It was easy to think of Tripoli only as a city of conflict, the news painted it as such and for many years I did not make time to go and dig further. When I moved back to Lebanon four years ago, I was writing for a couple of local magazines. Looking for topics gave me a chance to get acquainted with initiatives that started shattering my prejudice about Tripoli.
I met a young man from one of the two neighborhoods tainted by years of violence, who launched an NGO which relentlessly promotes recycling, going door-to-door to neighbors and slowly changing habits. I talked to an architect who designed an avant-garde bench now a small attraction of Mina that kids use as a playground. I also had a discussion with the founder of an Arabic language school established recently in the city to support local education. Foreign students attend their language classes then volunteer to teach children at a local NGO. A friend who attended the school told me of his experience wandering around the streets of his neighborhood where grocers would greet him and invite him to share a cup of coffee, attending a poetry reading in a café or just going out with friends and meeting locals who told him how their city changed through time. So, I finally headed north looking for a piece of furniture, and after going in circles, found the address I was searching. When I told the shop owner I was looking for a rug which he did not have, he offered to take me to the souks to find one. We rode off on his motorcycle and went through the stalls where (despite my apprehension of being with a stranger) I got caught up in the colourful atmosphere with bustling alleys where quirky outfits and funky objects can keep you browsing for hours.
The next time I ventured to Tripoli I ended up sitting on a rock by the sea near the corniche. while waiting for a meeting. I observed families and couples that came to take ownership of that picturesque yet desolated corner of the Mediterranean, overhearing a woman complain that she had sacrificed everything for her husband who did not appreciate her, bothering a couple with my presence who was trying to find some intimacy on a side rock and observing a little kid throw a plastic bottle that the waves kept bringing back to him. From then on, I kept coming back, each time experiencing a new facet of the city; dancing the night away at the wedding of an old friend in a luxurious hotel, watching the gardener tend to the trees at Rachid Karame International Fair designed by world renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer, a site with a rocky history overshadowed by impressive innovative structures with a destiny unachieved, or culinary experiences including an incomparable falafel, a casserole of chich barak with a smooth fluffy paste that simmered in laban (yoghurt) for hours savoured in a hipster café, and an afternoon spent at the terrace of a beautiful pink building housing famous desserts to devour the knefeh bi kaak. I had a glance at the abandoned train station, missed out on the hammams spread across the city whose presence is indicated by signs here and there and followed a friend into the narrow streets to a fishing shop where we found state of the art gear. On my latest trip, I visited the main attraction of Tripoli, the Qalaa (Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles), overlooking the city. The vast rooms and narrow passages were deserted by tourists as are all of Lebanon’s treasures, but the quietude only added to its majesty.
There is much left to explore in this vibrant city, where unlike the capital Beirut, dominated by cars, the streets are filled with passersby and merchants with worried looks, chatters and laughers full of life.