Some Lebanese, especially those with a sense of irony, like to share an American traveler's impressions of their homeland on the eastern Mediterranean:
Of the Muslim sects, he wrote, the Sunnis "excommunicate" the Shiites, "both hate" the Druze, and all three "detest" the Alawites. As for the Christians, "the Maronites have no particular love for anybody and, in turn, are disliked by all." The Greek Orthodox "cannot endure" the Greek Catholics, and "all despise the Jews."
"They can never form one united people ... and will therefore remain weak, incapable of self-government, and exposed to the ... oppressions of foreigners," Mr. Thomson concluded.
Thomson's comments could be those of a contemporary observation. But he wrote them in 1870 in "The Land and the Book," an account of his travels as a missionary in the Levant.
Breaking such deeply embedded and historical suspicions is no easy task, but one nongovernmental organization (NGO) is turning to Lebanese schools in a grass-roots approach to promote a culture of problem solving and tolerance in the classroom.
Search for Common Ground (SFCG), an international NGO specializing in conflict resolution, has launched a nationwide initiative to train schoolteachers in techniques to mediate and resolve classroom disputes among Lebanese youths.
"The idea is to institutionalize listening and problem solving among 8- and 14-year-olds in the schools," says Sarah Shouman, SFCG's country director for Lebanon.
Lebanese youths argue and fight over childish issues much the same as other young people all over the world. Additionally, however, the political and religious prejudices of their parents can seep onto the playground, particularly at times of heightened internal tension, perpetuating the legacy of communal mistrust.
Even Hezbollah participates
SFCG's pilot project focuses on seven schools, three private and four public, in cities as well as rural regions. One of them, in Akkar Province in north Lebanon, is a private Greek Orthodox establishment with priests as teachers. Another is a mainly Shiite school in Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley run by the militant Hezbollah organization.
Hezbollah, which runs a vast social-welfare network in Lebanon but is better known for its military exploits against Israel, initially was wary of submitting its teachers for training by a foreign NGO with offices in Washington and Brussels.
"They took a month to think about it," says Ms. Shouman. "But afterward, they were so happy with the experience that they want us to train teachers at all their schools – and they are willing to pay for it, too."
The trainers, from Lebanese civil society groups and from groups linked to the SFCG project, are from as religiously and politically diverse backgrounds as the schools to which they are sent. Training was carried out in Cyprus by Valerie Dovey, a South African peace educator who worked in postapartheid South Africa.
"The way we all communicated with each other was very nice," says Noha Chahine, a trainer who is a teacher at a Beirut school. "It was challenging, but it showed that we all have a common goal despite our different backgrounds."
On a recent morning, Ms. Chahine and her fellow trainer, Tarek Abu Zeinab, held a session for eight women teachers at the public school in Joun, a village with a mixed Shiite and Christian population. It's surrounded by olive groves on rolling chalky hills near the port of Sidon. The school has some 200 5-to-13-year-olds.
The women – Shiites and Christians, reflecting the village – sat attentively at their pupils' desks.
"One form of expression is art or drawing, which children can use to express peace or conflict," says Chahine. "Art helps break the ice between students. A way of reducing anger is to let them draw."
Much of the instruction is rooted in common sense and good manners, such as listening to others and accepting differences. When the teachers break into chatter, the burly, goateed Mr. Abu Zeinab stands at the head of the class with his arm raised, his fist clenched. Slowly, the women stop talking and look up.
"You see? A way of getting children to stop talking is to stand and raise your hand," Abu Zeinab says. "If you scream at children, you achieve nothing but create a climate of conflict."
The women are asked to break into two groups and draw something that makes them happy. All sketch themselves with their husbands and children. One woman in a full-length black chador depicts her family as stars that she gazes at from the beach. Another draws her family eating lunch together. Another has her family walking through trees, expressing her love for a clean environment.
Abu Zeinab asks them to explain their pictures, reminding them to speak clearly and maintain eye contact. Such skills would be taken for granted in the West, but educational training remains underfunded here.
"We have a lot of conflicts because we suffer from social and economic problems here," says Hanna Haidar, a trainee who teaches English at the school. "But I am learning many things ... which will be helpful to us."
Hopes to expand the program
If the pilot program proves successful, SFCG hopes to expand it to another 100 schools in the next three years. The NGO also produces a children's TV program called "Kilna Bil Hayy" ("All of Us in the Neighborhood") in which six children – an Armenian, Christian, Druze, Palestinian, Shiite, and Sunni – live in the same apartment building. Broadcast by Lebanon's LBC International channel, the show teaches children to embrace their unity and accept their differences.
While Lebanon has been fairly calm since 1990, when the 16-year civil war ended, a durable peace remains susceptible to sectarian divisions, disparities between rich and poor, external meddling, and factionalism.
In May last year, Lebanon teetered on the edge of civil conflict once more during street fighting that pitted Shiite factions against Sunnis and Druze. While peaceful parliamentary elections were held in June, forming a coalition government has been stymied by political squabbles.
"Politics here tends to be divided between anti-West and pro-West, and unfortunately, politicians have cemented those divisions in Lebanon," says Abu Zeinab, who has several years of experience in Lebanese civil society groups.
"That's why this type of project is very important," he concludes. "It brings people from all over Lebanon together. What we teach to the schools is that you are all Lebanese and that you are all one."