Tripoli is a magical city, but it takes patience to discover its charms. The Libyan capital is proof positive that first impressions can be deceiving.
The traveler’s first impression of Tripoli is of a quiet Mediterranean city: a fishing port with palm trees and wide avenues. The streets of the Libyan capital, lined with dusty, beat-up cars, are completely deserted after 10 p.m. Few visitors have overcome this impression of the city.
Some tourists don’t want to waste their precious vacation time and are content with a quick visit of the museum and the nearby souk. Then it’s off to the Karamanli mosque before having a tajine at the only downtown restaurant worthy of the name before returning to the desert. As for me, I chose to stay.
The golden sands, inhospitable ergs and mysterious lakes of Libya are strangers to me. Tripoli whispers familiar words in my ear. The lanes of its medina tell the tale of disappointments, of a sea whose history is greater than that of all the other oceans combined: the Mediterranean.
This is why, after my first stroll through the city, I decided to spend 10 days in Tripoli. When one arrives alone in a foreign city, the hotel quickly becomes home. I arrive at the Hotel Waddan, a cozy, quiet place with no traces of the hotel-casino it was in the early 1960s. After I get settled, I stride through the medina. Symbolically and somewhat arbitrarily, I set the foundation of Tripoli at the northern edge of the city where the arch of Marcus Aurelius stands. This gigantic Rubik’s cube marks the threshold of Oea, the opulent capital of Roman Tripoli. The four massive pillars illustrate the same syncretic myths that were repeated all over the prodigious empire inhabited by people who spoke many languages: Latin, Greek, Gaulish, Aramaic, Egyptian and Berber.
The entrance to the sumptuous Ghorji mosque is opposite the arch. The three-meter difference in height between the two buildings represents the passage of 16 centuries of occupation that span their construction. Inside the mosque, I admire the sumptuous ceramics that make up wide mihrahs set in arabesques when the muezzin begins the call to prayer. “Allahu Akbar! God is great.” I expect a small crowd for the midday prayer. Isn’t Libya profoundly steeped in Islam? Only about 20 of the faithful prostrate themselves.
Size matters. Another day, I take the main road of the medina in order to see how large it is. The old city in modest in size. I cross it in 20 minutes. Archaeologists have dug up paving stones from the cardo maximus of ancient Oea from under this road. Like in Rome, Nīmes, Aleppo or Jerusalem, the beautiful order of Roman cities from the early Christian era becomes blurred. Invasions, wars, raids, earthquakes: each historical convulsion has erased part of the original rectilinear city plan. Colonnades have crumbled and boutiques have nibbled away at the large paved spaces. Dwelling places destroyed then rebuilt agglomerated in densely populated neighborhoods that were easy to defend in times of trouble. Tripoli’s medina was thus built up over the centuries.
Nowadays, the lanes look unified. The facades of the buildings – painted in blue, brown or yellow – are caressed by sunbeams that show the cracks and patches. But it is these imperfections that make Tripoli’s medina so human and appealing. The Italian-influenced wooden doors, topped with rusty ironwork, are the only openings at ground level. On the upper floors drying laundry acts as makeshift shutters. Family life takes place in private around the inner courtyard. Children play in the carless streets. Electrical wires weave a tangled web from house to house.
It is wonderful to lose oneself in this fantastic maze of myriad laneways. Here and there I discover a little café, a disused Jewish school, the former French consulate, dilapidated hotels and well-kept mosques. I visit the al-Nagah mosque several times. The vaults of the prayer rooms are supported by ancient pillars that bear ecumenical witness to Roman mysteries, Byzantine feasts and Muslim prayers. If only they could speak.
I strike up a conversation in one of the open workshops on the street. They tell me about a relative back in France or family back in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. Many residents of Tripoli have left the insalubrious medina for state-run apartments, giving way to immigrant families. On the main street, an intersection is marked out by four columns set into the walls of a house. These arba’a arsat (four columns) are perhaps the distant echo of the four columns that marked the main crossroads of the Roman city. Nearby is the Karamanli palace, the residence of 18th-century pashas. The palace has been renovated and is now a museum of folk art.
