x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A tale of two cities, then and now

On a walk through Tripoli a perceptive resident sees people who are beginning to feel their freedom.

Ashur Etwebi, the poet, translator and physician, on a walk through the old city of Tripoli. Bradley Hope / The National
Ashur Etwebi, the poet, translator and physician, on a walk through the old city of Tripoli. Bradley Hope / The National

TRIPOLI // As the poet nears a southern gate to the old city of Tripoli, he pauses and watches people pouring in and out of the opening.

"I think it is best to see the medina," says Ashur Etwebi, a physician, poet and translator, wearing a floppy hat with a wraparound brim to protect himself from the sun. "Here is a smaller version of the whole city."

A quick jaunt up the stairs to the wall encircling the old city reveals a decaying river of rubbish. Dr Etwebi nudges a used, yellow syringe casing with his shoe. "You see," he says. "First you must know that this place is our history, and it has been neglected. Qaddafi wanted all the young people on drugs, so they wouldn't rise up."

Descending to the streets, he deftly navigates the alleyways of the medina. The new flag of liberated Libya hangs everywhere. Walls are freshly painted with the stripes of the flag, which is actually an old flag from the time of King Idriss: red, black and green.

Old doors with plants snaking up along the wall remind him of his childhood. He was born in 1952 in this part of Tripoli. A whiff of mint from a kitchen window, a bag of bread hanging from a door trigger memories of running around as a child. His father made his way to Tripoli from a village with one idea in mind: that his children would grow up educated.

Dr Etwebi is a pulmonary specialist and lecturer in the village of Twebia, 25 kilometres to the East. Of his own eight children, four are doctors or in training to become doctors. "His dream has come true," he says.

"Assalamu alaykum," he says to every passer-by. "How are you?"

People now respond differently to his greeting.

"There is something important here. It is like a weight has been lifted off of everyone's shoulders. If we had come here one month ago, we would have seen something different in the way people walked. They would be afraid. They walked like they had something heavy on their backs. And they would be suspicious, wondering who is this man and his foreign companion."

Rifle shots ring out in the distance. The newly named Martyr's Square is nearby, where trucks of anti-Qaddafi fighters do the rounds. Young men in fatigues preen as children ask to touch their guns and women wave and take pictures. Popcorn vendors do a steady business there late into the night.

Walking through little streets, with the sun dappled by hanging grape plants and flowering trees, he remarks: "Where is Qaddafi?" then smiling. "He is not here."

Here is a Sufi shrine dating back to the 17th century and the old French embassy, now a cultural centre. Nearby is a Roman-era monument to Marcus Aurelius, overgrown with weeds.

The old city of Tripoli is the scene of Dr Etwebi's novel Dardanin, which is told in the form of one long sentence that goes for 113 pages.

This is also the way he walks, pointing out details as he wanders without a concise narrative. The observations are of what is there and what is not. This storefront is where he worked as a silversmith after school; this door once led to his "first love" at the age of 10. This spot is where a policeman no longer stands; this famous restaurant serving simple food with ancient recipes is not open today.

But there is a new restaurant, serving a fish dish called harami, which means "the illegitimate".

"You can also have couscous, but this is better," Dr Etwebi says. "It takes a very long time to make, six hours. It is spicy, but I love it."

The walk continues, now in its fifth hour, out of the old city, across Martyr's Square with its bullet riddled façades and ubiquitous flags, to an old cafe. A non-alcoholic beer for the poet in the shade of trees. Apple-scented smoke wafts.

Lately, Dr Etwebi says, he has been reading more than writing. It feels like the time to soak things up. Now is an era of non-fiction, of reporting from battle lines, chronicles of torture, and political debate. In Algeria Square - recently renamed both Libya Square and Qatar Square, depending who you ask - young students are gathering for a public protest against an Islamist leader, Ali Salabi.

It, too, is new. There haven't been protests like that for decades.

"We cannot know what all this means yet," he says. "Even now, I think of the past. I don't think it is time for writers to write just yet. We can watch and observe. It is not the time yet to deal with what has happened."