When violent clashes broke out at various times along Syria Street, this man often spent nights in his blacksmith shop because going outside was too dangerous. Photo: Keenan Newman/ICRC
Life on Syria Street
With 18 different religious denominations all held together in fragile harmony, many argue that Lebanon is the most religiously diverse society in the Middle East. Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, is also incredibly diverse. And it has long been the scene of recurrent outbursts of armed violence between the marginalized neighbourhoods of Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
Although the neighbourhoods are calm now, over the past ten years, more than 20 episodes of violent clashes between the Sunni Muslim residents of Bab el-Tebbaneh and the Alawite Muslim inhabitants of Jabal Mohsen have left more than 200 people dead.
As Syria’s civil war rages just 40 minutes away, these two adjacent communities remain divided along political lines in their conflicting opposition to or support of the Syrian government.
Ahmad Ibrahim Ali
Resident of Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood
I am Syrian but I was born here in Jabal Mohsen and my wife is from el-Tebbaneh, so we are all mixed. Before the clashes began, I practically lived in Tebbaneh. I would consider it my home. But after the clashes I don’t have the courage to be there like that. I used to sell coffee by the mosque in Tebbaneh. That was when people didn’t care about my background. Now I must sell goods on this side of Syria Street.
Before this all erupted, I came upon a proverb: “The seeds are planted there, the fruits ripen here,” meaning that the conflict erupts in Syria but the consequences spill over here in Lebanon. It became true. I just wish we could get rid of sectarian thinking and all unite.
Resident of Bab el-Tebbaneh neighbourhood
Syria Street means so much to me. It’s really the lifeline for both Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. But the street will never return to its previous status when it comes to commerce and its role as a place to unite Sunnis and Alawites together. It has been the dividing line for the clashes and now carries many bad memories.
The clashes here have personally affected me from the very beginning. During the fighting in 2008, my house was burned down while my siblings were still inside. Since then, we no longer fear anything, feel anything or care about anything. We are alive simply because we haven’t died yet. We have no jobs and we even struggle just to get water.
The truth is that both of these neighbourhoods have been neglected and deprived by the government, which makes it easier to manipulate the youth here. I first began hanging out in the street with the fighters when I was only 17. When boys grow up seeing their fathers running after what little income they can find, they too will not end up on a good track. I know men here that can get paid US$ 100 to pick up a gun and open fire, then take that money to feed their family. If someone has seven or eight children, he will do anything to get US$ 100.
After the clashes began to die down last year, we began to realize that each neighbourhood had many misconceptions about the other. We discovered that we weren’t all that different from one another. The Alawites even pray like us, fast like us, and now I even have some friends over in Jabal Mohsen. We all just want to live in our home with dignity and without needing other people’s help.
Resident of Bab el-Tebbaneh neighbourhood.
Syria Street used to be called the ‘Golden Street’ because it was buzzing with business. But due to violence all the major stores moved to other parts of Tripoli. You can still see the old signs, but the shops are empty and there is no life.
As the clashes worsened, customers who used to come from Beirut stopped coming out of fear. My husband used to have a nice car showroom on Syria Street. He eventually had to close down the shop, but we have seven children and quickly spent all our savings. My husband fell into depression and stayed at home, so I decided to leave the house and earn an income for the first time.
Communications Officer, ICRC Lebanon
I was too young to understand. As my parents drank their afternoon coffee on our balcony in Beirut, I would point to the three bullet holes in the wall and ask my dad where they had come from. “Why would anyone shoot at someone else’s home?” my 8-year-old self would ask.
His answer was always the same: “Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.” But I was born after the war. I didn’t understand what civil war even meant or, more importantly, that the war had done more damage than those three bullet holes over our balcony door.
The older I got, the more I realized that being born after the ceasefire didn’t matter: the war was the background theme to
everyone’s life — young or old — in Lebanon.
You saw it in the bullet-riddled buildings across the country and in the people who bore its physical and mental scars. You heard about it in your parents’ childhood stories and in most descriptions of Lebanon, which too often start with “Before
With the onset of the Syrian crisis next door, I joined the ICRC as a communications officer. I wanted to be part of the organization that alleviated some of the burdens that my parents had experienced during times of conflict.
When I visited Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tebbaneh for the first time, what I saw felt like a slap in the face. I thought the Lebanese war was over. Why did these two areas look like they were stuck in the past? Civilians were caught in the crossfire and their homes, businesses and even schools were all turned into battlefields.
Like my parents and most people who had lived through
the civil war, residents struggled to explain how they could
live peacefully during the day then target one another at night.
In one of the homes on Syria Street, we were filming with a family who was part of an ICRC project that aimed to help locals bolster their livelihoods and the mother was showing us her daughter’s bedroom. The pink and purple furniture was riddled with bullets. As she was telling us her story, her 11-year-old daughter interrupted her: “Why would anyone shoot at someone else’s home?”