Postcard from Tripoli

By nightfall, the center of Tripoli had shed much of the swirling business of noonday. Having explored for many miles, having laid in some of city’s famous sweets—phyllo and nuts and honey in a series of rich combinations—we needed to get back to Beirut. The big buses that brought us had left the square, and I wondered if we’d be able to find a ride, if Tripoli perhaps went to sleep much earlier than the capital. Certainly it wears its age with more grace. Not far from city center, earlier in the afternoon, the souks were packed with shoppers and vendors, tables and booths heaped with the world’s materiel, an impossible number of shoes and belts and backpacks and necklaces and toys. But behind the plastic and polyester, ancient limestone walls and arches held up the weight of many years. Underfoot, stately and worn cobbles. The narrow alleyways crisp, designed long ago to corral shade and store the cool evening in their stones. Closer to the port, another warren of old and winding passages housed pubs and food vendors and men smoking and enjoying the respite from the heat. Without the chaos and crowding of cars, narrow streets suddenly seem like the best possible response to the thick Mediterranean sun. Back in city center, my concerns about the trip home have been wildly misplaced. In its wild, piecemeal way, the market manages transit in Lebanon quite effectively. We were in the square only a few seconds before a hawker identified us as Beirut-bound and loaded us into a van. He filled the rest of the seats in a minute and then the 14 of us—driver and passengers—were headed south. From the dark highway, the Mediterranean was no longer visible, but earlier in the day, despite the commercial tumult along its shore, a palette of appetizing blues charted the sea’s topography and waves washed patiently over its gnarled shoals. Before we achieved cruising altitude, the van pulled into a brightly lit market perched between highway and cliff. I thought maybe we needed fuel, and I was half right. A teenaged boy ran to the van’s window and passed in a tiny cup of Turkish coffee. The driver paid and we were ready for the caffeinated drive back to Beirut.