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.

78 Comments

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