The Weekend When Tripoli Was The Icon of Lebanon’s Protests

I’ve been writing about Tripoli so frequently on this blog, not only because I loved that city, but because the preconceptions that many Lebanese had of it – mostly out of biased media whose job was to alienate fellow Lebanese from the Northern capital.

Those preconceptions varied from “tripoli is where ISIS is” to “there’s nothing to do there anyway.” Many Lebanese that I know have started their third decade of life without having visited the city.

As Lebanon ends its third consecutive day of massive protests, the like of which the country has never seen, one thing is abundantly clear, regardless of what amounts from the revolution: Tripoli has finally gotten its chance to show its true color to everyone, and it did so out of the sheer will of its own people.

From its world famous Fayha Choir singing a cappella, to Marcel Khalifeh going to this city to sing at a protest, to them turning the infamous “se7et l nour” to not one, but TWO full blown raves, to thousands of them singing the national anthem at the top of their lungs, to their world famous sweets maker Hallab giving away 10,000 knefes, to its people baking manakeesh for the protesters for free. Tripoli was the highlight of Lebanon’s protests as it tore down stereotype after stereotype that was thrown at it for years.

Each of those moments was so fantastic to behold there isn’t a person I know who wasn’t taken aback by them. But I was not surprised, nor were the people who knew what this city was capable of.

Think about how gigantic a step it is for a DJ to be blasting techno music from a rooftop into a square that has been associated with Islamists for years, as thousands of people bopped their heads and threw their hands up for life.

Think about how enormous of a step it is for this city who has been taken for granted by the countless politicians that have claimed it to tell every single one of them to fuck off.

This northern city is representative of the Lebanese spirit like nothing else. It’s been brought down so many times. It hasn’t even been a decade since it had a war that few outside of the North cared about. It suffered through years and years of harmful propaganda – sometime by the same media of current ruling parties… and still it rises.

From the middle of New York, to all those in Tripoli who showed the city in the best light possible, you’re all amazing. Thank you.

From Halaweh Tarts To Achta & Honey Eclairs: The New Fusion Ramadan Sweets You Can Find In Tripoli

Over the weekend, I ventured out to Akkar’s Ammou3a area for the first time ever with two friends tagging along. After a super long and arduous drive – those roads are horrendous – it only felt fitting to make a pit stop in Tripoli for a much needed food break. Naturally, Hallab is where we went.

Off-topic, but Ammou3a is a very beautiful area to visit and to do some hiking. The drive via the Fnaydeq road is much easier than driving up their through Akkar El 3ati2a, and discovering Akkar is an eye opening experience that every Lebanese should do.

Anyway, we got those menus and were informed that, exclusively for Ramadan – at least for now – they’re introducing new fusion sweets that they’d recommend we try. The three of us figured that would be more interesting than going for simple ice cream or knefeh, so off to that fridge we went and got an assortment of items, the most expensive of which is $3.

To say we were blown away is an understatement. I don’t even normally blog about food or anything remotely related to it, unless it is to turn it into a “to be or not to be” story of course, but this felt like it needed the exposure.

The amount of creativity in those new Ramadan fusion sweets is amazing, and most of them are based on Ashta, which is a Hallab specialty. As a person who absolutely loves halaweh and will miss it very much when I move to the U.S., the sight of that Halaweh tart was enough for me to foresake all reminders of diet and binge.

To say that tart was heavenly would be an understatement. As my friend put it, the most accurate description is: this is blasphemy.

We also tried the Ashta & honey eclair, and I have to say it was as good as the halaweh tart. The mix between what you’d expect to be a Western delicacy and what is very decidedly oriental works very well. I have to say, it was even better than the normal uneventful eclairs we’re all used to having at the many patisseries around the country.

The selection isn’t only summarized with those two items. There’s also an Apple and ashta tart, a tart with mhallbiyeh, as well as raha. A new maamoul with chocolate ashta, a tart with amareddine and a bunch of other items.

My friend tried the apple and ashta tart and texted – I quote: “The apple ones are orgasmic even after two days in my mom’s tupperware.”

Those items are only available at Tripoli’s Hallab, and trust me they’re worth the drive. In another highlight for the massive creativity, especially when it comes to the culinary field, that exists in Tripoli, there’s nothing I’d love more than to highlight this triumph for everyone’s taste buds that exists up North.

