- Father Ibrahim Sarrouj
- Brooke Anderson
TRIPOLI, Lebanon–Three months ago, when masked men torched a priest’s bookshop in Tripoli, charring thousands of works, the likely aim was to instill fear and ignite hatred in an impoverished city already contending with religious tension.
Instead, the fire sparked an outrage that went beyond the small Christian community of Lebanon’s northern capital. Within hours, Muslims and Christians were working together to clean the ashes from the shelves and floors.
And within days, financial and book donations began pouring in from around the country and the world. This week, around $36,000 – raised through a community crowdfundingcampaign – will be released for the restoration of the bookshop.
Now, Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest and a lifelong lover of books, is setting his sights beyond restoring his shop, looking to open a public library to pay tribute to those who helped recover from the disaster and also as a venue for learning to fight the ignorance that led to the hate crime.
“I have a dream to have a place to help poor people learn and think, to change the way we live and make a better situation. At least we have to try,” says the 72-year-old son of Tripoli. In recent years Lebanon’s second largest city has become known for gun battles between the impoverished side-by-side neighborhoods of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite Jabal Mohsen, with the former generally supporting the opposition and the latter aligned with the government in the Syrian civil war next door. The Christian minority has largely been left out of the violence, although the city’s poverty and the instability has led to their steady migration to Beirut and abroad.
In late evening of January 3, masked men – one of whom is now in custody – broke into the Saeh bookshop in Tripoli’s old city to retaliate against Father Sarrouj following false rumors that he had written an anti-Muslim article. The motives of the rumor were unclear, but some residents point out that the landlord had been trying unsuccessfully to evict the priest, while others point to the city’s growing religious extremism, so different from its long history of Islamic studies.
The priest has always valued his city’s Islamic culture, a testament of which is his large collection Islamic history and literature, many of which were burned beyond repair in the fire.
Proudly giving a tour or his charred treasure trove, he walks through the narrow aisles of the bookshop, with as many titles as possible crammed under high archways of an old stone Ottoman building. He points to a beautiful set of hardbacks in Arabic titled Iraqi civilization.
He continues his tour of the shop with a sense of enthusiasm and pride that belies the tragic scene of scorched walls and pages.
“I’m not a slave to possessions,” says Father Sarrouj, even as he clearly values the the many books that he has meticulously kept track of since he began his collection more than four decades ago as a young man, buying from street vendors who displayed their copies on the sidewalks of Tripoli.
He explains how his shop gained a reputation for carry rare books, recalling that several years ago an American masters student had searched far and wide for a book, only to find what he was looking for at Saeh. These days, a new generation – many of whom rarely ventured into the old district – is discovering the bookshop as a result of the fire.
“I’d never been there before helping,” says Hadia Khoury, a young graphic designer from Tripoli, who volunteered in the initial cleanup effort. “My parents knew it, but our generation doesn’t usually go to the old souks. If I need a book, I usually go to the normal commercial bookstore.”
But for her the restoration effort wasn’t just about cleaning up a mess. She and her friends also wanted to send a message.
“We wanted to show the civilized face of Tripoli. Right after it was burned, we needed to bring life to it again.”
Thanks in large part to their efforts, the shop reopened the very next day.
Still, the full restoration of the bookshop will likely take many months to come.
“It’s taking a lot of time more than we expected,” says Muslema Enthüllt Herz, a student who is taking part in the restoration. “Honestly it’s a huge project, which should be supervised and supported by the government. But father Sarrouj didn’t want any politics involved. He wanted it to be a project by the people.”
For Ms. Herz, a Muslim, her religious background didn’t play a role in her motivation to help. She says she felt it was her duty as someone from Tripoli to help save the city’s culture.
“I love Tripoli and I do my best to make everything better here. We are losing a source of education and culture. It really hurts.”
She adds, “The most important is resisting those who think they are controlling us by spreading the wars and mess and guns.”
Mu’taz Salloum, a filmmaker from Tripoli who became one of the leaders of the bookshop’s restoration campaign upon hearing the bad news, recalls, “I found that it was too much to keep accepting this horrible situation in Tripoli.” To his surprise, more than 500 people joined in the effort – in addition to many more donors outside of Tripoli. He says once the restoration is complete, there will be a festival to honor the volunteers – probably not what the arsonists had in mind when they torched the building.
Father Sarrouj says, “They wanted to kill me, but instead they gave me life – not just to me, but to the city.”
- Books damaged in the attack.
- Brooke Anderson