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Rich and poor in Tripoli: an unsustainable social schizophrenia

The clashes happening in Tripoli between the pro-Syrian Alawites and anti Syrian Sunnis, salafis… are not the only division that counts in that city.

Nazih Sanjakdar
17 May 2012

Cities are living organisms, and their inhabitants ought to be connected by more than just the services provided by the municipality. In Tripoli however, the city is aggressively dichotomous; there are the rich neighbourhoods and the poor ones, the educated elite - or at least those who can afford private education - and the uneducated, the notorious families and the commoners. And they do not mix.

 Having been in Paris, to New York, a couple of landers in Germany, to Geneva and other cities… I know for a fact that the kind of luxury cars found in Tripoli cannot be found anywhere else in the world, or at least with the same level of concentration. And I also know for a fact that the forms of poverty that exist in the city are beyond compare.

In Tripoli, the two neighbourhoods don’t mix. The people of Tebbaneh, Jabal Mehsen and other areas are solely recognized as low-skilled service providers for the richer part of the city; they are the vegetable vendors, the cattle slayers, the car repairmen… we call for them to do our handy work and to build our houses, and then once the house is complete we never invite them in, and we never see them again.

In Tripoli, those who drive shiny cars with all their parts on, those who smoke Marlboro and Davidoff, those who lay their Ray-bans on the table as soon as they settle on the chair do not recognize the existence of those who suffer from extreme poverty just a few minutes away, and whom they have met just this morning when they bought their poultry products. They are not willing, or maybe they simply do not know that they can or should at least try to change that.

In the rich quarters of Tripoli we live in denial; little girls want to graduate like they do in Boston, young-adults want to live the American dream… right next to Jabal Mohsen, beautiful brides want to have fairytale marriages and families want to be more rich and want others to know; they all love life and refuse to recognize that something is wrong.

This is not the case of a normal city - suburb interface: this logic cannot justify it for those who try, because Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are not suburbs of Tripoli, they are part of the city; same families, same history, same traditions. The relation between the rich quarters of the city and those where the ‘poor people’ live is like that of two brothers from the same family; one was able to become educated and rich, the other remained in his parents’ house, poor and stagnant. Hence, due to a lack of solidarity, or maybe the seemingly-legitimate presumption that it is a matter of personal choices, the rich brother grew embarrassed of his brother and put him on one side to do the dirty work for his parents -the city itself- in exchange for the little money he drizzles to him from time to time. But he never invites him home, he never introduces him to his kids and he doesn’t try to change the poverty of his days, because - that’s just how life is.

If Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh weren’t submerged in the cheer stupidity of the sectarian divide, just like the rest of Lebanon, a Mohammad Bouazizi would’ve sprung up there every day. A people’s revolution would have been imminent.

The inequalities of life for whatever reason they exist can only be remedied by social solidarity. Poverty, frustration and hopelessness lead to violence; right now this violence is directed inwards because of god - or those who pretend to represent him - and politics, but one day the people of Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh will wake up, and direct their violence somewhere else; towards those who have been ignoring their existence, and pretending that this is life, and that there is nothing to be done.

In Tripoli, the two neighbourhoods should mix, because social schizophrenia doesn’t only affect the sick, leaving the others intact, and security, socio-economic and political quarantine cannot be inflicted on one part of the city without the other.

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

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Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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