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The City and the Writer: In Tripoli, Lebanon with Ruth Awad

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Tripoli as you feel/see it?

Tripoli is my father’s birthplace, and it always evokes existential questions about my identity: can I be of a place but not from it? What does it mean to be a Lebanese citizen, since my experiences and life are so tied to the United States? I was born in Virginia and raised in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, mostly). So to understand my Lebanese side requires self-education, research, and constantly asking my very patient father about it.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Listening to my family speak Arabic while I struggled to understand and communicate with them. It was important to my father that he assimilate into American life when he immigrated to the US, and so while raising me and my sisters, he didn’t teach us Arabic beyond our prayers. It can only be described as heartbreak—to love your family and desire that closeness but not be able to fully achieve it. To belong and to not belong.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I’m very wary of making a statement about this going unnoticed, especially because I have not lived in Tripoli, but the last time I visited, very near to my uncle’s house, there was the husk of a Syrian checkpoint station, a holdover from the war and then the Syrian occupation. How commonplace it seemed will always be striking to me.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Zeina Hashem Beck is from Tripoli, and not only is her poetry extraordinary, but she’s also an incredible performer. As for Lebanese-American writers, I recommend Jess Rizkallah, Hayan Charara, Etel Adnan, and Khalil Gibran.


Is there a place here you return to often?

My family lives in Abou Samra, a district in Tripoli full of history, cultures, and ancient, beautiful architecture. The Mediterranean Sea is almost always in view, especially from my grandparents’ old apartment, sixteen stories up. Jiddo used to own a small tailoring shop in this neighborhood, something my father was proud of. And Al Haddad Sweets is here—the pastries are as beautiful as they are delicious.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Maktabat al-Sa’eh is probably Tripoli’s most well known bookstore—it kind of became this national symbol when it burned in 2014. Like so much of the city, it was rebuilt. It’s almost a metaphor for the resilience of the community.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The old souks of Tripoli gleam like treasure.


Where does passion live here?

In my auntie’s living room—I remember her teaching my sisters and me how to “dance Arabic.” She tied a scarf around my hips and tried so hard to teach us—these awkward, rhythmless girls—how to belly dance. What joy!


What is the title of one of your works about Tripoli and what inspired it exactly?

Set to Music a Wildfire, my first collection of poetry, is largely about my father growing up in Tripoli during the Lebanese Civil War and follows his immigration to the United States. Recently, I wrote a poem entitled “All the Oranges of Tripoli,” about the time my father tried to convince me that oranges originated in Tripoli. It’s not that he has a great passion for oranges, he’s just Lebanese—we think the world begins and ends in Lebanon.

And to be fair, Tripoli’s orange orchards were once famous.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Tripoli does an outside exist?”

Tripoli is anywhere and everywhere my father is. I see it in a bowl of oranges.


Ruth Awad is a Lebanese-American poet whose debut poetry collection, Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2017), won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize and the 2018 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and she won the 2013 and 2012 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Poem-a-Day, the New Republic, Pleiades, the Missouri Review, the Rumpus, CALYX, Diode, the Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and she lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Published May 10, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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