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Returning home to Tripoli after 40 years in exile.
MY QUEST TO go back to my long-lost hometown in North Africa began, bizarrely, in Moscow in 1988. It was a mild sunny day and yet the city was grim, gray, and bare, showing the scars of a communist regime. I was a young White House correspondent covering President Ronald Reagan’s first trip to the Soviet Union for his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. That morning, a fellow journalist convinced me to join him for a walk to the Arbat, one of the oldest streets in Moscow, filled with antiques and memorabilia vendors. We entered a dusty, tiny, poorly lit store, and I noticed a small painting lying on the floor that looked strangely familiar. It was an impressionistic view of the city where I was born and raised, and from which I had been permanently banned 20 years earlier: Tripoli, capital of Libya. I asked the owner about it. “Luchinshkin, a Russian painter,” the gallerist said. “He was there for a few years in the fifties.”
I was mesmerized. Every detail of the painting brought back memories: the dock in the large port where my father kept a fishing boat, and the “Lungomare,” the long seafront promenade with its splendid palm trees. As a child I strolled there with my mother and her dearest friend Dudi, on long walks after lunch, sometimes all the way to the Mehari Hotel on the east end of town. In the background of the painting was the old Red Castle and its massive defensive walls.
Looking at this window to my childhood, I recalled soccer matches in the burning-hot cement courtyard of the La Salle Brothers, my primary school, as well as the beautiful beach club, volleyball matches on the sand, and wonderful swims in the southern Mediterranean. I could see our apartment overlooking the gardens. Beyond the tall arches of our building, opening into the cathedral square, I could see Caffé Aurora thriving with its colorful international crowd, my grandparents sipping drinks there in the balmy late afternoon sun. And I could see myself at eight years old, rushing along on my small green bike to pick up warm bread for dinner in the summer twilight, with the greatest feeling of all: a child’s sense of freedom. It was in that store in Moscow that my yearning to revisit my childhood home took shape.
The next day, speaking at Moscow State University under a giant bust of Vladimir Lenin, President Reagan made history by anticipating the end of the Cold War, challenging Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. But I was distracted. I was daydreaming about going back to Tripoli not just to revisit old haunts, but to explore and understand the long saga of our Jewish Mediterranean family, uprooted for centuries by often violent and discriminatory historical events beyond their control.
In 1938, my father fled Genoa, his birthplace, to escape fascist racial laws against the Jews in Italy, having been expelled from university and the army. He joined his mother in Tripoli, an Italian colony at the time. Thirty years later, history repeated itself. The day was unforgettable: June 5, 1967.
I was at the beach club. It was a gorgeous late spring day but still too cold to swim. All of us kids were brought home. The Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab world had begun. A curfew ensued. At least 18 Jewish men, women, and children were killed by a mob in the Hara, where they had lived next to Arabs for hundreds of years. My father and mother, both Jewish, knew we had to escape. In the midst of demonstrations and pogroms against the Jews, my father organized a secured convoy to bring us and my grandparents to the airport, bound for Italy. While leaving, I waved goodbye to one of my best friends through a window and was stunned when he made a gesture shooing me away, not wanting to show that he knew me.
In 1968 we went back briefly, but in 1969 Colonel Gaddafi took power, deposing the old king Idris in a military coup d'état. The authoritarian dictator’s first call to action was to expel, overnight, all 20,000 Italians still living in Libya. They were forced to leave behind their homes and all of their possessions except for one bag, with the warning that never in their lifetime would they be allowed back into the country. That included us. My father had intended to return for holidays and business. Now we were banned forever.
During the intervening 20 years, Libya and Tripoli played a strong role in my political coverage of America and the White House. Anyone reading the news in the 1980s would remember the volatility of Gaddafi’s reign: the Pan Am bombing, the attack on American air carriers, on airport passengers in Rome and Vienna, on La Belle disco in Berlin. Fourteen years after my Moscow assignment, my ambitious plan to return seemed more and more dangerous, especially now that I was married with three small children. And yet the need to return grew even stronger. My children always loved the idea that I was born in Africa. In their minds it was the most romantic place in the world: “Really, in Africa?” they would ask. How I longed to show them where their father was from.
A breakthrough came in 2003 when I met the Libyan ambassador, Ali Treki, at the United Nations. Two people may have different upbringings, but if they share the same roots the connection is immediate. We recalled many shared places and people. He knew exactly where I had lived in town. He remembered my father’s car dealership. When I asked, “Ali can I go back?” he promised to get a special visa for me and my family, overriding the ban on Italians born in Libya. It took another three years, but on a warm spring day in March 2006, my wife Ariadne and my children Oliver, Milo, and Clio flew across the Mediterranean to return to Tripoli and search together for our roots.
Upon arrival we were met by a driver with a small van who would be our guide. His name was Ahmed; he spoke a smattering of English, a few words of Italian, and was very polite. Imagine his surprise when I told him I would love to take the wheel and drive around town. “But you do not know the city!” he exclaimed, trying to discourage me. “I do, very well,” I replied. “I used to bike all around town as a boy.” Still uncertain, he gave in, and I took the wheel.
Even after 40 years, I felt totally at home. From the beautiful Piazza Italia, just beyond the castle, I saw in front of me Corso Sicilia, the long avenue that runs west of the city toward the lido and the beach club and further out, the Roman ruins of Sabratha, and Tunisia after that. I made a left toward the center and took Sciara Dicembre 24 (named for Libyan Independence Day), where right at the corner my father Guido had his first offices and showroom. I passed the mythical Rex movie theater and arrived at Via Roma. The elegant old mosque with the tall minaret was still there. In front of it, as if no time had passed, was my grandparents’ apartment building, still with the same green heavy door.
It was there that my uncle Zozi had rescued a young Jewish girl being chased by a mob during a pogrom in 1948 (on the day the independence of Israel had been proclaimed). Zozi had been standing by the open door watching the street. Upon seeing the scene, he grabbed the young woman and locked the door behind them, saving her by a hair. I was told this story time and again.
I parked the car. That same green door was open and I entered the building. At this point our guide was hysterical. This was not the kind of tour he had in mind. I knew Ahmed was not just a guide, but a security agent keeping an eye on my behavior. I tried to calm him, saying that I knew this place when my Nonno Leco and Nonna Gemma lived there. I often went to see them after school, and could now finally show my children the small courtyard where I played my first soccer game with my pals Raffaellino and Robi, who lived in the apartments upstairs. The building was less neat, warm, and clean than I remembered. But otherwise everything was still quite familiar: the courtyard downstairs, the small garden beyond the wall, and the tall building where a noisy family used to have very public screaming matches outside on the balcony. Now, all was silent.
Back at the wheel I drove to the center of town. And there it was in front of me, the huge beautiful building where I was born and raised: 146 Sciara el Baladia. Designed by a famed modernist architect of the time, Florestano di Fausto, the building looked as if it was taken out of a metaphysical de Chirico painting. Through very tall arches, I walked to the other side of the building searching for Caffé Aurora, passing the old cobbler, Antonio’s, which was closed and empty. The barber shop of Mr. Vasta was also gone. I made a left in the large courtyard, around an impressive fountain. And then I saw it, Caffé Aurora: still there, still open, same bar, same outdoors, but with a different name, no longer Italian.
In one corner, sitting on the floor, I noticed a group of Arab patrons smoking from narghiles and chatting. It was then that I finally understood why all Italians in Libya were sent away overnight in 1969. Back in the mid-sixties, 15 years after Libya gained its independence from Italy, the Italian community still acted as if nothing had changed. Every store was Italian, from the newsstands to the shoe shops, the movie theaters, the grocery stores, the multi-car dealership, the local beer and wine shops, the cafes, the clubs. I never really learned Arabic growing up, even though we had a mandatory hour a week at school. Even my Arabic teacher, Mr. Costanza, was Italian. By observing these men at my old Caffé Aurora, chatting away in their traditional garments, smoking the narghiles — a scene unimaginable 40 years earlier — I instantly understood how the Arab community must have felt not having control of the center of town. We, as a community, were still acting and living as we were in the old colonial days. By expelling us, Gaddafi gave downtown Tripoli back to its locals.
The next day Ahmed arrived with a “partner,” Giuma. His superiors clearly decided I was too unruly to be left to one agent and had issued clear orders: I could no longer do the driving. That was fine with me, as I had already accomplished my goal of driving in my hometown.
The remainder of our visit was exciting, emotional, and depressing. The “Lungomare” was still there, but instead of beach and sea on the other side, there was now a highway. The Hotel Uaddan, named after a traditional desert goat and one of the best works of architect Florestano Di Fausto, still stood facing the water on the promenade, only now it was surrounded by highway ramps. Monstrosities. Driving to Sabratha, I looked for the beach club. It was gone. In its place there were large real estate developments. As much as the places of my memory persisted, they had also changed in more ways than I could have imagined.
By observing these men at my old Caffé Aurora, chatting away in their traditional garments, smoking the narghiles — a scene unimaginable 40 years earlier — I instantly understood how the Arab community must have felt not having control of the center of town.
