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Tripoli’s outlaw history, enduring poverty the root of city’s troubles
Bab al-Tabbaneh where the impoverished and marginalized people of Tripoli are concentrated. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
Bab al-Tabbaneh where the impoverished and marginalized people of Tripoli are concentrated. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
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TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Recurrent rounds of violence have transformed Tripoli from a bustling center of trade and commerce into an economically depressed city seemingly forever teetering on the brink of war.

The roots of Tripoli’s violence run deep and have found fertile ground in poverty and neglect, especially in the rival neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, currently locked in this year’s 18th round of fighting that has so far claimed at least 12 lives.

“Policemen and the men who come to collect our bills are all that we know of the state,” said Mahmoud al-Asmar, a young man from Bab al-Tabbaneh who now works in Qatar.

Asmar used to paint cars for a living, and when he lost his job he managed to find one abroad. He is now the sole breadwinner for his parents and eight siblings still living in Lebanon.

“Other services are provided by politicians, who only provide them around election time, so it’s normal that the city is plagued with chaos and moral depravity. This has become part of daily life in Bab al-Tabbaneh,” Asmar said.

Tripoli has now become a fixture of Lebanon’s daily news, as residents steal themselves for the periods of calm that they have come to accept are short-lived. According to locals, the relevant political parties are only capable of imposing short-term truces, which typically fall apart at the first instance of conflict.

Bab al-Tabbaneh, just like Bab al-Ramel and Bab al-Hadeed, takes its name from the gates of the now-demolished wall that once surrounded the old city of Tripoli. The neighborhood had been the ancient northern gate of the city, where merchant caravans once stopped to rest with their horses and camels.

Rural transplants first made their homes in the area, part of the city’s poverty belt, in the 1960s.

At first, the city’s thriving markets and booming economy managed to absorb the newcomers. Many found jobs in the vegetable, fish and wheat markets, as well as the numerous factories in the Bahsas where they made wood, iron, glass, oils and soap. However, the influx of unskilled workers soon proved too heavy a burden, unemployment increased and the edges of the city where the new arrivals settled became slums.

The state did not step in to alleviate the conditions of their poverty, although authorities soon had to contend with the fruit it bore.

“In the past, Bab al-Tabbaneh was like the promised land for those from the surrounding villages who wanted to find a good job,” Mouin Karami, 83, the son of the most prominent political leader in the city, Abdel Hamid Karami, told The Daily Star.

But the steady deterioration of the economy devastated Tripoli, and crime rose along with the number of those living in poverty.

“Bab al-Tabbaneh had prominent families and figures that played a pivotal role in the city’s politics and social life, such as the Qamareddine, Matar and Soboh families, among others, who used to intervene when necessary to keep the calm and peace in the old city,” Karami said.

“Between 1969-1972, Bab al-Tabbaneh saw the rise of an iconic figure, Ali Akkawi, who became the leader of the neighborhood’s residents after the economic wheel of the city began to slow,” he explained.

Akkawi was a leftist revolutionary who championed the rights of the poor. His Palestinian origins greatly influenced his idealism, as did his impoverished upbringing as the son of a baker.

“Though he was a journalist with Dar al-Sayyad in Beirut and enjoyed a decent social status, he was a staunch supporter of the poor residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh,” Karami said. “His old friends describe him as a romantic revolutionary who was always ready to sacrifice his life for the poor.”

Once, after a pharmacist reportedly refused to give medicine to a poor woman who promised to pay him back later, Akkawi raided the pharmacy, emptied it of its contents and distributed them among the poor.

The incident made Akkawi a wanted man, and he embraced the role of Robin Hood, becoming a vigilante for the poor. Eventually he was caught by the security forces and sent to prison, where he died. Several people claim he was poisoned.

His younger brother Khalil, known as Abu Arabi, would follow in his footsteps, becoming the leader of the neighborhood and a full-fledged warlord during the 1975-90 Civil War. He was particularly impressed by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and became convinced that Islamic ideals should inform political movements.

What distinguished Abu Arabi from his brother was his courting of intellectuals who would be instrumental in highlighting the plight of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s residents.

French thinker Michel Seurat and other prominent writers such as Nahla al-Shahhal and Elias Khoury and artist Roger Assaf were among the various intellectuals who lived in Tabbaneh to show solidarity with its residents and highlight their dire living conditions.

However, Abu Arabi’s attempt to bring the reality of life Bab al-Tabbaneh to light was cut short when he was assassinated on Feb. 6, 1985, an incident that led to intense fighting, the repercussions of which still resonate in the area today.

From the 1960s onward, Tripoli had been largely overlooked by the state, with few, if any, schools, hospitals, social centers or institutions built. This neglect eventually paved the way for the rise of other outlaws, not all of who were motivated by idealist dreams.

Several elderly Tripoli natives recalled the antics of Ahmad al-Qaddour, a local thug who was wanted by the authorities. In 1974, Qaddour formed a gang and soon gained control of the city’s old district, where he regularly threatened residents and shop owners. Qaddour believed in ruling by brute force, his famous slogan being “This country costs LL1,000” – the price of a single stick of dynamite.

Qaddour declared the old city neighborhoods “outlaw country.” His reign ended only after the state launched a military operation, much deadlier than the one being implemented today. The Army entered the old district and killed most of the armed men in the markets, especially those in the narrow alleyways of Daftardar square.

The gang leaders managed to flee the city and disappear, never to be heard from again. But their legacy prevails in the troubled city to this day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 04, 2013, on page 4.
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