Chapter Four - Welcome to the Middle East: Tripoli
I managed to hitch to Tripoli. Arriving there was like arriving in the 'real' Middle East, the Middle East I was used to. The muezzin calling to prayer, dirty streets with road-side stalls crowded with people, many of them Muslim women in long robes, extremely friendly people when asking for directions or just when passing by... God, I loved it !
I asked to be dropped off at Rue Tall, near the clock tower, as that's where the budget hotels are located. I realised that in Lebanon you can actually have that incredible experience, that awesome feeling of moving from a Westernised environment to a much more genuine Oriental one, by only driving a very short distance. Lebanon therefore could be a great introduction to the rest of the Middle East, not only to the people, the sort of sites and the food, but also - and very much so - to the problems of the region. If you like places like Tripoli, the Bekaa Valley and Saida, you'll just love the other countries !
I checked out a couple of places to stay : the Hotel des Cèdres, Palace Hotel and Hotel Koura. The latter was IMHO the best of the three. It's run by a woman and her brother. Both are very friendly; the (unmarried) lady speaks French, her brother can handle both French and English. They're Catholics, which must be rather tough in a city which is 95% Muslim.
The hotel is old and is run-down ("It is a very nice, converted old house off Rue Tall" in the Lonely Planet guide was definitely an overstatement !). Apparently the owners noticed that too, as renovations are in progress. Most of the only handful of rooms that could be had, were occupied by Syrian workers, friendly chaps. My air-conditioned single cost me LL 20,000. There was only a wash-basin. The bathroom was down the hall. The quality of the room was acceptable, but compared to most of the other places I (had to) stay(ed), it was a dump.
When I returned from an early evening walk, I met some youngsters virtually next door to the al-Koura. Gamel, Radwan, Mohammad and Ali; Ali was only sixteen and had lived fifteen years of his life in Germany. He told me that he had stayed in Hotel Koura as well. The asking price for him had been LL 4000, he said, but without A/C ! That shows the price difference for locals and foreigners ! He urged me to complain, but of course there's no way I'd been able to get a room for that price.
Gamel and Mohammad went for another walk with me. They treated me to all kinds of small presents : drinks, sweets,... Gamel, who worked in the gold souq, even gave me a nice tie-pin (although I never wear ties :-) ) !
I wanted to eat something. Gamel immediately suggested the Kentucky Fried Chicken, because they had "the best hamburgers". Clearly American fast-food joints held a big attraction to the Lebanese youth... Still, I must admit that the burgers are better than the ones I later had at Big Bite's. Good Food, a new place, virtually 'round the corner from the al-Koura came recommended by locals, but I didn't eat there. We had a nice conversation, and Gamel said he would arrange a car the next evening, and then he and his friends would take me out. Sounded like fun. We agreed to meet at 5 pm, which is unthinkable nowadays in Western Europe. I suppose the youth over here, within a couple of years, will agree to meet at 5 am (if they don't already :-) )...
I had a good night's sleep. In the (early) morning I went for a walking tour of the city, but first I had breakfast at Paradise Pizza. It's indeed a pizza joint, but they also have lovely croissants and stuff. Delicious, cheap, friendly, the keywords of the place and therefore highly recommended.
The old city is a fascinating area to explore, and that's really what you're doing : exploring ! It's a real maze ! People were friendly and helpful wherever I went. It would lead too far to mention all mosques, hammams and old buildings I came across, so I limit myself to the most interesting/striking. Besides, some interesting ones were under reconstruction to fix the war damage, so they looked more like construction sites (which of course they were) than architectural treasures.
The gate of the Grand Mosque was closed when I arrived. I asked a cigarettes vendor near the entrance if I could have a peek. "No Problem", he said, and opened the door for me. The mosques better looking from the inner courtyard than it does from the street, although it's not baffling. Adjacent is the al-Qartawiya Madrassah. Its façade is nice but again not baffling. Just past the mosque and inside the souq is the Hammam en-Nouri. It can be seen from the street from 'round the corner. The entrance is a bit tricky to find, as you have to walk right through a small shop. The hammam is rather dilapidated but one can still visualise how it once must have looked; rather grand that is.
