BEIRUT: From a Lebanese student decrying government failures through art to a Palestinian teacher seeking escape in music, young people across the Middle East are creatively giving voice to complex situations.
In a series exploring youth aspirations in the volatile region – where more than half of the population is under 30 –AFP speaks to artists in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, Israel and Iraq about the hardships, uncertainties and challenges they face.
'Unleash the anger'
Lebanese fine arts student Ali Merhi is finishing his degree as his country endures its worst-ever economic crisis, with unemployment around 30 percent, the local currency in free fall, and faltering electricity and water supplies.
"Life is tough for young Lebanese people... Most are thinking about leaving," says Merhi, 21.
He splatters paint across wall-sized works depicting Lebanon's garbage crisis, its defunct railway system, and a ship whose cargo of ammonium nitrate set off a catastrophic port explosion in 2020.
"You unleash the anger within you into the painting," he says.
"We're supposed to be living our lives, but instead we're spending our time looking for the most basic necessities of life."
'Just living an achievement'
In her simple studio on the outskirts of Damascus, artist Dana Salameh has built a refuge to escape the difficulties of Syria's 11-year conflict and its severe economic troubles.
"Maybe I'm fleeing or escaping," says Salameh, 23. But "even just living here is an achievement."
Despite the daily pressures and the lack of support for the arts, Salameh alternates between making her own work and teaching youngsters to paint, holding tight to a wealth of creative positivity.
"When I graduated, I thought I would travel. But then I felt that there are so many beautiful things I'd like to do here," she says.
"I should show everyone that artists can achieve their dreams in this place."
Street artist Dalal Mitwally is at the forefront of a burgeoning art scene in Amman -- one that is changing the face of Jordan's capital.
"I have a responsibility," says Mitwally, covered in paint after a day creating murals with children in a working-class Amman community.
The 24-year-old uses bland walls as a canvas to brighten underprivileged areas, forge common bonds and highlight social issues.
"I should give back to where I came from... And if it didn't give me enough, I should secure those things for those who come after me."
Palestinian Jawaher al-Aqraa sings at a small music school in Gaza City as others accompany her on guitar, violin or oud.
"We are a conservative society" where a woman singing or playing music in public is considered "shameful", says the singer and English teacher, 25.
The Gaza Strip, an impoverished territory ruled by Islamist group Hamas and blockaded by Israel, has seen four wars since 2008.
Music is an "escape route", Aqraa says.
Israel and neighbouring Egypt severely restrict Gazans' travel.
"I do not want to blame the situation in Gaza as a reason for failure ... I can use the difficulties to strengthen myself."
'Shekel to shekel'
Israeli artist Shavit Vital sits at a cafe in downtown Jerusalem, using a tablet to craft her designs.
She says she is studying to become a tattoo artist, but her "family is religious and doesn't accept this".
As the cost of living and income inequality rise, she expresses uncertainty about the future.
"I am not looking to become rich or anything like that, but in five years, I do not want to live shekel to shekel and barely make ends meet."
'We still have hope'
Iraqi Qamar al-Ani, 21, plucks away at her traditional stringed santoor, seemingly a world away from Baghdad's seething political tensions that led to deadly clashes late last month.
"We're always living in a state of fear of what will happen in the future," the musician says.
Conflict-weary Iraq is blighted by corruption, ailing infrastructure and crumbling public services, and now faces water shortages as drought ravages swathes of the country.
Despite Iraq's oil wealth, many people are mired in poverty, and some 35 percent of youth are unemployed, according to the United Nations.
Ani says she tries to "avoid pessimism".
"I feel we are better off now than 10 years ago... We still have hope."