Windows of Tripoli
I pop an iced almond into my mouth and a flavorsome flowery fragrance bursts on my tongue like a lover's first kiss. I replace the tall elegant brass container, with its flower-water contents, back to the center of the table and smile at my friend, Khoder. He is teaching me traditions as we are having lunch in a beautiful Lebanese restaurant. I order lamb because I want my mother's cooking. The food is delectable and always the presence of fresh pita bread and humus as well as Fatoosh to accompany our meals. We’re starving. "So hungry, I can eat a small animal!” He tells me. We both laugh.
Life and its many corners take me to places unknown yet to be discovered and isn't it true that when you arrive, you have known it before? My feet have been here in these streets. Everything about Lebanon seems familiar to me. Tripoli and its stones by the sea, Byblos and the sands of gold underfoot, Balbaak with its majestic Roman ruins. I have known this and more as I do not feel a stranger to anything I touch in Tripoli. My Grandmother lost a baby here, so my mother had told me in a casual manner upon learning of my trip to Lebanon. Her arrangement of our family’s history bothers me. I am never given specifics, as details can tie one down to other people’s shame. Family history is laid out like playing cards and I am challenged to go see for myself. I've got to be a sharper daughter to take out my eyes and look more closely into the hands of the unwilling.
Tripoli differs from Beirut, as it is not as congested nor are the displays of commercialism and modernization as apparent. Can't find a Starbucks or a Burger King here. People are not in a hurry to catch up with Western influence. History whispers in the palm trees along the Tripoli beaches. In the high-rises, I find the familiar clotheslines and open balconies, open windows, open doors. I fall in love with the clustered apartment buildings standing together an arms reach apart. Once, there was a time when I didn't care enough to hold anything in my hands. Now, I try to hold on to everything. We make our way to ancient citadel and Khoder tells me to hold my tongue as we pass the scrutiny of a Syrian guard, his AK hanging loosely from his shoulder. I have learned to listen to my host and he knows best as I glide past the guard without having to pay. We walk the dusty paths beyond a foray and take broken staircases leading to a cloud’s edge. This castle in ruin must have had a great history. We pass dark chambers now gaping dusty mouths. There are even chambers in the ground covered by bars. My imagination conjures up the idea of prisoners and family members whose fates were cast aside into the abyss below.
We come to a staircase leading up to what looks like a medieval wooden door, complete with a cast iron latch. I am eager to see what lies beyond this door and I run up the stone steps. I am met with an ancient rusted door latch and lock. I feel as if I am intruding upon sacred ground, as if there are hidden eyes within the walls watching my every step. I follow Khoder upward to the top, carefully stepping through rubble and ruin. I find that my shoes are cumbersome and I long to wander barefoot as I have done in my youth, so, I slip off my sandals and opt to go barefoot. We reach the top, another unwalled room with the sky as a ceiling and a row of neat square windows framing Tripoli below. The orange sun is slipping from its place in the sky to the sea. I stand there in silence, taking in the entire city at my feet. Who ruled Tripoli from this castle, I wonder to myself. What people sat in these rooms now gutted out by war and hundreds of years? We finally leave the ancient ruins and run like children across a busy highway below. Syrian poor walk past us, hawking coffee and neon lit trinkets. I notice Arab women with their black abayas and their children following close behind. Families everywhere by the last of the sun’s ray against the sea. No woman walks alone. All women are protected by the men in their family.
We make our way across the highway, toward the Mediterranean to watch the sun set like a golden medallion upon the pride of this ancient sea port. The sea is green. My friend is excited with yet another opportunity to capture the sunset with his camera. He takes a photo of a palm tree holding the sun in its arm. I join him and watch the fishermen from afar cast nets into the sea. A small band of boys leap from the rocks into the wild sea. I am compelled to go down to the rocks myself and place my hands in the cool tank of green. My friend warns me not to wander off with his overprotective voice. I follow his eyes and see distant fishermen and young men leaping from the rocks to the sea on another point. Is this what concerns my friend? I want to be like them. Free to swim in the sea’s depth. As Khoder looks outward from the rock high up, I descend slowly, removing my sandals as I go. The warmth from the stones caresses my feet. I make it to the water's edge, and it rushes to greet me. My friend’s voice becomes a distant cry of concern as my desire to plunge into the sea builds up within me. I crouch low and cup its clear clean water into my hands. I am drawn to the clarity of the water as I splash its coolness on my face. I hang my head over and drag my long hair into the water getting myself completely soaked. I am washing the day’s heat off, with an urge to throw myself in. “I want to swim!” I yell out to my friend. The rocks absorb my voice and all is silent but the lapping waves over the moss covered rocks.
When the sun has disappeared and the pin lights of the night lay out as stars along the horizon, we prepare to leave Tripoli. Summer’s warmth kisses my cheeks with a gently breeze. In the distance, there is an incessant church bell ringing. It's been an annoying presence for some time. Not even the muezzin takes as long. Is it a holiday or something, we look at each other? Haram, I think. How can one ignore the cry of a Holy place of worship? So, Khoder leads the way to a Greek Orthodox Church. His attire is crazy. With a pair of bright red Hawaiian print shorts and leather sandals, he is the ultimate tourist and conspicuous. When we arrive, he immediately hesitates as I push my way through the churchgoing crowd. Come on! I motion for him to follow me. I know that God will not judge our attire. We enter the overcrowded church through a side door and find hundreds of lit candles standing like tall like soldiers. A sense of urgency envelops us as people crowd around. Khoder is still hesitant but cannot help lighting more than one candle to burn brightly for the prayers he has on his lips. I, too, light a candle. We bask in the illumination when suddenly an old man approaches the hundreds of candles burning in the sand filled container and removes them all in one fell swoop! My friend and I watch in horror. Are our prayers so easily whisked away? My friend is upset over the invasion upon his efforts. I assure Khoder that his prayers will burn brightly no matter what and not to worry. We leave the Church running into the night. A small rickety bus transports us back through the dusk, the sea black now as we head South to Beirut. I know that we are not always in possession of our souls. There are places that rob a part of us and wait for our return.