The Barbary Pirate Fort was the entrance to the Old City
A Libyan woman in her barracan

After about 24 hours of travel from Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey to Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya, my family and I spent our first night in Tripoli in the Hotel Del Mahari, which faced Tripoli Harbor. The long journey by airplane where the only rest was in an airplane seat on a noisy prop plane required some serious rejuvenation. Sunshine and new places to explore revived my spirits. We ate breakfast in the hotel dining room, a sizeable oval room that jutted out into Tripoli harbor and offered a view of ships and sailboats with the ocean in the near distance. Best of all, there was a tunnel under the street leading to the restaurant. My sister and I skipped through the tunnel, admiring the paintings and an aquarium filled with vividly colored fish, all of it relieving the white monotony of the tunnel’s well-lit walls. As I was approaching my thirteenth birthday, I was soon to admire the restaurant more for its attractive young Italian waiters than the view or the charm of the tunnel.

In an expansive mood that first morning, my father announced plans to take his family on a “gharry” (an Indian word for buggy) ride to explore our new home.  Gharries in Tripoli were horse-drawn open vehicles with large wheels, like carriages of old. I never questioned how an Indian word was being used in an Arab country once run by Italians.

The Libyan driver, shod in sandals and eager for business, stood on the hotel driveway in front of his gharry.  He was dressed simply in baggy white pants and shirt, a black vest, and a burgundy-colored close-fitting cotton hat with a tab in the middle, which reminded me of a beanie. The small, well-used black gharry was hitched to a lean brown horse.  Though the driver had a limited knowledge of English, he understood my father’s wish that we be driven around both the new and the old city.

As we seated ourselves on bench seats facing each other, the gharry pulled out onto the lightly traveled harbor boulevard with the musical Italian name Lungomare, which means along the sea. A bright sun sparkled off the harbor’s blue water, and a gentle sea breeze blew the fronds of the palm trees that lined the curving street on both sides. We passed along the edge of the new city headed for the old Barbary Pirate fort at the west end of the harbor, a distance of only ten long blocks. The new city gleamed: white, modern-looking and flat-roofed, enchanting us with its Arabian touches of mosque, minaret and arabesque decoration.

Within a few blocks we passed the Italian Cathedral, a grand edifice of granite with its own cross-embellished high dome and adjacent tower. It might have been lifted straight out of Italy. The Italians, who had first settled in Libya in 1911, had been an important part of the country’s recent history.  They ruled the country until World War II changed everything, and the United Nations granted Libya independence after the war.

The horse led the gharry past the Fountain of the Gazelle, a small traffic circle surrounded by tall palms in the middle of the boulevard. The circular fountain contained the statue of a seated nude woman, her right hand caressing the neck of a gazelle, which resembles a small horned deer, as she gazes into its eyes.

A short distance further, we were all impressed with an immense, three-storied white edifice surrounded by the ubiquitous palm. Resembling a princely palace, it had squared towers at all four corners. A taller squared tower, with finials on each of its corners, greeted guests from the center front of the gracious building. All its many windows were arched. Checking his guidebook, my father announced that it was the Grand Hotel, too fancy for his budget.  But not too fancy for Vice President Richard Nixon, who in the mid-fifties was on a worldwide public relations tour for President Eisenhower, or for Sophia Loren and John Wayne, who stayed there while making a desert film, “Legend of the Lost,” a couple of years later.

We were soon approaching the old city boundary, the Barbary Pirate fort.  Also known as the Castle, it contained a hodgepodge of rooms displaying an assortment of old relics from pirate days as well as artifacts from Libyan history. The highest walls of the oddly shaped, but mostly rectangular stone structure projected toward the harbor. Its upper story had several large arched openings; on the harbor side cannons projected through these arches, the same ones that had fired at U.S. Marines in 1801. The Barbary Pirates managed to sink several Navy ships. The five Marine casualties were buried in a local cemetery and celebrated by Americans every July 4th (until all American service personnel left in 1970). Tripoli is the famous city in the Marine Corps song with its words – “from the halls of Monteczuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

