An Old Photo and a Question

"Giuma Bukleb"

Out of all my old pictures, the one I like best, and that holds a special place in my heart, was taken when I was no more than two or three years old. 

I suppose the occasion was Eid al-Fitr, seeing that I was decked out in new clothes, my tiny hands tucked behind my back, staring at the camera and cameraman with a mix of agitation and fear. Was I so nervous because it was my first time standing face to face with a lens and a photographer? Or was it because of the strange place I found myself in?

The photo was taken behind the state building–which later became the Ministry of Interior–on Martyrs’ Square. The leather amulet around my neck stands out. Perhaps those who lived in a different time would’ve noticed other details, but for members of my generation, that object around my small neck, hidden under my collar, is sure to conjure up bittersweet memories. 

 

The amulet’s job is to protect its possessor, and in the picture, its possessor is a child, who, according to this child’s mother, had been ill. She had no recourse other than to take him from one faqih to another, in the hopes of receiving a supplication that would spare him the risk of death. Tripoli was a small and poor town at the time, where ewes grazed and chickens laid eggs. It too hung amulets around its neck to protect it from evil.

After the Nazis and the fascists had been quashed, only three evils remained in the world at that time: poverty, ignorance and disease. As a young boy, I couldn’t tell the difference between a reed warbler and a woodchat shrike, and I had no idea why women snuck out to the beach in small groups at the early hours of dawn if they weren’t swimming or bathing. And I hadn’t yet learnt the alphabet at the mercy of a strict faqih’s stick, in a kuttab stuffed with children reciting each letter at the top of their lungs, all the while desperate to run back home to squabble, play, and chase cats that were no less mischievous than they were. 

 

If you look closely at the photo, you will notice a few historic landmarks. On my left is the large building constructed by the Italians during their occupation. After independence, this building became the residence of Tripoli’s governor. Behind me on the right is part of the old Tripoli wall, its open entrance leading to the old decorators’ souq, marked by beautiful pediments and ornate carvings. Directly in front of me–but not visible in the photograph–is the Galleria Mariotti building in Bab Al-Huriya, where saddles and sieves are made.

The citadel walls are still in place, but the Ministry of Interior has been out of service since its destruction during the February uprising. Despite the damage and neglect, it still stands tall and bears witness to a forgotten past; beginning with the beautiful, masterful architectural traces of the fascist Italian regime–which stand in sharp contrast to their ideologies and atrocious practices–to the royal regime, followed by the four-decade-long military regime, and all the way up to our chaotic present.

The royal and military regimes haven’t made any architectural contributions worth mentioning. As a matter of fact, the dictatorship effaced so much of the city’s beauty, and forced it to sprawl out like an arbitrary cancer. The same case applies to other Libyan cities beyond Tripoli, where beauty is deemed to be in conflict with patriotic institutions, even the most wealthy ones. Many countries that had fallen under occupation have unfortunately suffered a similar devolution in their architecture. Following independence, the new rulers often had a very different approach towards culture and aesthetics–in fact, they made every effort to fight and persecute their intellectuals, writers and artists.

The real value of this photo isn’t in the suspicious gaze of the ill child dressed in his new clothes. It’s in the historical backdrop, which reflects key political moments experienced by this country, in that particular place, across its history.

Born in Tripoli, he is a journalist, short story writer, novelist, translator, and former diplomat. He publishes weekly articles in the Middle East newspaper in London, as well as on the Bawabat Al-Wasat website and the Libyan Sabah newspaper.

Giuma Bukleb
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