Amid war, life goes on in Libyan capital

Associated Press
Libyan children play on a see-saw on a beach in Tripoli, Libya, Wednesday, July 20, 2011. The White House says it is up to the Libyan people to decide whether longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi can stay in Libya if he steps down from power. White House spokesman Jay Carney says the U.S. continues to believe that Gadhafi has lost legitimacy and needs to give up power. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
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TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — In Libya's east, rebels surround a key oil city, while in the western mountains they mass for a final push on the capital. In Tripoli, meanwhile, Ahmed Ayyat has more wedding invitations than he knows what to do with.

For this 35-year-old purveyor of the fine brocade cloth used in traditional Libyan wedding dresses, the five-month rebellion has meant more weddings than ever and daily invitations to celebrations he can't possibly all attend.

"The number of people going to weddings is even more than before," said Ayyat, sitting in his air-conditioned shop in a covered market in Tripoli's old city. "Before it was more routine, most didn't attend but now people want more of a connection with each other, they want to be closer."

While rebels may be no more than 60 miles away and opposition to Moammar Gadhafi seethes in shadows of the capital, Tripoli does not have a feeling of city under siege, as its 1 million residents adapt and carry on getting married, going shopping and strolling by the sea.

Tripoli has certainly not been untouched by the revolt that erupted against Moammar Gadhafi's rule in February, and the ensuing U.N. sanctions, NATO airstrikes and rebel rule over half the country.

Long lines of cars stretch from gasoline stations and food prices skyrocketed — at least until a new round of subsidies was declared.

Trash is strewn around the streets as garbage collection, once the province of foreign workers who have all fled, appears to be on hiatus. Many stores and restaurants are shuttered. Massive construction projects for new malls and housing projects sit abandoned at the city's edge.

Posters around the city promise high wages, a free car and an apartment for those who sign up for six months in the 32nd Brigade, led by Gadhafi's son Khamis.

But cars still snarl downtown at rush hour and crowds push through the narrow winding streets of the old city beneath the flaking paint of gorgeous old Italianate buildings from the days when Benito Mussolini called Libya part of his empire.

Ali bin Atiq, 32, fanning himself in the blazing noon heat next to his cramped store filled with ladies' purses and luggage, said business actually isn't bad at all.

"Now it's wedding season and everyone wants to buy bags," he said, from behind his mirrored sunglasses. "Libyans, when they marry, the wife needs to buy lots of bags to take her things to the new house."

His problem is that his stock comes from China and he's got no new bags coming in. He guessed his current supply could last six more months.

"I hope we don't get to that point, I'm relying on God," he added.

Many of the merchants in the old market worry about replenishing their wares, whether it was dresses from Tunisia or ladies' garments from China.

The only thing they don't seem concerned about is reports of impending rebel assaults on the capital — at least not openly to a foreign journalist.

"Gasoline is really a much bigger worry than the rebels," Mohammed Abdel-Karim, a 38-year-old oil company employee, said while waiting in a long line for the cash machine at a bank near the city's central Green Square. "I don't think very many could make it through to here."

There has been some effort to regulate the onerous lines at the gas stations by issuing cards to car owners that specify which day of the week they may get gas.

Abdel-Karim said it still takes most of the day to fill a tank, but it's better than before, as are the checkpoints riddling the city.

"The checkpoints were very aggressive before, but now they are more polite," he said. "There's a lot less tension over the last two months."

It is difficult to gauge how active anti-Gadhafi forces are inside the city, though rebels have posted reports online of symbolic acts of resistance like releasing balloons in the colors of the rebel flag — and even attacks.

On Thursday in broad daylight, rebels reported they fired several rocket-propelled grenades near a downtown hotel in an attempt to kill top government officials, injuring some. It represents one of the boldest rebel moves in Tripoli since the start of the uprising.

Government officials denied the attack took place, saying it was just an exploding canister of cooking gas turned into a propaganda by rebels.

What everyone would admit, though, is how Tripoli's nightlife has been curtailed. Shops close earlier as fewer people make nighttime trips whether because of lack of gasoline or because of the irritation of checkpoints.

Gunshots can often be heard echoing through the early hours, but it is impossible to tell whether it is the celebratory shooting so prized by government supporters or actual combat.

Even weddings, which dominate the summer social scene, are closing down at 10 p.m. rather than going on until 2 a.m. as they once did, said Ayyat.

The heavyset bald man, with a neatly trimmed goatee, talked about how once weddings lasted for a whole week but are now being trimmed down to just a day or two.

Another effect of the troubles, as Ayyat calls them, is that weddings are easier to hold because the lengthy prenuptial negotiations for dowries and bride gifts have been simplified.

That may be why the number of weddings seems to be up, high even for the summer season, he suggested. "Before people used to lay down a lot of conditions for the wedding on each family, but now it's much less," he said. "People now care more about each other, rather than the money."

If weddings fill Tripoli's summer nights, escape from days' heat comes from the long sandy beaches stretching along the highways leading out of town.

Not far from the eastern suburb of Tajoura, where NATO bombed a military supply facility last Sunday, families cram the beach and children dive into the crashing waves.

Families picnic in the small tent-like cabanas or at plastic tables. Some even bring small barbecues and grill up meat, as the sun sets into the wild sea.

"All Libyans have changed the way they live their lives, we will endure the shortages in food and gas because the country is at war," said Nasser Ali, a 44-year-old trader in car parts.

Around his feet play his six children, who couldn't stand being cooped up in the house. It's not so much the lack of food and clothing for his children that bothers him but the nightly sounds of NATO's bombing, which frightens them.

"That's why I take them to the beach, so they can have some fun," he said.

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