The last mission of the trip was a drive to the legendary Mellaha. The name in itself is magical and ancient. It means a large marine lake divided into fields to produce salt. But for children like me during the sixties in Libya, it had a different meaning: it was the large American Air Force base, Wheelus Field. Built by the Italian government, it was taken over by the U.S. in 1945 and turned into the largest American air force base in the Mediterranean. The base had burgers and hot dogs, a bowling alley — unheard of in Libya at the time — a radio station, a cinema, swimming pools, and a long stretch of beach where military families sought relief from the heat. There was a school with 500 students and a TV station, Channel 7, which for a long while was the only TV channel in Tripoli.
The base was closed off by tall barbed-wire fences, but we always knew it was there. All one had to do was to look at the fighter planes flying low in formation over the sea. My father took me behind those fences only twice. Seeing all of those signs, colors, cars, food, people, games, and children my age, similar but entirely different, was just mind-boggling for me. It was the future. The contrast between colonial Tripoli and that big chunk of 1960s America transplanted between the sea and the desert was striking. The patrolled entrance to the base, off limits to “foreigners,” was to me the equivalent of a revolving door into another world, and as a child I made a solemn commitment to myself: one day I would go to America.
I made good on that promise. I left Tripoli in 1968, and in 1978 I was assigned a Fulbright scholarship to come to America and attend Columbia University in New York for a masters in international affairs. I couldn’t have imagined at that time that 10 years later I would be traveling with the White House press corps and interviewing U.S. presidents in the Oval Office, starting in 1986 with President Reagan.
Forty years later, taking in the Mellaha once again, the surroundings were the same. But the Wheelus Field American base was long gone. Gaddafi closed it down in 1970, right after his so-called revolution. In its place was a very normal, charmless civilian airport, Mitiga International. And still, it was right there in front of my eyes, those happy days — the energy of those revolving doors into the future.
March 29, 2006, was our last day in Tripoli. We drove south to explore the Garian Heights, where many Jewish families went into hiding to escape the Tripoli Spanish invasion of the sixteenth century. We saw the wonderful homes excavated in the ground, one of which had belonged to Messauda, my great grandfather's mother. Unexpectedly while there, we saw an extraordinary total solar eclipse, which reached its zenith in the Libyan desert, on the border with Chad and Niger. We were all looking at the sky, admiring that timeless miracle of nature. Now, at the end of this impossible trip, my quest was over.
I could tell just by their postures and observations that my children now had a stronger sense of their history. Africa was real and not just a mystical place in one corner of their fantasies. The old home of their great-great-great grandmother in the Garian Heights was real. As they told me, they could finally understand why I was so attached to the memories, to the traditions. They, too, were now bound to them. In the years to come they would listen with more interest and curiosity to their grandmother’s vivid, joyous, funny stories of ninety years ago. Now we could share Sabratha and the balmy sunsets, the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea, and the palm trees and sweet fragrance of jasmine bracelets still offered by lonely vendors scattered in the streets.
We never went back. That trip ended up being the gift of a moment in time. For 40 years I was not allowed back, and soon after we returned from our trip we would not be allowed back due to fighting and terrorism — the aftermath of Gaddafi’s regime still unresolved. History will take its course. But for now I am told that the buildings and neighborhoods of my childhood are still there, spared from the devastation of war.
For a deeper dive into Tripoli’s unique history, these reads explore aspects of its Italian colonial influence, Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, and imperialist architecture in the region.
“A History of Modern Libya”
By Dirk Vandewalle
Scholar Dirk Vandewalle offers a rare, lucid account of Libya’s colonial period under Italian rule, the monarchy of 1951–1969, the subsequent regime of Colonel Gaddafi, and its persisting impact on the economic, political, and cultural landscape of the country.
“Moderns Abroad: Architecture, Cities and Italian Imperialism”
By Mia Fuller
This work analyzes the architecture and urbanism of modernist Italian colonialism as it sought to build in North and East Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. The pages explore not just the architecture, but the development of colonial design theory.
“Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution”
By Lindsey Hilsum
International correspondent Lindsey Hilsum chronicles the progress of the revolution on the ground through six personal accounts, sharing the realities of insurrection and stories of those who risked everything to bring down the Gaddafi regime.
Mario Calvo-Platero is a columnist for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Born in Tripoli, Libya, he received a degree in economics in Turin, Italy, and then a Fulbright scholarship to study international affairs at Columbia University. He has covered the White House, American politics, and economics for three decades. He lives in New York with his family.
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