New York Times – On a Friday night shortly after New Year’s, a group of men broke into an antiquarian bookshop in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and set it on fire. The shop belonged to Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest. A longtime resident of Tripoli’s old Serail neighborhood, he had amassed a large collection of books—rare first editions of scholarly texts, novels in different languages, dictionaries, encyclopedias, out-of-print magazines—in the forty-plus years since he opened for business. The fire burned for under an hour before it was discovered, but an untold number of books were destroyed.

Tripoli is a mess. Just a few miles from the Syrian border and comprising a religiously mixed population, it’s become one of the most dangerous places in Lebanon. Sunnis and Alawites—variously at odds since the Lebanese civil war and now feeling the stakes of their feud deepened by the existential conflict next door—lob mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at each other’s neighborhoods while car bombs explode outside congregational mosques. A preponderance of religious and political powerbrokers in the city has made it difficult for the Lebanese Army to establish order. Radical Islamists—previously a kooky fringe in Lebanese politics—attract more support each day from Tripolitans incensed by Hezbollah’s involvement on the side of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, which has brought over a million refugees into Lebanon. Meanwhile, the princes of the alleyways (as neighborhood strongmen are sometimes called) vie for influence with the city’s other grandees, including two Sunni billionaire politicians and a former security czar.

Maktabat al-Sa’eh (“The Pilgrim’s Bookshop”) is a Tripoli landmark, occupying a five-thousand-square-foot space in a grand, crumbling building that once served as an Ottoman police barracks. Before the fire, the labyrinthine warren of books had flaking paint on its walls and a leaky ceiling, but Father Sarrouj pays a pittance in rent and his landlords have neglected him. Crammed into the space are mountains of books, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand. The exact number is unknown, although the priest has used a computer to try to keep track of his inventory and, since 2005, to maintain a creaky Web site. Bearded and spectacled, he bears a passing resemblance to a more nebbishy Umberto Eco, but his appearance is belied by a rhetorical spryness typical of Levantine men of the cloth. Since Father Sarrouj began appearing on the nightly news, he has handled interviews with aplomb, fielding questions and citing Biblical and Koranic verses without skipping a beat.

Who started the fire? The circumstances are mysterious. Did the bookshop contain polemical writings insulting to Islam? Had Father Sarrouj authored an incendiary pamphlet about the Prophet Muhammad? Or were the arsonists somehow connected with the building’s owners, who had been trying to muscle the recalcitrant priest out for years? Rumors swirled as politicians, bishops, and muftis raced to denounce the crime and join the photo ops in front of the bookshop’s charred entryway. Even Salem al-Rafei, a Salafist sheikh who has preached jihad against the infidels in Syria, came to Father Sarrouj’s defense. For a few hours, every press conference and television interview conjured up fusty commonplaces about Lebanon’s importance as a symbol of coexistence, a mosaic of religious communities, the cradle of civilization, and the home of, yes, the people of the book.

In “Books Do Furnish a Room,” Anthony Powell once observed that if “you bring off adequate preservation of your personal myth, nothing much else in life matters. It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.” Lebanon’s personal myth is deeply wrapped up in its bookishness. One of the publishing hubs of the Arab world, for decades Beirut has been a haven for writers and intellectuals chased out of other Middle Eastern capitals. The press is partisan but free, and the most irreverent journalists, who inveigh on a daily basis against the corrupt and reactionary character of Lebanon’s élites, are minor celebrities. Universities are hotbeds of political activism and dissent. Censorship, while not unheard of, is rarely policed. I recall dropping in on one of my favorite bookshops a couple of years ago to inquire about a controversial study of the Koran that had recently been translated into Arabic. “Banned,” said Khaled, the bookseller, taking a drag on his cigarette. “I might be able to find you a copy if you’re really interested.” When we agreed on a price, Khaled got up from his desk, disappeared into a back room for a few seconds, and returned with a copy of the book. I paid him wordlessly, finished my coffee, and left.

Astonishingly, the Maktabat al-Sa’eh fire prompted something that two years of suicide bombings and assassination attempts had not: a public outcry. The Lebanese have absorbed the blows of the Syrian proxy war by desensitizing themselves, an old habit born from years of muddling forward through violence, decaying infrastructure, and communal strife. When Father Sarrouj’s books went up in flames, though, a nerve was apparently struck. Within hours, civil-society groups set up a barn-raising effort to secure and catalogue the undamaged books, clean up the shop, and build new shelving. Someone launched a fundraising initiative. Book drives were organized around the country. An international courier announced that it would ship books from anywhere in the world to Lebanon to replenish Father Sarrouj’s collection. I asked a student activist organizing one such drive in Michigan about the kinds of books they were receiving. “All kinds of things. Lots of history,” she said, then added, “Actually, lots of books about J.F.K., for some weird reason.”

Suddenly, this became a feel-good story, a triumph of convivencia over sectarianism. The bookshop fire set the stage for a moment of national catharsis; it was a small problem that could be fixed in a world of intractable conflicts. Every trope sacred to Lebanon’s self-fashioning—religious harmony, enlightened cosmopolitanism, civic-minded entrepreneurship—came together in a metaphor that had the side benefit of being true. A Christian priest living among Muslims whose bookstore is saved by a grateful community? If a publisher has not yet optioned Father Sarrouj’s biography, I imagine it’s only a matter of time.

I recall watching a TV spot about the Sa’eh bookstore in 2013, a human-interest piece that focussed on the real-estate dispute. Father Sarrouj led the reporter around his shop, showing her the stacks of volumes wrapped in plastic bags to protect them from dust and humidity: collections of classical Arabic poetry, learned epistles, vintage periodicals, doorstoppers with tooled leather bindings. The place looked like it rarely received visitors; it was portrayed as a quaint anachronism, a vestige of Lebanese gentility to be preserved before it vanished like the Ottoman building it occupied. Today, prevailing over predatory landlords and fundamentalist thugs, the bookshop’s ordeal has become, at least for the moment, a hopeful allegory for Tripoli and, perhaps, for the country itself.

Elias Muhanna is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University.

Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP