Beirut, Lebanon, 2006. The fighting between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon has spread to the country's capital. Anti-aircraft missiles are fired at Israeli planes. The Israelis, in turn, bomb the Lebanese airport. Aid workers are forced to flee the country.
But somewhere in the city, a woman is teaching art to children of Palestinian refugees. Somewhere in the city, a girl is remembering her best friend, whose father forbade them to hang out because of religious differences. Somewhere in the city, a young woman is swimming to take her mind off the evening news. All over the city, people are hoping for peace.
It's these stories that 33-year-old Katy Gilbert tells on storiesofourcity.com. Stories of Our City is a project affiliated with LEAP Charities in Boise that records and podcasts the stories of everyday Lebanese people. Gilbert hopes the stories give people in Lebanon a voice.
"People in the country didn't have a voice. They were at the mercy of the warlords or at the mercy of the politicians," she said.
She also hopes the project will help Americans understand the lives of people in the Middle East and empathize with them. She was in Boise on Jan. 6 to tell Boiseans about the project.
"We're hoping that the West will be able to engage more in the Middle East, that they will realize there's people there and take action," she said. Gilbert hopes to inspire people to write to members of Congress and take an interest in foreign policy in the Middle East.
"It's really a movement of love," said Bart Cochran, the founder of LEAP, short for Love, Entrepreneurship, Accountability and Peace. "It's the softer side of the peace process ... [Gilbert] values people. Her whole vision is, if people can hear the stories of other people, they can look at them as people and not as animals or adversaries."
The project has been really well received in Lebanon and the United States, according to Gilbert. In November, Stories of Our City celebrated its 2,000th download.
Gilbert was inspired to start the project based on her own experiences in Beirut. She was in Lebanon working with a handful of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, when war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah. She realized it was no longer safe in Beirut, so she decided to leave the country.
"I wanted to stay and try to help, but it was a good decision," she said. "You could see that the war had come to Beirut. It wasn't just going to stay in the south."
She was standing by the airport bar with some friends when, through the airport's large glass windows, they saw anti-aircraft missiles going up. Gilbert's airplane left at 3 p.m. The Israelis bombed the airport just four hours later.
Gilbert's trip to Beirut in the summer of 2006 was part of getting her master's degree in peace studies from Dallas Seminary. It was a fact-finding trip to look at what various NGOs were doing in Lebanon and what efforts seemed to be having the most effect.
She decided to focus on peace studies after reading a book called Country of My Skull about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Reading people's stories about what happened during apartheid and how they rebuilt their lives led Gilbert to one conclusion.
"Peace does work, and it can happen," she said.
Gilbert is a big fan of podcasts like This American Life. "I just really like stories," she said. "I thought, 'we should just use something like this.'"
After her trip to Beirut, Gilbert went to Amman, Jordan, to study Arabic, which she uses to conduct some of the interviews. She was already interested in starting a podcast project, but needed help. On a trip to Boise to visit her brother, she met Cochran, one of her brother's friends. She found out LEAP had been doing some water projects in Afghanistan and was looking for a new project.
Cochran recalls meeting Gilbert and hearing her stories about the people in Lebanon, the rich culture there, and her plans to start the podcast. "It really appealed to our hearts," he said. "We thought what she was doing was really important."
With funding from LEAP, Gilbert went back to Beirut to collect stories. She has done 40 to 50 interviews with people she meets through her friends in Beirut or random people on the street.
"I approach people and tell them that I am working to help Americans understand the people of the Middle East and almost immediately they start telling me things from their life," she said.
Life in Beirut has calmed down a lot in the past three years, Gilbert said. "We do have crazy things, like there is a tank on my street, but it doesn't really affect me," she said. "You give directions based on the tanks. 'Take a left at the second tank,'" she said, laughing.
A far greater challenge is having the infrastructure to post the podcast. There are at least three hours a day when there's no electricity, Gilbert said. And there are caps on Internet usage. You can only upload or download 4 gigabytes per month. She once decided to go over the cap and pay the extra amount, and received a bill for $300. Now she hops from one coffee shop to the next when she reaches her cap.
"As far as war-torn countries go, we should be happy we have Internet," Gilbert said. "It could be a lot worse."
Despite the Internet restrictions, she has produced 23 podcasts. She plans to expand the podcast to include other Middle Eastern countries and expects to spend half of 2010 in Lebanon and half in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Gilbert hopes to add an element to her Web site that will allow people to record their own stories from anywhere, and she wants to get members of other NGOs to record people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur. And she hopes to expand her content to books, radio and other Web sites.
Gilbert often gets people in Lebanon to tell the sorts of stories anyone can relate to--funny stories about their grandmothers, or sad tales of the death of a parent--to show Americans that people in Beirut are no different than they are.
She loves stories that break down stereotypes Westerners have about the Middle East.
"I met a man who was a Sunni Muslim, and he's also gay, so he calls himself 'The Gay Sunni,'" Gilbert said. "He realized he was gay because he was falling in love with Rhett Butler on Gone With the Wind."
He has a partner and is out to some people but not to his family, who go to the mosque every week. Most people don't realize that Lebanon has a gay community, Gilbert said, but anti-homosexual laws are enforced less in that country than in other primarily Islamic countries. They even had a gay-rights rally there when the police tried to clamp down on a gay bar.
But she especially likes to find stories that show the indomitable Lebanese spirit.
"I really enjoy listening to the stories of hope there in Lebanon, to listen to them and see how they're trying to make a better life in Lebanon," she said. One of her favorites is about a woman named Yara who spent three days camped out in a doorway in order to secure funding for a project to help get Palestinian children involved in art and use art to tell their experiences.
Gilbert hopes her stories bring people together. "There's a lot of division there, but there's a lot of similarities. Every side has people who want peace."
Excerpts from Stories of Our City
Nada, July 26, 2009:
"A few times we had bombs like close, above the bridge ... I wasn't working then, I was working actually for a lifestyle magazine and I wasn't doing political stuff so I didn't have to work. It's very weird. You go rent a bunch of movies, you go buy lots of books. I didn't want to watch the news. I didn't want to ... Everything was closed. We didn't have gas. We were worried. I didn't want to hear about the war, but everyone was worried ... I would hear horrible things happening. My friend that I called ... two of her cousins died because 14-year-old guys bombed their house. No, horrible things were happening. Every now and then I would like go to one of the place where they would welcome refugees and go help out ... I would come swim every morning ... It's terrible to say that I was swimming and sunbathing when people were dying, no it's a horrible thing to say, but that doesn't mean I didn't care. I didn't want to live hooked on the TV. But every day I would like, I volunteered at a place, every day to say I was doing my part but ... what are you going to do? ... And you feel angry because your whole life is put on hold, like it's very selfish because people are actually dying and you're safe, and your biggest problem is that your favorite brand of whatever is not available anymore. This is a very selfish thing to say but you also get angry because, OK, now my life is on hold because of what?"
Yara, Nov. 8, 2009:
"I was so crazy, so I think I want to quit my job and to be involved more with the children, and I have no money. Yeah, I am telling you that I have no money. I have nothing. I have no funding, I have nothing at all. I have only my proposal and I spent, I tell you the truth, I spent one week going from one place to another and telling the people that this is my proposal and you have to come through, to give me money. And one of the most funniest thing I have done, there is someone ... I was staying at his apartment, at the door of his apartment, three, three days, three consecutive days, because he promised me that he will give me money and then he refused, so I'm going to keep on punishing you by seeing you every day from 6 a.m. 'til 12. And then he gave me money ... This is a project for kids, mainly for kids between 8 and 12 years old, and it's an artistic place for them to create anything they want from writing plays, writing stories, from music if they love music, photography. We want them to learn what they are passionate for, so we take their passion and we enlighten it. This is my own project so it's a big difference. When you see someone who has no hope in life and you see he has desire to do something, that's what I want to do is to make small, small, little bit difference."
