Today, a side street in the Rahibat neighborhood in old Tripoli is rife with second-hand clothes stores, frequented by residents of the city and nearby towns. Amid the market’s noise and clamor lies an old library. It is the historic Saeh library, whose curator is Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest. More than four decades ago, this Eastern Christian chose to become a neighbor of the Mansouri Great Mosque and dedicated himself to this silo of papers.
It has been said that the Dar al-Ilm [House of Knowledge] library, which lay in the heart of Tripoli for hundreds of years, was the largest library on the face of the earth and the city was labeled “the city of knowledge and scholars.”
This name is today fading away, given many social and political considerations. Yet the Saeh library has proved resilient against the culture of abandoning books. It is one of the few monuments that save face for the city’s residents in upholding their historic reputation.
The library contains more than 85,000 books, many of which are of significant importance. This includes books written in dead languages — such as Syriac and Latin — and some reference works in Greek, in addition to manuscripts of great significance that are worth thousands of dollars.
This is not to mention the books on ancient civilizations, literature, languages, arts and law, as well as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and Islamic, Christian and Jewish books, among other books on Sufism and non-Abrahamic faiths. It also contains magazines, entertainment and astrological books. All these collections used to sit on metal shelves that started in one room, only to expand to include many rooms and corridors riddled with books. The bathroom was no exception.
You take a turn down this side street to reach the library in only a few steps. If you were not intending to visit the Saeh library, it would be difficult for you to detect its presence, were it not for the little sign bearing its name in small letters. It is as if the library was set in this isolated place only to receive those who are here to visit it. It is as if it rises above exhibitionism, only to forge an accidental relation with book lovers. It is as if it did not need to introduce itself, given it is on everyone’s lips in the city and its reputation reaches all areas of Lebanon and other Arab countries.
The library has a special value among young people in particular. Some of them consider it a discovery that’s different from the modern style of stores in general, and bookshops in particular. Fantasy and excitement are at every corner and under the arched roof in this small alley, where the sun’s rays enter only rarely. The Saeh library is incompatible with the aspects of welfare and clamor of the city’s cafes, nightclubs and even workplaces.
The young people of Tripoli, who work in the capital of the north, visit the library to renew their vow of obedience to their ancient city, and to feel again that they are its righteous sons.
Mazen al-Sayed, who works in Beirut, misses many things in Tripoli: the port, a plate of hummus, and the need to visit the library every time he returns to his native town. It is simply a place like no other. This is what made Nazih Shami, 17, shine in a photo on Facebook, in the dim light that created blue ripples from which [seemingly] emanates an antique odor [of books] in the hallway.
The Saeh library is the world of Father Sarrouj, or as some youth call him “al-Abouna Sarrouj.” Sarrouj says that he always carries the Bible in one pocket and the Quran in another. You cannot tell if this statement is serious or not. Sarrouj is close to everyone, with his genuine smile and lean body and face. He wears a hat and a gray or dark blue cloak in winter, often without any religious symbol.
His presence at some cultural or civil events in Tripoli confirms how serious and important the event is. He also attends the masses at St. Georges Church and offers communion. This man, who is in his 70s, did not certainly choose his name, but he obviously got his share of the name throughout his life. Abraham [in Arabic, Ibrahim] is the father of the prophets, from whom the three monotheistic religions derive. Ibrahim Sarrouj became a priest. He says he is working hard with the Muslims and Christians in the city to be members of “the most charitable nation brought out to mankind” as the Arab prophet wanted it to be. He celebrates prayers in a church in al-Zahrieh neighborhood, where a Jewish family used to live before fleeing during the civil war. These religions are combined in his Arabism, which is confirmed by his Syrian origin, Lebanese socialization and his struggle within the Popular Front.
If he cannot remember where one of the books is — and he often remembers — Sarrouj resorts to the computer where the books are classified. The heritage of the library did not distract it from modernization, through this electronic classification and the library’s website.
A few days ago, unknown assailants torched the library, causing the loss of nearly 40% of its contents, following accusations that Sarrouj wrote articles insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The accusations turned out to be malicious. There are interpretations attributing the incident to some disagreements between Sarrouj and parties that seek to confiscate the headquarters of the library, which used to be the American School in the Ottoman era, then a gendarmerie station.
Those who are loyal to the Saeh library, mostly youth from Tripoli, rushed to ward off additional losses and embarked on a cleanup campaign there, collected the books and supported the library by promoting the sale of the remaining books. Sarrouj refuses to make blind accusations, and insists on denying that he was harmed for being a Christian cleric in a Muslim-majority region. He just quoted David, saying: “We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!” (Psalm 124:7)
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