In the slums of Tripoli

The abject misery in Hay el-Tanak and Bab el-Tebbane has pushed Tripolitans into the street.

In the shanty town of Hay el-Tanak, in Tripoli, North-Lebanon, people seem to be surviving rather than living. Photo João Sousa

Their eyes hold all the sadness of the world and their voices express resentment toward the politicians of their city whom they accuse of feeding on their misery. In the shanty town of Hay el-Tanak, the slums of Bab el-Tebbane and Jabal Mohsen, the leaky widowers’ dwellings of Khanka in the old souks, people seem to be surviving rather than living.

Paradoxically, Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, is home to some of the richest people in the country, while its poor continue to live in utter misery, as if a curse passed from one generation to the next, with no hope of escape. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, no project has been undertaken to fight poverty or to promote development at the national level. And it is perhaps in the capital of North Lebanon, already plagued by economic and financial crises which were then further exasperated by the Syrian crisis, and the repercussions of religious fundamentalism and inter-Sunni conflicts, that this neglect is most keenly felt. It is at the heart of the demands of the revolutionaries of October 17 who have been gathering in al-Nour Square, and of the movements they have organized against the political elites of this city, where 60% of families live below the urban poverty index, according to Adib Nehme, a development consultant and anti-poverty expert.

The poorest of the poor

Hay el-Tanak is not quite a neighborhood, but rather it is a slum illegally built decades ago on land reclaimed from the sea along the coastal promenades of al-Mina. The politicians of the region divided the lot between them before reselling it, according to the inhabitants. Here, the poorest of the poor are allowed to stay in exchange for small monthly rents, living inside tiny stone homes with tin roofs, surrounded by garbage and sewage. Some 300 Lebanese Sunni families have lived in this overcrowded space for several generations, in total destitution and shockingly lacking even the most basic of hygiene standards, and not far from the Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps. Children run through the slum’s labyrinthine alleyways in dirty and ragged clothes, their teeth eroded by cavities, many wheezing and laboring to breathe. Their parents, out of work, live from day to day, often on sheer resourcefulness or the odd job, while waiting for help granted a politician here or a charity there.

"If my husband gives me 5,000 Lebanese Pounds a day, I can feed my four daughters with it. If I only have 1,000 LL, I would still manage and offer them bread and zaatar," says Sawsan, a woman in her forties. Her cold home contains beds, but it lacks everything else, especially detergent. In the filthy corner that serves as both a kitchen and a bathroom, there is no fridge, no taps for water, or even electricity. When needed, a garden hose supplies the slums with water. "We have not been able to wash for two weeks due to the lack of gas to heat the water," said her younger daughter. Sawsan accepts the situation with a sense of resignation, provided that her daughters continue to attend school. "I want them to have a better life," she said hopefully, pointing to the cardboard box that serves as a cupboard for their schoolbooks.

Even in misery, there is inequality. Sarah, 23, a mother of six, has no such consolation. "I beg you, my little ones don’t have milk and no access to education. They are hungry,” she cries. Dirty, fearful and scowling, her children follow her step by step. They have never been to school. "They are stateless, but their father is very Lebanese," she laments, while referring to "administrative obstacles". In these communities with high rates of illiteracy, unemployment and polygamy, statelessness is common, either due to ignorance or a lack of money. That day, the young mother fed her family cauliflowers and potatoes. "That's all I could find," she says.

At only 23 years old, Sarah already has six children. She doesn't have enough financial means to give them an education or provide them with milk. Photo João Sousa

Prisoners of the slums

Reigning as patriarch of the neighborhood, and proudly claiming 45 grandchildren, is Moustapha Yassine, who keeps a few chickens, and addressed us saying “here you will find all levels of poverty, people who can afford a loaf of bread a day, others, a half-loaf; those who have no roof and those who crowd eight people in ten square meters." As he spoke, he hardened his tone with regard to the political leaders of Tripoli, the feudal leaders, and the country's highest Sunni authority, Dar el-Fatwa. “They promised us development projects, an improvement in our living conditions and housing. But we are still prisoners of this slum, without social security or medical insurance.” After 36 years of work, this former truck driver received only three million Lebanese pounds in severance pay.

Meanwhile, the low-skilled jobs that this community could access are already taken up by foreigners, mainly Syrian, Egyptian or Bangladeshi laborers. "They sold out the region, filled their pockets and forgot about us," the old man complains, recalling that "the leaders of the North only remember the most disadvantaged just before the elections. That is when they shower us with promises; financial assistance and food aid pours in. After the elections, this beautiful world disappears.” During the last legislative elections, to express his anger, this patriarch voted for a candidate from the local civil society. “His grandfather was an honest and competent man. Surely it is better than these crooked politicians who have never done anything for us,” he insists, calling for an overhaul of the ruling class.

Omar and his family of nine live in a narrow, two-room house. “We eat fries, salad and chicken necks. The portions are tiny, but we have plenty of bread. This is all we can afford," says the head of the household. For now, it’s Ahmad’s health that worries him. His 19-year-old son is burning with fever. “He's been sick for three days, but we can't afford a doctor, or even to buy medicine for the fever.” The young man and his older brother are the two financial pillars of this large family. Ahmad scales fish for 6,000 Lebanese pounds a day. His older brother works in a hardware store. None of the younger generation has gone further than eighth grade, including the divorced daughter who has come back to live with her parents, and the youngest, the ten-year-old son who dropped out of school.

Their father, a former fisherman, has not worked since suffering a bad fall, while their mother is confined to the house in order to serve the family. So the bills pile up. Paying their rent has to be delayed too. For his tiny home, Omar must pay 250,000 LL per month. With the crisis raging and the price of foodstuffs skyrocketing, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, he is already "two months behind on rent".

