Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Burkas, bullets and Bikinis

Bullets and bikinis in North Lebanon (h/t Beirut Spring)
Girls in bikinis sunbathe on the beach by Tripoli, Lebanon's second and Sunni-dominated city, while barely 15 kilometers (10 miles) further north, a battle rages between the army and Islamists linked to Al Qaeda.

"I've come here with my parents to stay in our seaside bungalow to swim, sunbathe, have fun with my friends, and forget the war," says Sarah, whose pink two-piece swimsuit hugs the curves of her adolescent body.

She spends her holiday time at one of the numerous seaside resorts around Tripoli, the main city of the north.

This 16-year-old schoolgirl, daughter of a senior official from a conservative Sunni family, says she wants to live a Western lifestyle, while being free to mix among her own circle.

"The Islamists tried to carry out a coup d'etat in Tripoli and impose Islamic Sharia [law]. We are practising Muslims, but like most Tripolitans we reject fanatacism," she adds.

Her friend Rania is a blonde, blue-eyed, Muslim girl, not an unusual sight in Tripoli where crusaders entered between the 11th and 13th centuries, leaving historic evidence of their presence like the citadel of Saint Giles whose ruins still perch on a hill today.

"We were afraid when some Islamists infiltrated Tripoli - supported by Fatah Al Islam hidden in the Nahr Al Bared refugee camp - and started to open fire on security forces," she confessed.

She said she wanted the army to achieve a "crushing victory" against the extremists "who want to indoctrinate by force the Sunnis in a holy war against Christians and Shiites," two other major elements of Lebanese society.

About Tripoli. Some snippets:

Tripoli, a port city with avenues lined with palm trees and acacias, has a modern ambiance with its multi-storey buildings overlooking the sea. It is famous for its oriental patisseries, fish restaurants that serve alcohol, and its cabinetmakers.

Home to some 400,000 people, of whom about 5 percent are Christians compared with 20 percent at the start of the civil war in 1975 (gives you an idea about the numbers of Christians fleeing the Muslim world), the city is also graced by medieval souks (markets) from the Mamelouk era of the 13th to 16th centuries.

"Tripoli, which has suffered from 29 years of Syrian presence, has expressed its allegiance to the moderate Sunni movement of the Hariris, despite the growth of Islamic fundamentalist networks in its entrails," said a Tripoli historian who asked not to be named. Now, says the historian, "extremist ideas are hatching" among the poor and in intellectual circles due to "anti-Sunni" US policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories. Tripoli's beaches may resemble other Mediterranean resorts, but further inside the city bearded men in traditional dress, accompanied by women in the all-enveloping niqab (Muslim women's headscarves) are common sights.