Derelict fair complex in Tripoli in search of a new lease on life — again

Once envisioned as Tripoli's economic engine during the pre-war 'golden age,' the fair complex has since become an albatross, sitting empty and unused.

Derelict fair complex in Tripoli  in search of a new lease on life  — again

The "experimental theater," one of the massive structures designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer at the Rachid Karami Internation Fair complex in Tripoli, pictured on Jan. 31, 2020. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

TRIPOLI — Over the noodlings of a local blues rock band, a crowd trickled into the normally closed-off Rachid Karami International Fair complex at dusk on an early September day. The musicians were set up in front of a pavilion with elegant pointed arches, while the massive concrete domes and bows conceived by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer loomed in the background like an extraterrestrial landscape.

Some of the festival-goers stood to watch the band or perused the stands, hawking tote bags, coffee and — discreetly, to avoid offending local sensibilities — arak. Others took the opportunity to slip past the plastic barriers dividing the stage from the rest of the fairgrounds. They clambered to the top of the dome of the so-called “experimental theater” and descended into its bowels, stomping and hooting to hear the echoes ricochet eerily through the darkness.

The fairgrounds had come back to life, but, as usual, only briefly. Envisioned in Lebanon’s pre-war “golden age” as an economic engine for the port city and the country as a whole, the fair complex has since become an albatross, sitting largely empty and unused, some of its otherworldly architecture in danger of collapse from years of neglect.

A gateway arch looms over the fair's open-air theater. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

“This space is a very large piece of Tripoli and it is, as they say, wasted. We are not getting any benefit from it,” Tripoli municipal council member Bacem Bakhache told L’Orient Today. “We need this space to give us a push — culturally, economically, socially — but it’s not being put to use. It’s as if someone had a jewel or something very precious and he is not benefiting from it.”

A series of proposals for redevelopment of the site — including a theme park or a subterranean business park — for better or worse, never came to fruition.

But today, some hope the right factors are aligning to offer the fairplex a new lease on life.

In 2018, UNESCO placed the site on its World Heritage Tentative List as a “prime and representative exemplar of 20th century modern architecture in the Arab Middle-East.” With funding from the Getty Foundation, UNESCO is currently working with a team of local and international experts to develop a plan for conservation of the site.

After a number of delays, officials said the plan is now set to be completed by the end of the year. Officials hope that the designation and the plan, once completed, will open the door for international donors to provide some of the tens of millions of dollars needed to rehabilitate the site’s historic structures.

Meanwhile, Tripoli was selected as the 2024 Capital of Arab Culture by the Arab League’s Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization — a designation that inspired the Maarad Music Festival at the fairplex earlier this month. Organizers hope to turn the festival into an annual event.

“Tripolitans want to believe that the fair will save Tripoli from poverty,” said Mousbah Rajab, a professor in urban planning at the Lebanese University and part of the team working with UNESCO to develop the conservation plan.

“For them, the fair is a kind of an angel, something magic that will revitalize the city and [put Tripoli back] on the Lebanese map,” Rajab continued. “…The priority for them is that the fair should work again and should play the role that it was given when it was designed.”

But the fair complex has never played the role for which it was designed.

The Lebanon Pavilion was used as the backdrop for the recent Maarad Music Festival held at the fair complex. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

False starts and frustrated hopes

The genesis of the fair dates to 1958, under the presidency of Camille Chamoun, when the Ministry of Planning decided to hold an international fair in Beirut. Two years later, then-President Fouad Chehab signed off on a formal plan to move forward with a “permanent international fair" complex, which would be sited on some 400,000 square meters of expropriated land on the western edge of Tripoli.

As noted by Lebanese architect Adrian Lahoud in The Journal of Architecture, Brazilian ambassador to Lebanon, Bolivar de Freitas, wrote a letter to Niemeyer in 1962, who by then was famous for designing the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, conveying a request from the Lebanese government to design the international fair site.

Lahoud suggested that the selection of a Brazilian architect may have had political motivations beyond the long history of migration between the two countries.

“The selection of a Brazilian architect — and an avowed communist — can further be understood within the history of the Non-Aligned Movement that played an important role in the geopolitics of the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa during this period,” Lahoud wrote.

“A Brazilian architect would be compatible with the post-independence ethos characterized by the National Pact (al Mithaq al-Watani) of 1943, an unwritten power-sharing agreement formed between Maronite and Sunni leaders” and would embody “modern architecture … without the overt colonial associations it might otherwise carry had a European architect been selected.”

The fair, as conceived by Niemeyer, was “designed to house a permanent international fair capable of accommodating up to 2 million visitors a year, including a grand exhibition hall, a national pavilion and an outdoor concert stage,” according to UNESCO.

Construction began in 1964 but stalled multiple times due to funding and political issues. The outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 put a stop to construction altogether; the following year, the site was taken over by the Syrian army under the aegis of the Arab Deterrent Force. Rajab said the structures of the fair were not damaged by fighting during the war and subsequent Syrian occupation, but infrastructure such as electric generators was looted.

After the Syrians partially withdrew from the site in 1994, then-Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri envisioned the grounds as part of his greater post-war reconstruction project. Several international and regional exhibitions were held there over the next few years.

The Syrian army withdrew completely in 1998 and, in the years that followed, various proposed plans for developing the site failed to come to fruition. Events including book and food fairs were held there periodically, but the massive grounds remained largely vacant.

