By the time we had reached the upper plateau of the Citadel’s stronghold, it was already mid-day. The city of Tripoli in Northern Lebanon unfolded through a composition of multiple canvases, each framed by the square shape of crenellations and windows. On one side, the Nahr Abu Ali river – one of the most important, culturally and historically, rivers of Lebanon – licked the foothills of the fort, and, were we to bend a bit outside the apertures, we would see the humble white dome of Takiyya Mawlawiya, the 17th c. Sufi hospice. At our backs, the old walls revealed ten centuries of history, from the Crusaders to the Mamluks and the Ottomans, all intertwined as tightly as the fortification structure itself. And on the other side, there spread a panoramic view of the old city. The elegant minaret of the Al Mansouri Great Mosque protruded above a densely-knotted cluster of shabby buildings, the lot much smaller than the multistoried atrocities that surrounded them in similar compactness. Decaying colors, curtain-like tents hanging from the balconies, endless strings of tattered-looking clothes, and worn posters of politicians everywhere. I secretly admitted to myself that the scenery below was not very inspiring, and the praises for the city sung for centuries by numerous travelers might be a memory of bygone times. But Lebanon is not a country to be experienced only through the senses; rather, it is a land to be felt with the heart.
We rolled down Al Mahatra road towards the old city, passing under plentiful tangled electricity wires and medieval arches that – as we were told – solidify the buildings against earthquakes. The town dates back to the 13th century, built by the Mamluks after they conquered Tripoli from the Franks and destroyed, in 1289, the settlements they had found in what is today El Mina region by the port.
With every step, the buildings, though badly battered and in need of immediate restoration, started revealing their hidden beauty: designs carved on the walls, marble-tiled facades, ancient columns here and there, and ingenious architectural devices to economize on the limited space of the narrow streets. We rambled through the alleys, some of them empty and covered in veils of obscurity, others buzzing with the familiar clamor of people hovering around stalls of merchandise. Our gaze often rested in the eyes of the locals, and we were repeatedly greeted with smiles. There was no annoying curiosity, remoteness, apathy, or any persistence in making a sale. There was only friendliness: a warm neighborliness that seemed to be as authentic and old as the city itself.
Madame Bassima cordially welcomed us to her house, just because, as she was opening her door, we asked if we could look at the sanctum of an ordinary abode – something that, based on the Mamluk architecture, is carefully protected from the intrusive glances of the passers-by. We stood in the middle of her tiny courtyard and marveled at the combination of wealth and poverty that surrounded us. The floor of the sitting room was covered with black-and-white marble patterns, while more marble stones and columns decorated the façade, giving an air of forgotten grandeur to the dilapidated building. Next to an open-air stove caved into an ornamented wall, there was a pair of bright, well-worn, flat shoes – the combination bringing something very personal and feminine in the foreground. A staircase led to a narrow balcony of debatable stability and the sleeping rooms of the family on the upper floor. Vegetation was growing in the cracks of the walls, the sprouts freshly green and new, in tune with the spring ambiance of April. Despite the advanced state of the building’s deterioration, there was a warm, welcoming ambiance, mainly radiating from Mme Bassima’s heart and hospitality.
Close to El Emir alley, we ran into five-year-old Jamal who, when he saw us taking pictures, he put his arm around his younger sister and, conning her with a fake laugh into smiling, he proudly posed in front of our lenses, dismissing with an impatient wave of his hand his mother who was calling him inside the house. His elder sister, Farah, joined us soon, her adolescent timidity highlighting her elegance.
As we passed by the old bakery shop that operates for 700 consecutive years in the narrow cavern of a vaulted arcade, Hassan and Mohamed generously offered us warm kaak (hollow pitta bread with sumac spice inside), refusing to take “no” for an answer.
Young and old people in playful mood popped uninvited into our photos, convinced that the idea of a picture without them was inconceivable – we must have been just too shy or constrained by our lack of fluency in Arabic to ask. As such, Bilal in the vegetable souq posed behind piles of olives and pickles; deaf-mute Abdul stood next to his wooden forms for maamoul; and Farouk in Khan Al Khayatin (the 14th c. tailors’ souq) rose slowly from his chair and sat behind his sewing machine with such nobility that I was urged to shake his hand in gratitude and reverence.
The old couple watching over the tiny Orthodox church of St Jonah engaged with us in a conversation of torrential intensity, looking us straight in the eye, even though half of our team could not understand the language. There was sweetness emanating from the wrinkles on their faces, and I found adorable their need to communicate – as if they were keen to share their stories while they still had time, leaving behind a legacy, anonymous but human and, thus, meaningful.
Men sitting in the mashlah (the entrance room) of the Turkish Hammam El Abed – the only still operational hammam in Tripoli – greeted us as we passed by, and without any feeling of discomfort, insisted on us taking a closer look at the carpet-covered benches, the bronze coffee jar and utensils, and the surrounding decoration.
In Khan Al Saboun we were overwhelmed with the generosity of the traditional soap sellers who topped our purchases with additional gifts; in Khan Al Masriyine, we met Mahmoud Al Charkass who, in his late sixties, runs the oldest soap factory in Tripoli, established in 1804 by his great-grandfather and producing, as per the local opinion, the highest quality soaps. Amidst the aromas of the various essences wafting in the air, the piles of colorful soaps standing in tower formations, and the soap shreds left in the sun to dry and be used in house cleaning, we connected with an art that dates back to the 16th c., and remains alive through the ongoing passion of the generations.
The day was coming to an end as we stopped at the Café Haraj – in the old auction souq – munching on a few sfihas bought from a nearby stall, admiring the huge granite columns that surrounded us, brought once upon a time from the ancient temples in Aswan. And there, among the frayed walls and the fatigued buildings, the gradually emptying streets, and the closing stores, embraced by the softness of the social fabric that has miraculously managed to remain intact in a country that, otherwise, lives in some reality of chaotic flow, I understood what is this je ne sais quoi that every visitor finds in Lebanon and incurably falls in love with. It is the genuine humanity and joyful disposition of its people.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou