Libyan culture

COMMENTS FROM THE MIDDLE EAST by Victoria Giraud

One of the wonders of the Internet and a plus to the experience of writing a blog, is the pleasure of  readers’ responses.  Libyan-born Mosbah Kushad, a professor who now lives and works in Champaign, Illinois, wrote. He didn’t say specifically, but I am guessing he teaches at the University of Illinois. When we communicated months ago—after Ghadaffi was deposed—he was on his way to Tripoli for a visit for the first time in years.

Mosbah wrote: Victoria’s blog brings back pleasant memories of my days as a young boy growing up in Suk El Guma outside Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya. When I was in 8th grade, my uncle got me a job as a busboy at the Base for a handsome salary of $21 month. I was on top of the world with my personal pass to ride the bus to and from the Base. That same gate that everyone remembers very fondly.

I remember watching young American kids neatly dressed walking into the school and some riding the buses from the city. I used to daydream of someday being like one of them. Well, with luck I finished college in Libya, came to the US where I got my Ph.D., and I got a job as a professor in a major university, and thirty-six years later, my kids are living like those kids that I used to dream about. This is my life story as a Libyan American. Like everyone else, I cherish those days but I also cherish the time that I have lived in this great country and the many friends I have made here. The smell of fresh bread from those bakery shops in Suk El Guma is still with me…God bless you all.

Narrow Street in Old Town Tripoli

 

When I wrote about a few of the unpleasant habits of some Libyan men, I heard from an Egyptian man, Wael M. El Dessouki, who had lived in Tripoli. He wasn’t too happy with my disparaging remarks.

Dear Ms. Victoria,
 I am an Egyptian who lived in Tripoli for 12 years, from 1972 to 1984. I have read your blog about Tripoli and it’s obvious to me that you are deeply connected to that place. I can understand your feelings. Tripoli is a charming city, not only because of its places but more so because of its people.
 However, in your blog, you have included a few remarks and general statements about Libyans that I believe are inappropriate and offensive. For example, you say, “Libyan policemen were not above trying to touch private parts if an American woman or young girl happened to walk too closely to these lusty, over-curious males.”  Maybe you encountered an incident of sexual harassment, however, that does not justify making such a general statement about Libyans.
 Also, the issue of peeing in the streets: maybe you have seen that happening, but I have seen it several times in some US cities. Hence, when you list such thing as a cultural issue, that implies that it is very common and happens in Libya only. 
Some other blogs include similar remarks.

I answered this gentleman and explained I didn’t mean to imply that all Libyan men were rude or ill-mannered and he was happy.

Wael M. El Dessourki answered: Thanks, Victoria, for your positive response. Your writings about your experiences in Libya are wonderful and I sincerely enjoyed them. I am quite sure you did not have any bad intentions when you mentioned those remarks; however, as an Arab, I see those remarks as annoying dents in a very nice picture. I am concerned that such remarks might be a turnoff for other Arab readers.

In this world, we hope to build bridges between cultures that bring people to common understanding and to respect our differences. In my opinion, your blog is similar to a nice bridge but unfortunately it’s got some holes. 

I admit I am not perfect although I did not say that to this concerned Egyptian reader. Besides, don’t we all have holes? He wrote before the Egyptian and the Libyan uprising. I wonder what his thoughts were about these upheavals.

A New Home in Tripoli — Garden City

Just before Christmas in 1955, the five members of my 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.

The view from our balcony. The street leads to Garden City Circle

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.

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. 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.

The family home, above the Bougainvillea, surrounded by 8 foot walls

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. Looking at Google Earth recently, the so-called Queen’s gardens still remain.

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.

A Gharry Ride along Tripoli Harbor

A street in the Old City

My family–mom, dad, sister and brother–settled into the Del Mahari Hotel along the harbor for the first weeks of our Tripoli residence. Everything was so different: from the smells to the sounds, that we all needed a familiarization tour of our new town. 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.  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. It was rather startling to see a cathedral in a country of mosques. I wonder what happened to this grand edifice.