Oliver and Nada, Oct. 18, 2009:
"You have things like auto theft. In the States, they'll pull you out of the car, shoot you in the face and then take your car. Here it's much more organized." "Here you get to buy it." "Here they pull this whole scheme where they act like they're cops, and they'll pull you over and they'll take your car." "It's usually the very nice cars, and you get to pay to buy it back." "Yeah, they give you the chance to buy it back from them. So they'll steal your car ... and they say, we have your car. How much are you willing to pay for it? ... Exactly. They kidnap the car."
Josephine, Aug. 9, 2009:
"I work all around the house ... I know the cooking of the Lebanese food, only by looking I learn, so I can cook by my own ... Lots of Filipina working here stay long time because we are the breadwinner, even though we are highly educated within a secondary (school) or by university, there is no choice at all because if you stay in the Philippines and you have a big family and your children are in the university, it costs a lot of money. I came here because I had four children and then my husband doesn't have a good work. So when I stay in the Philippines I am a secretary ... so the money I received is not enough for my family because we are staying with mother and father, in one house ... So I was forced to work overseas because I could earn a lot of money and then I can help my brother, I can help my mother, I can help my sisters and at the same time my children will be the ones who will benefit." "How often do you see your children?" "Every two years ... (It isn't easy) because the children, what they are every time telling me, 'We doesn't need your money. We want your love. We want (you) to be with us, because we grown up only with the grandparents and my sisters,' but they want of course the caress. But what can I do? There is no choice at all. So I need to stay far from them."
Jade, Oct. 25, 2009:
"I remember when we were standing in the hospital and the doctor came out of what was supposed to be a very quick and easy operation on my father, and he told us that he had severe brain cancer and it was a stage four brain cancer ... something really crazy and really rare. To explain how someone feels at that moment, at a moment where it seems like everything is crashing down and, you know, you're especially watching your family just breaking to bits, is probably impossible. But the emotion, the feeling is still there ... I remember seeing my mom just break down and my sister cry, and my brother and I just look at each other like, did this just happen? Did the worst thing that always happens to other people and is always in a different house and was always oh, that sad story that you hear from a friend's friend's friend, did that just happen to us? Did we just became that friend's friend's friend? It's really amazing how the roles in life change sometimes, just flip so quickly. After the operation my father went into a nine-month coma, the first of which was a full coma where he was in the ICU the whole time and the rest of the eight months he was in a semi-coma, which meant that he was kind of awake but still not there. His eyes were open, he would look at you, but he didn't know who you were. He didn't know you. During that nine months it was a very interesting time for me--and I choose the word interesting because I can't explain it in any other way--it was an interesting time for me because I hadn't had a very strong relationship with my father, and because of the lack of relationship, because I now was in a way forced to spend so much time with him but spending time with him in a very weird way. Spending time with him while he's just lying in a bed, immobile. I'm just sitting there, thinking and speaking out loud, and no one listening ... Finally he passed away and at that moment, I knew that, I don't know how, that same feeling that I felt that is extremely inexplicable and I can't explain what it is and I can't describe it, is changed at that moment ... I felt sad of course and I felt upset, but there was this moment of peace at the same time ... I knew one thing. I knew that God was just. I knew that God loves me and I knew God loved my father much more than I could love anyone."
Maureen, Nov. 1, 2009:
"I wasn't even aware there was a war until I was much, much older. Like, it was this filter. No one spoke about it at home. No one told me what to think. No one told me what to believe. And you know like schools don't tell you anything about the war. They don't teach you and they ban talking about politics and about the recent history of Lebanon, so everything after '75 is not included in a single history book that's taught in school ... The first time I was really, really hit by it, kind of, was when the father of a friend of mine, really, really good friend of mine, I think we were 13 and he asked her, he asked his daughter not to invite me anymore because I was Christian and he didn't want his Sunni daughter hanging out with Christians ... She just like totally blocked me and it was so painful. She was my best friend and we were 12, 13 ... She never told me and she just fabricated this whole story about, yeah, well, he thinks you're distracting me from school and I just need to focus on my studies ... I found out through another friend who slipped, she thought I knew and she's like, well, this is exactly why."