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In Tripoli with Zeina Hashem Beck

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Tripoli as you feel/see it?

Tripoli is where I grew up and, like a parent, it keeps reminding me of childhood stories every time I return. It is a slow-paced city, a sea-city where some families almost “move” to live by the beach in the summer. It has such old beauty, yet it’s a place I wanted to leave in search of a more vibrant art scene.

We call Tripoli “the mother of the poor” because of its cheaper prices. I love how this name suggests tenderness and hurt. It’s a reminder of both the city’s hospitality and some of its extremely poor and neglected neighborhoods.

Tripoli is also the sound of the Adhan; as a little girl, I enjoyed listening to its calls to prayer. I was mesmerized by them.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

August 2013: my cousin was shot dead on the street in Tripoli, and two days later, Al-Salaam and Al-Taqwa mosques were bombed.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

How architecturally beautiful some old buildings in al-Tal are. The gorgeous old train station abandoned in the grass. The fishing boats at the port. The little islands. And, again, the calls to prayer.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Novelists Hoda Barakat, Elias Khoury, Rabih Alameddine, and Rawi Hage, and poets Jawdat Fakhreddine, Onsi el-Hajj, and Etel Adnan.

Is there a place here you return to often?

There are many. The beach: I love my Tripoli mornings and sunsets by the sea. My aunt’s house: she pampers me and drowns me in her da3awat, her prayers. My parents’ old house: I keep telling myself I want to walk down the street where we used to live, go inside our old building, climb up the six flights of stairs, and stare at the door (or perhaps even knock). I’m in Tripoli every summer, and I haven’t done this. But I come back to my childhood house in my mind all the time. I keep returning to the city’s tastes, too: no place does better Arabic sweets and fatteh than Tripoli.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

One place I learned about only after it was burned in January 2014 is Al-Saeh Library, founded by Father Ibrahim Sarrouj in 1970, and home to ancient Muslim and Christian texts. A lot of books were lost in the fire, but the library reopened in January 2015, after a fundraising campaign to restore it.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Definitely the old souks. I especially love the arches of Khan al-Khayyateen (tailors’ souk), the courtyard and colorful soap of Khan al-Saboun (soap souk), and the sparkly beauty of Souk al-Nahasseen (copper souk).

I also love sitting on the balcony and watching the city at night or early in the morning.

Where does passion live here?

In the hospitality of the people, the sounds of the streets, and the young men and women who have stayed/returned to create a Tripoli of their own.

What is the title of one of your works about Tripoli and what inspired it exactly?

“After the Explosions,” “Listen,” “You Fixed It,” and “My Town” are all poems I wrote after the grief of August 2013. There’s also the spoken word piece “3arabi Song,” which I performed with the Fayha Choir, a choir from Tripoli.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Tripoli does an outside exist?”

I’ve always carried/will always carry Tripoli within me, the way we carry our parents within us. But I also wanted to leave Tripoli, the way we want to move away from our parents. In this sense, there was always an outside.  

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her first collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Her second collection, Louder than Hearts (2017), won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. She’s also the author of two chapbooks: 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize; and There Was and How Much There Was, a 2016 Smith/Doorstop Laureate’s Choice, selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and The Rialto, among others. She has participated in literary festivals in the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Published May 2, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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