July 4th – Celebrating with Camels & Donkeys in Libya

Americans living in Libya in the 1950s didn’t forget their normal holiday celebrations. For the Christmas pageant, there was the added novelty of local animals. The three wise men could ride real camels and Joseph could lead his Mary seated on a live donkey.

The Fourth of July celebration had its own unique touch. Not only were we celebrating Independence Day because of the U.S. Revolutionary  War, but also the fact that four American Marines serving on the ships sent by President Thomas Jefferson had died in 1805 fighting the infamous Barbary pirates. The Barbary Pirate fort still stands facing Tripoli Harbor and the four long-dead Marines are buried in Tripoli. Americans familiar with the Marine Corps Hymn remember the well-known words, “From the Hall of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

Now that Libyans are fighting their own war of independence from Ghadaffi’s dictatorship, what could be more appropriate than to remember those halcyon days before Ghadaffi appeared on the scene.

I fondly remember a huge Fourth of July celebration in 1956 or 1957 held west of Tripoli at Thirteen Kilometer Beach, named appropriately for its distance from the city. As I recall, the beach was wide enough for lots of activities and  for the many American attendees from Wheelus Air Force Base, and from various residences throughout Tripoli. My Libyan friend Mahmud tells me the area is now a resort city named Janzour. I doubt there’s much relaxation going on during the current war, however.

How exotic it was to celebrate an American tradition with camels and donkeys and on land once occupied by Phoenicians and Romans. Besides American food like hot dogs, we had fireworks and three-legged races.

I looked forward to my first camel ride and eagerly climbed onto a makeshift seat that rested upon the camel’s sole hump. I was grateful that the irritable, growling camel was muzzled. The camel’s legs were folded under him, but at his Arab handler’s insistence, the back legs unfolded first and I swayed, rump first, into the air. The front legs swung up and suddenly I was sitting above everyone with a view of the beach and the 1,000 or so celebrants. The handler led his camel slowly around a circle, and I enjoyed the swaying back as the animal crunched along on the heavy beach sand. It was a brief thrill and remembered again last summer when I saw the second Sex and the City movie, filmed in Morocco, which featured the four heroines riding camels. Since I have no photographic evidence of my camel ride, I borrowed a snapshot of a Tripoli friend. I hope I seemed as insouciant as she did riding my camel!

My friend Karen shows off her camel-riding skills!

Not wanting to miss out on new experiences, I decided to try a donkey ride. The donkey I chose proved too much for my limited bareback equestrian talents. After meekly walking around a circle for a few minutes, the animal decided I was a pushover, and off he went up a small adjacent hill in search of grass. I shouted for help, concerned partially for my bare feet, but my friends thought I was having fun and waved at me happily. When the beast found his grass, he stopped and I gratefully jumped off, feeling foolish that I hadn’t done it sooner. Animal training was not among my talents.

I’ve celebrated many July 4th holidays on California beaches, but the times in Tripoli will always have a special place in my heart.

My mother & little brother Darby on a Tripoli beach

 

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