GARDEN CITY HOME – TRIPOLI, LIBYA

The view from our balcony

Just before Christmas in 1955, the five members of the Williams family left the Hotel Del Mahari when my dad found a home in Garden City, an upscale location for Europeans, Americans and wealthier Libyans.  Consisting of streets like spokes that branched off Garden City Circle, the area was a neighborhood of one and two-story, flat-roofed, square and rectangular-shaped villas surrounded by stucco walls as high as ten feet. The walls were as much for privacy as protection, and many of them had decorative, fret-worked sections. Flowering vines such as bougainvillea, lantana hedges, and palm trees were ubiquitous; Garden City was an appropriate name.  It was some time before I discovered that the vibrantly-colored pink and purple bougainvillea vines that seemed to cascade from countless rooftops were in actuality growing up from the ground to the roof and not vice-versa.

Our spacious home was on the second floor of a two-family villa on a street that maintained its Italian name, Via de Gaspari; a Libyan family lived downstairs. A balcony, on both stories, ran the full length of the villa’s frontage. Small square sections, supported by columns, jutted out at either end of the balcony, giving the villa a slight “U” shape. The slatted, green-iron gate led from the street to a small side yard, large enough for the swing set my father ordered, which flaunted our American ways in this faraway land.

A heavy wooden front door, which could be opened by key or from a buzzer upstairs, welcomed us to our new home; a two-tiered marble staircase led upstairs to a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. There was no central heating, but since doors closed off the entrance hall, separate dining room and separate living room, we could keep the back bedrooms and kitchen warm in winter with portable Aladdin propane gas heaters. To add to the coziness and keep out pesky sand from ghiblis, the desert sandstorms that would blow into town on occasion, there were green wooden shutters that could be rolled down over the outside of all the windows.

The family home, above the Bougainvillea

Garden City was multi-cultural. Our side of a very short block boasted a British general and his wife on the corner next to us; another British family occupied the home on the other side of us. Across the street lived a French family and an Italian family, and a large corner compound surrounded by a decorative wall contained the home of the Egyptian ambassador to Libya.

The popular Gamel Abdul Nasser was in power in Egypt, and while we were there the ambassador held a party for Libyan dignitaries and politicians (only male, of course). I spied on the interesting event from our balcony and watched as his male visitors mingled. Robed Arab sheiks, with their distinctive square cloth headdress bound with gold rope, seemed to be the dominant guests. Seated at outside tables set up in the sizeable yard, they smoked as they watched films of Nasser on a giant movie screen.

Facing an adjacent street but bordering on the back of our villa was the home of a former Arab queen, perhaps a relative of King Idris, then King of Libya. My girlfriend, Gail, who lived around the corner, and I were very curious about the mysterious queen but never had a glimpse, despite the fact that we would climb my back garden wall and peer through the trees into the lushly landscaped acres surrounding the queen’s home. We played tennis in the street in front of the queen’s mansion, but were such poor players that we lobbed and lost balls in her gardens.  When we hit them into the General’s yard, we had an opportunity to flirt with the soldiers who attended him. These young men took to drawing cartoons of us, which they enclosed in an old tennis ball they had slit and then tossed in our direction. Walls were ideal obstacle courses for inquisitive girls. My girlfriend Karen and I scooted along the General’s back wall one night to spy on a big party he was giving.

My mother faced most of the household problems alone. She managed to eliminate most of the roaches, but ample hot water was usually a challenge. Tiny wall water heaters in kitchen and bathroom couldn’t keep up with our spoiled American demands. Always enterprising, she’d put large pots of water on top of the Aladdin heaters to get extra hot water. I was in charge of dishwashing, and it was my job to monitor this water when my parents entertained. We had brought our American washing machine with us, but it soon burned out, perhaps from the difference in electrical currents. Mom took to washing in the large bathroom tub, a normal size and shape. Fortunately for her, my thrifty father relented and decided he could afford an occasional maid since it would be difficult to procure another washer.

Me, Darby, Joan Tupper in the side yard

The maid situation was comical but instructive. Dad hired an Arab girl, Fatma, who was attractive and cheerful, and tattooed on her ankles, forehead and hands, traditional markings applied when she was an infant. She wore her street barracan when she arrived and would remove it to do her work. I can still picture her sitting at the kitchen table, her blue striped house garment wound around her body and over her shoulders, dark hair partially hidden beneath her hair covering. She spoke very few words of English and didn’t attempt to learn any more, content to sit warbling her singsong Arab tunes as she languidly dried the dishes and silverware.

A sprightly Italian girl remedied the problem. Fatma was let go and pretty, dark-haired Chezeri joined us. Not only was she fluent in English, but she was efficient and friendly, teaching us bits of Italian, which I got to practice when her boyfriend Douilio, who spoke no English at all, came to pick her up. We invented Italian nicknames for the appealing British soldiers who served the general next door. A tall blond fellow, who walked the general’s German Shepherd among his other duties, was called Biondo. She taught me a little Italian ditty about a poppy.

Even now my sister and I remember it. I drag it out upon occasion to show off my facility in languages! At a wedding a couple of years ago I met an Italian woman who knew the song. Most likely our spirited chorus annoyed many of the guests!

5 Comments

  1. Darrell, there are maps of Tripoli on Google and you might find it. And there are Facebook sites from servicemen stationed at Wheelus. Victoria

  2. Darrell Barnes says:

    I stumbled across your post just now. I lived in Tripoli from 1951 to 1954 (though by that time I had been sent to boarding school in the UK) in a number of houses, the best of which was in the Garden City in Via Vittorio Gadolini.

    Do you by any remote chance know what its current name might be?

  3. Glad to see these photos complementing your story–which I remember from your book. The buildings do remind me of many I saw in Tripoli. Outside of ghiblis, the weather could be beautiful there–except on days hot enough to melt the pavement!

  4. Thank you for reading and making a comment. You are doing very well with your English–keep it up. If you continue to search my blog history, you will see many more photos of Tripoli and many more stories. I have written 500 blogs in the past 4 years but not all of them are about Libya.

  5. fatma says:

    hi
    I am Fatma from LIBYA , recently we have more freedom to search about my History of my country not as before . while i was searching for old photographs of my country . i found your article about your childhood in libya with the photos .
    if you dont mind i copied the photo .
    and if you have more photos of Libya can you show me .

    I am sorry for my bad english language , i’m trying to improve it , as possible as i can .

    Best greetings

    Fatma

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