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TRIPOLI: Businessman Mustafa Iskandar inside his art gallery and cultural centre.—Reuters
TRIPOLI: Businessman Mustafa Iskandar inside his art gallery and cultural centre.—Reuters

AS a new war reached the Libyan capital, businessman Mustafa Iskandar opened an art gallery and cultural centre, hoping to draw attention to a long-neglected old city in need of revival. One of the best preserved in North Africa with monuments going back to the Romans, Tripoli’s old city has been rundown for years, with garbage filling the narrow streets and its ancient white buildings in dire need of repair. Most Libyans who can afford it have long moved out of the old city to more modern districts of Tripoli, home to 2.5 million. But Iskandar bought a derelict house close to the landmark Roman Mark Aurelius arch, investing one million dinars ($720,000) to refurbish it as a gathering point for artists.

He sent an invitation to embassies and artists but in the end diplomats did not come, having fled the city as eastern Libyan forces started a campaign to take the capital using ground forces and jets. It didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the businessman, who still lives in the old city, a settlement once inhabited by Ottomans and later Italian colonialists, with Muslims, Jews and Christians living for centuries in harmony. “I want to give a signal for people to come back to the old city where I grew up and still live,” said Iskandar, who works for a Danish firm. He hung paintings and moved in old furniture collected for years in Europe for his centre, which is located next to a hotel that was once bustling with tourists who used to come to Libya until Muammar Qadhafi was toppled in 2011.

Under Qadhafi, authorities restored a handful of old buildings and were planning a larger rehabilitation project when the 2011 uprising broke out, stopping the work. Little has happened since then, given the country’s chaos, but officials hope to reopen the national museum housed in the Red Castle from the Ottoman era, closed since 2015 over security concerns. “We are trying,” said Mohamad Farraj Mohamad, the head of the museum’s antiquities department, when asked whether the museum will open next year after rehabilitation. For that, French experts who have been advising Libya on how to improve the exhibition need to be willing to come back once the fighting is over to help as the ancient authority lacks funding and expertise.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2019