TRIPOLI: Tucked away from the gold shops in the heart of Tripoli's picturesque souk stands the Khan al-Saboun (Soap Caravanserai). Built sometime between the 16th and 17th centuries as a military barracks, the khan later became a major market for the international soap trade and a lodge for weary merchants. The Khan declined in the 1900s, but the stone structure- impressive, if a little dilapidated, with arcaded passageways framing a large fountain- still betrays its historical importance.
The structure now finds itself at the heart of a bitter legal dispute pitting the Khan's dozen shop owners against the Tripoli Municipality, which plans to evict them, "expropriate" the Khan and bring in international companies after restoration.
Badr Hassoun, the Khan's most prominent businessman, is leading opposition efforts to the plan. Hassoun bought a number of shops 15 years ago and says he single-handedly resurrected the building's soap producing legacy that his ancestors helped to build. According to Hassoun, his Khan al-Saboun company serves a vital role in the local economy, employing 28 family members and around 250 other Lebanese, and attracting hordes of tourists to Tripoli's winding market every day. He is bewildered by the municipality decision, as well as the action of policemen who recently came to the Khan "without papers," knocked down the doors of several stores and forcibly changed the locks. Some of the doors destroyed were 600 years old, Badr's son Amir claimed.
The Hassoun family gave The Daily Star a copy of an email sent by Tripoli's Mayor, Rachid al-Jamali, to the Malaysian Embassy upon learning of a diplomatic event being hosted by Khan al-Saboun. Badr Hassoun was "opposing the official procedures and trying ... to hinder our legal procedures," Jamil told the ambassador, warning that he believed Hassoun had concocted the event as a way "to escalate his opposition to the official procedures."
When contacted by telephone on Tuesday, Jamali said the dispute was merely a question of implementing law for "a very important monument ... highly damaged and neglected."
The municipality hoped to transform the building into one of Tripoli's main historic and tourist sites, he said, adding that the decision to "expropriate" it was not financially motivated.
The Hassouns would be allowed to stay in their stores, Jamali insisted, but added the family was "asking for exclusivity of the monument."
Amir Hassoun refuted the allegation however, pointing out that there were other families already present in the Khan. "We are only asking that they not kick us out," he said.
Interrupting, his father said he felt deeply aggrieved by the dispute. "I worked hard to make this place famous and now they want to kick us out! This is the law of the jungle."
"I don't think it's appropriate to bring in international companies and remove the locals," said Tripoli MP Mosbeh al-Ahdab. He said supported efforts to restore the Khan, but suggested a better way to do so would be to give shop owners the relevant support to carry it out themselves.
The Khan's lawyer, Aliaali Fayez, meanwhile labeled the municipality decree to take over the building as "illegal," contravening Article 2 of Lebanon's ownership law. There are four Khans in Tripoli, but only the owners of Khan al-Saboun stores are facing the threat of expropriation, he said. "I think there is a conspiracy to deprive the owners [of their property] so the mayor can do what he likes with it, like bringing in other proprietors," Fayez added, recalling an article in the Constitution forbidding the expropriation of private property.
When questioned about the feud, Tourism Minister Elie Marouni said he only received the file on the matter on Tuesday and that he would have to familiarize himself with the case before issuing a statement. An end to the legal dispute between Hassoun and the Tripoli Municipality seems unlikely in the near future, with each of the rival sides claiming the law is on their side. But for Badr Hassoun, at least, the dispute threatens to demolish his family's very identity. As he kept repeating: "We are the spirit of this building, we are [connected] body and soul."