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Tripoli’s medina is the heart of the Libyan capital

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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In recent years, investors have rediscovered the charms of the old city and renovated and expanded a number of the mansions into hotels. The proprietors of the El Khan hotel, on Arbaa Arsat (Four Columns) Street, bought five adjacent houses that once belonged to the old city’s long-gone Jews and Turks — and to Italians such as Um Dani, who locals say was one of the few to stay on — before they were seized by the government.

The new owners painted the hotel’s walls in flat Mediterranean blue and terra cotta gold hues that reflect the nearby desert and sea, and decorated them with black-and-white photographs celebrating Tripoli’s storied past.

“There’s not that much decoration, which gives it a calm, sparse feeling,” said co-owner Aref Salim.

The restaurant serves up North African and European fusion dishes. On its walls are calligraphic paintings of pre-Islamic Arabic poems in a script found only in North Africa.

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Years ago, Salim abandoned his career as a petroleum engineer to return to the medina, where he had spent childhood summers with his grandfather.

“I love the old city,” said Tarek bil Hash, the 33-year-old proprietor of the Zumit Hotel, a grand 1816 caravansary adjacent to the Arch of Marcus Aurelius. “Even if they give me a castle I will stay in the old city.”

In the African market at one end of the old city, costumes, customs and spices of the vast continent to the south come into view. French and the musical syllables of the continent roll from the tongues of residents and merchants from Niger, Ghana, Mali and Chad. Vendors sitting at stalls sell fruit and vegetables as well as cheap fabrics Um Dani might have bought to make her clothes.

Some of the Africans are longtime inhabitants of the medina, while others are ghostlike drifters, hiding in the shadows, part of the tide of humanity seeking to flee poverty by heading for Europe. They squat in the darkness as they while away the hours. They bake flatbreads or they work looms for a few dinars a day as they await word from smugglers willing to take them on the perilous journey across the sea.

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Finally, Um Dani’s house nears. It is a yellow building from the Ottoman era in a narrow alleyway whose crumbling stone edifices are held up by a network of wooden beams. Knocking yields no answer. The minutes pass.

“She left yesterday,” an approaching child says, holding both hands out to his sides as if he were burdened by two suitcases in each hand. “She is gone.”

daragahi@latimes.com


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