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Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Near the end of the day in Tripoli, I saw a teen boy with a massive headwound. He sat in the passenger seat of an ancient-looking Mercedes speeding him to the hospital. You could make out the blood from halfway across the neighborhood. The car's driver madly, repeatedly beeped the horn as they raced down a road parallel with a creek that carved a deep, trash-lined path through the middle of town. No idea what had happened to him. Needless to say, the scene was surreal.

Many things about Tripoli stand in stark contrast with Beirut, which we have gotten so accustomed to so quickly. The vast majority of the population in Tripoli is Sunni, and the population seems very devout, especially on Eid al Adha, the holy day on which we visited. Beirut--especially the Hamra area--maintains a relatively secular feel, but Tripoli feels more like the version of the Middle East we Westerners often see on the news, i.e., a place where nearly everyone is Muslim.

So it was appropriate that we visited a Mosque, one of the Mosques the Maamluks built on top of a Crusader church after the Crusaders were finally defeated. The Taynal Mosque has the typical Maamluk style of black and white checkered pattern stones. The muezzin (who calls the neighborhood to prayer) was in a jovial mood for the holiday and chatted up visitors, especially our guide, who the muezzin kept telling what to tell us about Tripoli and the mosque. The dress code wasn't quite as strict as the Umayyad Mosque in Syria, but Nicole still had to put a hooded robe over her clothes.

The Crusader Castle was the highlight of the visit. It's a huge complex of multiple rooms and multiple floors, and it's remarkably well-preserved, given that the Crusaders built it upon arrival in the Middle East. You can wander and explore and do just about anything you want to do. Some of the sights at the top of the castle are a bit precarious and Nicole and I found ourselves climbing some narrow steps to get to the top. The Lebanese Army maintains a strong presence in and around the castle and of course you have to be careful not to take any pictures of the soldiers or their vehicles. This was pretty funny. A soldier walked past me carrying a big pot of oil. I wondered if he was going to heat it and use it to fight off invaders below, but alas he was taking it up to his mates where they were frying chicken for lunch.

We walked through the souks, some of which were closed for the holidays. Like the souks of Damascus, those in Tripoli exist in this vast maze of narrow alleys. Little boys were playing with plastic cap guns, chasing each other up and down the ancient streets. We went into an old bathhouse down in the souks. You go into a big entry room with soft couches and blankets to provide some relaxation before your bath. Oh, and a big bin of sandals to use in the actual baths. I walked all the way through and frankly was happy just to be an observer, not a bather. We went to one of the soap khans in the souks too. Tripoli has long been a center of soapmaking. We went to an old family business where they still make soap from local olive oil. Not as rustic as it might sound--their sign advertises their website and they take all kinds of credit cards.

Okay, the day included a bakery...of course. "Abdul Rahman Hallab and Sons," where they've been in the kenefe business since 1881. Trays and trays and trays of the stuff. Not to mention all the baklaway, chocolate, and ice cream (the latter is just about mandatory at big bakeries here). I got kenefe of course. They serve it relatively dry but bring squeeze bottles of syrup (homemade simple syrup infused with rose water) to your table. Nicole got something even better. Ouzi with chicken, mushrooms, and curried rice, all in puff pastry. Insanely good.

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