January 8, 2014

Tripoli library set aflame, 50,000 books lost


A photograph of the library in flames, posted to Twitter on January 3 by @Lara_alassaad.

A photograph of the library in flames, posted to Twitter on January 3 by @Lara_alassaad.

One of the largest and oldest libraries in Lebanon, the Al Sa’eh Library of Tripoli, was torched during the night of Friday, January 3. Over 80,000 titles were in the library’s catalog, including four hundred rare ancient Muslim and Christian texts, and an estimated 50,000 of these books were lost. The arson attack is currently under investigation by the Lebanese police.

The renowned library was run by Father Ibrahim Srouj, a Greek Orthodox priest with a strong interest in Islamic Studies. Reports say the books were burned either in response to “a pamphlet… inside one of the books that was insulting to Islam and the prophet Mohammad” that Srouj supposedly tucked into a book he’d mailed to a publisher, according to an anonymous source in the Agence France Press, or because of a rumor that an article Srouj published online included an insult to Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.

Internal Security Forces Brig. Imad Ayyoubi spoke in defense of the priest at a press conference. “Father Srouj has nothing to do with the article and the source of the website is from Denmark and was published on Jan. 7, 2010,” he said.  He mentioned that the attackers were known, though he did not release any names.

“The library’s steward, Father Ibrahim Srouj, is a locally respected figure who enjoys good relations with the town’s Muslim leaders…. Tension in Tripoli has been running high because the port is a stronghold of Sunni Islam with a minority of Alawites, practising the same faith as Syria’s ruling elite. But Father Ibrahim has been one of the city’s peacemakers,” wrote a blogger for The Economist.

The day before the fire, NOW Lebanon reports two masked men entered the library around 1 PM and shot a volunteer, Bachir Hzori, in the foot. Srouj did not witness this attack, but he spoke with the town’s Muslim leaders at the office of Mufti of Tripoli that evening to assure them he had no connection to the pamphlet (or article, depending on reports). A demonstration had been scheduled to take place in front of the library on Friday, January 3, but it was cancelled after their discussion.

The matter seemed settled until Friday night. Around 10 PM, an unnamed group set Al Sa’eh ablaze. The Economist called this fire a “Sarajevo moment” for Lebanon, comparing the violence to the destruction of the Sarajevo Library in 1992. It could be a sign of broader conflict across the region.

“This criminal act poses several questions on the party behind it that aims at damaging coexistence in the city and ruining its reputation,” said Ashraf Rifi, former head of the Internal Security Forces, who is also from Tripoli.

News of the attack spread quickly online: Nathan Halawani posted a half-dozen images of the library to his blog, and Elie Fares reflected on her blog, A Separate State of Mind, “Tonight, I’m livid and you should be. It’s not just about books. It’s about living in a place where two exptslosions taking place within a week, followed by such an act, are now considered normal.”

The library was founded by the Orthodox Youth Movement in the 1970s, expanding from a single room until it was big enough to fill a nearby warehouse, where it moved in 1983. It eventually occupied two other rented spaces in the years that followed. (At least one article suggests that the fire may not have been set over a religious dispute, instead looking for a chance to develop the library’s valuable real estate.)

The Al Sa’eh library was the second largest library in Lebanon at the time of the fire. “The torching of the library is [akin to] targeting the cultural image of the city,” Future Movement bloc MP Mohammad Kabbara said after the Tripoli Declaration Committee meeting on Saturday.

“We denounce the burning of the library and reject any harm being done to Tripoli and its people, as it has been, and will remain, the city of the world and of intellectuals,” said Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

A demonstration in support of the priest took place on Saturday, drawing hundreds of citizens with signs: “Tripoli, peaceful town” and “This is contrary to the values of the Prophet.” They collected money for renovations and began to plan to restore the books that survived. This week, blogger Halawani posted pictures of volunteers working to rebuild the library.

Srouj was interviewed by the Daily Star saying he forgave the attackers. NOW Lebanon reports it took him half an hour to reach the door to the library on Tuesday because so many well-wishers had turned up to greet him. He called the support the library has received online and in person “the greatest victory.”


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.