Lebanon: Tripoli Library Torched, Owner Relocates to Monastery

A man inspects burnt books on January 4, 2014 in north Lebanon’s majority Sunni city of Tripoli a day after a decades-old library owned by a Greek Orthodox priest was torched after “a pamphlet was discovered inside one of the books that was insulting to Islam and the prophet Mohammad” (Photo: AFP – Ibrahim Chalhoub)
Published Saturday, January 4, 2014

On January 3, Tripoli’s Saeh Library was torched and its owner, Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, was assaulted. Contradicting information surrounds the incident, and the motives behind the attack remain ambiguous. Here is the story of Sarrouj’s library.

As you push your way through the crowd to the old souks in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, just follow the calls of vendors and the nagging of irritated shoppers. Let the merchants and their carts, the smell of coffee, smoke, and bread, be your guide.

This gentle wave of people and their noise will certainly lead you to the Saeh Library, located between the soap khan and the thrift clothes market. There, you will arrive at a basement door, a bit similar to a wine cellar in an old monastery, where hundreds of books are stacked.
As you enter the large, maze-like space with high walls, the cold of the city is behind you and a warm voice asks how he may serve you. He has a beard and wears a black bandana on his head. He introduces himself as Father Ibrahim Sarrouj of the Tripoli Orthodox Church.
I ask him about a book collection of Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani. He comments that the number of people interested in his works decreased in recent years. Then, he starts talking about Palestine, pan-Arabism, and progressive revolutions in the world, almost like a monologue. The man aspires to a new flock of activists, ones that would liberate the whole of Palestine.
He is passionate about Syrian, Egyptian, and Tunisian Arab democrats. A voracious reader of their articles, he archives their writings and raises them as a weapon in the faces of those doubting the Arabs’ ability to rule themselves. Then, he moves on to discuss the corruption among the clergy. All of the sudden, he comments that there are fewer book readers in Beirut and Tripoli than there are in Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus.
If you are searching for a certain book, then waste no time, you are sure to find it in his library. This old paper reservoir holds the vast majority of Arab publications from the last 70 years.
Sarrouj took me on a tour of the neighborhood, showing me how a Christian interacts with his conservative Muslim neighborhood and how the city lovingly shows him its affection.
Tripoli has changed a lot, and it keeps on changing. Every day, photos of so-called heroes are torn from walls and new ones emerge. The poor become poorer and fanaticism intensifies. There is no place for dialogue here, not even a place to tell a joke.
“All this will turn into a roaring river that would sweep away Israel. Never mind this fanaticism – I know Tripoli quite well. This is our city, and these are our young men” said Sarrouj.
As Tripoli archbishops change, Sarrouj stays in his place. He declared, “I am against the clergy. Democracy should be restored to the Orthodox Church for the people to elect bishops and the patriarch.”
I ask him his views on some of the recent violence in Syria – the burning of religious shrines and the kidnappings of nuns – as well as the chaos rampant in his own city. He evaded answering the question, instead searching for a piece of fruit to offer.
This Christian-Marxist will never admit that his ambitions have failed him. There’s no young man or woman in the city who doesn’t know Sarrouj’s political position: He is against the regime, any regime, whoever is the president.
Sources told Al-Akhbar that Salafi young men in the library’s neighborhood spread a rumor about finding a book insulting Prophet Mohammad that Sarrouj was intending to reprint. Unknown assailants later shot an employee working for Sarrouj in the foot. Then, during the night, the library was set on fire, and no one intervened to stop it.
Sarrouj was insulted by a city whose residents did not rush to protect his library from barbarians.
You cannot possibly have a dialogue with those those people. They weren’t just targeting his library when they shot his aide to protest a certain political position or the selling of some books that contradict with their faith.
Sarrouj tried to hide his broken spirit under his usual smile. He said he worries about his library far more than he worries about himself. Then, he remembered that the security forces forbade him from giving statements, and he stopped talking.
“I am closing the library in a few days and moving to a monastery,” Sarrouj said. For the first time, he didn’t seem willing to elaborate.
“The city is fine. This river of anger will finally reach Palestine. I know Tripoli. This is our city and these are our people,” he said.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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