Tripoli, the City that Can Neither Sleep nor Wake Up

Lebanese army soldiers stand on their military vehicles after being deployed following days of clashes between in the city of Tripoli, northern Lebanon 10 December 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Omar Ibrahim)

By: Doha Shams

Published Monday, December 10, 2012

The small details of life in the Lebanese city of Tripoli: the sectarian songs broadcast from kiosks, the rumors of a secret Sunni-Shia census, and the taxi cab debates on Bashar al-Assad. Al-Akhbar navigates the passing stories of a city that seems perpetually steeped in conflict.

For a week now, the people of Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli have woken up with a singular hope in mind: that the “scuffle” between the residents of Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawi Jabal Mohsen will soon end, in the same way each and every scuffle like this had ended before.

This hope is soon shattered by the roar of the first bullets fired each day.

A discernible tension permeates the air wherever you go in the city that’s matched by the unprecedented rise in the sectarian discourse. It is as though Tripoli, is reliving what happened in Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007, but on a wider scale.

The city is on edge. The people here smoke a lot, and nervously. Smoking gives one the illusion that time is moving, perhaps. But time is not moving here at all.

The faces all look tired, from lack of sleep, or gloomy because of the dire economic conditions everywhere, no matter how near or far one is from the fighting taking place. Even the women that we saw in front of the shops were, like the men, cursing and swearing, as they chucked their cigarette butts onto the road.

Perhaps wars impose a kind of street-style masculinity on everyone. The owner of one juice bar, a woman who wears a headscarf, cursed the bearded men who were holding a press conference with the relatives of the militants slain in Tal Kalakh, not 20 meters away from her place, outside of the Nawfal Municipal Palace.

She cursed as she spat out her cigarette nervously, while a shop assistant packed the fruit crates away, in preparation for closing the juice bar early again, for the sixth day in a row now. “Okay, may God have mercy on the dead,” she said, “but what about us? Aren’t we dying every day? Look…”

But before she could finish her sentence, we were interrupted by the sound of gunfire nearby, and we instinctively rushed to take shelter inside. “It has started!” a boy on the street shouted gleefully, as he ran towards an alleyway to hide.

In an instant, one of the busiest squares in the city in normal times became completely deserted. Hysterically, the woman started yelling, “God curse you all” before flicking her cigarette from inside the shop to the dirty street, which was covered with discarded fast food sandwich wrappers and the dried spit of taxi drivers operating on the Beirut and Homs lines.

A fight had erupted between two gangs. “They shot Abu Mansour!” the boy yelled with the joy of someone witnessing events that those his age do not usually see. The collapse of security in Tripoli has started to turn the city gradually into a den for armed gangs.

Night after night, the northern port city does not sleep. But it is not waking up from its nightmare either. Gunfire and the explosion of shells shatter the quiet of the night.

Hostility to the army is also strong. On this side, the army is being accused of siding with the people of Jabal Mohsen. So, one may wonder whether the army on the other side is being accused of siding with the people of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

One Salafi we met away from the battles said that on Saturday, the army, using tanks, evacuated Syrian civilians living in the neighborhood of Bakar area because of the fighting. The Salafi added, “The army is being hit from above and from below. Al-Arabiya said that the army pulled out, but this was a lie. Let them give the army the authority to do what it did in Nahr al-Bared!”
Is this how far things have gotten for people here?

We asked the fundamentalist Islamist about what had pushed those young militants to go to Tal Kalakh. The Islamist said, “When it is about solidarity with their own people, Salafis have no choice but to go to anywhere in the world.” But how did they end up going there? Did they leave the mosque, to a bus and then onto Syria? We asked him.

The Salafi replied, “Well, usually there would be lectures, and the youths attending them soon start thinking in a different way than their parents. These youths would then decide by themselves where to go, when they are ready.”

But, we inquired, is it possible that there was some kind of telepathy that brought together 20 young Salafis? And why did they go to Syria, but not to Palestine? “Yes, martyrdom on the path to Jerusalem is more important, but if someone wants to fight in Palestine, where should he go?”

“Rafah,” we told him. Didn’t Hezbollah reach Rafah to bring weapons to the Palestinians? How many Sunni Muslims have been killed in Palestine in 64 years? Isn’t Palestine the priority in the jihad? His answer was that “there are Salafis among the Bedouins in Sinai.” But we are talking about Lebanese individuals, we retorted.

In addition, who betrayed the young militants? “They were sold by those who helped them cross the border. I don’t even think there was a battle to begin with,” he claimed.

A video posted by a website that calls itself “Jabal Mohsen News” had sparked a huge wave of anger in Tripoli, as one resident of the predominantly Alawi neighborhood fleeing the fighting with his family admitted to Al-Akhbar.

As he puffed on his cigarette in the no-smoking restaurant where we spoke to him, the Jabal Mohsen resident said, “Who is posting this stuff? Well it’s [the Alawi leader] Ali Eid. Who else would it be? Would people like us dare say anything?” He then quickly added, “Please, don’t mention my name.”

The man went on to say, “If anyone ran against Ali Eid, the people of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh would both vote for him. But such a man would not win if the Syrians did not approve of him. People in Jabal Mohsen are one hundred percent with Bashar al-Assad, but 70 percent of them are opposed to Ali Eid.”

