Lebanese Diary

"A Day in the Souk Is Like a Night of Love"

In his Lebanese diary, German author Michael Kleeberg describes his impressions of the city of Tripoli. Read a preview excerpt from the book that will be published in early 2004.

Tripoli - We’re being given a guide; and once again, I judge by appearances and let my prejudices get the better of me. He’s a tubby little man of uncertain age, wearing a flat cap, a carefully trimmed grey-blond moustache, a no-coloured leather jacket and a pair of cords.

To sum up, he looks like a taxi driver from some German TV series of the Sixties (Wolfgang Gruner or Willi Reichert, perhaps); so I presume he’s here to protect us from pests, and that (in time-honoured colonial fashion) he’ll be paid no more than a few pennies for his troubles.

It turns out that our guide has degrees in Geology and Palaeontology from the Technical University of Stuttgart (in which city he lived for ten years), that he’s also a sworn interpreter and translator (“I have a diploma from the Düsseldorf Chamber of Commerce!”) and that he now runs his own language school in Tripoli.

"Tripoli and Stuttgart have a great deal in common"

We immerse ourselves in the Old Town of the Mamelukes, more or less coterminous with the Souk as it exists today, and practically unchanged in the last 800 years. We haven’t walked more than a few yards when I feel obliged to do silent penance for my sins: our guide is pointing to a flight of steps that leads between two houses, up through and out of the Souk, and informing us in fluent German with a hint of a Swabian accent: “Tripoli and Stuttgart have a great deal in common – the stairs, for instance!”

When we arrive at the top, we’re facing the Citadel of Sangil (Saint Gilles) - the Crusader stronghold that controlled Tripoli for many years. From the battlements, we have a panoramic view of the tiny, low-lying Old Town, encircled by modern high-rise buildings as if by palisades: a hazy grey desert of houses, merging on the horizon with the greyness of the sea. It’s as though this town were giving the Mediterranean the cold shoulder.

The muezzins strike up their call to prayer

I clamber onto the wall; and at the very moment I reach the top, with nothing above me but sky, the muezzins strike up their call to prayer from every mosque in the city. It’s a dizzying experience: from all points of the compass, I’m assailed by these guttural, drawn-out cries, as if perched on a clifftop in the midst of screaming seagulls.

Live or recorded, in the distance or closer by, there must be ten or fifteen voices singing simultaneously, their melodies clashing and interweaving like endless coloured ribbons waving from the minarets. It’s the Islamic answer to the opening of Thomas Mann’s “The Holy Sinner”: “Bell-tones swell across the city…” Imminent immanence… One feels quite instinctively that something of sublime import is just about to come into being.

Risking his neck, Mr. Kassir has scrambled onto an eight-inch ledge over a 30-foot drop, just to get a better view of the canalised river far below us – like the youths on the cliff-edge in Raouché! There’s something death-defying, or perhaps (familiarity having bred contempt) death-disparaging, about the way he does it.

The war seems to have freed these people from a certain species of fear or safety-consciousness, to have robbed them of the normal instinct of self-preservation. “Inshallah!” is the attitude – even if they are, or used to be, Christians. I have to think of something Mr. Kassir’s wife once said: “He’s just so terribly reckless…”

The beauty of the goods in the Souk

These dim, narrow alleyways are now eight centuries old. Here and there, between the tarpaulins, one glimpses a Corinthian column stretching towards the sun, or the flying buttresses of a Romanesque Crusader church; and beneath the vaulted ceilings, one hears the metallic echo of fluttering turtle doves.

What is it about this place that puts me in the mood for shopping?
Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the absence of packaging. This nakedness is a kind of liberation; for here, each item on display is no more and no less than itself. The Souk is the antithesis of our highly-developed packaging culture, and it’s worth considering just what makes it so powerfully seductive.

A symphony of senses

There is the symphony of scents from the multifarious goods on sale; whether they’re apples or wooden boxes, you can smell their life, their history, their harvesting or making. There is the tactile pleasure of being able to handle the goods, to experience the perfectly round smoothness of a ball of soap made from olive oil; cool yet soft, these gleaming globes are displayed like peaches in the crepuscular half-light of the factory that makes them. There is the radiant colour of a length of Damascene cloth, royal blue threaded with gold, like Planet Earth viewed from a rocket to the moon.

Yes; it’s erotic. The way the fabric slides over your arm, the weight of the globe in the palm of your hand, the sudden aroma of cumin: it all generates endorphins.

And faced with this embarrassment of riches, I ask myself: which stall should I buy from?

Years ago, in his peerless description of the Souks of Marrakech, Elias Canetti posed this very question; in the alleyways of the craftsmen’s’ guilds, where dozens of merchants ply the same products, what draws the buyer to one particular stall rather than any other?

It can only be the stallholder’s face. As the fabrics, the furniture, the fruits and the flavourings are all equally alluring, the purchaser’s eye is drawn less to the goods than to the look of the person selling them. And from his glance, his manner, his words, gestures and physiognomy, one strives to judge the quality of what he has to offer.

By the time we leave, I’m exhausted. A day in the Souk is like a night of love.

Michael Kleeberg took part in the project „West-Eastern Divan” in which writers from Germany and the Islamic world engaged in a kind of exchange program. Kleeberg’s “exchange partner” was the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun, who stayed in Berlin during October and November in 2002. Michael Kleeberg returned the visit to Beydoun’s home town of Beirut at the beginning of 2003. The travel diary was written during Kleeberg’s visit. It will be published in Germany in early 2004 at Deutsche Verlagsanstalt publishing house (DVA).

To get to the correspondence of Beydoun and Kleeberg about the Iraq War, click here.

Official web page of Tripoli, Lebanon

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