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 Fountain of the Gazelle along the harbor

SEXUAL INTERESTS — TABOOS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

An all British effort cartoon by British Servicemen

When my family lived in Tripoli, Libya, in the 1950s, I was barely a teenager and in those long ago days, many of us had little inkling of sex or sexual practices. Movies we saw were innocent and only hinted at sex: a kiss, a little groping, a closed bedroom door. Television in those days wasn’t even a consideration—my family hadn’t even brought a TV set over with us and we didn’t miss it. Listening to Armed Forces Network radio at night was entertainment enough. A good actor could read a powerful tale and your mind supplied the details. I still remember the haunting story of an 18th century sailor who jumped ship and ended up swimming out to sea instead of toward land.

There was a popular music show on Saturday morning radio that accepted requests, in case you wanted to dedicate a song to a potential crush in high school. I remember requesting, “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” or maybe it was “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” if memory serves. I don’t recall to whom the song was dedicated.

Wheelus High School, on the Air Force base, sponsored dances and there was a teenage club where a talented student, Jon Jorgensen, led a band called Stardust. Close slow dancing provided its own stimulation.

In the city of Tripoli, American teenage girls were advised not to wear jeans because Libyan women were dressed in barracans (a idea similar to burkas except one eye could be shown. See painting in my first Tripoli story). I don’t remember that we were told why specifically, but I found out.

Libyan men, as the majority of men throughout the world, were interested in females and especially the female body. Females that weren’t completely hidden from view were especially intriguing, and jeans are form-fitting attire.

The Egyptian Ambassador lived across the street from me, and he was served by a few Libyan policemen who patrolled the walled perimeter of his compound. If my girlfriends and I walked the unpaved path outside the compound for some reason, and if a policeman were nearby, he’d try to walk beside us and brush against us with his body. We learned to avoid them.

One day, a girlfriend and I had an unpleasant encounter while walking to her house, a few blocks away from mine. We were in jeans, of course, and sauntering along in the middle of the street since there was very little traffic. We weren’t paying attention to a young male bicyclist trailing us. Most male Libyans had bicycles; they were relatively cheap and reliable. We were prime bait and he saw his opportunity as he swooped in front of us and made a grab for my crotch. He succeeded and then rode on a little ways. I started to tell my friend when he came back and managed to do the same to her. He was quite the adept cyclist but we were incensed. He rode on as if nothing had happened and we followed him, thinking we’d get revenge by attacking him. We couldn’t catch him and had to swallow our anger. Being street-smart from then on, we learned to be more aware.

My neighbor and good friend Gail, who lived around the corner, and I loved to play tennis on her street, which was seldom used by cars. We weren’t very skilled at the game and the ball often landed in the walled compound on one side of the street that was said to belong to a former Queen of Libya. The Queen’s lush gardens swallowed our balls. Sometimes our ball went into the smaller gated compound next door to me, which belonged to a British general. He had a few cute British enlisted men on duty. They didn’t seem to have much to do and always enjoyed our athletic efforts.

They kept one of the tennis balls and the next time we played, they tossed it over the fencing to us. They’d slit it and spent some time making an artistic rendering of us on a small piece of lined paper to insert into the slit. Gail was supposed to be Gail Storm, who had a TV show and I was supposed to be Marilyn Monroe. Between us was a “hound dog” named Elvis! We were flattered since both actresses were good looking in person. I saved the little cartoon, never knowing I would eventually put it on a blog! There was always a wall or fencing between us but it was fun to flirt and we did it when they were around. Probably a good reason to play tennis in the street!

A crude little poem, misspellings and all, was printed on the back of the cartoon to impress us:

Hi! Jirks

You squeeke and groan

And make queer noises

But o’er yon wall

We know ‘tis you

So if this ball you do trow back

Don’t be shy, come round the back

And have a chat.

E.P.