In my guidebook I had seen a picture of a hammam with a striking rooftop : full of particularly intriguing domes. Unfortunately the book didn't mention the name of the bath house. I enquired at a butcher's. The friendly chap spoke English quite well. He had worked in Togo for ten years and had only recently returned to Tripoli. So, he didn't remember the name of the place. In the background I noticed a mosque's minaret. "Do you know the name of this mosque ?", I asked. "Yes, he said, I do recognise that one. I also cannot remember the name, but I can direct you to it."
A stroll through the winding and rather dirty souq streets brought me to the al-Muallaq Mosque; the minaret is its best feature. This area had apparently seen some fighting in the war, as many buildings in the neighbourhood were riddled with bullet holes.
I needed to ask where the hammam was situated. I was in luck. Some of the taxi drivers who were waiting for customers there had lived in Germany and therefore spoke the language. I showed them the book and said I wanted to see that place. "Oh, that's the Hammam al-Jadid", the men said. One of them took me by the arm and walked me to the entrance. Unfortunately, it appeared to be locked. "How can I get inside ?", I wanted to know. The man didn't know. He said good-bye and left. Obviously, that wasn't good enough for me. The plain, dusty exterior didn't satisfy me at all; I wanted to see the domes on the roof ! I searched until I found somebody who spoke a little English. A merchant. He too took me by the arm and walked me to the entrance. "How can I get in ? Where's the key ?", I asked. Unfortunately he couldn't tell me either. Would I really have to leave without having seen what I came for ? A shopkeeper who had been sitting in front of his shop had been observing me all the time, probably wondering what I was up to. I walked up to him and made some gestures as if I was turning a key in a door. He understood what I wanted, and pointed towards a policeman who was drinking tea with another shopkeeper.
"Hello sir. Could you please tell me where I can get the key to open that door ?"
He just looked at me. He didn't understand English.
My sign language got the message through to him.
"Two thousand.", was his only answer.
"Excuse me, sir ?"
I understood all right. Sigh. I handed him the money.
He walked with me to the door and kicked it with his boot. It just opened. It wasn't locked at all ! They had told me it was locked but I actually never checked.
The policeman smiled and handed the money back to me, and told me to leave it inside. There was a box "for the upkeep of the site". He had taught me an important lesson : to not take everything for granted.
Inside the hammam was splendid. Truly splendid ! It's a big place, and I explored all the rooms. There's a big dome built over the fountain in the entrance. Very beautiful ! I asked a worker how I could get on the roof. He showed me the stairs which lead up to it. Wow ! The domes were very impressive, even more so than on the picture ! They look like ordinary, small cupolas with old bottles sticking out of them. These are thick, conical, specially-made glass objects; inside they make for a diffuse light, though brighter than you'd imagine.
I headed for the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, near the Kadisha River. It's an imposing Crusader castle, partly restored. It wasn't very clear where the entrance was to be found, but finally I got in. A ticket was LL 5000. Inside, the place is huge. Huge but plain. There's nothing to do really but to enjoy the fine views from the ramparts. Extensive buildings like this would be ideally suited to house a museum of some sort; it's really too big to be empty. Even better would it be to add furniture and utensils, just like in the time it was actually lived in. An architect responsible for the restoration of the castle, told me in the years before the war there was a fine restaurant in one of the vaulted halls. He showed me, and I think it must have been one hell of a place to dine. No doubt very expensive. He said there were high hopes for the future, but for the moment there were hardly any visitors (especially when compared to 'before').
From the walls, I noticed an attractive spot a short distance from the citadel, near the bridge over the river. I decided to take a look at it after I would leave.
So I did. First I walked across the bridge. From there the view of the castle is stunning. There was a small wooden barrack which was used as a 'leisure shack' by some local men. They chatted, played backgammon and drank coffee. I decided to drop in and 'mingle'. I was given a warm welcome. I had a couple of Pepsi's. The temperature during my whole stay in Lebanon was high; it was downright hot, and a cold drink from time to time was more than welcome. Unfortunately nobody could speak anything but Arabic, and my vocabulary in that language is really much too limited. :-)
After an hour or so I went to see the place I'd seen from the citadel. It was a nice, green spot. Out of the foliage peeked a beautiful minaret. It belonged to the al-Burtasiya Mosque. There's a madrassah in there as well.