A little further along is Tripoli’s small souk. Those familiar with Istanbul’s bazaar or the souks of Marrakesh or Cairo will find it peaceful. No one is in a hurry. Even the merchants let me, a foreign client, pass by without hassling me. It is true that craftsmanship in on the wane. Libyans only produce a few jewels and traditional cloths. I like to go to the workshops of the al-Harir souk. Weavers hunched over old looms produce striped cloth in bright colors. The souk contains the town’s main mosque, the Karamanli mosque, with its lovely Ottoman domes and superb ceramic tiles in the style of Moroccan brickwork.
Legal high. I become addicted to the narghile, the only legal high in the country. Nothing in the world would make me miss this ritual. When the sun starts to set, I make my way quickly to the al-Zahar hotel. I cross the threshold, go down the vaulted passage and find myself in the oblong courtyard where the cardplayers are. I sit and place my order. The Egyptian waiter brings “my” narghile. On top of the water pipe, honey-scented tobacco
smolders. After a few puffs, my thoughts become more vivid and more confused. I watch the hotel’s regulars come and go. The rooms of the upper floors and the shops of the ground floor have been transformed into modest workshops. Skilled craftsmen fashion elaborate jewelry. The beat of their hammers is in counterpoint to the sound of the pipes. The smell of welding blends with that of the narghile.
Tripoli has a surprising quality: it heals the soul. Because we are more bored in Tripoli than in other cities, old memories are stirred up. Open wounds in the psyche heal as if by magic. I have come to the conclusion that a session with the narghile is as good as a trip to the therapist.
Foreigners constitute half of Libya’s working population. These unmarried young men do the work that Libyans do not want to do. Their situation is precarious. They sleep on mattresses under lean-tos in hotel reception rooms or live together in poky, squalid lodgings. But their joie de vivre helps them overcome their difficult existence. We drink strong red tea and laugh together. As soon as my companions leave, I transcribe what we had been saying, my thoughts, the state of the caravansary: the ingenious air distribution system, the curves of the arcades, the crescent moons engraved on the capitals. I even draw a sketch of the building, erasing my own awkward additions. Taking flight. After my narghile session, I occasionally find the courage to leave my cocoon. I exit the medina and find myself in the center of Green Square which is surrounded with well-mannered traffic of black-and-white taxis. With its two tall columns facing the sea, Green Square thinks of itself as the Piazza San Marco. Next to the medina, the fort of al-Hamra houses the superb national museum.
Beyond the fort, the roads lead to colonial Tripoli, a set of beautiful green-and-white buildings built in 1934. Did the Italians hate the city so much that they did the exact opposite of the Arabs architecturally? The lanes of the medina are dark and narrow, the Italians built wide luminous avenues; traditional houses were low, the Italians built
six-story buildings; interior courts were private, the Italians built little squares all over the place. Then, just to be provocative, they built a huge cathedral in a predominantly Muslim city. Seventy years later, colonial Tripoli – with its Mussoliniesque pomp, borrowings from the classical canon and nods to Arab art – is charming in a dated way. The shady arcades of Rue du 1er Septembre house the rare trendy shops: clothing boutiques, pizzerias, fast-food outlets and photographic
Hopefully, the international situation will evolve favorably, the country’s riches will be more equitably distributed and Tripoli will be transformed. One day, a restored medina will make the city similar to the old part of Nice. Tourists will sit down in the courtyards of renovated buildings. Tripoli will be as it once was: a hard place to get to know, and an even harder place to forget.
||Mourad Teyeb holds
degrees in English and Literature, Educational Psychology, and
Computer Science. Fluent in English, French, Arabic, German,
and Italian. Mourad's, Mourad trained with the African Center for
the Training and with Recycling of Journalists, Tunisian
Papers and Magazines. In additional to journalism, Mourad has
also had travel agent tour operating training. (More
about Mourad Teyeb.)
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