Matt Nash

The mysterious burning of the Saeh bookstore

Questions surround the January 3 fire in Tripoli’s largest bookshop


TRIPOLI, Lebanon – It took Father Ibrahim Surouj around half an hour to enter his bookstore on Tuesday morning.


The recent fire didn’t prevent his entry. The stream of well-wishers did.


Abouna! [Our father],” person after person shouted upon seeing Surouj as he walked down a narrow street and turned into an even narrower alleyway toward the entrance to his Saeh bookshop.


Each new visitor prompted Surouj to stop in the street and exchange pleasantries.


Seemingly unfazed by the January 3 fire that damaged Tripoli’s largest bookstore, Surouj was all smiles, handshakes, and cheek kisses. The shop itself smelled of fire and decades-old books. Aside from smoke damage and an obviously charred, wooden front door, the shop seemed to have suffered little during the fire.


Neighbors – who asked not to be identified – told NOW the fire only burned for around 10 minutes. News reports suggested some two-thirds of the shop’s estimated 80,000 books were ruined. One neighbor scaled that assessment back – guessing only 1 to 2 percent of the books perished.


Surouj himself refused to even speculate.


“I didn’t count, and I’m not going to count,” he told NOW. “I don’t care what was burned.”


He even disputed the official count of books his shop had. He told NOW that at one point, he had catalogued 85,200 titles – “not books,” he insisted – in his collection. Today, he has no clue how many he has.


Surouj was also coy as to why his shop was set aflame.


The popular narrative making the rounds both in Lebanon and on international news aggregation sites has it that Islamist extremists set fire to the shop in retaliation for Surouj allegedly writing a pamphlet insulting Islam.


Surouj supposedly stuffed the pamphlet into a manuscript he’d sent off to a publisher.


The Greek Orthodox priest vehemently denied the pamphlet story and one neighbor told NOW he is known as the “priest to the Muslims” for his good relations with people of all faiths.


In fact, Surouj raised several questions about the pamphlet story. He told NOW the Internal Security Forces were the first to make any mention of the pamphlet being stuffed into one of his manuscripts – a charge NOW could not verify as the ISF’s information officer was unavailable for comment.


Surouj said he had recently sent two manuscripts to Beirut for publication and four books to copy centers in Tripoli for photocopying. When the police called to ask him about the pamphlet, he told NOW he asked them, “tell me in which book this was found?”


“Can they answer that?” he asked NOW rhetorically.


Regardless of who started them, the pamphlet rumor spread – though not accurately at first.


Surouj told NOW that last week rumor had it a priest and publisher with the family name Jarrous penned the offending pamphlet.


“I heard that, father,” a veiled woman who joined the crowd now inside the bookstore interjected as Surouj spoke.


On January 2, two masked men entered the Saeh bookstore and shot a volunteer named Bachir Hzori in the foot.


“I was in the garden,” Surouj said. “I didn’t see anything.”


After the shooting – which took place around 1 p.m. – Surouj and neighbors said police arrived at the scene. That night, Surouj said he spoke with the office of the Mufti of Tripoli to smooth tensions and ultimately prevented a protest that was supposed to take place on Friday, January 3, outside the bookshop.


Around 10 p.m. on January 3, unknown assailants set the bookstore on fire.


“The bookstore has a large door and we can hear it open and close,” a neighbor told NOW. “We heard it open [the night of January 3] and my sister went out to see what was happening. There were armed men standing by the bookstore who told her to get in the house.”


Shortly thereafter, the fire started.


Since the blaze – which was quickly blamed on Muslim extremists upset about the pamphlet – new theories as to why the fire was set have been circulating. Some argue real estate may play a role. Surouj rents the space for his bookshop – which has moved three times since he opened in the early 1970s – and developers allegedly have their eyes on the building.


Surouj said that several times in the past people have been interested in buying the building that houses his shop, but he was dismissive of the “scare the priest so we can buy the building” argument.


“Personally, I don’t think so, but I don’t want to waste time” on speculating, he said. Surouj said that, to him, what was more important than the fire and its motives was the outpouring of support from the local community – members of which helped him clean up after the fire and demonstrated in favor of coexistence.


That said, Surouj’s mind is not entirely at ease. The police, he said, began guarding the bookstore after the January 2 shooting and before the January 3 fire.


When asked how the assailants managed to get so close if the police were standing guard, Surouj replied: “This is a question. Keep it a question that requests an answer.”


Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Mystery surrounds the January 3 fire inside Father Ibrahim Sarrouj’s bookstore – the largest in Tripoli. (AFP photo)

“‘I didn’t count, and I’m not going to count. I don’t care what was burned.’”