One day, in a break from our game, we were flirting with these congenial attractive servicemen, as usual. We were standing on the sidewalk and they were behind a gate whose bars were far apart. Suddenly, I noticed a Libyan man in paint-splattered overalls sitting on a bike nearby, leering at us.  Then I noticed another detail. He had removed his penis from his pants and was waving it at us enthusiastically. To me at that time, no expert on penis size or shape, I thought his penis was menacingly huge and seemed to be dotted with paint. Or was that my vivid imagination?

Disgusted and a little frightened, I tapped Gail’s shoulder gently to get her attention. She looked around without being obvious and saw him right away. We both struggled to maintain composure as we stepped closer to the gate and hung on. We didn’t know what to say to the young British soldiers, who probably couldn’t see the pervert, so we said nothing and hoped the crazed cyclist would eventually pedal away, which he did.

We felt confident that we had kept our cool! Weren’t we the savvy ones! Sex can be exciting and disgusting at the same time!

LIFE ON VIA DE GASPARI, TRIPOLI, LIBYA – PART 5

Me, a typical American teen on our 1950s Ford convertible.

I’m in the usual American casual attire–jeans. My loafers are on the sidewalk in front of our villa. Across the street is the Egyptian Ambassador’s compound. Note the Libyan license plate and the white-wall tires of the 50s! The photo is old, the only explanation I have for all the black dots.

Nourishment

My mother did most of her grocery shopping at the Wheelus Air Force Base Commissary, but Tripoli had its own food delights. Just a few blocks from our home, an Italian bakery sold magnificent loaves and rolls with crispy crusts for just a few piastres (Libyan money). Arab bikers would deliver the bread, laid out on large metal trays they balanced upon their heads, to homes and businesses. The vegetable and fruit man would wander down our street weekly, crying out his wares in loud Arabic. Huge handmade baskets would be laden with blood oranges, cauliflower, lettuce and other produce. It was delicious, but to protect ourselves from bacteria, since local farmers used human manure, we had to soak produce in diluted Clorox for half an hour. For something sweet, my friends and I would walk to a small store that sold British candy: Cadbury bars of all types were plentiful. My friend Gail urged me to try chocolate with a fresh loaf of Italian bread for a tasty treat. My parents sampled couscous, an Arab dish of grains, lamb and vegetables, but since my father didn’t care for lamb, my mother never duplicated the recipe.

Libyan offerings

For Christmas that first year we gave each other inexpensive yet durable Libyan wares: leather purses decorated with embroidered flowers, slip-on leather sandals and belts, elaborate arabesque silver jewelry, and hammered pattern copper and brass trays. A favorite souvenir for Americans in general was a small wooden and leather stool that was aptly, because of its design, called a camel saddle. My mother happily discovered Lucille’s, an Italian shop that sold whimsical and inexpensive straw jewelry. In the 50s, it was considered a romantic dinner if you put a candle in an old straw-covered Chianti bottle.  I still have Mom’s now faded white straw earrings that looked like tiny wine bottles inserted with even tinier pink candles.

A typical Camel Saddle stool

International Neighbors

During the school year I rode a bus to Wheelus Dependents High School at the air base. Many of the Air Force kids lived on base, but I feel I learned more from living in the city. Living atop a different culture was an educational experience in itself. On the bottom floor of our two-story villa, our noisy but quite private Libyan neighbor’s family had chickens in their yard and a passel of pet cats. During their holy Ramadan, Moslems fast from sunrise to sunset and then celebrate far into the night. We would hear the drums from their loud music for nights on end. When my mother would get impatient with it, she would take an umbrella and hit the floor in annoyance.

The Libyan family moved in the fall of our first year. We watched curiously as the place was repainted and tidied up for a Russian family. The Duganovs had a daughter who looked about three, the same age as my little brother. They kept to themselves, although I could occasionally spy the father sitting on his balcony below us in his pajamas. He worked nights as a news correspondent for the notorious Russian newspaper Pravda. My father was wary of them—Russia was then our enemy, after all—and had American Embassy security personnel come several times, fruitlessly as it turned out, to check if these Russians had bugged our phone or wired our house for surveillance. My brother Darby, however, had no trouble with détente, making friends with the chunky, blond-haired daughter if she happened to be in her yard while he was passing their gate. Children have no boundaries of distrust at that age.

