Day Trippin' Tripoli, the one in Sham

Tripoli, aka Tarābulus / Tarabulus al-Sham, was not on top of my list of tourist destinations. Like many millenials who travel to Lebanon, I had watched the Vice documentary about the armed urban conflict and decided best to stay away from Tripoli. My Airbnb flatmates Ian and Dan held a similar impression of the city when they arrived in Lebanon for their holiday. Dan was especially worried that something wrong might happen. Ian was eager to see the city because it is closer in architectural style to his hometown, Damascus, than Beirut. But our host Ibrahim said that it is a cool city and showed us a short documentary on the reconstruction efforts since the conflict. I was also hoping we could visit the bookstore that burned

We set off on July 15 and made jokes about getting shot by crossfire. The same jovial middle-aged Lebanese driver who took us to Jounieh also found us again and offered to take us to Tripoli as well. At first he did not even recognize us, even though I think we stand out as a odd group of tourists. Ian, who continued to act as our trusty translator, said we didn't have the money and opted to take a bus for 5000LL per person.

At the bus stop in Beirut

On the way north, we passed by the same places we visited before; Jounieh and Harissa, which I might write about in a future post. The main highway artery is right next to the sea. We shared the bus with soldiers and a classmate from Arabic. There was supposedly 1 hour wifi for free but we didn't log in successfully. I snapped more shots of the road while Ian and Dan slept. 

When we arrived at the last stop, we were a bit at loss because there was no Google Maps. But I had the tour book with me from Ibrahim, which showed that the famed Citadel was at the bank of the river, so we ambled towards the river. On the way, we passed by bazaars and busy streets.

 Now I look back at the photos, I am surprised that the architecture maintained some uniform style, even though a lot of them are dilapidated. Clearly someone put in some effort in urban planning. 
But I have yet to read into the history. I took a lot of photos of the landscape and buildings that had religious significance or signs because I noticed the use of calligraphy was different from the signs in Beirut. 

(Colonial) Clock tower

We stopped by a very beautiful shop with tourist ornaments on the 1st floor and generic cosmetics on the 2nd floor. The architecture was beautiful.

As we left from the bazaar area, political posters began to appear. We also looked at the Syrian street from afar.

On the way to citadel, we passed a shop that sold religious CDs and cassettes. Ian interpreted the shopkeeper's brief explanation and I remembered my anthropology Professor's work on Islamic soundscapes.

Instructional DVDs on proper conduct in Islam with English translations

Skull caps imported from Turkey

We hiked along the river a while and found a very unconventional route that took us to the foot of the citadel but not the main entrance.

#OfficiallyLost #Tripoli

We even passed by a private home right next to it. The home seemed very peaceful with lots of (stray) cats.

We passed through an ancient alleyway. It seemed as old as the citadel itself. 

After stepping over a gully that had a dead rat in them, we made it to a grave which led to a side entrance of the citadel.

Pictures of the tombstones and flowers. Very picturesque graveyard and probably the only predominantly Islamic grave I have been inside.

At this point I still have not seen anything that "makes" this place a tourist spot.  

At the darwaza of the citadel

Stray cat at the citadel

What impressed me most was the birds eye view of the city as well as the presence of the Lebanese army. We found an army post with tents in a very secluded corner of the citadel. Even after centuries, a fort will more or less function as a fort. I have not seen any similar form of army presence at the Great Wall in Beijing or the Red Fort in Delhi, which is telling about the precarity of Lebanon. A guard emerged from his tent, saw us and shooed us away from the premises. 

There were also dungeons and I was kind of spooked, afraid that there might still be dead organic matter lying around. It reminded me of some former royal places in India.

We had lunch at a normal looking joint because there was chicken roasting by the corner. Most of the people who worked and patronized there are from Syria and they also talk with Ian about his British-Syrian origins. The cashier guy was so generous and warm, when he heard how far we traveled from, he gave us falafels for free. I was a bit unwell (shang huo) and didn't want falafels; Ian was a bit annoyed with me that I didn't eat meat and thus created more issues for him in terms of solving the food logistics. But I decided to eat them anyways. 

Beautiful archways in the old part of Tripoli

At some point while we we were wandering in the bazaar, we were apprehended by some youngsters. They were hired by the soap-selling shops and wanted us to buy some soap. We entered in a courtyard with a very classic fountain, one that reminds Ian of his home in Damascus. I also saw the soap-making bucket and was impressed by the antique-style set up. One girl who worked at the same shop said she learned English from watching English television. I was shocked and finally accepted the fact that I would have to learn languages through other means. I bought two bars of soap for 12,000LL. The male shop keeper also said that he had customers from China who bought soap by the ton.

