The US State Department website and all the guide books said not to go. I was not deterred. One has to be on the ground to find out what is possible, so upon arriving in Beirut, that’s what I did. Is going to Tripoli possible? A new acquaintance, director of an NGO for the education of displaced Syrians, connected me with a driver. Rassine. Heading out of Beirut on the highway, Rassine gave me the background. Six months or a year ago, no, it wouldn’t have been possible—violence and gunfire everywhere. Killing everywhere. Not because the Tripoli people wanted it but because of certain factions stirring up trouble for the sake of power. No, the Tripoli people are warm and welcoming, he said. All Lebanese people are, he added. And to make the point: I can take you to the seat of Hezbollah and they would invite you for tea; you are safe in Lebanon. So, what then changed in Tripoli? According to Rassine, the military instigated a serious campaign to get rid of all the high and middle “managers” of street crime. It worked. Now Tripoli is safe.
Not that Rassine knew Tripoli. To reach the thousand-year-old Citadel perched high atop the old central city, he needed my phone’s GPS-enabled Google maps and the shouted instructions from men on the side of the road. He explained, his smile a touch self-deprecating, as we sat stuck in morning traffic: He’d never seen Tripoli’s Citadel; I was taking him some place new in his own country. As a driver contracted with various NGOs, his travels to Tripoli were contained to the organization offices outside the city proper. I let that sink in. The violence in Tripoli must have been very bad.
I explored the Citadel on my own. I saw a few army men, each of who smiled and waved me on—warmly, helpfully—away from the barracks established on the Citadel’s side. A tall, thin European entered and vanished before I took in the color of his jacket. This is the magic and grace of early hours. The opportunity to commune with rocks and walls before other falling footsteps dispel an atmosphere of infinite waiting that accompanies the past.
In the Souks beneath the Citadel, Rassine kept close. I had no plan. I wanted to experience—to see—and was willing to admit to knowing nothing. No research had been helpful—not unusual once a destination has been deemed dangerous to one’s life. In the very first lane of the souks, at the end, a group of women waved and called out. I could follow their gestures. Come in, come in, have tea. It was a tea shop. Her tea shop, the woman holding court in the center. But more than the tea, they wanted to talk. Her husband came out. Her daughter and grandsons, too. Pleasure. Pleasure in seeing foreigners here in Tripoli.
I found this welcome throughout the souks. Artisans waved me into their workshops, discussing their craft and telling the changing of times through the translation of Rassine. Like the upholstery restorer who, just a few years ago, had a bustling workshop with twenty employees, but with the strife, the business shrank to just him. Other workshops I entered were also quiet. Yet not a single person pressured purchases; instead, I was introduced to family members, such as the university-educated daughter of a scarf-seller, with whom I conversed in French.
This is why I needed to come to Lebanon. I needed to experience the warmth and welcome of a people about whom I’ve learned nothing in America except that they and their country are dangerous. I hope these pictures, in contrast, reveal their openness and generosity to this foreigner.
Rassine offered, on the drive into Tripoli, a penetrating remark: Lebanon is not a country. Earlier, he’d mentioned the corruption of the government—that to think what this beautiful country would be if its government worked for its people. But now he spoke of others. Lebanon was less a country than a message. If Iran wanted to say something to the world, it used Lebanon. If the United States wanted to send a message, it used Lebanon—and so on for Israel, the PLO, Syria and Europe. His thought begged the questioned: What message in their own voice would the Lebanese convey?