Another reason to make the drive is the possibility to win a suhour at Hallab. All you need to do is to take a picture of one of their ashta items – that Apple tart or eclair come to mind – and Instagram it with the hashtags #RamadanKashta and #HallabAddicts while tagging their Instagram account (@arhallab1881).

 

P.S.: This is not a sponsored post, nor was I given any freebies to write it. 

Islamic Extremists Threaten Ahwak Ben Tafesh Coffee Shop In Tripoli Because Their Mosque’s Electricity Went Out

Tripoli’s Ahwak Cafe is a lot of things. Nestled right across a Mosque in the Dam w Farz area, in the newer parts of the city, a stone’s throw away from the gorgeous Rachid Karami forum, it’s a place that’s become synonymous with the city’s most liberal youth frequenting it. In that coffee house’s bathroom is collection of graffiti, one of which reads: “Your ignorance of scientific knowledge is not proof that God exists.”

That’s probably the only place in Tripoli where you’d find such a statement, but it exists.

Ahwak Ben Tafesh did not have as easy an existence in Tripoli as you’d normally think a coffee place would be. I made it a habit to support it every time I went to the city, precisely because it represented the kind of Tripoli that I can relate to, that makes you hopeful of a better future for the city.

It was threatened by Islamists more than once. It was in fact attacked by Islamists back in July of 2013 when one of their newly-released extremists rode up with his goons in an SUV, stormed the place, trashed it, threatened people with weapons, and left.

Lebanon’s government did nothing about the incidence.

Fast forward nearly 4 years later. It’s May 31st, 2017, almost a week into the Muslim month of Ramadan and that mosque across the street – known as the Abdul Rahman Mosque – loses the electricity to its outdoor space and speakers.

In one moment, all hell broke loose. And what turned out to be a damaged electrical wire was turned into an attack on Tripoli being the citadel of Muslims in Lebanon, an attempt to silence the sound of Mosques.

So naturally, the day after, on June 1st, this statement was made, not by the Mosque but by Islamists who have not yet been identified:

Its overall essence translates to:

“Ahwak Ben Tafesh coffee shop in the Dam w Farz area has had a problem with the nearby mosque for a long time, and is known to have atheist clientele. They’re the prime suspect in  what happened at the Rahman Mosque. To its owner and clients we say: close the premises and stay home or move somewhere outside of Tripoli the city of Muslims, within 48 hours as a maximum. You’ve been worked.

Signed the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.”

Said “Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” or الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر is considered to be a Muslim duty and has been distorted by Islamic extremists, notably in Saudi Arabia, to issue fatwas and decrees.

The mosque in question has denied to have issued the statement through a Facebook post. The area affected by the electrical cut was the outer courtyard as well as nearby locations which offered their rooftops for extra speakers to broadcast the tarawih.

By threatening Ahwak Ben Tafesh that way without any ounce of proof, with a government that has yet to act in any way to protect the coffee shop, its owner and its clients, these extremists are giving a carte blanche to the brainwashed masses that listen to them to go and destroy the coffee house in the name of religion. This is uncharted territory in Lebanon, and simply terrorism.

Some of the mosque goers were not particularly happy:

That particular mosque has a history of banning speakers they don’t agree with from being given the chance to hold conferences in Tripoli, to accusing everyone who doesn’t follow everything they say of heresy. Anyone could have cut that wire or damaged it. Ramadan is one of that mosque’s busiest times with the tarawih. One of the worshippers could have inadvertently damaged it.

And yet here we are.

Why Tafesh?

Because of its resistance to bans on breakfasts during Ramadan when the city’s administration was over-run by spineless politicians who succumbed to every threat by Islamists that thrived in the forgotten capital of the North,

Because of it serving alcohol and all kinds of haram things on the down low,

Because of the unabashed atheism of some its customers, their resistance to the hateful messages of those Islamists, their disdain of their city being turned into a safe place for every bearded man with poison to spew,

Because the place is a beacon of Tripoli’s liberal youth, who don’t conform to the status quo that’s forcibly enforced on their city by those who want it to be seen as the “castle of Muslims in Lebanon” and nothing more.

And this is disgraceful.

It is on the hands of the Lebanese government to find whoever cut that wire, if it’s a deliberate act, and to make sure that those who frequent the Ahwak Ben Tafesh coffee shop are safe and that the shop is protected from vandalism as well as terrorist attacks from extremists who refuse to have anyone who disagrees with them live in the same city.

