Al-Berka, An Endless Love Affair

"Abdelhafiz Geweil"

My father lived in the Al-Berka neighborhood until he died in 1983, at the age of 74. Despite its meager size, his house (which still stands) was big enough for all of us. The house falls on the edge of a triangle of neighborhoods (Al-Ruwaisat, Bouzghiba, and Al-Berka), steps away from Al-Wahda Cinema, which was built in the early sixties.

On his deathbed, my father insisted that I take him on a short drive around Al-Berka, so he could say his goodbyes. We were already on our way when, to my surprise, one of my relatives strongly objected to this trip: “How could you venture out with a man on his deathbed?” It was January 12, 1983. Afraid my cousin had a point, and that my father might die in my arms in the car, I backtracked on the outing, and we went back home. 

The next day–a Friday–my father left me for his final resting place. He was buried by a group of friends, neighbors, and tribal members in the Sidi Abeid cemetery. 

That incident has haunted me ever since, and continues to infringe on my memories every now and then. How could I deny my father's request on his deathbed? How could I refuse a short trip and a final peek at the place where he lived and died!

My father Jawad was a proud, hardworking man. Al-Berka was his birthplace and the headquarters of his tribe, among whom he grew up after leaving the village of Buirat Al-Hassoun in central Libya at the scant age of ten. After his mother died and his father was martyred in the war against the Italians, he fled to Benghazi with his two sisters. 

In Al-Berka, he worked for the contracting company Dagadosta, together with his friends, who later worked with him in the motorcycle repair shop he established. It was located opposite the Al-Saftiyah building, between the ironer Abdallah Al-Sudani and Khalil Boqrein's bicycle shop. The late Mahdi Al-Madani, who later became one of the leading car mechanics in Benghazi, also worked in my father’s shop.

He ran his repair shop from the 1940s onwards, before it was transformed, in 1966, into the restaurant Alaa-Aldin, which served its famous liver dish. Among my father's neighbors were Mr. Mahmoud El-Seity, a famous artist and art teacher at the Al-Berka School. As children, we peeked at his beautiful paintings through his windows. Hung in his living room, these artworks seemed like they were created by Leonardo Da Vinci; they always stopped passersby in their tracks. 

 

My father’s workshop’s neighbors included the families of Al-Athram, Al-Tira, Al-Mukhahal, Al-Salak, Shatwan, and Anbih. As fellow servants of Zarrouk (that is, belonging to the same Sufi order) they were very close friends, and they would vote for the same House of Representatives candidate during the monarchy. Also among the neighbors was the Greek, or Maltese, nurse Maria, who rode her bike over to her patients’ houses to give them their injections. Known for her punctuality, she took five pennies per injection. She would park her bike outside their houses, finish her cigarette, then discard the butts before the patients opened the door. She never entered a house with a lit cigarette. We also can't forget Hami Bouzakouk's store, the avid Al-Hilal supporter who came down with a fever whenever his team lost a game. If they won, however, he would rush to open his store, even for a few minutes, for the chance to gloat. 

These stories, and many others, run through my mind whenever I visit Al-Berka. Every time I do, I remember my father's dying wish to tour the neighborhood he loved. Despite the sorrow I feel for not fulfilling his wish, I also feel closer to my father as I wander through his old neighborhood–it’s like I can see it through his eyes, and recall his memories. 

Born in Benghazi, he worked at the Libyan Radio in Benghazi and studied journalism at the California College of the Arts. He has written numerous articles on the websites Libya Al-Mostakbal and Libya Watannna. He is a professor of Arabic language for non-native speakers in England.

Abdelhafiz Geweil
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