DAYS after a fire wreaked havoc on Tripoli’s largest library, much of it is already restored. Shelf after shelf holds books neatly wrapped in plastic to protect them from the humidity. Residents from the northern Lebanese city gather in the backyard eagerly discussing the library’s reconstruction.
On January 3rd, Tripoli’s Al-Saeh library was set aflame, purportedly by Salafists, fundamentalist Muslims, after rumours circulated accusing Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest and the library’s founder, of writing a pamphlet insulting Islam. Among other things, the article was alleged to say that Abu Bakr, Islam’s first caliph, the leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad’s death, once beat the prophet’s wife Aisha with a newspaper.
Father Sarrouj wasn’t the author of the article in question, which is also wildly inaccurate—the printing press, for instance, was invented more than 800 years after the prophet’s death. But the library’s attackers acted quickly on the rumours.
A religious ruling, or fatwa, was issued against Father Sarrouj, and the offended planned to march on the library. Concerned for the priest’s safety, Lebanese security forces deployed around the library on January 2nd. But just a day later, it was torched and thousands of books were damaged or destroyed.
Tripoli’s residents are angry that their library wasn’t better protected. "I can’t understand how threats were thrown at Father Sarrouj and there wasn’t enough security to protect him," said Khaled Merheb, a lawyer. A high-ranking official told Mr Merheb that the security men had momentarily left to purchase cigarettes. The officers have now pledged to guard the library round-the-clock.
The fire is just the latest chapter of trouble in this ancient, coastal city. Of all Lebanon’s cities, Tripoli has seen the worst fallout from the nearby Syrian war. Conflict between the city’s Alawite minority, which supports the Syrian regime, and the pro-rebel Sunni majority has fuelled sectarian clashes and religious extremism.
But since the fire, the city has shown its better side. On January 4th, 700 locals gathered with signs reading “Tripoli, a peaceful town” and “This is contrary to the values of the Prophet”. Organisers called on two parliamentarians, Antoine Zahra and Khodr Habib, to leave so as not to politicise the event. Religious leaders of all stripes condemned the attacks. Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani, Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric, called the perpetrators “barbaric” while priests from Byblos, a city 45km south of Tripoli, arrived, barefoot, to show their solidarity.
As some residents noted, the written word has long been a cornerstone of Islam. The first word the angel Gabriel, they say, uttered to the Prophet Muhammad was iqra’, or “read”. Though hardline Islamists have in recent years targeted libraries and cultural artefacts across the region, those such as Father Sarrouj who preach coexistence and religious tolerance remain undeterred, even as their work mounts.