My sister, Joan Tupper,  made her own international playmates. Three young brothers lived across the street; their mother was French, their father English, and the boys spoke both languages fluently. They spent a great deal of time on our swing set when the oldest two weren’t attending private school in England. My by then seven-year-old sister had soon mastered an excellent British accent, sometimes with overtones of French.

Cultural Differences

American dependents were given a few guidelines about living in Libya. We were told that the Libyan culture at that point in time was behind Western culture by several centuries. Perhaps that explained why women were still covered and invisible, treated more as property than an individual, so contrary to what we would normally expect in our own social interaction. American women were told to avoid wearing pants in respect of Libyan culture. Teenage girls, with our love of jeans, forgot the advice immediately.

What they didn’t mention were some of the less appealing facts of life in the city. Men, Arab or European, thought nothing of peeing in public. The view from the school bus windows as we traveled through town toward the air base would often include men on the seawall along the harbor casually peeing, or a man standing up against the wall of a building leaving his wet, yellow mark. Libyan policemen were not above trying to touch private parts if an American woman or young girl happened to walk too closely to these lusty, over-curious males. Their women were inaccessible except at home, but they felt free to check out foreign goods.

Shores of Tripoli – A New Home in Garden City – Part 3

The view from our balcony

Just before Christmas the five members of the Williams family left the hotel 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; an Arab 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. 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!

THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI–PART 2

The Barbary Pirate Fort was the entrance to the Old City

A Libyan woman in her barracan

A good rest that first night in Tripoli would do wonders, especially for the young girl I was. 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.

The Shores of Tripoli

From the Fountain of the Gazelle to the Barbary Pirate Fort

Tripoli—the name rolls off my tongue conjuring up exotic memories of its smells, sounds, landscape. It’s been several decades now but the city on the shores of the Mediterranean has never lost the magic it held in my heart. I note as I get older that life seems to go in circles; my Southern California domicile has the same weather and blooms with many of the identical plants that I first came to know and love in Tripoli.

As a young American teenager in the 1950s, I was fortunate to spend several of my formative years in a wondrous Middle Eastern world. It was an extraordinary time made more so by my awakening to the world and to the mysteries of blossoming womanhood, a rite of passage from age twelve to age fifteen, though looking backward often adds its own sentimental patina to events. My parents had come through a difficult time in their marriage and were enjoying each other again, and my strict and demanding father left me alone, within reason, to have a splendid time socially.

What changes were wrought in my life during that impressionable time, an ideal time to be living in such a unique world! My long wavy hair, which I wore in a ponytail, was cut there by an Italian hairdresser and fashioned into a short, curly do and I discovered I had naturally curly hair. My flat chest experienced its first budding of breasts and along with it came an active interest in boys – American boys, English boys, Italian boys. I heard my first really dirty joke, learned swear words and explicit gestures in Arabic and Italian, got embarrassed by my own farts, and had my first make-out session with a boy who truly knew how to kiss.

Libya is under Gadhafi’s thumb now, and I often wonder what changes oil and despotism have made upon Tripoli. In the middle 1950s it was a bustling, cosmopolitan city inhabited by Arab (we were taught to call them Libyans), Italian, British, American and an assortment of other European and Middle Eastern nationalities. Both the British and the Americans had military bases, and international oil companies were drilling for the oil that would eventually make the country rich beginning in 1959. Libya, for the first half of the twentieth century under Italian rule, had only gained its independence in 1951, and that auspicious occasion had been marked by the renaming of a main thoroughfare, to be forever after known as 24 December Street.

