Memories of summers 

Growing up in the Italian Comunity of Tripoli (Libya) 

Tripoli  -  Giaddat Istiklal -
Walking with my father

 Early July 1958


In Tripoli the summers were generally hot. They were so hot that often, especially in the afternoons, the temperature reached over 40°C in the shade. The air shimmered in the heat. As the temperature rose so did the level of humidity in the air, brought by the summer sea breezes. The heat and the humidity was physically so exhausting that frequent cooling showers were necessary and, in an effort to recover lost energy, a post prandial siesta was the norm for practically all members of our community.

My father, following his 15 minute nap after lunch, would collect his bicycle and cycle back to his workshop, where he worked hard as a blacksmith and welder. The workshop was on the ground floor of a whitewashed building facing the stadium. It was not far from our home on Via Manfredo Camperio n.10, in the Lido Area, and was the street perpendicular to Corso Sicilia (later renamed Omar el Giaddat Muktar).Corso Sicilia was the long avenue that ran from downtown Piazza Italia all the way to the Lido area

The entrance to the New Lido

After my father returned to work I helped my mother to clear the table and sometimes I helped tidy the kitchen before she went to her room to rest. Afterwards I went back to my own room, rarely to sleep but more often just to read and relax. Like most of the houses in our  community there was no air conditioning and, as my window faced west, the room became a furnace during the afternoons. Taking my cue from my mother I applied a rudimentary but effective technique of ‘do it yourself’ air conditioning. This involved letting down the roller blinds completely, insuring that all the slats were closed and then draping a very damp sheet over the cornice of the window. I then aimed  my small electric fan at the sheet. This ingenious system lowered the temperature in the room by a few degrees and allowed me to turn on my bedside light, stretch out on my bed and turn my attention to reading my favourite books or the local newspaper.

At this point I must acknowledge the fact that without the help of Brother Amedeo, my teacher in the 5th grade of the Christian Brothers Institute on Sciara Afghani, who encouraged and motivated me as a 10 year old boy to read, my afternoons would have been very dull indeed. 

Brother Amedeo

In this way, through those long, hot Tripoli afternoons I followed with pleasure the adventures of F.H. Burnett’s  ‘The Little Lord Fauntleroy’, Mark Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ , and ‘Huckleberry Finn’, Edmondo De Amicis’  ‘Cuore’, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ and last, but not least Ferenc Molnar’s ‘ The Boys of Paal Street’ in which the episode of the death of the boy soldier Nemeksec reduced me to tears every time I reread the book.

 My books

In the ‘50s there was only one Italian language newspaper, ‘Il Giornale di Tripoli’ a four page daily. The front page was dedicated to local and international political news. The second carried the local news and obituaries. The third turned its attention to Italian news, the information mostly garnered from Italian newspapers, but also included business news and the local cinema programmes. The sports section was found on the last page and like many young boys of my age it was naturally my favourite and it, together with my books and my ‘do it yourself’ air conditioning, helped me pass many happy hours in the stifling afternoon heat of the Tripoli summers.

Generally, after about an hour of reading I would lose my concentration, my eyelids would grow heavy and I would slowly fall asleep. However, there were a few times when I forced myself to stay awake to listen to  the radio sports cycling programmes as they followed the ‘Giro d’ Italia’ or the ‘Tour de France’ which, as a cycling fan, I looked forward to. Our huge ‘Marelli’ radio, handsome in its coat of  polished walnut, was kept in a corner of my room resting on a solid coffee table of matching walnut.


A Marelli radio in its coat of polished walnut


I would turn the radio on, keeping the sound low so as not to disturb my sleeping mother whose room was adjacent to mine. It was not easy to enjoy clear reception of the RAI (Radio Audizioni Italiane) station on medium wave in Tripoli and required patient fine tuning to avoid interference from the other local and international stations. This frustrating interference would often cover the voice of the Italian sports announcer much to my annoyance.

