Thursday, June 22, 2006


Tripoli’s Souk-Attruk was enchanting and so untainted by the influences of ‘package tourism’. There was naturalness, authenticity and a certain unspoilt beauty about the place. It was just how I’d imagined an Arab bazaar might look, sound, smell and feel. Nothing much had changed it seemed in a hundred, maybe a thousand years.

The inter-linked lanes and passageways, just wide enough for two or three people to pass without intimate contact, were a true labyrinth. Clothes, pictures and shiny objects bedecked every centimetre of wall space. Every nook and cranny secreted something of interest. In the shops that stood either side of the thoroughfares, beyond variously shaped openings, most with light green shutters, every imaginable North African cloth, textile and ornament was on offer. To add to the intrigue, a few of the openings led to small shopping arcades, some with high domed roofs.

Like bees buzzing around a mid-summer hive, Arabian and African shoppers bartered over everything from metal trinkets to teeth-whitening sticks. Everywhere, people looked for, and conducted, business. Perhaps the most striking trader was a jet black Sudanese man. I’d thought that I was tall, but he towered above me. Even with my Cyprus suntan, I looked so pale by comparison. Here then were capitalism, consumerism and free enterprise alive and well in one of the world’s last remaining socialist states.

Eventually, my guide and I emerged from the tangled maze of dark alleyways, which would have been a fire officer’s worst nightmare in England, to enter a huge floodlit square. This openness of this place was such a contrast to the closeness that we’d just left, so much so in fact that I was taken aback by it for a moment. Massive arc lights threw the building’s white facades into stark relief, rendering a truly magnificent three-dimensional effect. At the base of these buildings were shady walkways hiding yet more shops, each made intriguing by row upon row of uniformly spaced arches. I was no expert on architecture but I thought that I could recognise a strong Italian influence, evidence perhaps of earlier colonial rule.

The scope for tourism here was clearly enormous, particularly with Tripoli’s 16th Century fortress located so close by. The palm trees lining the walls of the fortress seemed to be standing guard though, ready to ward off any attack by tour operators. Tall, straight and thin, they looked like soldiers with ridiculous ‘boot camp’ haircuts. Clearly, the western leisure industry was not going to spoil this fortress’ splendour for some time to come.

I was thankful. Foreigners en masse would only spoil the place, just as they had done to the tiny fishing village on the south coast of Crete, where Allie and I had stayed during our student years. Someone who’d been to the village in recent times had told me of all the ‘instant’ hotels, apartment blocks and tourist shops that had sprung up. Where once a few scruffy backpackers had loafed under shady trees and sprawled on sunny rocks, hundreds of smart executive families now fidgeted under gaudy umbrellas and jogged on concrete terraces. Yes, Tripoli was better off without that kind of mass tourism.

Amidst all this grandeur, there was much evidence of degeneration and disinterest in environmental matters. On close inspection, this Mediterranean ‘jewel’ had tarnishes and was in need of expert polish. Many of the fine buildings needed structural repairs, to restore them to their full splendour. Also, the streets needed ridding of the ubiquitous soggy cardboard boxes and empty mineral water bottles, for they carpeted almost every outdoor space.

Once the boxes and bottles had outlived their usefulness it seemed, their users would abandon them there and then. After opening, many of the boxes had become makeshift stall counters, until they’d been divested of their authentic-looking designer wear, by fashion conscious shoppers. The origin of the bottles was more obvious. What I couldn’t understand though was why Libyans bothered with mineral water when they could drink the tap water, as I had done when washing down my many coffees over the past few hours.

I was dismayed to see so much decay and litter in an otherwise atmospheric spot. In places, Tripoli reminded me of the refuse collectors’ strike in London during the 1970’s. To me, the public health hazard seemed intolerable, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. I could only hope that, one day, an entrepreneur would set up recycling facilities in the city. Within a year or two, he’d be able to buy up all the beautiful buildings and refurbish them tastefully! For such a person, the streets of Tripoli would indeed be paved with gold.

I must say that not once, in that marvellous market and superb square, did I feel threatened. Although I was the only Caucasian I saw that night, not once was I hassled by the kind of tat seller or beggar that I’d encountered in other parts of the world. All I encountered, particularly when bartering for my precious towels, was playful leg pulling and smiles.

I’d decided to dress in an obviously western style throughout my stay, because people in Cyprus had warned me not to try and look like a local. I’d heard some sensational stories about plain-clothes secret policemen, whose job it was to weed out suspicious people and spot potential spies, saboteurs and subversives. I thought it best therefore, if this really was the case, to be as conspicuous as possible, both in my attire and in my actions.

All I can say is that the Libyan secret police must have been masters of disguise. I didn’t see anyone that I thought might be watching me, and I did look, hard. The only sign of ‘internal security’ was the same sort of armed militia that protected Cairo, only many fewer in number.

Having said goodnight to the Palestinian, and thanked him for a memorable evening, I collapsed onto my bed. Although I was tired after my eventful day, I couldn’t get to sleep straight away. Perhaps it was the noisy air conditioning unit humming away in the corner, or my concern that my Palestinian friend wouldn’t heed my advice, or my fear about how many other creatures might be sharing my bed.

More likely, it was the strange gurgling sensations coming from my bloated stomach!