My childhood memories of the “Maarad” (‘exhibition’, or ‘exhibition space’ in Arabic), as we call the site in Tripoli, began when I’d watch from our balcony my brother Adel and his friends, the boys from the neighborhood, climb up “the Dome” (Experimental theater) and go down—ideally without falling. This was one of their favorite games. The Maarad was a playground for them, a space of freedom.
As a teenager, I remember going to buy African accessories from the fair that was held there several times in the 90s. On those occasions, we only went into ‘La Grande Couverture’ (The Exhibition Hall) and never really walked around the other parts of the Fair. Concerts took place there from time to time, featuring local and international bands such as Zebda, from France, or the legendary Lebanese underground act SoapKills.
The Maarad project dates back to the early 60s. In 1962, in an attempt to decentralize the country, Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) was chosen to design the Tripoli International Fair (which became the Rashid Karameh International Exhibition Center later on). Construction started in the mid-60s and stopped in 1975 when the war began in Lebanon.
The place is a surreal suspended space made of concrete, surrounded by maintained grass, trees and flowers… The contrast always intrigues visitors. I used to take my curious friends to visit the place but never thought of going beyond that and getting to know it more intimately. However during the time I worked at the Beirut Art Center, I met a lot of artists, urban planners and architects who came from abroad to visit the Fair and asked me if I organized tours around the Maarad—given that I had organized tours in Tripoli, but around the old city.
I gradually developed an interest in the Tripoli International Fair and started to read more about it. I also went on a few tours with architects with a particular interest in the project, and eventually met Georges Doumani, an architect from Tripoli who worked closely with Oscar Nieyemer. I then found myself developing a passion for this space that became part of my city’s rich heritage.
Both Beirut with its incredible density and noise levels and Tripoli are crowded cities. When I find myself in that specific piece of land, I somehow find peace: I can stand in the middle of a city without having to feel any buildings or streets or cars nearby. I can only hear the sound of birds in trees and the very distant sounds of the city. This gives a feeling of serenity that everyone walking around the Fair experiences.
The fascinating avant-garde forms of Niemeyer’s work embrace a wide variety of functions (entertainment, education…) and sometimes even lead us into the realm of mystery. The place’s majestic yet minimalistic aspects and the feeling of discovering an abandoned modern monument still intrigue me on every visit.
I decided to start offering tours in the Fair after the clashes have stopped in Tripoli. The feedback has been very rewarding. I can see the amazement and curiosity on the visitors’ mesmerized faces. Most of them are Westerns working in Lebanon or coming for a short visit. Lebanese—including Tripolitans—are also starting to take interest in the Maarad. Nearly everyone tells me how beautiful the place is and how they can’t believe it’s almost abandoned.
I would like to experience the Maarad open to the public and slowly become dynamic venue for social and artistic activities. While remaining unchanged, the original concept would only adapt to Tripoli’s need of a lively modern hub with a great potential and infinite possibilities.