(Translation) – In Lebanon, people are trying to live their tradition despite the rampant hardship – but the anger toward the elites is great. A visit to Tripoli during the fasting month of Ramadan.
– The original article in German is to be found on the Frankfurter Rundschau’s website.
It is noon. The silence of the nearby olive groves and the Mediterranean Sea reigns in Kura, a suburb of Lebanon’s second largest city Tripoli. Gentle rays of sunlight stream into Rania Jalal Soufi’s apartment, breaking through the prevailing darkness due to power outages.
The freelance real estate agent has been fasting since sunrise and is already preparing the iftar meal for sunset. “I’m not very religious, I don’t wear a headscarf and I don’t pray every day, but as a Muslim, fasting is important to me,” the 40-year-old said.
Enticing aromas emanate from the kitchen: today’s menu includes not only the traditional shorba (lentil soup) and Arabic sweets, but also, for a change, home-made hamburgers and fries.
“I prepare small quantities because I’m only breaking the fast with my son and daughter – and we can’t afford larger portions anyways,” the single mother explained. “I also don’t go to Tripoli to visit my family as often anymore because gas has become too expensive,” she sighed.
Her husband works in Bahrain and sends money to the family, but because of hyperinflation in Lebanon, the family has still lost purchasing power.
98 percent depreciation of the currency
Because of its neoliberal economic model and the corruption of its elites, the Land of the Cedars was mired in a latent crisis for decades which erupted openly in 2019. According to the World Bank, it is “one of the worst crises globally in two centuries.”
The Lebanese lira has already lost 98 percent of its value, and staple food prices have risen 260 percent this February alone. Four out of five people in Lebanon live in multidimensional poverty, with most having to skip at least one meal a day.
Its 300,000 inhabitants call Tripoli “Umm al faqira” (“Mother of the Poor”) – and a drive into the city center clearly shows why.
The richly decorated facades of Zehrieh, a once prosperous neighborhood from the time of the French colonial epoch (1916 to 1943), are blackened because of pollution, electric cables hang in the air and most houses look like they could collapse any second.
The people who live here can be considered proletarian – their monthly wages do not exceed $50, and most work undocumented and day labor.
But Zehrieh is also home to some of the city’s most famous sweets stores, which are overrun with people from all walks of life hours before Iftar.
“Tripoli is famous throughout Lebanon for the quality and variety of its Arabic pastries,” Jihad Harmoush said with pride. “And especially during Ramadan, they are indispensable.” The 50-year-old runs “Malak al Halawyiet” (“King of Sweets”), a store with old brick arches and paintings.
Aid organizations under pressure
Karbouj (pistachio or nut dough with homemade whipped cream) is prepared especially for Ramadan. “But the ingredients have all become much more expensive,” the shopkeeper sighs.
“We have to pay for them directly in dollars. Now a kilo of karbouj costs more than a million liras (about ten dollars), which is the minimum wage!”
“Before the crisis, our customers could order by the kilo, but now they only buy small quantities.” This is especially tragic because many stores generate half a year’s income during Ramadan. Jihad’s own salary has shrunk from $2,000 to $200, he said.
Non-governmental organizations play a big role in the crisis. “Three years ago, we supported 5,000 families, but now there are more than 20,000,” reports Hala Karame, an employee of Sanabel an-Nour, an Islamic NGO that organizes food distributions, among other things.
During Ramadan, giving zakat (donations to those in need) is unavoidable for Muslims, so the month is especially important for NGOs.
“We were founded thirty years ago during Ramadan, even today we have to help a lot during the holy month: People can barely afford gas canisters for cooking and basic food,” she explains.
Gas costs more than the minimum wage. “Now we even have to help the former middle class: Since 2022, we also provide food and money to teachers and state employees.”
Prayer Songs of the Muezzin
The setting sun bathes Tripoli’s old town in a red light while hymns emanate from its ancient mosques. From the crusader fortress on the hill, the view extends over minarets and church towers to the harbor. Just below, the souks bubble with feverish activity: It will be iftar in a few minutes.
The arcades, baths, mosques and winding alleys were built during the time of the Mamelukes (1250 to 1514) and still house greengrocers, butchers, jewelry and soap makers. Stragglers hurry to are buying the last ingredients for the fasting meal. Then, the chant of prayer resounds: it’s time for iftar.
Fadia al-Jamil, a Syrian woman from a village near Aleppo, hurries with the other women of her household to serve the dishes on time. In her home, the entire family, including guests, sits on the floor around a tablecloth covered with colorful dishes in the traditional Bedouin manner.
As soon as the singing of the muezzins ends, those fasting drink a glass of water, taste a date and gulp down the traditional lentil soup. Afterwards, there is tabbouleh salad, sambusik (pasta stuffed with cheese or seasoned minced meat), fatteh (a dish of yogurt, chickpeas and fried pita bread), foul (fava beans in tahini sauce), vegetarian boulghour kibbeh and fries: the family tries to preserve its traditions despite the crisis.
Poorest City in the Mediterranean Region
Like Fadia, many residents of the old city are Syrian refugees, but the relations between Tripoli and Syria go way back. Before the French Mandate and Lebanese statehood in 1946, Tripoli was a thriving city in Ottoman-ruled Syria. There was a tramway, 40 cinemas, theaters, and train service to Damascus and Baghdad.
Decay began in 1926 when the French occupation forces decided to proclaim the Republic of Greater Lebanon and develop Beirut at the expense of Tripoli.
After years of centralization, corruption and civil war (1975 to 1995), she is now known as the poorest city in the Mediterranean region. While many wealthy politicians and businessmen, such as Prime Minister Najib Mikati, hail from here, an estimated 90 percent of Tripolitans live in poverty.
“The ruling elites are waging an economic war against us. Their weapon is hunger and inflation,” Abdelrahman, a 20-year-old vegetable seller criticized while sitting with his friends in Ahwet Moussa, a historic café of the old city.
After breaking the fast and joining for the evening prayers, many Tripolitans come to this large square decorated with lanterns and trees, to smoke shisha and drink sweet tea or coffee with cardamom. Here, groups of friends and families from all ages and genders play cards, laugh, but also talk about politics.
Army and police against the protests
During the Thawra (Revolution) 2019 and the subsequent protests, the “mother of the poor” also became known as the “Bride of the Revolution” because of the energy deployed by its demonstrators.
“All of us here were part of the protests against the political system. On the government’s orders, we were shot at by the army and the police with rubber bullets and even assault rifles,” Abdelrahman recalled, showing a scar on his leg.
His friend Jamal, known as the “Tripolitan Che Guevara,” even died clinically when an M16 bullet went through his heart. “I woke up after an open-heart surgery and five days in a coma,” he said.
Last year, Jamal tried to escape to Europe on a boat that was allegedly rammed and sunk by the army. “We looked death in the eye,” he said matter-of-factly.
The group of friends agreed: this year, the Ramadan spirit is tepid because of the crisis. “Still, Ramadan is a time of happiness, of togetherness. In Tripoli, we stick together,” Abdelrahman said while taking puffs on his shisha.
On Ahwet Mousa’s square, families eat traditional kaake (sesame seed buns with melted cheese) late into the night – another Tripolitan specialty baked fresh in nearby ovens. Then, at sunrise, a new day of fasting begins – full of both anger and joy.
Collaboration: Rayanne Tawil