Current caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam, whose ministry oversees the fair complex and who professes a “specific emotional attachment” to the site, told L’Orient Today that the fair was “not a priority” for the successive post-war governments.

“They were busy doing other things, and they really neglected that project,” Salam said. “They neglected the entire north of Lebanon … But hopefully, during my tenure or [that of] any other minister that comes after me, I will make sure to deliver the message that this is a national treasure we need to preserve.”

Even during the years of the Syrian army occupation, the site was not completely off limits to the public.

“I grew up as a child riding my bicycle in that fair,” Salam said. “My mom was from Tripoli, my father is from Beirut. But during the war time, we left Beirut and we moved to Tripoli. So for many, many years, the fair was a playground for me.”

Others in Tripoli, however, have mixed feelings about the maarad (“fair” or “exhibition” in Arabic).

“For long years, it was like a phantom space,” said Mira Minkara, a Tripoli native who leads tours of the city’s historic sites, including the fair complex. For many people, she said, the fair was “always the place of the Syrian military base … So a lot of the generation of my parents, they don't have a relationship with the maarad.”

“There are some memories that people — especially our parents — avoid here,” said Obeida Takriti, a public policy researcher and entrepreneur from Tripoli, who wrote his 2019 masters thesis on politics and development projects in the city.

This pyramid-shaped building at the Rachid Karami fairgrounds was intended as a children's pavilion. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

But that relationship is changing. During the recent music festival, Takriti brought his mother to stroll through the fairgrounds. Minkara noted that over the past 10 years, “gradually, there's more interest in the space by the people of Tripoli,” due perhaps to its increasing exposure on social media and more events, even if sporadic.

The governance structure of the site reinforces the barrier between the grounds and the city. The fair is governed by a board of directors, but the board must revert to the Ministry of Economy to approve all decisions, even event permit requests. The municipality of Tripoli has no official role in the fair’s administration.

“We as the municipality do not have any authority to do any activity or project in the maarad unless we ask for and receive permission from the maarad administration and get permission from the minister, like anyone else,” Bakhache said.

Salam acknowledged that Tripoli officials “should have had a role, but the way the fair was structured and established didn't really include the role for the municipality.” A state of affairs that “should change” in the future, he added.

For now, the minister said he is hoping that the UNESCO plan, once completed and adopted by the government, will help to bring in tourism and funds for its restoration.

It is unclear exactly how much money will be needed for that effort, but it is undoubtedly a hefty sum, Salam said.

“In the past, there were conflicting numbers that were allocated, between $20 and $30 million … to do rehabilitation and reconstruction,” he said. But the reconstruction never went forward and he now estimates, “if we are to look now for a serious reconstruction effort, we will need somewhere between $30 and $50 million.”

A crowd gathers in front of the Lebanon Pavilion at the Rachid Karami International Fair complex during the Maarad Music Festival on Sept. 3, 2022 (Credit: Adham Yehya/Courtesy of Rumman)

A public space?

For Alexandre Khouri and Mohammad El Tannir, co-founders of Rumman, an organization that supports Tripolitan musicians and artists and organized the Maarad Music Festival on Sept. 3, the choice of the fair complex as the festival site was a sort of “soft advocacy” to open it to the public and “to highlight the history and the current situation of the maarad.”

“This site, for us, represents a beautiful spot to actually host festivals — it was even designed for that purpose,” Tannir said. Whether the associations are good or bad, he added, the fair complex holds a “place in the cultural memory of the people of Tripoli.”

The inaugural music festival exceeded expectations, Khouri said, bringing in some 1,500 attendees — many of whom came from outside of Tripoli — far above their target number of 500. The next year, the festival will be expanded to two days, the following year to three, in conjunction with the city’s designation as 2024 Capital of Arab Culture.

While officials generally agree that the fair complex needs more such events, the question of whether it should be opened to the public entirely is a trickier question. Residents of Tripoli are able to get permits to enter the fairgrounds for jogging, but the space has never been a fully public one.

“The issue of public space is controversial,” Rajab said. “When you speak with the administration of the fair, they think that this fair was dedicated for expos, and the access of the public will reduce [its] value. But in our study we showed that the public … wants to have a public space in this area.”

Salam, for his part, said he sees the purpose of the site as “mostly touristic, historic, and … major events.”

“I think it's mixed use, it has to be, but it shouldn't be just open for the public to go and cruise there,” he said.

With the fairgrounds largely off limits, Takriti said Tripoli’s residents gravitated to other public spaces. For his parents’ generation, it was the “Tel” area, the square and public garden next to the Ottoman clock tower in the center of the city; for Takriti’s generation it was al-Nour Square, particularly during the mass protests of 2019 and 2020. The corniche in Mina serves as a public space, as do the souks in Tripoli, although they are technically full of private shops.

In this landscape,Takriti said, the Rachid Karami fair has not yet found its niche.

“The maarad is like any other public space,” he said. “It needs to be functional for people to come.”

TRIPOLI — Over the noodlings of a local blues rock band, a crowd trickled into the normally closed-off Rachid Karami International Fair complex at dusk on an early September day. The musicians were set up in front of a pavilion with elegant pointed arches, while the massive concrete domes and bows conceived by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer loomed in the background like an...