Trying to dispute these percentages would have been futile. In the end, how can one argue with those who survived from death?

The video in question, which went viral on mobile phones beginning last week, shows corpses being mutilated, kicked, and insulted. But this time, the footage that resembles the many clips posted on the warring Syrian websites has a different flavor. These corpses have familiar faces, including neighbors, classmates, and acquaintances.

Meanwhile, everywhere you go in the city’s low-end markets, you will soon hear one particular tune: a distasteful sectarian song promising death to the “Nusayris,” a derogative term for Alawis, that praises the people of the “Rifa, al-Mankubin, and Tabbaneh” neighborhoods. The person who wrote and sang it was also killed in the Tal Kalakh ambush.

A seller of bootlegged CDs told me that his name was “Abu Muslim Srour,” and that his brother had been captured in Syria. Asked whether he sold many CDs of that song, he said, “Myself alone, I sell about 300 CDs each day.” He then added that “they” too “have their own songs,” which praise the Syrian president and promise death to his enemies.

We could not reach Jabal Mohsen to get its side of the story. One has to go through Bab al-Tabbaneh first, which, until Sunday, was simply impossible.

While debating with some people in Tripoli, one may feel that the Hezbollah model is ever present in their public imagination, and many like to mimic its rhetoric. This, however, reveals a terrible paradox. The Sunnis, who are an overwhelming majority in the Arab world, are conducting themselves with the mentality of a minority that believes its very existence is at stake.

In other words, they are trying to defend their presence amid a sea…of themselves. In vein, you try to understand.

On the way to Abu Samra, a district of Tripoli, the bearded cab driver was revealed to personally know one of the youths whose corpses were handed over on Sunday. A discussion ensued with other passengers.

One of them said, “Wasn’t Anwar Sadat right? He used to say that Hafez al-Assad was both a Baathist and an Alawi, and both do not know God.” Here, another elderly passenger nodded his head disapprovingly, and said, “Brother, does that sound right to you? Aren’t we living together, us and them?” The first passenger replied, “We are talking about the thugs.”

Tripoli is trying to hold itself together, but it keeps falling apart because of the non-stop agitation. “Why did they want to send the bodies in installments?” asked the driver, before answering his own question by proclaiming, “So that the unrest may continue.”

He then told us that when he went on Sunday to give his condolences to the father of the deceased from the “al-Mir family” in the Mankubin neighborhood, the father rejected this and said, “Congratulate me instead. God willing he is with his Lord, and he is a martyr.”

The taxi driver then recounted what the father told them about his son. He quoted him as saying, “My son would not stop telling me: Father, I can bear it no longer. So I told him in the end, ‘Fine, if you get a chance to go, then go.’ And he went” – meaning to Syria, for jihad.

You try to debate them. You say: You accuse Jabal Mohsen of not being Lebanese, of being loyal to Syria instead. But what about you? Why are you meddling in the conflict between the Syrians?

The taxi driver corrected us and said, “No. The situation in Syria is not about Syrians fighting one another. They are killing the Sunnis. Do you understand? How could he not go? What is more, all families here have relatives in Homs, Hama, and Damascus.”

I told him, “But the same goes for them, the people of Jabal Mohsen.” He quickly countered, “Why isn’t Hezbollah fighting there?”

When asked whether he had any proof of that, he said, rather eagerly, “When Hezbollah mourns fighters who died doing their duty in the jihad, what does that mean? Where were they killed? Is there a war taking place with Israel now?”

Another young Salafi we spoke to at a café, far from prying eyes, started out by proclaiming that the problem followed a cycle of successive remission and relapse. He said, “The underlying problem is poverty. Our politicians pay generously. They would say: Start a fight and we have your backs. You shall not spend more than three hours with the police or the army.”

Fair enough, but what exactly happened this time? He responded, “It is obvious. There is an agreement between the Future Movement and Hezbollah to draw the Salafis into the internal quagmire in Lebanon.”

Here, we almost smiled. For one thing, the phrase “draw into the internal quagmire,” which is usually said in the context of talking about Hezbollah, brings to mind the idea of the “model” we mentioned earlier.

The young Salafi then added, “This time, the Salafis came out in force because the situation could no longer be tolerated. There was fury. The Alawis have made a grave mistake: The video making the rounds in the country is what has raised the level of tension.”

We asked him, what do the Alawis have to do with the video? Were they the ones who killed the youths in Tal Kalakh? “LBC TV said that Alawi supporters of Assad claimed responsibility for the ambush in Tal Kalakh. Then the video went viral on mobile phones and there was gloating. How do you expect the situation to calm down?” he replied.

He then rejoined, “It’s not about Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen anymore. There are international agencies at work. In short, let these agencies leave the army alone, and everything will be okay.”

We left the gloomy city with rumors flying, rumors that know neither beginning nor end: There is a secret census of Shia and Sunni in Tripoli, one rumor goes. Or, that Jabal Mohsen will soon be invaded by the other side.

I left the north, with my mother’s voice still in my head. When she discovered I was in Tripoli, she shouted at me on the phone, “What on earth are you doing in Tripoli? I thought you were going to Gaza!”

Dear Lord. Gaza is now safer for my mother than the city she lives in.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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