May 10, 2015

A Long Way from Wollo

At the start line. The Ethiopians in the front will sweep the field
Yet another race, a half marathon this time, in Tripoli. For the ignorant among you, that’s 21 point something kilometers. The running season in Lebanon will soon enter its summer stop, so you’ll have to bare with me just a few more weeks. You might get the impression – if you’re an infrequent visitor – that I am an avid runner. Alas, no. But I am an avid supporter, which counts for something, no?
Mind the two different shoes on the third person on the right; one foot fits one kind, the other foot prefers another.

I had high hopes for Aregu Sisay, our housekeeper. Pretty sure she was going to win this one. That was until I saw that the organization has bussed in some heavy duty Ethiopians; professional runners, who travel all over the world from event to event, making a living from running.
Well,  that was the end of that podium position.
Doesn’t matter, she came in first in the Lebanese league. No podium position there either, as she doesn’t have the Lebanese nationality. But she clocked a pretty good time, she thought. That was of course until she spoke to the coach of the Ethiopian professionals.

What was your time,” he asked interested.
One hour and 30 minutes,” Aregu answered with a smile.
Oh,” he replied with a frown, “well, keep practicing then.”
His first woman came in at a mere 1:14.
 But she’s young and she will get there.

Tripoli was in a festive mood. The only females in shorts were the ones that were running. (I will probably get a nasty comment over this one). They’d brought out the music, and the kaak sellers, the clowns, and lots of other things to entertain the crowds.

Aregu initially did not really want to run in Tripoli.
There’s Daash there and they killed a christian man from Bangladesh and an Ethiopian last week,” she said.
Where do you hear these things?” I asked. She cannot read English nor Arabic.
On Facebook. The Ethiopians were warning each other on Facebook.”
I wonder if Zuckerman, when he started Facebook, had any idea that his vision to connect a few university students would enable an entire migrant community to send each other warning signals in case of danger.
"Selfie selfie on a stick, who's got the fairest profile pic?"
One of Niemeyer's projects

All this against an almost surrealistic backdrop; the International Fairgrounds of Oscar Niemeyer.

Commissioned in 1965 by the then Lebanese government to build an international fairground, the world renowned architect designed something on a grand scale. ‘His ambitious plan for Tripoli proposed a new city quarter including zones for commerce, sports, entertainment, and housing, with the fair at its centre.’ (Source)

The war in 1975 ended those plans, and the partially completed complex was never inaugurated. Even now, some 50 years after the start, the place still feels futuristic, partially because nothing has been changed or added over the years; it is exactly as it was planned to look like.
Red Cross was all ready to roll
A seriously overweight clown

Met lots of interesting people too. One runner, a 63 year old Lebanese from Zahle, has been living in my hometown in Holland for some 30 years, and he runs, on average, 8 (half) marathons a year.
I just run on Sundays,” he said, but he’s run some 212 marathons in his life!  Or was it 112? I forgot, but does it matter, it’s an incredible feat either way. I mentioned that I was impressed, but he pointed out some other runners.

That guy, he’s a Lebanese living in Dubai, he’s 67, and just ran 21 k in 1:37. That’s fast, even for a young guy.” A gentleman facing us, well into his 60’s, if not older, runs every event in Lebanon. Ali Makki, who’s over 50, ran it in 1:25 and there are countless other Lebanese, no young guns, who run 21 k with ease.  And most of them didn’t start until they were 40. All these people are getting me interesting in writing longreads again.

Horse riding in the middle of town; why not?

The organization of the marathon, I am glad to say so, was as it should be. The start for the wheelchair riders was slightly delayed because they couldn’t get the lead vehicle up and running. The usual ‘fauda’ of people ending up on the track where they are not supposed to be, and a discrepancy of some four hours between the finish of the winners and the handing out of the trophies caused the majority of the runners to go home before the prize ceremony. The poor Ethiopians, dead tired, couldn’t skip that one, because they had a check to pick up.

No party is complete without the balloon man

 It’s an amazing phenomena, these East Africans and their runner abilities. Maybe it’s a gene thing, but there’s more to it. Running is a way of life (here's an interesting documentary on it: . They train in the mountains at high altitudes, have to run a lot to get to places (not many own a car in the country side), and for many it’s a way out of poverty. Our housekeeper is from Wollo, a rural district where people subsist on farming, and moved 3,000 km away from home to make a living in a country where she knew no one nor spoke the language. She didn’t do any running back home. She’s a long way from Wollo now, and will not ever make it to Olympic level, but if she can make a living from running, that’d be nice.
Chilling after the race
They seemed genuinely amazed by their prices. they were making lots of pictures of them

And the winners are . . .
But enough about Ethiopians, this is supposed to be a blog about Beirut.


Leila Y. P said...


Nice to read a blog article about Tripoli from time to time, even though it was about a marathon. Lebanon is not always Beirut, and Tripoli has a beautiful authentic oriental side that the capital has lost long ago. I would definitely recommend a tour in the old city with one of the best guide: Mira. And maybe another post ;)

Groetjes van Vlanderen!


Anonymous said...

When I went to Tripoli in the early seventies, I thought it was a nice historic city with a
good atmosphere and a lot of potential. Like other places in Lebanon thins get worse not better. The sad thing may Lebanese do not want to take charge and fix their country, waiting for the US Iran agreement, Saudi Iran, Syria war to end ..... Maybe when the French come back they will fix it. Very sad for this country that has so much talent and potential, more sad that so many Lebanese feel it is no longer livable, I am one of them.