Entire areas of Lebanon’s northern region are under lockdown. They are inaccessible without a special permit from the army. Lebanese soldiers are battling armed radical groups, including DAESH. While filming this piece, we spent a day in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Syria Street runs through Tripoli, splitting its Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen in the west from its Sunni neighbourhood of Bab Al Tebbeneh. The division is not only geographical, it’s also ideological. The Alawites of Lebanon are a tiny community of 120,000 people. They link their lineage to the Alawites of Syria, and the Sunnis of Tripoli have historically been close to the Sunnis across the border in Syria.
“Tripoli is an area very close to the Syrian border anything that happens in Syria will affect us and anything that happens here will affect them as well. We also intermarry with them,” explained Mahmoud Al Zobi, the mayor of Bab al Tebbeneh for the last 20 years. He was born and raised there, and he told us he will never leave.
The two communities are aligned with rival sides and are facing off on the battlefield in Syria. They’ve also clashed repeatedly on the streets of Tripoli since the war in neighbouring Syria began.
But the mayor says he believes it’s poverty – which cuts through the religious divide – that’s the main cause for the violence, and not political differences.
“Anywhere there is injustice there will be chaos, corruption and revolution. Injustice happens when there's deprivation. Today we have a reality in both Lebanon and Syria whereby if I am a garbage collector my son will have to be a garbage collector, if I am a doctor my son will be a doctor, if I am a minister my son will be a minister. They will never allow someone from a poor struggling, neighbourhood to become a minister.”
Residents have long complained that the government in Beirut neglects them and their needs. The two neighbourhoods are among the poorest in Lebanon. And when you are poor, the mayor says, you are vulnerable.
“We are fighting each other in the streets because the powerful use us, they see our weaknesses and use them. If we are hungry they will feed us,” the mayor said.
And if poverty wasn’t enough, the North has seen a huge influx of Syrian refugees in recent years. We saw refugee tents everywhere we drove in the north. In some cases, the tents were put up in between concrete buildings and inside established neighbourhoods. Residents told us that infrastructure – which was lacking in the first place – can barely support the newcomers.
Author: Zeina Awad
Photos: Charlotte Dubenskij