Tripoli: A Tale of Three Cities

The word Tripoli means “three cities”, which is a fitting name for a city that today houses three distinct cultures (“cities”), which are in a state of constant flux and violent interaction. Today we’ll meet the three cities that comprise today’s Tripoli and see how they interact together.

Marathon Tripoli

Marathon Tripoli is proudly Lebanese. It is made of the bourgeois, the well educated and the nationalist. It is named so because its citizens believe that organizing a marathon is an indication of civilization and a rejection of violence. Marathon Tripoli residents are predominantly Sunnis but welcome other sects and love to talk about how much they all love each other. They hang out on Ashir el Dayeh street cafés where they declare on national TV that they love life just like the rest of the Lebanese.

When Marathon Tripoli citizens protests, they like to protest next to Brunch, a fancy café where other Marathon tripoli citizens hang out… They are all over facebook, creating groups like We Love Tripoli, and on Twitter protesting the fact that the rest of the Lebanese don’t care about them and aren’t giving their suffering enough attention. Citizens of Marathon Tripoli also like to write blog posts in English where they argue that their city is actually made of three cities.

Tarablos al Sham

Tarablos al Sham, (loosely translated as “Tripoli of Greater Syria”), is made of Sunnis who never accepted Lebanon as a final political entity. Citizens of Tarablos al Sham believe that Tripoli is part of a Sunni “umma” that spans the Arabian peninsula and north Africa. They are generally poor and under-educated, and they see foreign language education as a form of deviation from the true knowledge of Arabic and the history of Islam.

The citizens of Tarablos al Sham reserve their biggest anger and disdain for the Shiaas and Alawis, partly because they see them as “deviants” and partly because they have been relentlessly killing their brothers in the Umma in Syria. This is why they consider it their religious duty to fight them, whether it means sending fighters to Syria or fighting them in Jabal Mohsen.

Update: For clarifications on the origins of the phrase Tarablos al Sham, please read Posh’s comment in the comments section)

Tarablos al Assad


Photo by Alex Potter

There are many Alawis who live in Marathon Tripoli, but the majority of them are citizens of Assad Country. The leadership of Tarablos al Assad (Tripoli of Assad) has successfully convinced Alawis that all the citizens of Tripoli are secretly Tarablos al Sham fanatics, and that unless the Alawis of Jabal Mohsen stick together under the protection of the Assad Family and their ruthless ways, their very existence will be at stake. Tarablos al Assad residents are camera shy and they generally stay quiet on the social media.

It’s complicated

The interplay between these three Tripolis is subtle. Marathon tripoli would never condone any form of ethnic cleansing against the Alawis, but its citizens are sympathetic to the fighters of Tarablos al Sham and consider Tarablos al Assad to be the villains in this war. The citizens of Marathon Tripoli are also mostly in denial that the bearded, black-flag-waving islamists of Tarablos al Sham are “real” Tripolitanians and they insist that they are foreign elements.

The political leaders of Marathon Tripoli are supporting the fighters of Tarablos al Sham with money and weapons because they want to keep them under control and they want to ensure the fighting doesn’t extend to their Tripoli. That doesn’t mean however that they support their vision of an eventual islamist state. Remember, these are capitalists who enjoy Lebanon’s pleasures and “usurious” banks.

Marathon Tripoli loves the Lebanese army, but Tarablos al Sham scorns it as an artificial construct that represents the authority of a state they don’t believe in.

Fighters of Tarablos al Sham overstate their influence and believe they are somehow living in the middle of a Muslim spring where the “artificial” borders will eventually melt and we will have a khilafa once again. They believe that citizens of Marathon Tripoli back their vision of Sunni pan-nationalism and they are in for a big eventual disappointments.

The biggest test for Marathon Tripoli, after all the fighting is done and the dust settles, is how it is planning to eventually integrate Tarablos al Sham and Tarablos al Assad under its vision of a prosperous city in a unified country called Lebanon.

  • H

    The whole situation is demoralizing. Being non-accepting is probably on the top of the list of what’s causing the current situation. The lack of education, the infesting of poverty and inability to be opinionated only makes it easier for the big players to further take advantage of the people in need. Some people really understand that the politicians’ mischief but have their hands tied and are strong armed into doing what they do. Others have no clue what’s going on and are blinded by religious feud because that’s what they’re being told by their religious leaders will pave their way to heaven.

    No one affirms or acknowledges that they’ve made mistakes. Everyone’s always in a defensive state of mind with one hand on the trigger both literally and figuratively. Wiping the other from the map is something that’s very casually discussed and accepted among the different groups. It’s even passed on to children in a very nonchalant manner, children that their parents claim to be fighting for their future, so they don’t have to live like they (the parents) did, humiliated.