Like many major events in the life of an Army brat, I wasn’t sure I wanted to uproot and travel to such a strange land. I was shocked when my father received orders to report to North Africa. We were stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, at the time, and Africa couldn’t have been more distant from civilization as far as my twelve-year-old mind was concerned. Morocco was our first assigned destination, specifically the peculiarly named Nouasseur. Then, for some governmental reason (Morocco was having violent political problems, as it turned out), the orders were changed to Tripoli – Wheelus Air Force Base. My Army Corps of Engineers father would command a military group that had something to do with maintaining that strategic airfield, the closest, large American location to Russia, an important fact in those Cold War days. He would also be traveling to mysterious places such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.

Our little family, which included Darby, my two-year-old brother and Joan Tupper, my six-year-old sister, boarded a military prop plane at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey the week before Thanksgiving 1955. We left a snowy landscape and headed southeast over the Atlantic, our circuitous flight path leading us first to the tiny Azores Islands. Propeller-driven planes, not as efficient as jets, required refueling stops. We landed on the islands about 3 a.m. Azores time, were roused from sleep, and dependents and military personnel were herded off the plane and onto waiting buses for a trip up a windy mountain road for breakfast in a non-commissioned officers club. A couple of hours later we were jammed back aboard, but mechanical difficulties kept us on the ground several more hours. Then it was on to Nouasseur Air Force Base in Morocco for another stop and finally on to Tripoli. Military planes, whether carrying troops or dependents, weren’t on fixed schedules. You landed when you landed.

What seemed like days but was more than likely some thirty hours later, we reached our new home. It was 9 p.m. in Tripoli, but after so much time and so many time zones, who could tell. No snow on the ground here: the weather was temperate and probably no colder than 55 degrees. Only after a good night’s sleep would we regain our land legs and clarity of hearing – the noise and vibration of prop planes had a habit of disorienting the body, which included sight and hearing, for hours.

An officer from my father’s new command met us at Wheelus Air Base and drove us the eight miles into town to our temporary quarters – the Albergo Del Mahari, a hotel that definitely marked our passage into an Arab country.

The flat roof of the white stucco hotel was highlighted in front with a dome that sat upon two pentagon-shaped, windowed bays. Just under the dome was a high bay accented with a multi-paned, oval window on each of its five sides; under it was a flatter and wider bay with opaque, rectangular glass-block  windows on each section. Its unusual design, to which I would soon become accustomed, reminded me of a tiered wedding cake.

Tired and disheveled, we were led under a portico and through the hotel’s glass double doors into a spacious marble-tiled lobby. Each side of the five-sided lobby faced a different courtyard; the center of each courtyard contained either a fountain or a small, rectangular pool. Vines covered the courtyard walls; small trees, many of them poinsettias, dotted the space and surrounded several benches.

Our tiny suite of rooms was reached across a courtyard with a fountain, and our suite faced the courtyard garden. It was like an enchanting scene from Arabian Nights — the mosaic designs, the unfamiliar, musky fragrance of the air.

My excitement turned to apprehension as I surveyed the tiny bedroom that my sister and I would share: two narrow single beds covered by dark red- striped bedspreads. The strange surroundings almost overwhelmed me. I felt disoriented and fearful – gone were the familiar touchstones of stateside life. And it all smelled so odd. I couldn’t wait until we had our own place and were surrounded by our own furniture.

Our private bathroom changed my mood.  The very deep rectangular tub was unusual, even ludicrous to American eyes. The tub was designed as a seat; when the bather was seated, the tub would hold enough water to reach our armpits. There was no stretching out in this oddity. Prominently hung on the wall was a urinal, with no sign of a regular toilet. Obviously a man’s convenience was more important in this Middle Eastern palace. Giggling at the incongruity, the two of us found we couldn’t even improvise; it was too high to fit our private plumbing. We’d have to find a normal toilet to use.

The above is only the first part of a fairly long “short” story I wrote about my days in Tripoli. Since it’s so long, I will print it in sections. Watch for another one next week. I will probably vary these stories with other posts on different subjects.

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