I asked the soap-seller where I could find the bookstore. He was fluent in English, had heard about the bookstore, but was not sure about where it was and thought it might be closed. I realized I might leave without visiting it. 

I also realized that most books available are very generic.

I wanted to visit a mosque but all of them were closed. So we just snapped shots outside of them. Mamluk architecture is so different from other architectural styles I have seen in the same area.

Lovely street calligraphy

We passed by this cute kid and stylish car. They look like they were headed to some event. Ian was still full of energy while Dan and I were beat.
We asked several people for the directions to the bus station and many of them told us that the buses were already finished. Still, we persevered just in case there were buses left.

A tank parked on the street. We passed by an army point in the city. One officer said hello to me. Other boys on the street also notice I am Chinese and say "ni hao". Ian gets a great kick out of it; one of them chuckles in a very silly way after he said ni hao and Ian was so amused by the corniness of it all and repeats the anecdote time after time.

I also bought some string beans for 1000LL. That was definitely cheaper than what I would get in Beirut. At last we found the bus station but the last bus to Beirut indeed had left the dock. We luckily found a minivan and packed into it. The Americans we saw from the castle also joined us in the bus. We learned that most of them study about the Middle East at Harvard. But the one we talked with the most was exchanging at AUB from Georgetown University. His name was Hank.

On the way back, Hank and Ian discussed their impressions of the city.

Ian: Beirut is capitalist and divided. It's very different than Tripoli's vibe.

Hank: The latter is connected more to Damascus. It was never considered part of Mount Liban until the 1920s partition of the Ottoman Empire and official establishment of the French Mandate.

Beirut rose into prominence during the 1800s. More people came and missionaries took advantage. Western trade oriented. It was very rich until civil war.

Then the conversation shifted to the Shia neighborhood in Beirut: Hank explained that in the 1890s, Dahiya became part of Beirut. The inhabitants were mostly village people and more conservative than the heart of Beirut. Hank lived there in 2015 for several months. He also gave us a brief overview of his understanding of Syrian history: the French favored Alawis and minorities because they were part of the war zones. The Alawis suffered a lot from the late 1800s famine as well. Alawis were heavily divided in their attitudes toward the French. They were not a coherent group until the Assad family came into power. The first Assad removed religious authority and dismantled "Alawi" as a religion. The French gave them social mobility. It would have been difficult for them to achieve mobility otherwise; although there were also Alawi tax collectors (which is a relatively high social position) in 1860s.

Later I lost track of the conversation and focused on the beautiful scenery.


 Then we arrived in the Armenian town of Beirut; Ian, Dan and I took a bus back to the promenade close to where we lived while the others took a taxi. We arrived at the promenade just in time for the sunset. 

End note: I wrote this a bit later than I expected, and may have left out some details. Overall I should accept that blogs will not reflect experiences as they were, but rather filtered through memory and time. I really appreciated Ian's role of interpreting and guiding us, even though Dan and I also got fed up with him sometimes. The trip would not have happened if I did not have their company. My blog's readership exceeded 5000 hits last month! Thanks to all of you for reading!


In Conversation with a Pakistani Student on Politics

This is a partial transcription of my interview with Zaheer who was quite active in his years at his University based in Karachi with activities in support of PPP (Pakistan People's Party).  We conducted the interview in Goettingen, at his dorm during last year's Ramadan. The dorm is known as the student village (Studentendorf) and is usually free of political discussions about Pakistan. Zahir frowns on these discussions, which in his experience often led to discordance among friends. He was also fasting for Ramadan at the time of the interview. Therefore I am very grateful that this interview took place. The interview was initially conducted for my thesis on Pakistani nationalism; it was a difficult topic and I later changed it. The first half of the interview transcription with Zaheer was lost due to a computer problem. But the following transcription is also quite illuminating on current Pakistani politics and civil society.

Founder of PTI former cricketer Imran Khan

Has your family voted?

Zaheer: Yeah, they do. In Pakistan, it doesn't matter if it's a non-party or party basis election. In Pakistan, especially villages (90-95%) voting is done on [an] individual basis, not on party [basis]. If there are 10 candidates in one constituency, we will vote for 1 person. It doesn't matter if he stays in PPP, Noon league or any other Party. This is one reason for the bad democratic system in Pakistan, it's not a real democracy. It's the case in most developing countries. In developing countries, most parties do not continue for the next term. In developing countries, people won't satisfy. In developing countries, people are educated and they know, if they want to see results, they have to give a person 8-10 years. Because 4 years is nothing, especially for major projects. But in developing countries, they don't [give that much time]. So one time one party wins, next time it's a clean sweep. Next time, again that party comes. So in Pakistan, there was a two party system. Now the paradigm has changed, there is a new party that has gained a lot of attention and votes. In voting, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is the most popular party. But for the last 50-60 years it has been a swinging from one side to another side thing.

