Sometimes you will find Le Père Noël in a most unexpected place. I spent my Christmas Day 2012 in Lebanon, in Tripoli, among a minority in a vast Sunni majority. There was plenty of food, and there was Arak and some Whiskey.
Tripoli is the city of unfulfilled potentials. Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who died this month, came to Tripoli in the 1960s to give form to the city’s high rising ambitions. Today, his International Fairground is yet another witness to an era that never came fully into existence.
Three days ago, the United Arab Emirates had urged its citizens not to travel to Lebanon this holiday season for security reasons. Was I testing my luck when I walked to Tall, Tripoli’s city center, after dinner?
To media consumers worldwide, Tripoli is known as “Bab al-Tabbaneh vs. Jabal Mohsen.” These Tripoli neighborhoods live side by side, both armed to the teeth, a miniature replica of the war in Syria. They live just as European countries did for hundreds of years. There is no room for retreat, there is no Atlantic Ocean to hide behind. If you have a problem, you must fight it out. Geography is not in favor of a cessation of hostilities any time soon.
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Both neighborhoods are deprived from the money that flows in and out of Beirut. Only when you fight, there comes money – from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, from Syria and Iran. No fight, no money: Lebanese commentators do quite agree on this.
At 5pm on Christmas day, the main square in Tripoli’s city center is bustling with activities. Vendors, taxis, money exchangers. How easy is it to make it to Syria from here? How difficult is it to make it back? Recently 20 young men set off from Tripoli to fight the war in Syria. They came back in body bags, one by one. They went for the cheers of their fathers. They returned to the tears of their mothers. It was Thucydides who noted that people are driven by either fear, self-interest or honor. In Tripoli you will find all three in abundance. They can all kill you.
I’m dragged into a DVD shop behind Tall. The store features a little porn section. Entertainment was never as good as during Lebanon’s civil war, a doctor in Beirut told me a few months ago. Bars, clubs, brothels. In times of war, everybody needs to reload and unload sometimes. There is a tension over Tripoli that needs to be released. What do you want? Diaries of a Nymphomaniac? Haunting Desires? Or the perennial porn blockbuster, the School Girls Report? I go for Argo and head home.
Seen from Beirut, Tripoli is not Lebanon. Seen from CNN, Lebanon is Tripoli. Both views are wrong. I didn’t feel lucky to walk around in Tripoli, unharmed. I felt good. What luck does Lebanon need to come out of the Syrian crisis intact? The answer lies in the future. I will see, when it’s time for next Christmas in Tripoli.