Published: December 22nd 2011December 15th 2011
It was only after a trip to Tripoli that I felt like I’d finally seen Lebanon as a country living its daily life. What I saw was an old city whose crumbling buildings seemed to be held together only by a web of crisscrossing power lines. I saw a vibrant market where people haggled over the price of zaatar. And I saw a country still plagued by the vestiges of war – bullet-riddled walls with pictures of martyrs smiling down, armed tanks on the corners, and, everywhere, evidence of corruption. I was lucky to have a Lebanese woman, Amani, traveling with me to translate and to laugh over Lebanon’s idiosyncrasies.
We arrived in the middle of Tripoli’s main street, tired from the journey, and walked into a café thick with men and smoke. It’s hard to say which was more assaulted, my nerves with twenty pairs of eyes staring me down, or my lungs with the effort of extracting oxygen molecules from the smoke-filled air. As soon as the viscous Arabic coffee finished filling our cups, we rushed into the street looking for respite, but we found only more men staring, and more pollution clogging our respiratory tracts. On one
of the busiest streets in Tripoli, there were no skirts or covered heads to be seen. We were the only women, and I was the only Westerner.
We began to walk without a map or a purpose and, eventually, we made it to the sprawling market that comprises most of the city’s center. There, we found Tripoli’s women, and every other manner of goods. One area sold wooden spoons, another garish party dresses; a different area sold perfume, and another nuts and bolts. By far the largest area of the market sold used items from Germany, mostly shoes, but also clothes and stuffed animals. I got the sneaking suspicion that they were misdirected Red Cross donations, perhaps destined for a Palestinian refugee camp and now being sold for a profit in Tripoli’s market. When Amani asked, merchants were hesitant to answer, further sealing our suspicions.
My favorite part of Tripoli’s market, however, was the crafters quarter, where much of the country’s goods are produced by hand. From a pile of unwashed wool to weaving the clean yarn into intricate patterns, a passerby can watch the entire process of textiles being made. You can see old men sanding down
wooden chairs and young boys, learning their family trade, hammering designs into a copper plate. People take pride in their work and you can feel it.
Two days before our visit, yet another argument between Sunni and Shia Muslims had led to shots fired in the streets of Tripoli. Military presence was everywhere. Rifles lay nonchalantly in the beds of army pick-ups. They were just lying there, without any supervision. No one dared touch them – probably more out of fear of what awaited in the afterlife than of being shot down in this one. People think I’m joking when I say that I’ve never felt so safe as I do in the Middle East, but it’s true, at least in terms of petty crime. In Lebanon, I may have to worry about religious factions blowing me up, but I’ll never worry about being robbed. I’ve seen women leave their purses outside as they use the restroom and storeowners leave their wares unattended as they visit neighbors for a coffee. Theft appears to be a non-issue.
A big issue, to me at least if not to the country at large, is air pollution. There’s no public
Tanks at the Ready
The man with the cart in the right-hand corner told on me for taking this picture. Amani lied for me, saying that I was taking a picture of the flags above.
transportation in Lebanon – the government would lose way too much revenue from the sale of gas – so everyone travels by private car or taxi, creating bumper-to-bumper traffic and who knows how much smog. While walking down the street during the evening traffic jam, my throat scratchy and my lungs aching, I tied my scarf around my face trying to reduce the number of toxic fumes entering my nose. A man passing by on a scooter yelled out, “But why? It smells so good here!” At least, despite it all, the Lebanese still have their sense of humor.
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