How does your family vote?

Zaheer: Mostly personal or on caste, religious lines. In my family, the females mostly are not interested in politics, they are just told 'ok we are going to vote for them,' and they say "ok. fine." One of the males say vote for them, and that's it. But now, my younger sister is educated and has a pretty good knowledge of politics and she's into it. So this time she was there, she has started discussions with the family members and others. "Ok we have to think." It's getting changed.

In your family who usually decides (which way the vote goes)?

Zaheer: The educated ones decide. Most of the educated people [of my family] are out of the village. Half of them are in Karachi, I am here [in Germany], some guys are in Islamabad.

They don't go home to vote?

Zaheer: No. Some family members vote in Karachi. But in village, my uncle, he participates and he decides "we are voting them." It's not forcefully, but they ask, "we will vote for them." In our societies people have respect for them, so they don't oppose.

Which candidate is supported from your village?

Zaheer: In the national level, mostly people vote for the People's Party. Those who think on party lines they vote for People's Party. There is also a member of national assembly and member of the provincial assembly. So these guys swing and don't have a fixed party. They participated in 3 different parties.

Our village used to vote for these two people. But now the younger generation stood and said "we are not going to vote for this person. We are voting for him, his father and grandfather, so we didn't get anything. He just came in election time and doesn't show up again" and so on.

You can say the elders are on one side and the younger (generation) are on another side. The young generation won in the last 3 elections. They stood against the panchayat system and the main decision makers of the village, they got the vote and they won. So this is the indication that the elders have to think "what I have suggested in the last elections," about their policies and loyalties.

Which party does your Karachi part of your family support?

Zaheer: The People's party. Why? I am very interested in politics so I have views on all of the parties. For example, the MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement). I vote 10/10 for party organization. They have good control on party and good party infrastructure. They give chance to the middle class or lower class to lead. But there is a problem. There is a terror wing, which is a big question mark. The MQM is a very liberal pary, open-minded, so you can say it's a left party. I like them but they support terror. There are some people who are there (in the terror wing).
The next party I like is the Awami National Party in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is pretty much liberal. But it's very limited, it's only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, their leaders are more pro-Afghanistan than Pakistan, but still they are a liberal party. So I think it's a good party.

"The Awami National Party's holds much support in Pashtun-dominated areas of Karachi. They have decked this bridge with their traditional red, and slogans supporting the party's Karachi leadership." - Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera

I like and support People's Party, because it's the Party of most educated people, and they are more liberal, they have real democratic attitudes, so such kind of parties we need in Pakistan. Other parties, for example PTI, PTI is good, their slogan ["Justice, Humanity and Self Esteem"] is good. They are demanding good things, but their way of proceeding is not very good. Unfortunately, I don't agree with their ways most of the time.

What do you mean? In terms of the execution?

Zaheer: Not the execution. For example, the [PTI's] wish is: "within a day something happens and the things would change." Big change doesn't happen. Big change only happens when there is a war. You have to give a lot to get big change. For example, last year or the year before, there was demonstration against election rigging and so on. The PTI boycotted the elections. There was a good chance to get a big change. In Pakistan, elections are always rigged. So they were demanding to investigate and demanding to change the constitution and electoral votings. They were demanding everything that was good for the election system. But suddenly, Imran Khan said, "ok, we are not accepting anything unless Nawaz Sharif (our Prime Minister) resigns." Which was not the point. (The PTI) demanded 6 demands. There was a time when the government was almost ready to accept 6 out of 6 demands. In politics it doesn't happen. In politics, you cannot get 100%. If you get 50%, it's your win. And then, all logical and right demands (the government) was going to accept, then Imran Khan said "we need the resignation of Nawaz Sharif." Once he saw that "I have a big crowd, I have a big force, let's demolish it," that was the point when all other parties stood with Nawaz Sharif, because (Imran Khan) was almost against the parliament system. They stood with him, and by the time the whole pressure was gone.