    Change will not come when and if the elections take place. Nothing is revolutionary about having an election with the same set of individuals shuffled into different positions with allies becoming enemies and enemies becoming allies. Change has to be radical, fundamental and should start from the bottom of the social pyramid, individual change. Seeing how that is a near impossibility at this point, one can safely say that the situation is probably not going to improve in the near future. There might be periods where painkilling pills proves effective but the road to complete and utter resolution is a tad longer than what one hopes.

  • Observer

    Mustapha and fans,

    I would recommend you all watch a TV series whose first season I just finished watching called Vikings.

    Odin and Valhalla and the knowledge that some men, to this day in the Middle East, still strongly believe in that concept … or whatever “loot” is out there for them in the West.

  • http://www.poshlemon.blogspot.com Posh

    Mustapha you know I respect your work a lot but I have a big issue with your description of Tarablus al-Sham.

    The term Tarablus al-Sham traces to the late Ottoman period and represents something completely different than what you describe. Your description is historically flawed and it tries to place the current Salafi Wahhabi trend in a historical context that goes back to the French Mandate, whereas in reality, it is a new and recent invasion that has been superimposed onto the city in the last decade. It pertains to the wave of Salafism we see universally as of recent across our region.

    In reality, proponents of Tarablus al-Sham were mostly secularists, Sunnis but also Greek Orthodox. And their dedication to Syrian Unity or the reannexation to Syria was part of a large campaign that covered most of the Lebanese coast from the 1920s through to the late 1930s. They included different parties and groups, including the PPS and Communist Party, and there were also Islamists who were a minority and their Islam is nothing like the Wahhabi Salafi Islam we see today across Tripoli and even Saida. That is because people did not need strong religious rhetoric to rally together. What actually brought them together was a strong belief in their identity and connection to the Greater Syrian nation.

    Therefore, Tarabulus al-Sham proponents was never exclusively, if ever, about the umma as you say, but rather it was about fighting colonialism and its effects on breaking up their Syrian nation. Even during Ottoman times, that whole extension called Lebanon, excluding Mount Lebanon, referred to themselves as Ottoman Syrians. It is evidenced in their writings, newspapers, and other works.

    I see what you are trying to do and at first glance it appears very creative. But for a historian, this appears like a slaughter. I urge you to fix this section, if not only for the sake of credibility, at least for transparency.

    The Salafi Tarablus al-Sham today that you describe does not trace back to the real Tarablus al-Sham that existed in the decades back.

    • http://ymnnn.wordpress.com Ymn

      Loved ur explanation

  • Maha

    My goodness, you just ousted all my family and almost everyone i know and care about in Tripoli, sunnis and christians!
    I dont know where you categorize us, but we are largely secularists and believe that the borders of Lebanon today are artificial created by low level diplomats in the french and english embassies after the WW.
    We also loathe Assad for the mere way he attained presidency, that alone is enough to delegitimise him, let alone the history of Assad clan in Tripoli and Lebanon. We are also fans or pan-arabism and vehement supporters of the palestinain cause, and i remind you SECULAR.

    I’d listen to Posh if I were you and update that section.

  • romeo

    Looking at the comments, those Lebanese fellas want to break up your city into more pieces. They want a “Quadrupoli” to satisfy their vision of a Greater Syria. Hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.

  • Omar

    Allow me to disagree with your generalizations. I know many who beleive in reviving a modern equivalent of the khilafa or beleive in being part of a greater Syria who aren’t really less educated than average as you like to portray. Very badly written post, resorts to inaccurate generalization in order to satisfy a shaky poetic image of Tripoli. I like your blog though.

    • Mustapha

      Well, I think “generalizations” is not an relevant criticism for this post, confusion and lack of accuracy, like what Posh wrote about are more apt…

      When complex societies are divided into a handful of labels, you are bound to find significant exceptions. Japan is not a “Western nation” and Australia is not in the “rich north”… But the labeling is done regardless because the resulting shorthands are useful for explaining a complex situation to those who don’t know anything about it, and for making debates productive instead of lost in minutiae

  • http://ymnnn.wordpress.com Ymn

    Although u have labeled all the citizens of Tripoli, I can’t deny that most of what u have said is true. Howerver,“Marathon Tripoli loves the Lebanese Army, but Tarablos al Sham scorns it as an artificial construct that represents the authority of a state they don’t believe in.” is not really accurate.
    Marathon Tripoli have a lot of questioning regarding the role and presence of the Lebanese army and condemn it as bias with the Tarablos Al Assad, mainly because “اللواء الرابع” is fully Shiite.
    Blocking the emergency entrance of Monla hospital by the army to ” protect” two injured fighters from Tarablos Al Assad, or stopping at Green Lebanon bakery to get 300 bread packets for Tarablos Al Assad residents, such acts have provoked Marathon Tripoli pretty much the same way as Tarablos Al Sham.
    So u got that part wrong. Both don’t hate the army as most of the Lebanese army soldiers are from the North, they hate that bias troop that is making the role of the army ridicule and laughable.