Tripoli is not a city where such people should be allowed to thrive unchecked anymore. And it sure as hell is not a city where some creature can decide to ban establishments outside of its city limits with a 48 hour window and be met with complacency or even agreement. They may be a fringe minority but their political protection is becoming cancerous and detrimental to all attempts at improving Tripoli’s reputation and future.

The mosque’s speakers going out is unfortunate. If those extremists actually truly cared about the message of those tarawih and the true spirit of Ramadan, they’d have continued praying and forgave however and whatever caused that wire to break, not threaten and terrorize. I may not be Muslim or knowledgeable of Islam, but I daresay that means their fasting is not valid anymore.

BBC Pop Up’s Report On Tripoli Is Shallow, Garbage, Full Of Generalizations, Horrible, and Horrifyingly Silly

I’m sick of Western journalist coming into the country with their preconceptions in place and then going out of their way to find the right people for them to make sure they propagate those exact beliefs back onto their core audience.

I haven’t been discussing BBC Pop Up’s reports much, mostly because I’ve found them to be just another regurgitation of a lot of previous reporting on the issues they’re tackling. But then the crew of BBC Pop Up decided to visit the capital of North Lebanon, Tripoli, against all advice – or so they’d make you believe after all the Beirutis they know told them it was dangerous and unvisitable.

But our brave, courageous crew decided to risk their lives – hilarious – and visit Tripoli. They probably didn’t know that the most dangerous thing that could happen to them in the city is an overdose on sugar and an increased risk of diabetes at Hallab, but you wouldn’t have known that based on that 16 minute report.

Instead, what you got was an “in-depth” – which is also basically the same vomit that we’ve been exposed to as Lebanese from the extremists that still plague the neighborhoods of Bab el Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. The cause of the fighting was never discussed – because labeling as sectarian and having it remain at that is enough. The gut-wrenching poverty in those neighborhoods wasn’t even tackled, even when a man from Jabal Mohsen said – and I quote: “When I don’t have any money and then someone gives me $3000-4000, and asks me to fight. This is how they attract people.”

You’d think that statement, coupled with a previous one about how Ali – the man in question – was being paid 50,000LL to throw a grenade during the fighting between Bab el Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, which has been over for about 3 years now, would prompt them to change direction of their reporting and delve deeper into the root of the city’s fighting.

Spoiler alert: it did not.

Not even when Ali agreed with the Sunni protestors who were the centerpiece of the report, with a protest calling on the government to free the jailed Islamists, a recurrent but ultimately fringe topic in the Lebanese political spectrum but one which made it onto a 16 minute report about an entire city, labeling it Islamist anyway, did the nature of the report change.

Even when Ali mentioned that a lot of those jailed people had nothing to do with the fighting and those who did were being manipulated by leaders higher up the echelons who are still free today, the report still did not veer from the goal it had set for itself the moment that random Beiruti told the British crew that Tripoli was unsafe: we are here to show that this place is different from Beirut, and that it is dangerous and that people here are extremists.

Extremism? Nice. Going to the poor areas of a city and labeling it all based on them? Amazing.

Delving into the cause of that “extremism” and poverty? Meh, who has time for that.

The magnum opus comes when they interview one man who’s asked about Shariah Law, before he says that everyone in the city wants that, somehow making his statement a valid proposition in the eye of the reporter. His rhetoric was not challenged, neither on the spot nor in a voice over that shows that not to be in the case in the other side of Tripoli, the majority, that BBC Pop Up did not try to cover because it doesn’t fit into what they’re trying to advance in the documentary.

The twist though is that that wasn’t what the man said, according to eye-witnesses who were there at that moment. What he said was: as a Muslim, I agree with the Shariah but this can never be applied in Lebanon where we have such diversity. This didn’t fit with what BBC wanted to portray so they cut his words and edited them the way they wanted.

The only saving grace is the brief mention of March, and the tremendous work that the organization is doing in Tripoli, with it bringing together both sides of the conflict and trying to change their perspective on how it is to live together. March has brought young people from both sides into a play that has toured Lebanon. They’ve also built a coffee shop that’s run by the people of the area, and they’ve renovated and fixed up the fighting-ravaged markets of the area into “Bab El Dahab,” without the help of any local politician, some of whom tried to take credit for the initiative.

