I can go to Beirut today and take my camera with me. I can go to Hay el Sellom and take as many pictures, film as much footage as my heart pleases and broadcast them online with one tag only: THIS. IS. BEIRUT.
Am I doing Beirut a disservice in the process? Perhaps so. Is my portrayal of Beirut’s poorest neighborhood as representative of the entire city accurate? Perhaps not.
But isn’t that exactly what Lebanese media and people are doing to this Northern city?
I went to a cafe the other day named “Ahwak Ben Tafesh.” I can safely say it’s probably my favorite cafe in all of Lebanon. Starbucks and other generic places, move over. The place had charm and served the best carrot cake I ever had, which was actually homemade. As I sat there, observing the people walking in and out, I saw some of the most gorgeous women wearing tight jeans and revealing shirts, guys talking about going out to a pub somewhere with their girlfriends, a couple holding hands with the guy’s hand on his girlfriend’s thigh.
But most importantly, people we chatting and laughing and making plans. Just like normal Lebanese youth do everywhere else.
Then I went to the bathroom at Ahwak and saw this:
A stone’s throw away from Ahwak is a restaurant called La Plaka. I have yet to try out things beyond the salad part of its menu – blame the diet – but that place served one of the best chicken caesar (don’t worry, I made some sauce-modifications) that I ever had. The place was spacious with very nice interior decorations – huge armchairs, flat screen TVs everywhere, chandeliers dropping down from the ceiling – and better yet, they actually abide by the smoking ban.
All of what La Plaka offered me came at a cost of… 10,000LL. Yes, for the entire salad that normally costs double that much at any Beiruti place. Then I remembered a similar incidence in Gemmayzé when I ordered a salad that comprised of only lettuce and cucumber sticks and ended up paying about $20.
On the same street as La Plaka is a newly opened burger shop called Ten Burger which is trying to bring the Classic Burger Joint experience to Tripoli. Their burgers are excellent. They also come with french fries and coleslaw. And a soft drink. All for less than $10.
Tripoli is also famous for “Le Palais” or as we all like to call it “Al Hallab,” which offers the best Arabian sweets you can find probably anywhere. You can ask for a tour of the place’s kitchens where you see how they make all the delicious food you end up gorging on later. I witnessed how they do the famous “7lewet l jeben,” got to taste their self-made ice cream and gateaux. The place is beautiful and extremely distinctive. If you thought you are getting the “Hallab” experience by visiting some of the franchises in Beirut or Jounieh, you thought terribly wrong.
But Tripoli isn’t only about food. I go there very often. My best friend is from there. I go to class about five minutes away from that city. My father buys some supplies for his shop from Bab el Tebbane. A lot of our paperwork has to go through some offices there. Throughout my visits to that city, even during the now-distant times when I had a one pound golden Cross dangling from my neck, I never felt threatened or not at ease – even last December when Tripoli was, at least to most Lebanese, a war zone.
A couple of days ago, I got invited to an impromptu birthday party for my friend’s nieces. I was the only “outsider” there. The place was filled with family members. It took me five seconds to feel at home due to the overwhelming hospitality I received. It’s not just typical Lebanese hospitality – it’s people who are genuinely happy to have you there and take care of you and even wish you happy Easter.
In fact, most of my friends who are from Tripoli are not the people Lebanese media wants you to think they are. They are kind and friendly and great. Some of them are quite religious. Others are not. You know, exactly like Lebanese people everywhere else.
Is Tripoli in its best days? I don’t think so. Was it more lively, more upbeat, more receptive and less cautious a few years back? Definitely. Is it hurting because of the mass exodus of the Christians from it? Definitely – but they’re not leaving because of the city’s Muslims. They are leaving because of the dismal economic prospects.
For a city that houses some of Lebanon’s wealthiest people, it sure doesn’t show. The explanation is simple. Those wealthy people all have political aspirations but no foresight. They spend their money getting votes by giving food to needy people instead of investing that money in projects that would bring outside business to the city and help the people buy their own food. But that wouldn’t benefit them electorally.
Tripoli barely sees any development. There are no “Sama Tripoli” or “Le Mall Tripoli” projects that go on here. The second largest city of Lebanon has next to no investments coming into it and it’s not all because of the current security situation. This has been going on for years now. After all, as I had said before, Lebanon’s centralization isn’t only bureaucratic, it’s also economical. No other area outside Beirut is supposed to get the money Beirut and its suburbs get and this shows the most in big cities that need such money the most.
Tripoli is changing and not for the better. Anyone who tells you the opposite is bluffing. But that’s the case everywhere in this country. After all, extremism is a separate state of mind – no pun. However, this city isn’t the big bad monster that many have come to believe it is. It’s a place that’s trying its best given the hand it is dealt. It’s probably time we give it some slack.