In this house, between Kobbeh and Bab el-Tebbane, a derelict bathroom. Photo João Sousa

A building destroyed by bombing

Most people interviewed show the same vulnerabilities and the same hatred towards the city’s political leaders. Their houses are neglected, and this often means living in dilapidated conditions, and many compromise on the quality of food, with some picking up unsold vegetables from the old souk in the evening after the businesses close. Borrowing money is common, from relatives or the local grocer, because people refuse to let children go to bed hungry. Sawsan has gone into debt regularly since the Ministry of Social Affairs decided that she was not poor enough to qualify for assistance. Ramia, whose husband works as a poorly paid bus driver, says she and her three children are more privileged than others. However, in their building that has been partially destroyed by bombing, on the border between the two formerly warring districts of Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tebbane, one of her sons was nearly killed when a piece of masonry fell from the dilapidated structure. "The rent is cheap," she explains, as if to justify it to herself. But she says immediately: "It is the fault of our leaders. They starve us for four years and end up throwing us some old bones to get us back on board."

The daily life of Mohammad's family is just as precarious. Living between Kobbeh and Bab el-Tebbane, this twenty-something house painter who raps in his spare time has not found any work in his field. “My father is a janitor working for 600,000 LL per month. His salary is barely enough to pay the grocer and the electricity bills. So the young man who "failed to join the military or get a loan to open a cafe" accepts odd jobs and struggles to find a stable job that would allow him to support his family and keep his younger brother and sister in school. In their makeshift, damp kitchen, he told us about dropping out from school, his professional training, the factories that are closing, the lack of opportunities in the northern capital, and a potential job at a security agency in Beirut, which raised his hopes. "I spend all of my salary on commuting. I ended up giving up," he admits, regretfully.

It is this intolerable situation that the young man denounces on a daily basis at al-Nour square alongside the protesters. His anger at the political leaders is so great that one day he did not hesitate to "tear apart the portrait" of Sunni leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which used to fly above the square. The picture "was hiding a clock more beautiful than the portrait of the zaïm," he said sarcastically, before telling us of the reprisals that followed, the threats and the blows struck against him and his father. "The political class must realize that our demands are legitimate, that [that] it has a duty to end poverty and provide us with jobs", he said, adding that he only wants to go to bed with a clear head, to live in a healthy environment, and to see his sister play a role in society. "To obtain their rights, the population now refuses to kiss the hands of the leaders," he insists.

A kid, in the slum of Hay el-Tanak. Photo João Sousa

A chronic reality with deeply rooted causes

"Poverty in Tripoli is a chronic reality with deeply rooted causes," Adib Nehme explains to L'Orient-Le Jour, referring to a study he carried out in the city in 2012. His starting point was the closure of Tripoli industrial zone in 1973. “The workers then fell back into the informal sector, becoming vendors or drivers. Already poor, they became more vulnerable and marginalized, with no unions to protect them. The war of 75 worsened the situation, but it was the armed conflict in the 1980s between the two neighboring districts of Bab el-Tebbane and Jabal Mohsen which was the fatal blow to the northern capital," he said. Cut off from the world, its souks were deeply affected, "Tripoli lost its role as a regional economic and commercial hub". The Islamist takeover that followed ended up bringing the city down. Meanwhile, "the reasons for Tripoli's economic regression are not being addressed by the authorities", Adib Nehme claims.

However, the city is home to a port, a souk and an international fair designed by the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. But there are no plans to revive its infrastructure, other than "the illusion" of making it a hub to rebuild Syria. "Here, an entire city is poor while the well-off do not exceed 20% of the population," notes the expert, observing that only 65% of children attend public school, only 22% of the population has a bank account, child labor is very high and in 2012 there were no holders of Bachelor’s degrees in 76% of families. "This poverty reaches a peak of 90% in Bab el-Tebbane," Adib Nehme said. So, for observers, the link between popular uprising and poverty is obvious.

"It is the leaders of the country and the city who are responsible for the great poverty in Tripoli", lawyer Khaled Merheb, a member of the Committee of Volunteer Lawyers in Defense of the Rights of Protesters, told L'Orient-Le Jour. "They knowingly kept the population in poverty in order to keep them dependent and use them during the elections," he said. This explains the extent of the protest movement in the northern capital, since October 17. "Paradoxically, it is not the poorest who express their anger against the abuse of power against the population, because the most vulnerable have other priorities and have often lost hope," notes Rim Hajj Ali, a spokesperson for the association Ruwwad-Lebanon, which is particularly active in the educational field, in Syria street. "It is the well-off who speak for others," she notes.

Author of the Afaal bill to fight extreme poverty in 2014, Robert Fadel, then an independent member of parliament representing Tripoli, resigned in 2016 "refusing to remain an accomplice of a political class which does not want to change the system". "The leaders of Tripoli have a responsibility for the state of poverty of the population of the North, much more than the central government", he says, denouncing "the instrumentalization by politicians of poverty to maintain themselves in power". Also at the heart of his grievances against the northern capital’s political leaders, is "their refusal to work together to eradicate misery", and ... "these rivalries over the Sunni leadership which have destroyed the city".

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 8th of February)

Their eyes hold all the sadness of the world and their voices express resentment toward the politicians of their city whom they accuse of feeding on their misery. In the shanty town of Hay el-Tanak, the slums of Bab el-Tebbane and Jabal Mohsen, the leaky widowers’ dwellings of Khanka in the old souks, people seem to be surviving rather than living.Paradoxically, Tripoli, Lebanon’s second...