Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Funky Old Medina

When I first arrived in Libya, the company put me up at the Baab Al-Bahar (Door to the Sea) Hotel in Tripoli. The Baab Al-Bahar is a five star hotel which one must assume beat up a smaller hotel in a fight and took a few stars off it, as not all of its five stars seem to have been acquired through any legitimate means. But despite its modest service, its passable buffet and the unpredictably of its souvenir shop's opening times, it has a location on the Tripoli coastline unenvied even by Tripoli's genuine five star Corinthia Bab Al-Africa (Door to Africa this time). The Corinthia, by far Libya's plushest hotel, is a near-skyscraper of a building with a shadow whose radius reaches and almost hits the Bab Al Bahar and then turns to rest and fade on the Medina as the sun sets.
While some of the Corinthia's residents' windows face the sea, others directly face the ancient limestone walls of the Medina, fronted by the fronds of massive palm trees. What the international business traveller will not be able to see, as he enjoys this pleasant, perhaps exotic, view from his hotel room is that the ground at the top of the ramparts is covered, in places knee deep, with rubbish. Also, there are dogs.
It is almost two years to the day since I left the Baab Al-Bahar to explore the Medina for the first time. As I waved to the receptionist, who unusually for one in his profession did not speak a word of English, those dogs were waiting. I was just a blip on their radar. Perhaps they were slumbering, all curled up at the top of the steps. They were probably in precisely the same position when I next saw the receptionist only fifteen minutes later, as his puzzled eyes settled on the tattered, gnawed hem of my trouser leg, now unraveling from the bermuda type leg wear I had fashioned from the remaining material after an encounter with three large, white dogs at the top of the steps of the Medina wall. They had only drawn a little blood and as concerned and embarrassed onlookers gathered round after I had reached the safety of the ground at the bottom of the steps, I had to laugh. One street hawker remonstrated with a bemused old man at the top of the steps, the owner of the dogs. I told them that it was OK. As I was later to notice the more I used the Medina, it was his area, that bit at the top of the steps. His daytime hangout. Impeding access to a UNESCO Heritage Site, albeit, but his area none the same.
The contrast between the pampered luxury enjoyed by visiting oil company executives at the Corinthia and the extreme poverty in parts of the Medina, just yards away could not be greater in any one place in all of Libya. But the Medina is not a joyless, souless place. Its aging beauty may be crumbling as its veil slips to reveal the scars of the tumbling years, but it is definitely not dead.
Between the narrow western gate and Rashid Street, shouts of "saraf, saraf, change money, change money" compete with the "Sebha Sebha" "Benghazi Benghazi" Tunis Tunis" of taxi drivers. Their roof-racks are slowly loaded with market trader's wares which set off on back-breaking journeys in all directions. The journey starts when the car is full - unless the passengers decide they have waited long enough and agree to split the fare to compensate for the shortfall.
Outside the gate, an impromptu trade in second-hand mobile phones has sprung up during the day, joined by the desperate caravan of the burglars' market at night. You enter the Medina and the first thing that strikes you is the stench of a small mountain of fresh rubbish. As you walk through the narrow, labyrinthine streets, ebony-skinned ladies emerge from black shadows, with babies cradled to their chests. Young girls sit on blanket pitches on the pavement selling Chinese shoe polish, Vaseline, razor blades, plastic combs and matches. As the sun sets, an a cappella muezzin cups his hand to his mouth and booms out the haunting call to prayers.
At its heart, where the copper and gold markets sway to the beat of the smith's hammer and men polish silver in tiny doorways, the Medina is a humming hub of activity, if not of opulence. But then you turn a corner and come face to face with rubbish cascading out of demolished houses like frozen waterfalls. Houses which look like they have just groaned and collapsed and been left to rot and, with bed frames, cookers, fridges and boilers rusting away. Little African markets set up stall in some of the vacant wasteland, selling fake designer gear, second hand clothes, pots and pans but lately these have been moved away and now the rubbish is rising in this space as well, like a man-made fungus that spreads over everything in its way . Here and there are the more permanent African presence of little cave-like barber shops in the walls, decorated almost obligatorily with life-size murals of the near demi-god poet and prophet of sub-Saharan Africa, Bob Marley.
In truth, there is little that is magic about the Medina. There is nothing here which could easily leap into the glossiness of a travel agent's brochure. But then again, magic is just trickery anyway. I am not sure how I feel about the Medina. I love to get lost in it but I do not think I would like to live a life of having my lungs filled with putrid, rotting refuse as I jostle down narrow streets with teams of goats. This was once not only Tripoli's centre but in fact all that Tripoli was and now it is considered the worst part of the city to live in. I feel that there is something unyielding and stubborn about it, perhaps even unwittingly, a refusal to be shaped and bought, gentrified and sanitised by popular ideals. But then the concrete patch-up jobs caked onto layers of clay on limestone will not hold the walls up forever. The heart of the city is certainly not dead yet, but its foundations are slowly slipping away from it. Maybe, in some ways, the Medina is a lot like the person who keeps it the way it is.
There is no magic but I remember once walking through the Medina at dusk during Ramadan and seeing a barefoot toddler run full pelt through the alleys, holding a bag of French loaves aloft like a trophy shouting the Libyanised Italian "mangaria mangaria" just as the naked light bulbs protruding out of masses of wires sagging over the alleys flicked on. I walked down the narrow way that leads past the old Ottoman Harem, later the British Consulate, past the floodlit Aurelian Arch onto the seafront. There was a warm breeze blowing but Tripoli Castle was reflected perfectly in the water. There was not a single soul in sight and it felt like I had the whole city to myself.


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