Inspired by Il Giro and Le Tour I would re-enact the cycling challenges using bottle caps as the cycling champions. I would write the name of famous cycling champions on these caps and so I passed happy times in the company of Charly Gaul from Luxemburg (my hero), Gastone Nencini and Ercole Baldini from Italy, Louison Bobet, Roger Riviere and Jacques Anquetil from France and last but not least Federico Martin Bahamontes from Spain. These represented my international team and they faced a serious challenge from my local champions such as Renato Rovecchio, Antonio Meilak, Cesare Cenghialta, Gino Cason, Emilio Perotta, Vincenzo Avelli, the two brothers Viscuso and the two strong Libyan cyclists Zintani and Sueia. 

Charly Gaul Ercole Baldini Jacques Anquetil

Antonio Meilak (recent photo) Gino Cason Renato Rovecchio


These bottle cap champions raced each other round a  pattern of pale yellow tiles that formed a contrasting rectangle in the sea-green floor tiles that  became my cycle track. The caps came from a wide range of soft drinks on sale in Tripoli; Miranda, Fanta, Sinalco, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Kitty Kola, Seven Up and Oea beer. Oea was the ancient name for Tripoli and Oea was the name given to this well known local beer that was the only alcoholic drink among my collection of bottle caps.

It was produced by an Italian family and thinking of them brings to how important they were to our community. The Bianchi Carnevale family hailed from the North of Italy in Lombardia in a town called Lomellina where they were well known for their excellent beer. They had been invited to Libya by a German engineer called Herr Schubert to build the brewery on Sciara Kaled Ibn Ualid in Tripoli, which became the first brewery in North Africa. They also built the first Libyan Ice House and created a winery that produced a sparkling wine not inferior to the best French Champagne.

 The cups 


My first stop would be the grocery store on the Corso Sicilia where we normally bought our bread. It was run by a Calabrian called Giuseppe Moschetti. He was a 35 year old bachelor with a pleasant, smiling face and with thick, dark hair and eyebrows. Next to Giuseppe’s store, on the left, at the corner of Corso Sicilia where it met Via Manfredo Camperio was Michele Gaudio’s bar. Michele was also originally from Calabria who had emigrated to Libya in the 1920s in search of a better life and opportunities. Through hard work he had managed to settle, marry and have a family. It was not difficult to make friends with Michele. He was easy going and did not stand on ceremony. I went to his bar often when I was thirsty in the heat and wanted to drink a bottle of ‘soda’, a clear sparkling sweet drink. I also bought from him the hazel coated chocolate that came in a rectangular gold coloured paper accompanied by the cards which we all collected and stuck in our albums. His bar was not big and he stood behind the counter that had been built about four metres from the entrance, from which vantage point he could survey his customers. For them he had provided simple but pleasant tables and chairs. Behind him, on the strong wooden shelving were arrayed bottles of wine, beers and spirits, all with colourful labels and next to them the local soft drinks and beer whose caps provided me with my international and local cycling teams, that helped to while away the long, hot afternoons.

Michele Gaudio


There was a bus stop outside the bar as you turned into Via Camperio where Giuma, a young Libyan boy of about my age, sold roasted corn cobs known to us as ‘sbule’. He was tall and thin and generally wore a white robe similar to a pyjama top. 


During the summer, whilst sitting on a folding canvas stool and shaded from the sun by an umbrella, he plied his trade. He, as many of the Libyans in the area, understood and spoke Italian. I liked his smile and the way he prepared the corn cobs for roasting. Next to his canvas stool he kept his straw basket that held the fresh corn cobs ready to be roasted. The tools of his trade consisted of a large and robust metal grill filled with charcoal, wood chips, paper and of course matches. On one side of him he kept a small five litre container of water into which, from time to time, he would dip his charcoal blackened hands. He toasted the cobs and then wrapped them in their own fresh green leaves. These he sold to the public at one Libyan piastra each.

