Tripoli's torched al-Saeh Library reopens after one year

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Father Ibrahim Sarrouj amid books in al-Saeh Library in Tripoli. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

Published Sunday, January 4, 2015

Kafana Samtan, or “Enough Silence,” reopened Saturday Tripoli’s famed al-Saeh Library, Lebanon’s second largest and home to some 100,000 books, exactly one year after it was set ablaze by unidentified assailants.

On January 3, 2014, the decades-old library was torched and its owner, Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest, was assaulted.

Located in the historic heart of the Lebanese city of Tripoli, the antiquarian bookshop contains hundreds of books, including rare first editions of scholarly texts and out-of-print magazines.

An untold number of books were destroyed as Civil Defense teams struggled to put out the flames which engulfed one of Lebanon’s most renowned libraries late at night.

According to AFP, two thirds of some 80,000 irreplaceable ancient Muslim and Christian texts and manuscripts were destroyed.

Within hours after Father Sarrouj’s books went up in flames, Lebanese from different religious and political backgrounds flocked to the site and politicians raced to denounce the attack.

Few days after the attack, Kafana Samtan launched a fundraising inititaive to repair the library on Zoomaal, an online Arab crowdfunding platform, and was able just one month later, thanks to 298 donors, to collect US $35,000.

Addressing some 100 Tripoli residents who attended Saturday’s reopening ceremony, Father Sarrouj thanked Kafana Samtan, civil-society groups, and all the young men and women who helped replenish and rebuild his library, praising the positive role the people of Tripoli played.

Moreover, a short film directed by Lida Kabara, a Tripoli resident, was shown during the ceremony, in addition to statements by those who took part in the fundraising campaign.

Rumors swirled following the attack but the real motive remains unknown.

Sources told Al-Akhbar at the time that the attack was prompted by rumors spread by Salafi youths about the discovery of polemical writings insulting to Islam inside one of the books at the library. Another rumor was that Father Sarrouj authored an incendiary pamphlet about the Prophet Muhammad.

The attack, meanwhile, came amid a backdrop of growing religious radicalism and sectarian tensions in Lebanon related to the war in neighboring Syria. In October, Tripoli was the scene of one of the deadliest spillover of fighting in the almost four-year war in Syria.

In an interview in January, Father Sarrouj, a longtime resident of Tripoli’s old neighborhood, told Al-Akhbar that he worried about his library far more than he worried about himself.

Trying to hide his broken spirit under his usual smile, father Sarrouj talked about Palestine, pan-Arabism, and progressive revolutions in the world. He said he aspired to a new flock of activists who will liberate Palestine.

“All this will turn into a roaring river that would sweep away Israel. Never mind this fanaticism – I know Tripoli quite well. This is our city, and these are our young men” said Father Sarrouj.



It is a sad reality that those who seek to impose their particular beliefs on others are inevitably also those who most fear cultural and information freedom.

Many great libraries have suffered at the hands of zealots, military maniacs or dictators determined to restrict access to any opinions other than their own. From the Great Library of Alexandria, sacked by Caesar/Christians/? (the scholars still debating this one), Hitler's burning of the books, the progroms of Chairman Mao, the destruction and theft from the libraries and museums of Iraq and even the many attempts at censorship and banning of books by parents and educational bodies in supposed democracies - it seems that the biggest fear of misguided ideologues and zealots is that the general population might have access to information that runs counter to the views of the ruling class - whether that be a king, a dictator, a religious leader or a government.

I am not remotely religious but I applaud Father Ibrahim Sarrouj for his efforts in establishing, maintaining and re-building his library. This is a man who deserves to be praised for his work and his dedication.

I don't have financial wealth so cannot help in that way but I applaud Father Sarrouj's efforts and commend him for his work. That he values his library more than himself is a true indicator of his dedication to a more open and free society that progresses through knowledge and wisdom, rather than might.

In Australia we see it happening at the moment with the moves by our right wing neo-conservative government to destroy and discredit our public broadcaster, to restrict access to information that should be on the public record and to distort information that is released to the public.

It is sad, that after at least 50,000 years of human history we have not progressed as a community to the point where we value one another, accept a variety of beliefs and cultural differences and solve our problems through discourse rather than might and destruction.

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