Victor Argo
Last updated: 10 January, 2013

Meeting Tripoli – Lebanon’s lost city

The drive to Tripoli on this day in January of 2013 is enjoyable: blue sky, blue sea and a car that gives its driver the competitive edge in a country where horse power equals your social standing.

The military checkpoint halfway between Jounieh and Tripoli seems to have more zigzag curves the longer the conflict in Syria lingers on. No problem: the Lebanese soldier gives a friendly nod for the continuation of the trip.

Approaching Tripoli I take pleasure reading the billboards on both sides of the highway – I like to call it billboard intelligence. Rouweida Attieh, the Syrian singer, performed near Zgharta on New Year’s Eve. Days after the concert, her face is still omnipresent on the long highway stretch between Chekka and Qalamoun. Wissam al-Hassan, the slain head of intelligence of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) is remembered on several makeshift billboards as a “hero of my country.” Closer to the city there is a painted Ashraf Rifi, the general director of the same ISF, sitting on a horse. Him posing as a Julius Caesar-type Roman warrior looks a bit over the top to my eyes.

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Coming in to Tripoli, via the coastal highway, almost the first building a visitor runs into is the “Rifi building,” one of many apartment buildings on this side of the town. Ashraf Rifi has his apartment on the top floor. In a similar building nearby, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has a home. Around both buildings, the security details have been much reinforced since I last visited Tripoli. The assassination in plain daylight of Wissam al-Hassan in Beirut on October 19, 2012, must have made a mark on these two men.

I meet Samer, a young man born in Tripoli, with a degree in computer sciences, in a café on Azmi street. Samer participated in Tripoli’s Carfree Day in November 2011. He used his artistic talents to spray graffiti for the event. He is now aiming for a career in art and would like to study conceptual design if he can find money and a place at a university to do so. Samer tells me that the economic situation in Tripoli is bad. The unemployment rate is high and many kids drop out of school at an early age, for economic reasons. They must help their parents to survive. As a side effect, the drug consumption among Tripoli youths is on the rise. No school, no job, and an uncertain future: only drugs left to pass your days.

In the Damm wal Farz area, many restaurants have opened up in recent years to serve the ever-growing population of Tripoli. La Plaka is a nice restaurant, serving Western food to a Tripoli middle class. The large armchairs in the dining room remind me of a British whiskey and cigar club. And on a Sunday afternoon, most people sit in its garden, smoking a narguile together with their lunch.

The new law that prohibits smoking in indoor public places is handled liberally in Tripoli. Many areas that are designed as “outdoor” would be denoted as “indoor” in Europe. More strictly applied are the Islamic rules regarding alcohol. The restaurants in Damm wal Farz don’t serve alcohol at all. Only in some bars in al-Mina, the “Christian enclave” of Tripoli, alcohol is offered and consumed. However, I am told that bar owners and customers are being harassed for doing so.

This used to be different. I am shown black and white pictures from min zaman, with Laziza beer and Arak on a restaurant’s table. Life was more colorful in Tripoli back in the 1970s, or so it seems.

Mounir came back from Canada three years ago to help his father with his construction business. But now the business has come to a near standstill. “When business is slow in Beirut, it is dead in Tripoli,” says Mounir. He sees different reasons for the dire economic situation in Tripoli. One reason is the conflict in Syria. Syria is Tripoli’s natural trading partner. Tripoli much depends on a smoothly running economy in Syria and with the war in Syria going on for almost two years the business with Syria is all but dead.

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Another reason is the centralization of the Lebanese economical life. Tripoli is in need of investment, and Chinese investors were interested in putting their money in different projects that would have boosted the economy in Lebanon’s north. The “Beirut clique” didn’t let them, explains Mounir. Their interest is entirely focused on Beirut, with the Rafic Hariri International Airport as their main asset. Tripoli has a full functioning airport north of the city, but it is not open for business. Everything imported to and exported from Lebanon is channeled through the airport in the south of the Lebanese capital. That way, the Beirut stakeholders have full control over what goes in and what comes out of Lebanon, and are able to make profits from this transit. That Tripoli is the main power base of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, and that this party is in opposition to the present government in Beirut, doesn’t help either.

I talk to Mounir in his apartment. After three years of being back in Tripoli, he looks worn out. Mounir is contemplating to move back to Toronto or to move on to Qatar.

The only business that seems to have a future in Tripoli is cell phones. Cell phone shops proliferate! Stores are selling the latest models of iPhones, but Samsung mobile phones and Blackberrys are very popular as well. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Tripoli billionaire and Lebanon’s current Prime Minister Najib Mikati has made his fortune with a telecommunication company.

Tripoli is calm in Rifi’s area. Gunshots from the much-disputed Bab al-Tabbaneh area are sometimes heard, but rarely encountered. The stray bullet that hit a Tripoli resident’s car and smashed its windshield must have been the result of a happy shooting. Or so he likes to believe. Stress and anxiety are the companions of every Tripoli inhabitant’s daily life. Some sleep lightly, some leave their area of residence only if they absolutely must.

Dr. Zainab is my dentist in Tripoli. She laughs when I ask her about the security situation in Tripoli and when I tell her that seen from a European perspective, Tripoli is a war zone. People here have learned to cope with the war. Somehow. She then goes about her business and fixes the tooth that had bothered me for quite some time.

Many residents have left Tripoli over the years. Like Haitham, who grew up in Tripoli in the 1990s, but is now living in Europe. In an interview I conducted with him via Twitter, Haitham expresses shock about the neglect the Lebanese north has seen down the decades.

“They (meaning Lebanon’s political and economic elite) want to market Lebanon as that stretch of land from the Casino du Liban to Jiyyeh (minus Daheyh),” he said. “They have put all their money and effort into this. It means in theory that others should suffer like Tripoli does. However, Saida had Hariri, and the South of Lebanon has Hezbollah and Iran. Tripoli has nothing. Even the Saudi’s money goes to Beirut, like all other Arab money.”

“And then they are surprised,” Haitham goes on, “when Islamic elements start popping up in Tripoli, declaring emirates and all. Nobody did anything to prevent this. And everybody forgot that the flip side of a cosmopolitan Lebanon is poverty, extremism and crime.”

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“Tripoli is my hometown,” says Samer, “I love it, it’s amazing, with lots of potential. I know that Tripoli can prosper a lot, but many things are happening around us, and many of them are political messages. Life in Tripoli is normal when there are no gunshots. Totally normal, with work, social life and sports.”

If only the politics… If only the economy… If only the guns… 2013 looks like a very difficult year for Tripoli and its residents.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.