Saturday, 17 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Trablus, not Byblos

The plan was to take a bus to Byblos to film around the once famous Byblos Fishing Club - a seaside restaurant once frequented by Hollywood’s elite including Marlon Brando. Instead, we fell asleep on the bus and missed our stop. We ended up in Tripoli, where we weren’t planning to visit until the next day.

Seconds after we leave the bus in Tripoli’s main square, we’re approached by a local guide Ali. His round face and slightly bulging eyes give him a rather comical look, and with his face in a permanent grin, it’s often hard to take him seriously. But Ali is, in fact, an extremely friendly and generous man. He talks at a thousand miles per hour, never stopping for more than a few seconds to answer a question as quickly as possible. Even before we have a chance to answer, he takes us on a lightening quick tour of a few sites in the area, then declares “We’ll meet tomorrow for the rest of the tour, ok? When do you want to meet? It’s hard to decline his offer, not only because we do – actually - need a guide in Tripoli, but also because Ali is so genuine and eager to please we can’t refuse his offer.

The pension we decide to stay in is more like your grandmother’s house than a hotel. The building that houses it is a bizarre structure: extremely tall and thin, the huge atrium that runs through the middle seems to have been sliced out at random. A series of Brazilian flags hangs in front of the door to the pension. Inside, an extremely old woman sits, doubled over with age, in front of a heater watching an Arabic game show. Another women shows us to our room. Everything smells of damp and old clothes. It’s comfortable, but I have trouble sleeping the first night, a combination of the sound of the (extremely loud) television and the electrics buzzing like a mosquito around my ears, and a mosquito buzzing around my ears.

The next morning, Federico and I arrive slightly late to meet Ali for our tour. Standing on the agreed spot, we can’t find him anywhere. As we’re thinking of what to do next, I spot him down the road, just under the clock tower of the central square. His face grinning madly, he’s running down the street in a purple dinner jacket and pastel tie, his arms waving determined, to get our attention. He looks like a talk-show host from 1970’s Lebanese television, with about the same level of enthusiasm.

As I film the tour, Federico keeps trying to get Ali to slow down, take a breath, and talk calmly about his life for a moment, but he can’t be stopped. Ali continues to race around like a man on fire:
“So, Ali, have you lived here all your life?”
“Yes. Now I’ll take you to the Attarine mosque. Follow me please.”
Occasionally, we ask Ali a political question, or ask him about a certain poster we might have seen in the street, but he seems very reluctant to talk about politics in any meaningful way. It’s clear that he feels he should somehow shield us from the realities of this place, glossing over political concerns and urging us to look elsewhere for answers.

We tour the Khan Sharkis as Ali explains the “soap mafia” that was built around two rival family businesses. Ali is currently in the middle of a court case after someone working for Hassoun - the pretender to the throne of traditional Tripoli soap-making - beat him up for refusing to take tourists to the his soap factory. “If you go there,” he warns “don’t mention that you know me.” At one point, while walking (jogging) through the city’s traditional souk, I hear the strains of pop music exalting several of the characters from the current administration (this city is one of the pro-government strongholds. We ask Ali about it, but he tries to avoid the question saying “Oh, this song has bad words. I don’t like to talk about it.” Filming the music stall from where the music is blaring, I ask the owner if they have any music with anti-government lyrics. “I’m sure it exists,” he tells me, “but not here.”

While at the music stall, Federico notices something hanging from a nearby stall: a poster of Saddam Hussein, similar to others we’ve seen posted occasionally around the city. In a brief conversation with the owners of those stalls, they explain their appreciation for the tyrant and what eh stood for: Arab strength, anti-Americanism, and the Palestinian cause. It’s an opinion I’ve heard, and argued against, a hundred times before, and at this point I’m not about to get into a political debate about the finer points of Saddam’s rise and fall. I stand silently for a few minutes with the stall owners looking at me, smiling, waiting for a reply. “Well…I don’t know what to say,” is all I can think of. “That’s your opinion.”

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