Tripoli’s Past and Present in Perspective

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This gives the book its distinctive trait, though it leaves the reader hungry for more information at some points. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Joanne Bajjaly

Published Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: A City for All Ages by Eli Salem and Mario Saba, Balamand University

Tripoli is the capital of North Lebanon. Every Lebanese has known that since they attended primary school. From the news, we know there are fierce political rivalries in the city, and that poverty is widespread. What we tend to forget is that Tripoli is a “City for All Ages.”

This is the title that Elie Salem, President of Balamand University, has given his recently published book covering the “past and present” of Tripoli.

Photographs take up most of the space in the volume. Brief accompanying texts, in both Arabic and English, provide what the author considers to be essential information to understand the pictures, without getting into too much detail.

This gives the book its distinctive trait, though it leaves the reader hungry for more information at some points. But the author’s aim is to avoid detracting from the images, which he describes in his introduction as “eloquent in their silence about this ancient city, known to history ever since it started to be recorded.”

He succeeds in this. Photos of Mario Saba, who died a few weeks ago, show the dilapidated state of the city but in a beautiful way. The impression conveyed is not of a disorganized architectural sprawl, but of a city whose urban expansion proceeded over several different periods. The photographer does not overburden the pictures. He leaves places as they are: natural, with no additions or unnecessary metaphorical connotations. He highlights details to bring scenes to life. For example, his photographs of the souk are infused with the smell of spices.

Aside from the finely crafted photos, A City for All Ages covers a rich array of themes, including history and nature, and the city’s religious sites, cafes, markets, public baths, khans, universities, and cultural and tourist attractions.

In each chapter, the text and pictures combine to bring past and present together. Photos are interspersed between traditional cafes and those that currently fill Azmi street or the Mina [port] district. Regarding places of worship, the book has as much to say about churches as mosques, refuting the notion that “Tripoli is Islamic.”

It depicts the city’s social mix as well as its religious diversity. The section on “faces” includes pictures both of devout men and unveiled women, refuting another stereotype of Tripoli as having become a hard-line Islamist bastion.

Many of the chapters remind the reader of ancient crafts and traditional professions that are threatened with extinction, such as those that went into building the city’s old houses with their intricate windows and doors. A City for All Ages reminds us that historically, in crowded and narrow cities, windows and doors were the only outward indication of a home owner's wealth.

The book does suffer from one particular weakness. Information and events are not presented in chronological order. Instead, the focus changes randomly between one period and another as the reader goes through the book.

Nevertheless, Tripoli needs A City for All Ages. It gives us a comprehensive and clear overview of the city and the diversity which has given it a unique urban culture for over 1000 years. It also documents the current state of the city in detail, and will be an important reference for those interested in understanding how Tripoli has changed architecturally or socially over the years.

The “city that has never cut its links with either its history or its present,” as the urban expansion on its outskirts shows.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Where cann we buy the book "City for All Ages"?

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