Mustafa Alloush is one of those very few politicians who might turn you into an optimist – even in the Middle East. He’s a much loved doctor, a black belt judo expert, a novelist in waiting, a scourge of uneducated clerics, an enemy of corruption, a critic of all and maybe even a minister in the next Lebanese government. But don’t hold your breath. He speaks rashly, sometimes angrily – when you least expect it – and can take you on a guided tour of his city of Tripoli, pointing out all the old inter-Muslim front lines, and still be dogmatic, stubborn and cheerful. Is that what optimism is about in the Middle East?
A few days ago, the Lebanese army pursued a bunch of gunmen through the streets of this proud, beautiful old city, which even the Crusaders could not capture, and in a gun battle one of the soldiers was killed. “He was brought here to the hospital,” Alloush says with the bathos – sympathetic but coldly factual – of a family doctor who has seen this many times before. “I saw him later. He had been shot in the head and abdomen. He died immediately.” The shootout had not been sectarian. There are gangs in Tripoli. “We did not see this as a major break in the situation.”
Alloush is at his surgery at the Nini Hospital in his white hospital jacket, and he enjoys being greeted by his patients outside – in fact, he likes to be seen being greeted; for this is a man, I suspect, who has a certain vanity, who wants to be recognised not as a seer but at least as a realist. Most people in Lebanon are pessimists, even if they are enjoying themselves in a relatively peaceful country. They talk of hope when they are afraid.
But Alloush, a former MP, would even like to take his optimism into the government. “I told [prime minister designate] Saad Hariri that if I was a minister I would say what I thought was the truth, whatever his reaction. I would not be a ‘yes’ man.” He would like to be a minister of health, sport or culture – he was hoping for the same in the last three Lebanese cabinets. My suspicion is that Mustafa Alloush – one day, not now, you can’t be too careful about these things in Lebanon – would like to be prime minister.
“The politicians here represent the same centres of power in Lebanon and have been present for the past 75 years,” he says. “The only democratic aspect of this last election is that the people went to vote. I regard Lebanon as a company, as a partnership. It was originally Sunni [Muslim] and [Christian] Maronite. The new partners are the Shiites and they are coming in without giving new money for the company. They are taking money from those who have been in the company for years.”
Alloush is a Sunni, like Hariri – and the Sunnis hold the prime ministership in this sectarian country – and he is a ferocious critic of the Shiite Hezbollah movement and of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But he is also half Alawite – the Shiite sect to which Assad belongs – and when we pass the old Tripoli cemeteries later in the day, he shows me where his Alawite mother is buried.
Before the French chopped up Syria and created the new Lebanese state in 1920, Tripoli’s nearest market town was Homs in present day Syria. Tens of thousands of Tripolitanians are related to Syrians and inevitably the civil wars that consumed first Lebanon (1975-1990) and then Syria – 2011 until god knows when – divided this tough northern Lebanese city. Tripoli is 76 per cent Sunni, 12 per cent Alawite and 12 per cent Christian, according to Alloush. And the front line, irony of ironies, cracked open along Syria Street.
Bullet holes still blister the buildings and army checkpoints control the roads up to the Alawite Jabel Mohsen district, but Alloush spots an illusory element about all this. As we drive these crowded streets, he shakes his head. “From the first day of the ceasefire here, it was as if nothing had happened for years and years. This means that the situation here can explode again at any time, at any hour. I remember this Syrian ‘green zone’ when it started, in March 1976. All of a sudden, we saw people separating on both sides. It wasn’t sectarian at first. There were Sunnis and Alawites on the Hafez [al-Assad] side and Sunnis and Alawites on the side of [Palestine Liberation Organisation leader] Arafat. Then it metamorphosed into something sectarian.”
We negotiate a corner near the massive 12th century keep of the Chateau Saint-Gilles. “There’s the Maronite cemetery.” And Alloush points to a bleak wall and a small gate opposite the castle. “During 1976, I was part of the local militia here and I spent two months protecting this cemetery with my rifle. I was 16 years old at the time. I used to stand at that door, a Sunni protecting Christian graves. But people now don’t even recall how all this it started. People don’t even know the number of people who were massacred here in 1986. They say a thousand. It was perhaps less than a hundred. Syrian intelligence came in here and 126 people were killed – but there were few reports sent out to the international community.” Alloush shakes his head again.
He is an agnostic, he says, but still fasts – “it’s traditional” – and he starts talking about the university course he is completing about the Christian religion and the novel he is writing based on his father’s life. “I have my own faith in things that are good. At 60, I feel old age and there is a depression in my brain, but I’m more relaxed now because I decided that searching for knowledge is my best relationship [with myself] after many years of being stubborn and dogmatic. Absolute truth is non-existent and those who claim there is an absolute truth are far away from it.”
Perhaps this equilibrium comes from Tripoli’s history. During the Middle Ages, Alloush says, most of the population were Shiite. When the Mamluks arrived – from Egypt, but originally from Albania and Bosnia – anyone other than Sunnis were regarded as heretics.
“The Mamluks stopped the Mongul invaders and were regarded as ‘liberators’ and this liberation is celebrated today at the Zeus river, named after a Roman god by a people who once accepted all deities.” The Alawite religion, Alloush says, is based on neo-Platonic philosophy. The Tripoli authorities recently refurbished a Sufi shrine. The Christian churches still stand in Tripoli city and the Christian schools, one of which was attended by Mustafa Alloush.
He shows me Oscar Niemeyer’s deserted and magnificent showpiece exhibition hall, shamefully empty since 1968, and we stroll the old port where dredging has produced a deep water dock for the bigger ships which will – here comes hope again, and optimism – bring in the tools and equipment and iron and steel for the rebuilding of post-war Syria. There are even plans, so says Alloush – and I admit I’ve heard this one before – for a new railroad system along the tracks of the old French steam train line to Homs.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I say to myself. But then again, it was the same Alexander Pope who said that hope springs eternal.