Abu Ibrahim Sarouj’s beared smile seems to speak any language: “I know a few words of many languages, although I know more from Arabic”. The orthodox cleric (70) owns a bizarre library in Tripoli where he treasures near 80.000 books piled up in a derelict mameluke building. Inside the Traveller’s Library you can find yourself lost in labyrinths of warped shelves and magazines hills. “Let’s go to the garden”, he tells me, so we can breathe some fresh air.
Take your time as you arrive. It’s better not to look for any particular thing as you dive into that kind of antiquary where you rarely find a brand new best-seller. Instead, let amaze yourself with facsimiles printed in the fifties or a three-languages Quran. English, French and Arabic are just some of the languages you can read in there, the rest of the books speak German, Syriac, Farsi, Greek… Sarouj is incapable of keeping counting.
“I’m sick in books since I was young. I used to buy old books for a penny and my brother used to steal them and sell them in the US when he left to study”. Father Ibrahim describes himself as a book-a-holic since he was a teenager. He was born in Syria, but grown up in North Lebanon capital and as soon as he became in charge of the church next to his building in the old zouq, he decided to find a place to get his rare Diogenes syndrome in order.
Outside the building, the bushes branches and roots break the stonewalls. “Just my library remains”, he complaints, “the municipality is trying to throw me out. I have bought another place to reopen, but I’m not going to leave”. He loves his city the same way he appreciates history contained in sand and pages. “It is said that this is a poor, problematic and too muslim city, but I’m one of they, people come to me as they turn to a muslim sheikh for advice”.
The name of the shop, Traveller’s Library, sadly doesn’t show reality at all, at least not the same way a pub in christian Al Mina quarter can attract tourism, Sarouj says. But he is a man of faith above everything. “The name in Arabic, Saeh also means pilgrim”, he explains while teaching a Syrian young about the right way to read the Gospel: “You must read it in its original Greek, the rest are fake translations, apart from Mathew that was written in Aramaic”. Maybe that’s the reason why Abu Ibrahim Sarouj can speak so many languages, so he can always guess right, no matter what you are asking for.