Back across the river again, I tried to get a service taxi to stop. There were many of them, but strangely enough, it took me nearly fifteen minutes to get a ride. And then it wasn't even a service, but an ordinary taxi (count on LL 5000 for that ride). I wanted to see the Lion Tower in al-Mina. "To al-Mina", I said. And so that's where Ali, the driver, headed. al-Mina is situated on a headland and consists - among others - of some (very) posh neighbourhoods. There are lovely palm tree-lined boulevards, and nice shops. Unfortunately this was not where I needed to be. The Lion Tower was out of the built-up area. But I didn't know where we were at that very moment, of course, and even the Arabic name of the tower, Bourj es-Sba, didn't mean anything to Ali. It took several stops at different shops to find out where it was. Upon finally approaching it, I noticed the sad remains of a former train station. On the tracks still stood trains and carriages, but they were completely rusting away. Years ago, Lebanon had a reasonable railway network, but the war put an end to that.
The Lion Tower, although it's hardly worth the name IMHO, is a really beautiful monument. Entrance is free. There are a couple of people who will guide you around inside if you want. One of them did that by self-appointment for me, but oddly enough he didn't expect a tip at the end (and I didn't want to start a trend).
From the roof there's a great view towards Tripoli. You are on the headland a couple of kilometres away from the town centre. In between is nothing but some wasteland, and behind the buildings in the distance are mountains. It's a lovely sight.
I decided to walk along the old train tracks towards a big shed where I had seen a collection of locomotives was stored. When I passed some carriages, I noticed that some of the rusted away side panels had been replaced by woven reed, and on the ground under the unit were piles of garbage. I suspected the worst : there were people living in these trains. And yes indeed, inside one carriage I noticed some assorted nudity pictures, and in the next a head carefully peeked outside and retreated as soon as I looked in its direction. I decided it was better to move on. There were several fuel tanks whose thick walls had been shot clear through with heavy artillery.
The most surprising thing, however, was that there, amidst the scrap, was still a small café. Apparently - judging from the cases with empty bottles - it was still functioning; I wonder who on Earth still visits it... It was closed when I passed by though. Close to the train shed, I had to make my way through some bushes. Big was my surprise when I stared into the nozzle of an automatic rifle equipped with a bayonet. It belonged to a Syrian soldier. I smiled and shook hands with him. He was a sentry of the Syrian army battalion who had taken in the shed. Walking any further, let alone taking pictures of the locomotives, was strictly prohibited. I considered it wiser to leave. I walked a couple of hundred metres, and then managed to pick up a service taxi to Tall for LL 1000.
I changed to another taxi (LL 5000) to get to Qubbet al-Beddawi, a town which adjoins Tripoli. The driver wondered what the heck I thought to find in Beddawi. "There", pointing to the city behind us, he said, "city. Qubbet nothing." I explained I wanted to see the Whirling Dervish Monastery and the pool with sacred carp which were supposed to be located there. He didn't understand me at all. I tried to explain that Beddawi was the dervish who brought the 'Whirling' to this region and had given his name to the town, but to no avail. Taxi drivers in Lebanon easily admit that they don't know where a place is located, which is in stark contrast to many drivers in Europe, who will drive until they do (or don't...) find whatever it is you want to go to... We stopped in Qubbet and popped into several shops until we had found some people who could speak a foreign language. A met a bloke who'd lived in Australia before, and another who spoke French perfectly. Neither of them at first got what I was on about, although there was no language barrier anymore. After a while, I found the reason for this : the pool with the carp had dried out. According to M'hammad, the French-speaking man, there hadn't been carp in there since 1986, except for 1992 when there had been extensive rains and the fish 'miraculously' returned in the pool for one year only. No wonder I had to refresh some memories ! 1986, that's twelve years ago !
The monastery is still there, however, but it's not functional anymore. The mosque is. In the presence of M'hammad I was given a warm welcome and was shown around the place. I also got to see the tomb of Beddawi, the Dervish.
The sanctuary is built upon the remains of Crusader buildings, the Priory of St Anthony of Padua. Because I was genuinely interested, several doors which are normally closed for visitors, were unlocked for me. I was taken to the top of the minaret from where there's an excellent view of the former priory buildings; it's quite easy to make the distinction between the Crusader buildings and the newer additions. In the recent civil war, the monastery was used by Palestinian fighters. It'll come as no surprise now that the place could do with a thorough renovation ? Windows have been bricked up, walls have been built inside to make separations, there's 'war graffiti' all over the interior, and several (dead) soldier's clothes and utensils still lie in the dark 'n' dusty corridors and rooms. According to M'hammad it'll be a long time before the government will have any funds available for the restoration of this place; it's not on the priority list (which is perfectly understandable, of course). It was an interesting visit, but it won't appeal to many people, although the left portico is worth mentioning.