So the government that was ready to agree the 6 demands, at the end (Imram Khan) got nothing. There isn't any change in the electoral system, and he hasn't got any single thing. It was the individual decision. One person has wasted 3 months of the nation. He has wasted energies of the people. I would say 200,000 or even more people were sitting in Islamabad, that was wasted. So I wouldn't go behind that leader. The leader who cannot judge or who cannot bargain the right thing is not right. This is one reason. Another reason is that he is pro-Taliban. He was saying "we have to talk we have to talk," but it seems like he did a little chorus. He repeatedly said "we have to talk we have to talk." Ok, we have to talk. But it's not like we are begging to talk. We are a sovereign country, we have to take action so we have to bring them on the table on our terms. So Imran Khan is very famous among the young generation, he is our national hero, and I respect him as my hero. But he is my hero in cricket, not in politics. But most of the Pakistanis consider him as a hero in politics as well. Yes, his demands are right. But he has changed the game , he was pro-Taliban and everyone was giving justification "yes he's saying right" and that was a big question mark for me.

But otherwise yes I support most of the things (represented by) PTI.

The final party Muslim League, they don't have a democratic attitude, they are ruling like a dictator, so i don't like them. Every time they come in power, they created mess. Every time they messed up with the army, and then the army took over, and then the army messed up the country, and then every time they have given the country to the People's Party to regain the strength and reestablish the institutions. We had coup 3 times. After all 3 times, the People's Party came into power.

So you think the army intrudes in civil society. Do you think the civil society is stronger now?
Raheel Sharif, center right, with prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, center left.
Caren Firouz/Reuters

Zaheer: Yes, I think so. Civil society has become and is becoming stronger. I wish we are not going to have another coup or another army dictatorship. I don't think it's going to happen. For example, there were serious conflicts between the government and the general head quarters (GHQ) of he Army. But the army didn't dare to coup. One can say that was a time when the Army could have took over but didn't. Media has played a large role there. There is more awareness, people are more vibrant now. They are taking part in politics. Our army chief, general Raheel Sharif, he belongs to a family who has served since long. some of his family members has got the highest Nishan [i-Pakistan] award in the army (*Wikipedia: The Nishan [i-Pakistan] "is the highest of civil awards and decorations given by the Government of Pakistan for the highest degree of service to the country and nation of Pakistan"). He kept his family tradition and stayed away from politics. he could have taken over in recent years if he wanted to. People were ready, political parties were ready, everyone was ready.

If there was a coup, there wouldn't have been a lot of resistance. You can see on the media. The government was almost gone. There wasn't a lot of control on institutions. right now, there are Panama leaks, the PM (Prime Minister) was listed.

There were some people calling for a "military coup and save the country" and so on. In developing countries, the memory is short. They don't think about the past but focus on the present.
I don't think it's going to happen again. In the past, the army was on one side, the otehr side political parties wanted to take over and fabricating reasons to take over. Nawaz Sharif has dismissed our army chief when he was on an official trip in Sri Lanka. Sharif dismissed him. That was something very vague. You are the supreme leader, you can do it, but you have to do it in a proper way. They created a mess and was the reason for the army to take over.

Recently, when Imran Khan was in the demonstration, there was a peak time and everything was settle for a [military] takeover. But the parties such as PPP stood with the government. They said, we also want change, within parliament or within our system. Not extra.

In the past, there was a fight between PPP and Muslim League Noon. They were always blaming each other until the army takeover. Now there were tensions between parties, but they didn't get to the point so the army takeover. There is maturity in political parties. The reason was provided by political parties (for an army takover)

They stood by Nawaz Sharif and against Imran Khan and all those who wanted to demolish and wrap up the system. They stood against that thing. We don't support to wrap up the system, we don't support to demolish our parliament. if you want to change something, let's talk get into the Parliament, let's talk and decide here we will support you.


Some unanswered question from my side: Even though Imran Khan's movement was a mass movement, it could also harbor antidemocratic tendencies and might pose a threat to civil society.


On the shores of Beirut

I was not ready for summer in Lebanon. I did not check the weather or climate prior to my arrival. I just knew I had to go. The best thing in preparation for summer was the sun block I bought reluctantly at the convenient store Rossman. The second best thing was that my apartment had an air conditioner, which I did not expect.
When I traveled to the region, I was surprised first by the heat in the Istanbul airport. Then in Beirut, I realized quickly I would have to change clothes more frequently due to the sweat and dust. I dutifully applied sunscreen everyday. My flatmate Ian also reminded me some time later with the pithy observation that Beirut is kind of like the California of the Middle East in terms of the culture and glossy beach-looks on the street.