Roasted corn cobs A Libyan piastra

On the opposite side of Corso Sicilia, about a hundred metres from the road there were still the old abandoned railway tracks that once connected Tripoli to Zuwarah, a small town situated to the west not far from the border with Tunisia

In this small area with these kindly shopkeepers and artisans I was at home, I knew my way around, and there was always someone with whom I could talk or indeed play. One day, however, something happened that changed my mind about our safe haven. That afternoon I still had a bit of time to spare before going home for my dinner. Giuseppe Moschetti was there, sitting on a bench outside his shop in his vest, fanning himself with a fan whilst waiting for customers. On the bench beside him I recognized Corrado Salemi and Giacomo Cannucci, both near neighbours of my family on Via Camperio. Corrado was six years older than me and was a student of the Technical Institute for Surveyors, but already a well known local second division basketball player playing for a team called ‘Takaddem’. His nickname, bestowed on him by his team mates, was ‘Plastic‘ owing to his athletic prowess under the basket.

Corrado Salemi



His companion on the bench, Giacomo Cannucci, was a forty year old Sicilian, a handsome man with thick black hair and whiskers. He was a fisherman and his face was deeply weathered from sea and sun.

Giacomo Cannucci

He called himself a ‘tonnarota’, or tuna fisherman, and I enjoyed listening to his stories of tuna fishing. I had an interest in it because my family had numerous connections with the fishing industry.  Giacomo had worked for several years for an  Italian noblewoman, the Countess Ricotti, who not only was a wealthy landowner but also owned a tuna processing plant forty kilometres west of Tripoli near Zavia. Giacomo loved talking of tuna, of traps, of fishing boats and ships and I loved listening to him.

Giacomo Cannucci with his friends

Seeing Giuseppe, Corrado and Giacomo sitting on the bench deep in conversation I naturally gravitated towards them. Giacomo was explaining in detail how the June ‘trap’ worked. June was one of the summer months when the tuna dived deeper to the saltier warm water to spawn. I had never been present at a ’trap’ but such was his descriptive powers it was easy to imagine being present and watching the ‘bluefin’ tuna entering the maze of nets, attached to floating cylindrical anchors, that led from one ‘room’ to another with no possibility of escape until  finally reaching the ‘death chamber’. It is at this moment, when the death chamber is full, that the leader of the fishermen, the ‘rais’ gives the order and the ‘mattanza’ begins. The fishermen spear the tuna and haul the fish on to their boats, the sea slowly turning red with tuna blood. There is no escape. ‘Mattanza’, from ‘matanza’ is of Spanish origin and absorbed into Sicilian following the Spanish domination  of Sicily. It, quite simply, means massacre.


Scene of massacre (click the photo to see the video)


I listened spellbound as Giacomo, his voice hoarse from the cigarettes he smoked, talked about the tuna fish. All around us the air was full of the aroma of roasted corn on the cob, some slightly burnt when Giuma got carried away listening to Giacomo. Giuseppe Moschetti had already served me a loaf of bread to take home and, as I had no wish to leave before the end of the story, on checking the time, thankfully saw that it was 7.30 pm and I still had a few minutes before I was due home.

In Michele’s bar there was a gathering of his Libyan patrons talking animatedly and raising in toast small glasses of ‘anisetta’, a liquore of aniseed which tasted of fennel and mint. There were other customers drinking full bodied red wines. Ruber Afer springs to mind. There were also those drinking, amongst other beers the Oea beer I mentioned earlier, with its unmistakable bitter taste.


 Oea beer
Ruber Afer wine


Tripoli, in this moment of time, was a cosmopolitan city. A few years before the oil boom had begun and the city was full of Americans, British and French eager to be part of the workforce drilling for oil to fill the barrels of the multinational Oil Companies or working in their offices in downtown Tripoli. At 7.30 pm the employees were beginning their exit from the administrative offices and the  traffic began to intensify, flowing west into the setting sun towards the new suburb of Giorginpopoli where most of them lived. It was said that the area had been named after one of the first Italian family, who settled in the area around 1912 and whose surname had been Giorgini. As the oil business expanded so did Giorginpopoli. Within a short space of time, with its smart villas together with their well kept gardens, it had become a luxury residential area. Only the highly paid foreign employees or the very wealthy families could afford to live there.



