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Violence squashes business at Tripoli veggie market

Violence threatens Tripoli’s vegetable market, and traders are asking for a bigger, cleaner and safer space. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The fruit and vegetable markets in the country’s second city have proved the latest victims of sporadic fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

Located in the center of the largely pro-Syrian-revolution Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, the market shutters whenever clashes kick off with the pro-Assad Jabal Mohsen. There have been efforts to move the market after past violence, and tension in the city has renewed calls to permanently relocate the overcrowded marketplace.

Tripoli Mayor Nader Ghazal told The Daily Star that several options for the market have been proposed, and the issue will be referred to the municipal council for study. He mentioned that one proposal suggests moving the market outside the city to Ras al-Sakhr.

The city hasn’t reached a decision, but “the municipal council will study all proposals and will coordinate with other relevant municipalities such as Mina, Qalamoun and Ras Masqa,” Ghazal said.

Munib Maarabani, head of the Association of Tripoli Fruit and Vegetable Merchants, said the area once hosted more markets, including one for wheat and another dedicated to watermelons.

Over time, the market has grown to become overcrowded.

“We need a bigger area, a way to ensure cleanliness, comfortable transportation and warehouses and fridges that can accommodate the huge quantities in the market,” Maarabani said.

Maarabani has heard talk of various proposals, but so far has heard no “clear or official word.”

“We are a concerned party in any decision the municipality makes, and we will not allow a decision that doesn’t meet our interests and that of the people,” he said, adding that he was not optimistic about future changes.

Maarabani said that there has been discussion of moving the the marketplace for many years, and for now he and his colleagues “consider the new proposal to be mere talk, despite the fact that a new factor has emerged, meaning the security situation.”

“It is well known that with the first shot fired between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, vegetables will be cut off from the markets of Tripoli and the rest of the north,” he said, noting that the Bab al-Tabbaneh location is a center for goods from the Lebanese countryside and Syria.

Local rumors give Maarabani’s misgivings about change some merit, saying nearby Ras al-Sakhr landowners – concerned the market could reduce property values – will stop the plan. A source familiar with the issue told The Daily Star that more than one minister in the Cabinet owns lands near the proposed site.

These ministers are exerting political pressure on the municipality to prevent the move, the source added.

This is not the first time politics and vegetables have mixed in Tripoli. During June clashes, cart owners began selling out of a space near the Rashid Karami International Fair Ground, an area where property values are high and several politicians own buildings.

Vegetable merchants protested the lack of electricity and water around the fair grounds, and after quarreling with police they eventually returned to restive Bab al-Tabbaneh.

One vegetable merchant brought up the incident when asked about the plans to relocate. The man, who declined to be identified by name, said when they moved their carts in the summer, politicians pressured merchants to leave.

“We only moved our carts then, what would happen if we moved the entire wholesale market?” he mused.

“At the end, politicians do not care about the interests of poor people like us. They care only for their own interests,” he added.

“Their land is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they won’t let us be their neighbors.”

Another cart owner, who was selling apples for LL 3,000 per kilo, said he would get on with his business wherever it is. “After so long, we have become used to buying our products from the market and selling them to poor people at the lowest prices,” Mahmoud Asmar said.

“We don’t know what will be our fate or the fate of the market, but we will continue to try to make living regardless of what they decide.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 10, 2012, on page 4.

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