TRIPOLI VISIT– 1999

I am presenting the last portion of Hazel Dobson’s travel saga of visiting Libya in 1999 on a British tour of the archaeological sites. She has a very keen memory of what it had been like in the 1950s, and she compares her memories with all the changes since Ghadaffi had taken over in 1970.

Reality hit hard as we approached the city (Tripoli). We were booked into the very hotel where my sister had learned to swim and my parents regularly dined. The Del Mehari was a stone’s throw from my family’s former home, and as I stood on the balcony of my hotel room I could see into our former garden. The hotel was situated on the original Corniche (the coast road), known in those days as Schiara Adrian Pelt or previously, when I first arrived all those years ago, as the Lungomare. Sadly, because the port was very shallow and modern tankers needed to get close to the shore, the bay has been filled with concrete, which pushed the old road back. There is now a new road leading along to what was the Karamanli Mole. The magnificent Corniche still retains some of the lollypop-shaped trees and the old lamplights, but pristine, it isn’t. The road has become a racetrack for local commuters and very bad drivers and it was difficult to cross the road.

Albergo Del Mahari

Albergo Del Mahari probably in the 1960s

The Del Mahari was in the throes of being modernized and had grown from the rather squat Italianate design one saw all over Libya to a building of about five stories. The lobby area was full of security checks. I didn’t know whether that was normal practice, but whilst I was staying there, a very official contingent of Kuwaitis and Qataris arrived, resplendent in their robes and dressed to the nines with scimitars. They filled the place to capacity, so I think that the security was laid on especially for them.

That evening I discovered that I had left my passport in my room, and as it was essential to carry it at all times, I had to return to my room on the second floor to collect it. The lift was completely frozen, and the only route I could use was the staircase at the back of the lobby. Imagine how I felt when I arrived on the landing to find the whole place filled with praying men, all fortunately prostrate with faces to the floor. What does a girl do in a situation like this? I decided to continue as though nothing was happening and crept through the center of this great mass of males. Not one looked up, thank goodness!! 

I mentioned to some members of the group that I would like to go for an early morning stroll down the road to look at the old Casino building, known as the Uaddan. This had been quite a hot spot for dinner, dancing and gambling, and I can remember on several occasions when it was too hot to sleep, my parents would disappear in the middle of the night to play the tables and enjoy the warm breeze from the sea coming across the terrace. A small combo played on some evenings, and I even had my 15th birthday party there. It was the center of luxury in those days. There is now a flyover for trucks going to the port, and they thunder past the old building.

On this short walk I managed to locate a friend’s house and the Bath Club on the Corniche, which was a small officers’ club with a swimming pool. I remember the small piano in the corner and a young officer, Tony Jebb, continually playing “See you later, Alligator.” The Italian Club was a little further down the road and I regularly attended tea dances chaperoned by my Italian music teacher, Franca Guardi. Our expedition was swiftly curtailed by the Ghadaffi policeman assigned to our group, and although I didn’t exactly hurry on the way back, he looked distinctly worried.

The Lungomare or Corniche

The Lungomare or Corniche in the 1950s

The group then went to the Museum in the old fort and we explored the souk. Down the winding narrow streets of the Medina, we passed the old shops, many of which were closed and the small airy courtyards with little fountains, none of which seemed to be working. It was a sorry sight when in times past it was teeming with people, handicrafts and workshops. The Arch of Marcus Aurelius was still intact and some preservation work had been done on the pillars and carved areas. We stopped for lunch at a Souk Restaurant and had a very passable meal. Unfortunately, the drains seemed to be malfunctioning, and the owner continually squirted incense around the place to combat the smell.

The following day we visited the museum and the bookshop at the bottom of what used to be Via Roma, then Schiara 24th December, and now I think it is Independence Street. The bookshop seems to have been there for ages. The proprietor was very welcoming, and I told him why I had come back. He had worked as a clerk in the Naafi shop as a young man and wanted to talk and talk, however, but it was time to move on. He pressed some postcards in my hand and a book, and was almost weeping when I left and he whispered about the ”good” days.   I knew what he meant: they were good

After a half day at Sabratha, we went to a restaurant, which was by all intents and purposes in Georgimpopili, but it was built up and beyond recognition. We had a great fish meal in the Sherherazade Restaurant and our guide, Ala, was attired in full Libyan dress. It was a very memorable last evening culminating in a drive through the city, which was completely off-schedule and a commendable risk taken by our driver, who was being shouted at by the Ghadaffi man throughout. I was told afterwards that I had mentioned so many streets and sites like the Palace, the old Cathedral, Schiara Istikal, the Grand Hotel, etc., that they thought it worthy to drive at breakneck speed to see as many of them as possible in the course of about 15 minutes. I was shouting out the various places as we passed them, much to the amusement of Ala. It was marvelous. Although I would have wished to see them at leisure, it was not encouraged by the Libyans to go off the beaten track, so I thank the driver for that madcap journey!

The next day we drove back to the Libya-Tunisis border where we were hassled by border guards, mainly because we had two Americans on board. Both were asked to leave the bus and go to the office. The nutritionist became agitated immediately, pretending not to understand, so before it became nasty, I agreed to go with her. The border guard started shouting, and I told him that he should respect her as he would respect his mother, and that seemed to quiet him down. He wanted to know why I was travelling alone without a man, and I pointed out that method of travel is quite normal where I came from, and that my husband was in England working so I could have the money to go on holiday. He thought that was very amusing. When we left, a half hour later, we were all friends. The journey after that was uneventful. After a quick stopover in Djerba, where we said goodbye to our guide, we arrived in Tunis for the flight home.

 

 

One Comment

  1. Rebecca goddard Rizek says:

    Wonderfully written journey back in time to a Place that lives on intact in our young memories! Hazel Dobson does a masterful descriptive trip back, back , and compares the differences time has wrought! RGR, June 10, 2015!

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