A Long Walk Through Tripoli

A view of Tripoli's walled Old City.

A rugged, crumbling wall surrounds the old city of Tripoli, Libya.

The wall abuts the Corinthia Bab Africa, a luxury hotel with a beautiful view of blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  The hotel was sparkling new and built to attract Westerns willing to do business with the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

And by the sounds Texas drawls in the hotel restaurant it wasn’t difficult to discern that that business was oil.

I was staying at the hotel in March of 2007.  I was working for a client helping the Libyan government to reform the nation’s economic policies to open Libya to more foreign investment and to explore allowing Libyan businessmen to have a stake in private ownership.

These were nascent moves by Libya to strengthen economic ties with the West and improve its international reputation.

All the Libyans I spoke with during two separate trips to Libya in 2007 – from government officials to everyday citizens – wanted to leave the reputation of pariah state in the past and move the country into the 21st century.  That strong desire has gone from the cautious optimism I witnessed four years ago to open revolt by the citizens.

Back then I was in Libya to plan and coordinate a media event for Gaddafi to debate the meaning of democracy with two Western scholars.  The debate was moderated by David Frost and attended by reporters from the BBC, New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, the Guardian, Reuters and the Associated Press.

One bright March afternoon, I had a few hours of spare time and decided to explore the old city.  I wanted to get out of the hotel, where I always had the feeling I was being watched (even in my hotel room – where I actually spent about 15 minutes searching for listening devices and cameras to no avail.  Yes, I was feeling paranoid).

With directions from a friendly doorman, I crossed a busy highway called V.G. Marconi and walked along the outside of the wall until I came to an archway at the Shari Homet Gharyan.  I walked through it and plunged into the Tripoli’s ancient neighborhood – immediately struck by the poverty and the disheveled nature of the neighborhood.

Tiny, narrow streets constructed of uneven cobblestones crisscrossed seemingly at random and conjured images of Medieval tunnels.  Little shops were carved into the sides of old buildings like owl holes.  Sparse amounts of goods – fresh fruit, canned and boxed goods, meats and vegetables, toiletries – competed for the meager shelf space in the small, dark shops.

I passed a cafe and ordered a Coke.  Men sat around the rickety tables drinking coffee and chatting.  A lot of eyes turned to watch me.  I wore a light suit, blue shirt, a tie and sunglasses and stuck out like a Christmas tree in July.  There was lots of foot traffic.  A lot of people jabbering on mobile phones.  Thick black cables that looked like giant eels ran along the sides of the sandstone buildings.  I surprised to hear hip-hop music drifting out of some doorways and windows.

The people were very friendly.  One man in short sleeves and a wiry frame came up to me and touched the side of my arm.  Startled by his aggressive behavior, it took me a moment to realize he meant no harm.  He smiled and nodded and jabbered away in Arabic.  I caught only one word: “America.”  He smiled at me and moved on.

I walked by a barber shop on a side street and the barber beckoned me inside.  He spoke English and told me he was an immigrant of Niger (Note: I actually don’t have the nationality of the barber in my notes, but I have a vague memory of it being Niger).  We spoke for about five minutes about his desire to move to America and his life in Libya.  He avoided any criticism of the government and spoke about opportunities in Libya that weren’t available in other African nations.

“There is at least work here,” he said.

I got lost among the dozens of tiny streets.  I struck by the dirt and the litter.  I remember passing the Ben Saber Mosque and ending up at the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, the last remains of a Roman crossroads from the long-forgotten Roman city of Oea.  I left the walled old city and came to Al Fatah street, another one of the busy highways that ran along the coastline of the city.  I ended up at Green Square, the hub of Tripoli.  There was a park here and the square was the gateway to the restaurant and shopping district – such as it was.

Two boys on large white horses galloped down the sidewalk at a breakneck speed and disappeared around a bend.  Horns blared and taxis roared by.

I browsed a few shops on my way back to the hotel – trinkets, carpets, jewelry, beads, and religious artifacts.  I remember that sidewalks or streets could suddenly end with a big pile of rumble, as if construction work had been started, sputtered to a stop, and then was abandoned.  I remember lots of stares, but a somber and respectful friendliness.

When I got back to the hotel, the call to afternoon prayers blared out over loud speakers and the sound drifted across the air.  The sun hung low and I could smell the sea and see the tower of a mosque behind the old, crumbling wall.

I’ve been thinking about this walk a lot lately as Libya plunges into chaos and the citizens I mingled with that day rise up in in favor of freedom and democracy.  I wonder about the hotel doorman, the friendly stranger, the Nigerian barber, the shopkeepers and especially about those two boys who rode their magnificent white horses down the sidewalk.

And I hope they are safe.


The Corinthia Bab Africa

Washington Post: Libya Rebels, Regime Loyalists in Stand-off

When Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was a Client

The Dictator’s Son: Libya, Democracy & PR

Photo by Varunshiv (via Flickr)

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