Residents inject new life into Lebanon’s Tripoli

Government-led job creation has taken a back seat amid Tripoli’s refugee influx and paralysing political divisions.

Reviving Tripoli
A $500,000 project led by the United Nations is seeking to revive the city's dying furniture industry [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]

Tripoli, Lebanon – On a wet January day, tour operator Mira Minkara led a group of foreign tourists and Lebanese residents through the raucous souks of Tripoli’s Old City.

The tour of Lebanon’s second-largest city – which has been plagued by violence, fundamentalism and poverty – wove through dilapidated hammams, Mamluke mosques, overgrown khans and a restaurant serving the local specialty fatteh, a garlicky dish of yogurt, chickpeas, pine nuts, and crispy bread.

“The people inside the souks were so happy to see tourists again,” Minkara told Al Jazeera. “I think such trips bring back hope to [residents]. Psychologically it makes them feel better. It makes them know they are not forgotten.”

When the Old City is unsafe – such as earlier in January, when two Nusra Front suicide bombers attacked a café in the central neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen, killing nine and wounding dozens – she instead shows visitors the Oscar Niemeyer architecture in the unused International Fair complex.

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Formerly a prestigious and important capital of Crusader, Mamluke and Ottoman provinces – which no longer exist – and a trade hub with a vibrant cultural scene rivalling Beirut’s, Tripoli has been in decline for decades.

Much of the problem stems from a policy of governmental neglect dating back to the post-civil war years in the 1990s, when those involved in rebuilding the country after 15 years of fighting chose to focus disproportionately on the capital, Beirut. With no clear plans for its regeneration, Tripoli stagnated, and corruption flourished in the absence of proper governance.

 Uneasy calm over Lebanon’s Tripoli

The situation has been exacerbated in recent years by the Syrian civil war, which has brought more than 300,000 refugees into northern Lebanon, severed vital trade links and fuelled sectarian tensions. More than half of the city’s households are now considered deprived or highly deprived, according to a recent report by the United Nations and the Arab Urban Development Institute. 

Analysts say what is needed is government-led job creation, but between the refugee influx; armed extremists from groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Nusra Front; an eight-month presidential vacuum and paralysing political divisions, the cabinet is preoccupied.

Consequently, grand ideas to rejuvenate the city – such as the ambitious Tripoli Special Economic Zone proposal, a trade and investment project promoted in 2011 that would have created special areas in the city with reduced red tape and investor-friendly incentives – have foundered.

“The main issue we’re facing is governance,” Fawaz Hamidi, the director of Business Incubation Association Tripoli (BIAT), told Al Jazeera inside the large, glass-walled Tripoli Chamber of Commerce. “We can talk for many hours about restoring Tripoli, but who is going to do it? The political system is just not working.”

Instead, a variety of smaller initiatives have arisen, as residents work to inject new life into the city that 500,000 people call home.

A key part of this movement is Hamidi’s BIAT, which for the past decade has been offering small and medium-sized businesses help with everything from accessing capital to marketing their products. Over the past few years, the association says it has created more than 3,000 jobs.

It has been very hard for us. We have been suffering for years as a result of the lack of security and government support.

by Abdallah Hareb, head of the city's Furniture Syndicate

“We understand the local economy is comprised of … micro enterprises, necessity entrepreneurs who work just to get by,” Hamidi said. “In a region like northern Lebanon, the main types of work are in furniture, crafts, light industrial, plumbing, carpentry, farming, agro food, education, construction, key cutters and so on.

“If we want to help our community, we have to realise these are our entrepreneurs.”

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Near the coast of Tripoli stands a four-floor furniture factory central to a project with similar aims: to empower Tripoli’s tradespeople.

“It has been very hard for us,” Abdallah Hareb, head of the city’s Furniture Syndicate, told Al Jazeera over the sound of sanding machines. “We have been suffering for years as a result of the lack of security and government support.

“Three years ago, this floor alone had 120 workers,” he added, walking through an empty room splattered with gold spray paint. “At the moment there are 200 in the whole building.”

A $500,000 project led by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and financed by the European Union and the Italian Development Cooperation is seeking to revive this dying industry.

Soha Atallah, UNIDO’s national coordinator, told Al Jazeera the project will directly help 3,000 to 5,000 people involved in the industry, from craftspeople to shop owners to designers. The initiative will offer business coaching, modern design advice and access to international markets.

“In Tripoli we have masters, artisans, people who are very experienced in wood crafting. They say it dates back to the Phoenician times when they made boats,” Atallah said.

“The people there are thirsty,” she added. “They are looking for help. This is where we come in.”

Meanwhile, other residents are angling to bolster the city’s deflated entertainment scene.

During Lebanon’s “golden era” in the 1960s, many Beirut residents would take the train north to have dinner and catch a film at one of the city’s 20-odd theatres, which were crammed each night. These days, due to a lack of funds and growing conservatism, the city has just one dedicated cinema left.

Elias Khlat, director of the year-old Tripoli International Film Festival, acknowledges there are limitations to what can be done. But he hopes to help rekindle the city’s love for the silver screen: In April and May, the second edition of the festival will show more than 50 feature films from 22 different countries.

“The city is changing. [Tripoli] will never be able to relink with its past. Demographically, some people went and other people came. It’s as simple as that,” Khlat told Al Jazeera.

“[This project] is about regaining confidence that this city can be part of the country’s cultural scene again,” he added. “In this way, we are winning in terms of bringing the city back to life.” 

Source: Al Jazeera