TRIPOLI, Lebanon: It’s 4 a.m. in Tripoli, and the gloomy atmosphere coupled with the sleep-deprived faces in Abdel Hamid Karami Square sum up the general scene in the battered northern city.
The coffee vendor seems to be the main point of attraction for all those roaming the square in the early morning hours. Many came to see the remnants from the latest round of clashes that shattered daily routines and any sense of normalcy.
The vendor looked exhausted after what must have been a long night, but he was dutybound to rejuvenate the young men who lined up outside his stall with their LL250 in hand, waiting anxiously for hot cups of coffee and their promise of consciousness. The men stood listening to the sound of nearby gunfire and took turns guessing which neighborhood was the target.
Some soldiers left their barricades, drawn to the comforting aroma of coffee, but kept to themselves among the noisy mob.
“The soldiers are welcome, and their coffee is for free, for they are deprived of sleep to protect us,” one young man said.
Warm greetings for the soldiers are nothing new, as the public feels sympathy for the Army, which seem to be tied to the complicated realities of the city.
The deteriorating security in Tripoli is taking its toll on the daily lives of those residing in the northern city, where universities and schools have closed their doors along with the markets, exacerbating an already dire economic crisis.
Those enterprising few that have managed to launch lucrative initiatives must face the threat of protection racketeering.
“I decided to leave Tripoli and invest my money in an entertainment project in the village of Daher al-Ain in Koura. I bought the land and started to build an amusement park, until one day I received a visit by one of [Tripoli’s] field commanders who said to me that a single grenade would empty the park of customers,” said a Tripoli businessman who requested anonymity. “I understood the message and said: ‘I don’t like partnerships and I would rather sell the whole project,’ to my surprise he answered: ‘Calculate how much money you have paid and I will buy it from you.”
“It took me a few days to calculate the sum of money I paid. It was around $182,000. I informed the field commander, though I felt that the gangster would not be able to pay such a huge sum of money,” he added. “However, to my astonishment, the man brought the sum in cash about an hour later. I wanted to ask him where he got it from.”
Similar stories from Tripoli have emerged in recent years, but one in particular sparked an uproar on social media: The impending closure of Nafez al-Masri’s renowned fragrance shop in the Al-Tal neighborhood.
There is not a single Tripolitan who does not know Masri’s shop, which sold famous fragrances, clothing and imported goods in the middle of Al-Tal Square. For couples and young lovers in the city, the shop bore a special significance. Those who couldn’t afford expensive perfume or clothing from his shop would opt for a delicious chocolate bar or a box of sweets.
Masri himself seems different, his usual smiling face sunken, the glitter in his eyes replaced with a furrowed brow of frustration.
“I’m screaming in deep pain,” he said. “We love life in Tripoli, but we can’t endure the circumstances around us anymore. It seems that Tripoli is no longer a part of Lebanon. We pay our taxes and obey the law and we are honest people. It seems the politicians don’t want honest people to run the city, they’ve left the streets to be controlled by gangsters and thugs.”
“I can’t see my city like this.”
Masri said three years of recurrent fighting between the rival neighborhoods in the city led him to sell off his merchandise and close the shop, which his father opened 50 years ago.
“They emptied the country of all that is beautiful and they are doing away with the younger generation. I haven’t received any threats, but Tripoli has been drained. My daily losses have reached $1,000, so I’ve decided to close the shop,” he said.
“Maybe this will prompt some to act,” he said.
“Do politicians bear this kind of fighting in [Beirut’s] Antelias or Dora? Do we have to do this so they will understand the tragic state we are living in? Why do the state officials remain safe in their offices while the economic wheel stops running, paralyzing the country?” he asked.
Facing Masri’s shop is that of the head of the Merchants’ Association in Tripoli, Asaad Hariri, who has remained ensconced within it. He doesn’t mingle with his beloved customers anymore.
Hariri fondly recalled the days when he used to take huge sums of cash in hand from his shop in Al-Tal past the morning crowds of the city to the Arab Bank, where he would deposit it. At that time Tripoli markets were bustling with customers who came from all over the country.
“According to the statistics of the Merchants’ Association, the overall losses suffered in Tripoli have reached $18 million in the past seven months, and in Tripoli’s markets there are about 5,000 shops devoid of customers. We can’t endure this situation anymore and we are on the brink of an explosive social situation if solutions are not found in the near future,” he said.
“Tripoli’s beautiful past is lost, and is not coming back. What we want today is to continue to live in this country with our children. We don’t want to leave it as others have done,” he added.
Tripoli’s grim reality has cast a dark shadow on its cafes, movie theaters and other aspects of the city’s cultural life. Several well-known cafes like Tirol, Café Najjar and Caffitas have closed their doors, whereas restaurants have relocated to calmer areas like the Dam and Farz neighborhoods.
Abu Ahmad, the elderly waiter at the Pinky Café where most of Tripoli’s journalists, intellectuals and artists used to meet, has lost his sense of humor.
Pinky lost most of its customer base after many moved to safer areas. The place, adorned with antique chairs and tables, was all but empty save for a lawyer, in his 60s, who was sipping coffee slowly in his usual corner.
“Look at this cafe, it has become poor and neglected and without identity, just like Tripoli ... and like diaries kept by residents of this city,” he said