For BBC Pop Up, Tripoli is Syria Street and the two factions that live on either side of it. The city of over half a million people is represented, in their eyes, by the tens of thousands who live in stinking poverty in those two neighborhoods, effectively making it okay for them to title a piece that would be broadcast to the world: Tripoli: Extremist City?

The title is horrible. The report is shallow as hell. The reporting is horrifyingly silly. The generalizations are ridiculous. The overall result is garbage. You’d think that an organization with their resources would actually have the decency to delve deeper into the conflict, but no luck. Instead, what we got was the same kind of report that Lebanese media used to do back when the fighting was still ongoing: no substance, no style, barely scraping the surface. Except this time the report is international, and not on a narrow Lebanese level for the parents of those who live in Beirut to forbid their children from going up North because “it’s dangerous.”

The fact of the matter is Tripoli is not dangerous. Not even those parts that the BBC reporter visited are dangerous: they’re just people who’ve been dealt a very bad hand at life trying to make the best of what was given to them and who are trying to find a new normal after their war. But that’s too mundane to be reported on I guess.

The fact of the matter is that beyond the narrow Syria Street is a city that’s trying to reclaim its position on the Lebanese level: with festivals, events trying to bring in people from other parts of the country, attempts at revamping its image, among other things. Of course, that’s not cool enough to be reported on because who needs another city trying to paint itself cosmopolitan in Lebanon when you can have a new Qandahar instead?

Lebanon Has The Arab World’s First Ever Ordained Female Pastor: Rola Sleiman In Tripoli Is Pioneering

A blog reader sent my way a Huffington Post article that was published yesterday about how Lebanon has the Arab world’s first ever female pastor: Rola Sleiman, who heads the Presbyterian Church in Tripoli, up North.

Rola was ordained as Reverend Rola Sleiman on February 26th, 2017 in a 23-1 vote that makes her, historically, the first Arab woman to ever be the head of a church. In fact, Reverend Sleiman was actually heading the church for the past few years as a pastor, but without being ordained she was unable to perform Communions or Baptisms, and needed to have a male priest oversee her work.

She is now the spiritual leader of her congregation, a job she’s been technically doing since 2008 – except right now, she doesn’t need any men of the cloth to supervise her anymore. Rola Sleiman thinks “it’s not a big deal” that such an event occurred. She says “I was serving my Church and will continue serving.”

But this is a big deal. The fact that a Presbyterian Parish in Tripoli ordained a woman to be their spiritual leader speaks volume about the strides forward that some parts of Lebanese society are doing. Rev. Sleiman is the first woman – ever – in the entire Arab world’s Christian population be be ordained as a priest. In other words, she’s the first woman to break into a calling that’s only been reserved exclusively for men.

That small congregation in Tripoli will now have the honor to be headed by Rev. Rola Sleiman for the following years to come. She’s a woman who is now championing equality in facets of Lebanese – and Arab – societies that we never thought could be broken into. It’s fitting that this occurs at the start of the international month for women empowerment.

Rola Sleiman’s ordainment is of vital importance in the climate of the world today where far-right groups are taking power and throwing minorities and women rights to the back of any tangible importance. As she told Huffington Post: “If the Church discriminates against women, what should we expect of the state? Christ is love, and love does not distinguish between men and women.” She is breaking tradition, ancient rules and cultural sensitivities.

In fact, she may be breaking some of the strongest traditions in the country and the region. For many, their highest form of authority is the priest who has always been a man. This time, it’s a woman. I hope Rev. Sleiman becomes the champion that her position permits her to be.

Of course, this will not change the status quo of the fight for equality between the sexes in Lebanon or the Arab world in general, but it can change some of its dynamics. To have a woman be ordained as a priest for a congregation – even if it’s small – and have that congregation not be opposed to it (as is obvious through that 23-1 vote) speaks volumes about how far we’ve come as a society, and it makes me proud.

In a country and a region where woman, despite being a demographic majority, are vastly under-represented be it in religious affairs, politics, business, etc… Rola Sleiman’s ordainment speaks volumes.

There will be people in this country, Christians and otherwise, who will have a problem having their Church headed by a woman. Catholics and Maronites don’t even allow it. But in a landscape filled by men, a change of perspective and, therefore, a change in direction is what is needed. Rev. Rola Sleiman can be that catalyst towards change in the heart of the Lebanese Church and the face of Arab Christianity.

Here’s to many more years to come in joyous and prosperous service of your altar and congregation, Rev. Sleiman.