vase" one replied. She mobilized the international media, and even got Robert Fisk of the British Independent to write on the looting of heritage, but to no avail. Ten years in journalism made Joanne realize that the problem had very deep roots and that awareness, if not coupled with engaged education, was useless. So, Joanne became history teacher. She found that students had no particular interest in the history of their country. She traced this to a deficient sense of identity as Lebanese National identity was overshadowed by tribe, ethnicity and religious sect, Joanne decided to establish Biladi and to work on solidarity building beginning with young people, under the banner of "promoting Lebanon", sensing that history and heritage would not face resistance from the different groups.
Joanne continues to research and write on the topic of "archaeology heritage and war”. She has presented her work at many universities, including Harvard, Yale and Cambridge She continues to advocate for heritage preservation in Lebanon.