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Tripoli's medina is the heart of the Libyan capital

But the medina is no museum piece. The old city still pulsates. At Ramadan, young people fill its growing number of cafes into the night. Before weddings, mothers and daughters scour the gold market.

May 22, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Muktar Sakali, 75, a former player on Tripoli's Ahly soccer team, sits last month outside his son's shop in the medina, the most historic part of the Libyan capital.
Muktar Sakali, 75, a former player on Tripoli's Ahly soccer team,… (Pier Paolo Cito / Associated…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya —  

The elderly Italian woman will know more. Her name is Maria, or Um Dani, the mother of Daniel. She lives beyond the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, past the Gurgi Mosque, the one with the blue and gold tiles around the marble doorway. Then down an unpaved path, over by the 17th century Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where she is a parishioner, somewhere in that jumble of alleyways. She has lived there forever. The kids playing ball in the street will know exactly where.

Her friend died 10, 15 years ago. And so she's perhaps the only Italian left from that era, from before Moammar Kadafi and his men took power four decades ago and hurried the Europeans out of the country, seizing their homes and property. She can tell many stories about Tripoli's old quarter, the medina, and its people.

"Um Dani is a strong, smart lady," explains Hisham, a tall thin man in his 30s, leading the way. "We will find her here."

Clouds drift past the mosque minarets that sprout from the old city. Donkeys loaded with bags of rice jostle past stands selling knockoff perfume and acid-washed designer jeans with dubious labels. Wrinkled men sit in fraying suits in front of musty shops lifting small cups of thick Turkish coffee to their lips. Young women wrapped in colorful gowns, headdresses and plastic slippers spray water on potted plants that line alleyways.

There was little beyond the rectangular old city until 100 years ago. And there was little beyond the adjacent belle epoque and colonial-era quarter built by Italian architects in the first half of the 20th century until Kadafi seized power in 1969. The medina has long been a repository of Libya's history, and it remains the cosmopolitan heart of a capital city of 1.7 million virtually buried by Kadafi's cultural and political vision of Mao and the Koran crudely wrapped in a tribal gown.

Many cultures have laid claim to Tripoli, a vital Mediterranean gateway to the African continent. There were the Phoenicians from the eastern Mediterranean, who founded the city, followed by the Greeks and Romans and a succession of Muslim dynasties, including the Ottoman Turks, who took over in the 16th century and built the old city's distinctive mansions and courtyards.

Next were the Italians, who laid claim to Libya in 1911 and over the ensuing decades left a mixed legacy of trauma and refinement that continues to haunt Libyans caught between dueling impulses to open their arms to the sea and lands beyond its coast, where 90% of the population resides, or to draw inward, hermitlike, and shield themselves from the outside world's influences.

The people of the medina have long struck a balance.

"I feel proud and I am happy that I am of these people," Kheir Baday, owner of a 132-year-old shoreline cafe that bears his family's name. His father owned the place before him. Baday used to tricycle on its fading tiled floor when he was a child.

"This is the front door to Libya. When the ships come, they approach here. The sailors used to come to this cafe from the sea, people from all over the world," he said as he served guests perfectly brewed Libyan espressos, one of the legacies of the Italian occupation. "They would get off their boats and come here and take a coffee and walk around and spend the night. They would leave a little piece of themselves here and they would take a little piece of themselves from here. It's the history of Tripoli."

The old city's labyrinthine streets are filled with treasures such as the Banco di Roma building, the gracious Ottoman-era mansions and courtyards with tiny pools, and the ancient Roman arch embedded with relief sculptures showing the 2nd century Emperor Marcus Aurelius riding triumphantly in his chariot.

But the medina is no museum piece. The old city continues to pulsate. During Ramadan, young people fill its growing number of cafes late into the night. Before weddings, mothers and daughters scour the gold market, next to the cobblestoned Clocktower Square.

The fish market lies across the highway, part of the reclaimed land that pushed the Mediterranean Sea a few hundred feet farther from the walls of the medina. The metallic orchestra of the blacksmiths echoes through alleys where children play hide-and-seek within dark pathways.

Inside the Draghut hamam, an Ottoman-era public bathhouse, tiny slits in the high-arched ceilings of its steamy chambers allow crisscrossing beams of light to filter in; its waters have been in use continuously for 500 years. The men come Thursday through Sunday and the women Monday through Wednesday.

"If I don't come regularly here, I will be sick," said Mahmoud Ghadri, a 60-year-old patron. "It's part of my life."

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