Time makes noises. Every 60 seconds, a small buzzing sound emanates from four plastic boxes that are mounted at the four cardinal points and below four round windows inside the Abdulhamid Clocktower in Tripoli. Between cracks that looks like parched earth behind the windows once evenly covered with paint or a plastic layer dried out by the sun, I can see the large clock hands of the Ottoman Clocktower move. A little bit. By 1 minute.
Ahwet Abou Moussa, a “chaabi” cafe near Tripoli’s Bab el Ramel-Mharam cemetery, a few minutes walk from Taynal Mosque is fairly quiet during the rest of the year but gets very busy during Ramadan. Until the early morning hours. Tea (with cinnamon or cumin) and coffee are served all night, shishas are fired up, sweet smoke teasing the night sky, mostly men but also women, children and even toddlers sit around plastic tables and chairs, chatting, eating warm kaak (sesame bread) with white melted cheese inside, Ramadan soaps playing on TV screens installed above some sitting areas. Scooters squeeze threw, a boy on roller blades goes round up and down the street, never seems to tire.
The most charismatic of all is O*. He jokes, he oozes street cred, he speaks in the thickets Troboulsi I’ve heard so far. Proudly so. He sings an Oum Khoulthoum song for us. Whips up his phone to prove that he was singing Oum Khoulthoum and not too badly so. He tells of his upbringing in post war Lebanon (he was born in 1997, the war ended in 1990 but the Syrian occupation only ended in 2005). Time spent in an orphanage. Never knew his father. His mother died shortly after giving birth to him. His grandmother then tried her best to raise him. His “teita” (grandmother) not receiving a state pension (like most Lebanese), O had not much choice but to start working. From the age of 6.
Where we are sitting, O’s story is not unique. This part of Tripoli is very poor. These are some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country, and the region. Child labour is common. So are the posters of young martyrs that have been mounted onto walls that previously – and still – are mostly dominated by the local big men. Rich big men. Very rich big men.
That O has the lovely spirit he has and that he spoke to us as an equal and with confidence impressed me. That his grandmother managed to give him direction in life and that he has managed on his own, is remarkable. Still, I wonder what options does O have? Wouldn’t he be good at the reception of a hotel or guest house? Would he pass psychology and set up practise? Could he, with better schooling, have qualified to become an engineer? Ambassador? Or is he maybe apt at music? A dormant master plumber?
Without money or a family pooling together, O’s future could only be bleak. There is no social welfare, no social housing, no social grants, no social policies to equal things out.
O insisted to come with us to make sure we’d take the right direction to reach Tal by the time we left the cafe. around 3am. On our way, we passed the famous Ottoman Clocktower. It was lit up. “It’s like Big Ben,” N, a Tripolitan, shrieked with delight. “Look, it’s so nice, lit up.” I had to agree that indeed, it looked nice against the backdrop of a Ramadan near full-moon sky. “Have you been inside?” I egged her on? “No? Oh you should!”
And that is how, a few hours later we found ourselves in the Clocktower office on the ground floor of the Clocktower. While usually some letter of permission from the Municipality needs to be obtained, we managed to get up, based on the agreement that we were going at our own risk. And we had to close all windows and doors we’d open.
We passed the clerk, opened the door behind his desk and stepped onto the first metal step of a narrow stairway leading to the first level of the Clocktower. From here already, the perspective onto the area known as Tal, changes. Facades that one would not really notice, become apparent. The park below is luscious and its neat design become visible from above. As do the people sitting on the benches, passing by. We could see ‘them’ all but they seemed to not be aware of us. Gawking. Posing on balconies. Sprinkles like the railings and stairs inside, with bird shit.
Tal is similar in its make up to the old Martyr’s Square in Beirut. The square that was pulsating with life, that was the heart of the city. It was the main transport node from where buses and taxis would leave to any destination in the city or beyond. It was lined with buildings that housed cafes and stores. And cinemas. Iconic cinemas. The Opera, the Rivoli (blasted after the war). The Police headquarter. The red light district. A country and its institutions should be decentralised. A metropolis should not be – it needs a centre, that holds the rest together. A square that is accessible to all and public in order to equalise social inequalities.
The Garden beneath the Clocktower belonged once to the Nawfal Palace. Next to it, is the (closed) cinema Opera, the sign in an Art Deco font. On the other end of the garden is the municipality. Closer, towards ABC and Hotel Palace is what remains of the theatre that burnt down. There also used to be a casino. On the other side were Cinema Empire and the Dunia, which screened Arabic titles and burnt at some point. The facade has been painted by a local Henri Rousseau fan it seems… On the square below is often an army jeep, in front are fruit sellers and Mercedes Benz coil around the square.
Not one produced before the 1990s, I’d say. Classic, gas guzzling, squeaky (fake) leather seats, 80s models dominate. Covered in German stickers of cargo companies or the “Ein Herz für Kinder” (A heart for children) campaign, “ADAC” (German Automobile Club) and accessories – often horses stuck on the grille. Quite apt given that these cars are strong as a horse…
One could describe Tripoli by talking about its armada of old Benz. How they just seem to last and last. And not get replaced by any newer model, made by Mercedes or not. And the Benz procession. Coming from Koura Square behind Tal, the taxis who join up, park behind the last car. And switch their engines off. To move their cars, the drivers get out of their seats and push their taxis forward. It happens very slowly. And silently. Only once the first car in front is full of passengers – sometimes two in front – is the engine turned on, can the distinctive rattling sound these old cars make be heard. And exhausts emanate grey smoke like factories during the Industrial Revolution.
Tripoli is different. It also has to be. Albeit its fair share of very wealthy inhabitants, it is a poor city. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Or survival…
Inside the Clocktower, time stood still for me. What irony, I thought. Me, scolded (and cursed) many times, for being late. Mad rushes to make it. With scraping bums. For missing a [fill in various modes of transport]. For misreading time tables. Confusing starting times of events. For not being German in the way Germans tend to be, apparently: punctual. Always. (Also beer loving and more often than not, not supportive of the Palestinian cause. To name a few standard German traits).
So here I am. Inside time! I saw it pass. Literally. I saw it move. In front of my eyes. I’m surrounded by a square that has only somewhat changed – it does indeed look like a wonderful collection of old postcards I have seen. By and large it has remained the same, still accessible to all people who live in Tripoli, shaping public life in this city even though some dream of massive parkades in lieu of current laissez faire and a make-over could be nice…
And what about the Ottoman times? I’m in this Ottoman time capsule and indeed, Tripoli’s Ottoman heritage is omnipresent. Incidentally, the ties to Turkey remain strong. Much stronger than to Beirut. I often see large sign boards advertising Turkish universities in the North that I’ve never seen south of Batroun.
Present-day Lebanon was under – often oppressive – Ottoman rule from the very early 16th century until the early 20th century! In that time, Tripoli got connected to the Orient Express before the railway lines reached Beirut. Long-lasting demographic changes, due to a famine instigated by the Empire led to great suffering and a wave of emigration. Still, Tripolitans are starved, though in different ways, and leave their city, some have even tried the sea route…
Rich in history, architecture, full of characters, gentle souls, where is Tripoli going? Tripoli could go anywhere… as it is, it’s going at a gentler pace than the capital but sadly it also fails to take care of its citizens or offer them a vision leaving a handful of spirited individuals to step in and create bubbles of possibility…