Right next door, Syrian workers were involved in the construction of what looked like an apartment block. They were intrigued by this Westerner taking such an interest in the place; after all, I spent at least a full hour there. Being the naturally hospitable people they are, the Syrians invited me and M'hammad over to drink tea. I gladly accepted (see ? that's the reason why I like Syria so much and have such a great respect for their people). I was taken to the underground parking lot for the new building. In this environment the workers actually lived. Several mattresses were lying on the ground, mosquito nets hung over them. There was a corner which was used as a would-be kitchen, judging from the pots, pans and utensils. A gas stove was fired up, and about ten minutes later we were all enjoying a nice cuppa. My hosts spoke only Arabic, but M'hammad could do all the translations for me. They were delighted to hear that I had been to Syria before, and we all revived 'old' memories.
Of course, these guys had to go back to work, so after half an hour or so, we said good-bye. Now it was M'hammad who invited me to lunch at his house, which was nearby. Again, I accepted; actually I hardly ever refuse, 'cause occasions like these are often the greatest memories of a trip, memories you won't have if you join a tour group.
M'Hammad's place was well-furnished and -equipped. I met his wife and little kid. Nice people. M'hammad had been working for the government before, but had now retired. He was a very decent, cultivated man, with good knowledge of many topics. It was fun talking to him.
After the tasty dinner, M'hammad and his wife drove me back to Tall. I went to my hotel to wait for Gamel to show up. At 4.30 there was a knock on my door. Gamel. His friends with the car were waiting 'round the corner. They were sort of dressed up for the occasion, and even made a stop at a roadside stall to buy after-shave. I turned out we were going to Enfe, where supposedly the "best cinema in Lebanon" was located. It's certainly a big complex; it's called Las Salinas, and it's part of the resort of the same name. It has a very modern appearance and four theatres. Big was my friends' disappointment when they found out they had already seen all the films on show. Honestly, they looked like they could cry because they had failed to please me. Or so they thought. In reality I was very pleased. Not because I didn't have to see a film now, but just because these guys were so incredibly nice to me.
It still being early, they suggested to drive me to several nice lookout spots in the mountains to take pictures of the sunset and dusk. Fine by me, and boy, did they know some great spots ! The best most certainly was a small, open forest near the big college above Enfe.
After dark we headed back to Tripoli. The favourite pastime of the youngsters there seems to be parading and cruising. The boulevard(s) of al-Mina is where it all happens. Numerous (Catholic, my pals told me) young girls stand on one side of the street, with the boys opposed to them on the other side. Most of them are dressed up. The girls were extremely nice, often wearing short mini skirts and parading as if they were walking on a catwalk. On the other side several boys took some 'tough' poses to illustrate their masculinity. It was a funny sight. We, like many others who had a car, cruised the boulevard in between, looking at the scene (well, my friends were looking at the chicks only, obviously :-). I think we drove up and down that street at least a dozen times, probably a lot more, taking several hours. Still it wasn't really boring because it gave me an insight in how the local youngsters are trying to meet. In between we also took a Corniche walk, which IMHO is much, much more pleasant than the same thing in Beirut. It's very crowded and dark. Guys selling coffee, sweets, corn cobs, breads, etc are everywhere. My hosts treated me to all of it ! The local beggars see this time of day as the best to try their luck. Often they are handicapped or deformed (there were several sad polio cases; sad, considering the vaccination costs only a couple of bucks), but I was told the locals are reluctant to give because there are a lot of "profiteers". Could be...
We ended the day - not very late, around ten or eleven, I believe - in an ice cream parlour which belonged to a brother of one of my hosts. The ice cream wasn't particularly good but it had a nice terrace on the upper floor, and the atmosphere was good.
I was driven back to the al-Koura, where we said good-bye but promised to keep in touch. Will be hard if the postal system in Lebanon remains what it is... I sent a dozen or so cards from the post-office in Beirut on the 3rd of October but they still haven't arrived one month later. I doubt they ever will...