TRIPOLI, Lebanon – As the tour group made its way through the narrow alleys of the seaside city of Tripoli, marveling at its medieval architecture, residents stared back at a sight that for them was just as exotic — visitors in their poor, restive corner of Lebanon.
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"Foreigners!" residents called out to each other as the group of around 30 Lebanese and foreign tourists made their way through the Old City's labyrinth of cobblestone alleys, snapping pictures of centuries-old archways and graceful minarets. "We put you on our heads!" coffee seller Abu Mohammed, 65, said, using a traditional Arabic greeting for honored guests.
Tourists visiting Lebanon can ski in the mountains, frolic on sandy Mediterranean beaches, traipse around Roman ruins or stay out all night at Beirut's frenetic clubs. But Lebanese and foreign visitors alike have stayed away from the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli as violence has flared over the conflict in neighboring Syria.
Mira Minkara, 35, hopes to help revive her city by introducing visitors, both foreigners and Lebanese, to its rich cultural heritage. "I'm passionate about my city," said the tour guide, who has led a dozen groups through Tripoli over the past year, charging around $20 per person. "I see there is a hunger for people to discover this old city ... that everybody is scared of."
The outbreak of the Syrian civil war aggravated tensions in Tripoli between the residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh, an impoverished Sunni neighborhood where residents support the Syrian uprising, and neighboring Jebel Mohsen, whose residents share Syrian President Bashar Assad's Alawite faith and largely support him.
Gunmen from the two neighborhoods have clashed at least 20 times since 2012, regularly paralyzing the city and in effect isolating it from the rest of the country. Poverty has helped fuel Islamic extremism and support for radical groups fighting in Syria runs high. A suicide bombing at a cafe earlier this month killed nine people.
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Former Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said the number of tourists has dropped from thousands to hundreds in recent years — mostly Lebanese stopping to sample the city's famed sweets on their way to the mountains.
Minkara is the only tour operator taking foreigners to Tripoli, and her trips are sometimes delayed because of violence. Shortly after the Jan. 8 suicide bombing, she sought to ease concerns in an email to a group of prospective visitors.
"A good friend who works in state security ... told me it is calm," Minkara wrote. "I mean if Paris is not safe anymore, why would (you) be scared of Tripoli?"
She managed to reassure the group of 12 Lebanese and 18 foreigners — mostly aid workers and students living in Lebanon, from places as diverse as Argentina, Iran, and Denmark.
They spilled out of a bus at the al-Tal clock tower, built by an Ottoman sultan. Soldiers patrolled nearby, shoe shiners tapped their blocks, and vendors pushed carts of sesame-studded bread stuffed with cheese.
The group was led past stately buildings with Ottoman-style vaulted ceilings and ornate French-inspired balconies. They plunged into narrow bazaars built by the Mamluks — a Muslim dynasty that pried the city back from the Crusaders in 1289 — where they elbowed past shops selling clothes, gold jewelry and sweet cheese rolled with cream and rose-petal jam, a Tripoli delicacy.
"It's very different from other Lebanese cities," said Guglielmo Gori, 26, an Italian student living in Beirut. "It is more Islamic, it has more of an Arabic taste."
Most of the tourists had come from Beirut, where most of the historic architecture was blasted to rubble during the civil war or demolished by developers who have rebuilt the city as a jumble of concrete high-rises.
"I'm 26, I'm Lebanese and I don't know Tripoli. It's shameful," said Beirut art gallery director Marc Mouarkech. "It feels like the whole country has moved on a bit and Tripoli didn't."
The tour group wasn't able to see the sweeping interior of the Great Mosque because it was closed for prayers. At the domed Mamluk-era bathhouse men, waited patiently to bathe as Minkara showed the tourists around.
At the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, they admired a collection of golden icons and met Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, whose library was burned down last year amid specious rumors that he had insulted Islam. Christian and Muslim volunteers rebuilt the library together.
Sarrouj lamented the fortunes of his city, but said the tourists gave him hope.
"A small bird is a sign of the coming spring," he said.
Then the visitors departed, a church worker dimmed the lights, and they prepared for a funeral.