As the traffic built up Giacomo suddenly interrupted his flow of reminiscences and stared in the direction of the road. I turned to see what had caught his attention. One of the clients from Michele’s bar emerged on to the street. I had seen him drinking ‘anisetta’ with his friends earlier. He was gray-haired with a moustache and was of average build. He walked unsteadily on his towards the curb of Corso Sicilia as if he planned to cross the avenue towards the railway tracks.  He gave the impression of one whose mind was clouded by alcohol. Suddenly, without looking either to the left or to the right he rashly began to cross the road, stopping only when he reached mid way where he hesitated and turned to look back. That moment of hesitation cost him his life.


 Maps od the area


A pale green VW from downtown Tripoli was heading westward towards Giorginpopoli and the setting sun. The impact between car and the unfortunate man was violent. The driver of the car slammed on the brakes only after he felt the impact and the man’s body sailed into the air like a broken twig and crumpled in a heap 10 metres further up the road near the railway tracks. Giacomo Cannucci and Giuseppe Moschetti remained stunned. Michele Gaudio and his patrons poured out of the bar on hearing the commotion. I remained motionless as if paralyzed with fright. Then I swung round to view the poor man lying on the ground. It was the first time I had seen an accident like that and I was very scared. Corrado Salemi was the first to move , along with two other patrons of the bar. They ran towards the inert body on the tarmac in the hope of being able to help. I was impressed by Corrado, who showed courage and a cool head despite his youth. He returned back to us shaking his head ruefully indicating there was nothing to be done as the man was already dead.

A green Volkswagen 

The VW had slid to a stop some 20 metres ahead and a stocky man with a blond crew cut opened the door and shakily got out of the car. He seemed dazed by the accident and stopped, frightened, at the sight of a group of Libyans who, having witnessed the accident, closed in on him and began threatening him. Fortunately, in that moment, a dark green police land rover arrived on the scene and soon the police had ascertained the victim’s death, covered his body with a white sheet, started a road block and taken expert forensic measurements of skid marks. They then detailed two policemen to take the unfortunate driver in for questioning but more probably for safety and protection from the three or four Libyans who were showing signs of wanting to take justice into their own hands. The road block was effective and long queues of cars formed in both directions. Meanwhile an ambulance arrived at high speed with its sirens blaring. It stopped near the inanimate body and three men in white overalls got down from the tail gate. They checked for vital signs, and then having confirmed the death, loaded the body onto a stretcher and placed it in the ambulance before driving off to the mortuary.

Whilst all this was going on I stood, confused and frightened, still clutching my loaf of bread under my arm. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned and found my mother next to me. She had been worried about my long absence and, looking out of the window, had seen the crush of people along the Corso Sicilia and had become worried. 

Dusk was now falling and the crowds started to disperse. Giuseppe Moschetti had returned to his shop, Michele was back behind his counter to serve his clients, but the group of onlookers outside the bar continued to discuss heatedly the dynamics of the accident. Giuma continued to roast his cobs. Giacomo and Corrado talking in low voices between themselves slowly and sadly went back home. My mother, still silent, took my hand and together we too turned and went towards home. As we were making our way we meet my father on his bicycle returning home from work oblivious of all that had happened.

My mother, Francesca My father, Giuseppe

That evening I had no appetite and, without eating went straight to bed, taking with me ‘The Boys of Paal Street’ and cried myself to sleep.


The accident was fully reported the next day in ‘Il Giornale di Tripoli’ and contained many details of the victim and the driver of the VW. The victim was 42 years old, married and  father of five children all underage. He had been employed as a labourer with an Italian construction company. The driver was a 35 year old American accountant, working for a major American Oil Company. He had been arrested and taken to the Castel Benito prison to await trial. He did not spent a long time in prison and was sent home under house arrest after a week. Compensation was agreed upon and it was decided that the death was accidental as the driver had not been speeding and had been momentarily blinded by the sun.

I think I left part of my boyhood behind after that day. I certainly hoped that the compensation paid out to the widow and her five children would be enough to maintain all of them and help towards their education and future opportunities.