I have an essay in this weekend’s Review section of Abu Dhabi’s The National based on a trip to an abandoned Oscar Niemeyer designed fairground in Tripoli late last fall. It’s great to share space in the always excellent Review — be sure to read Rajah Shehadeh’s review of Hillel Cohen’s Good Arabs and Robert Vitalis (author of America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier) on the slow improvement in writing histories of Saudi Arabia.
My piece begins:
The abandoned fairground in Tripoli is only semi-public and we had to badger the guard to let us in. He suggested we visit the newer, smaller, and bland public park across the street, built by the Saudis. But that park hadn’t been designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the decade before Lebanon’s civil war, so two friends and I insisted, answering questions about our nationalities and motivation. “We just want to look,” I said “and take some pictures. We’re interested in the architecture.”
This sufficed and we entered a vast concrete expanse, like an unmarked car park, that led to the ramped entry pavilion of Niemeyer’s unfinished Rashid Karami International Fair Complex.
Commissioned by the Lebanese government in the 1960s shortly after the completion of Brasilia, whose buildings were designed by Niemeyer, the planned permanent exhibition centre in Tripoli is an artefact of Lebanon’s pre-war prosperity, a reminder of a place once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
A bright Los Angeles Times dispatch in 1964 from the “plush playground of the Arab world” reads like it was written from Dubai two years ago: “Real estate values have soared as one glass-walled skyscraper after another has risen on the coveted coast in and around Beirut.” It closes with a nod to Niemeyer.
While the capital saw “oil-rich traders” in “air-conditioned Cadillacs” and billions of dollars of Kuwaiti and Saudi investments pour into its “stable banks”, industrial Tripoli in the north staked its development on a world-class international fairground.