The taxi driver who drove me to my apartment on the first day of my arrival invited me to see some sights in Beirut. The next day, he drove by with another car and showed me the prehistoric Pigeons' Rock at Raouché. Later, he also invited me to an outdoor cafe for shisha. He was fine with just coffee. It was interesting how he considered coffee to be in the same category as other "intoxicants" and vices. The cool breeze blew around us and everything felt calm. Families also relaxed with one another, and I was genuinely moved by the abundance and sociality. I had heard about the pollution issues, so I did not expect the sea to be as beautiful as it was. More importantly, the nightlife felt vivacious, warm and welcoming. One of the customers' brought their lovely toddler daughter and the waiter would greet and hug the kid like she was his neighbor. I cherish that scene to this day.

After a few days, I realized that I actually lived quite close to the sea and I did not need a car to get there. I realized that when walking from my class back to Hamra and searching for the beach route. Unfortunately the sun was very bright and uncomfortable. But I got a lot of nice pictures that would have otherwise been different at night. During the day there are mostly swimmers and men who are fishing.

A boy says hello to me while floating in the ocean

A fisherman at work.
Dan and I even saw turtles. One turtle was caught on a hook. The fisherman pulled quite a few times but could not get it either up or off. Many people watched and some even told the fisherman to let it go by cutting the string. ("It's inhumane.") Eventually the turtle was let go of. Humanity insaaniyat won!

Some military men finish their run alongside the promenade.

People can also smoke shisha on the rocks. 

A boat in the middle of a beautiful sunset. Some are for hire. Closer to the camera, there are people standing on rocks, waiting to leave or to enter the sea again.

 Another shot of the same beautiful sunset, marking the start of another active night in Beirut.

I also took my friend Morgana there during one Saturday night. She was also surprised by the amount of people and liked the general balmy and raucous atmosphere. We walked back and forth a couple of times. She has the same habit like me: we would like to take more pictures of people whom we find interesting, but we are also afraid of offending them with our camera.

At night, more people come out and the atmosphere is more electrified and mysterious. Linda said that this is a place where supposedly a lot of life changing events happen, such as proposals or romantic chance meetings. I revisited this place many more times to escape the second hand smoke in my apartment.

I noticed how it was different to walk with a man, with a woman, or by oneself in these open spaces. People have different reactions to you. I also noticed that others behaved differently depending on their company. For example, it was more likely that I would be teased for my presence by a group of people rather than an individual. Sometimes men would say hello to me in a friendly way. Once I smiled back and the man was utterly confused because he probably didn't expect me to smile back.

Morgana and I went to sit on the rocks below the walkway. I stole a shot of a pensive young man who was sitting on the rails. Many people sit like this for the sole purpose of people watching.

A man showing off his skills and standing on a moving bicycle

On the right side is another photo of the same man on the bicycle. Sometimes people also dance in this area, or it could be run over with children and their toys as well. It just depends on the day of the week. Once Ian met a child who was from Syria. The child was asking for money. Ian asked him a few questions which the child could barely answer. He lived with his mother but she was also begging somewhere else. So Ian decided to buy him some water and an ice cream from Mcdonalds. Dan and I waited here for him to complete his mission. He felt a bit better after he bought it, even though we knew that the poverty of refugees is much more rampant than we will ever be able to experience on a first-person basis.

On July 12, a family (specifically the two daughters and one mother) asked me in hesitant English what beauty products I use for my skin, since (in their opinion) my face was so smooth and nice... I said Vichy and they immediately knew it. Oh Beirut... The level of sophistication and consumption of western products in this part of the world surprised me at first, and continued to surprise me...

Many men take chances in the supposedly polluted sea. It is also really easy to get hurt from the rocks since the waves are quite unpredictable.


Many young men like to walk and show off their dogs on this long beach walkway. Hasan was one of them. I observed that they all know each other and there seems to be a kind of health competition among them. They love their dogs, but in a different way than what I experienced in the U.S. The dogs are more markers of status in Beirut and mostly men walk the dogs in this area. In the east side of Beirut, I see more nannies walking the dogs for the owners. 

Hasan and his dog "Killer". Killer is often a dog who inspires fear. Parents often do not allow their kids to touch him. At one point a random man on the street even said to Hasan, "I hope your dog eats you!" Hasan is proud that Killer knows his owner's mind even before he communicates with him.

I take this path when I want to go to the sea. It is kind of steep but also very quiet and reflective. Often there are couples sitting on the steps talking with one another.

Hands down, this was my favorite places in Beirut and I really appreciate that it hasn't become a commercial port and it hasn't privatized yet. Hopefully it will become cleaner and more habitable for animals in the future.