The horse and driver led us through an archway of the fort as we passed into the old city. The difference between old and new was apparent right away; here the streets and crumbling buildings were narrow and old. Tiny homes and shops, no longer whitewashed and neat as in the new city, were crowded together. It was alive with people: Arab men and women going about their business. Many of the men were dressed like the gharry driver, but others were in more traditional garb. Besides a shirt, very baggy trousers and sandals, they wore a light cloth wound around the head and over it a roughly textured brown or white covering, called a barracan, which draped around head and shoulders and ended below the knees. I later heard an unverified rumor that their loose trousers, with the crotch hanging almost to the knees, were designed that way to catch the prophet Mohammed, who, when he was reborn, would be born to a man. Women were carefully enclosed in a similar flowing white garment, but it covered them from head to toe, only the right eye and bare feet in sandals peeped out at the world.

Still traveling along the harbor, we could see working fishermen seated along the sand at the water’s edge repairing fishing nets; others were bundling their nets into small fishing boats. The pungent smell of dead fish was pervasive. Some of these same fisherman turned their attention to flying creatures a year or so later when Tripoli was host to an invasion of locusts. They were considered a delicacy, and Libyan men would eagerly gather the winged bugs that had landed along the sea wall, putting them into bags to take home to eat, perhaps after roasting them over a fire.

The Libyan woman painting is courtesy of a fellow student at Wheelus High School, perhaps Chad Langdon. Pardon my lack of proper acknowledgment.


  1. Thanks for the compliment!

  2. Sounds familiar, Brendan. We may have met – I was a teenager and my sister was about 6-8 during those years. If you have some photos, feel free to share. Enjoyed your story.

  3. Brendan M Dixon says:

    Enjoyed your post! I was an Air Force dependent, my Dad an AF officer assigned to Wheelus AFB from the summer of 1956 to 1959. We lived in Tripoli about a half mile from the Del Mahari, where we often had Sunday Brunch. I also recall the fish tanks in the tunnel under the street, and visits to the old Barbary pirate castle. We lived in an old nearby home built in the 1860’s, rented from an Italian family, with Libyan families next door and a farm behind us where my Dad arranged to park our ’55 VW microbus. The farmer guarded the VW, & my Dad left the door unlocked and short wave radio operable without a key. The ash tray, though was always filled next day!

  4. Dear Victoria,
    my name is Domenico Ernandes, I am Italian, born in Tripoli, Libya, in 1948. I lived in Tripoli for 22 years, from 1948 to 1970, until Colonel Gaddafi, after the coup d’etat of September 1, 1969, decided that all the Italians “must” leave Libya. Most of those Italians (I think at that time we were about 16,000) return to Italy, starting a new life in many different cities. I live in Italy, in Tuscany, close to a small village called Gavorrano, in the hills, not far from Siena. Having attended Christian Brothers schools in Tripoli, as most of my peers, now I’m part of an Association called Associazione Exlali- Fratello (Brother) Amedeo. This Association organizes every year a few rallies, located in different places of Italy, by ex-alumni who have kept in touch with each other over the years. The Association publishes a quarterly newsletter called L’OASI. Three years ago we also set up an online website http://www.associazioneexlali.it/
    A few days ago one of the Association member, responsible for the newsletter, told me of the articles written by you on your website http://www.victoria4edit.com/ that relate to your time in Tripoli during the ’50s. Our newsletter and our website, both have the primary object of recording the past events in our times whilst living in Tripoli, or elsewhere in Libya. Because of this it came naturally to contact you with the request to translate and publish your stories on our newsletter and website . With my knowledge of English (my wife Joanne was born in Belfast, Northern Ireand) my task will be to take care of the translation of your articles from English into Italian. I shall of course do my best to follow as closely as possible to your text. Because I intend to write an article on the relations, in that period, between the Italian and American population in Tripoli, we would be grateful if you would write, from your own perspective, what you remember about those times.
    I shall look forward to your reply.
    Kind regards
    Domenico (Ernandes)

  5. I’ve always enjoyed the rumor, but comfort is a good answer. That’s why women like wearing long pants!

  6. AmusedAnon says:

    I can assure you that rumor is not valid though the trousers were to reflect modesty and comfort. Its a very amusing thought I must say.

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