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Coffee and pizza: customers grab a slice of life in Libya

TRIPOLI--In corners of Tripoli unaffected by militia violence gripping the capital, Libyans sip espresso and eat pizza — defiantly, as the sound of gunfire echoes in the distance.

Since the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, pizzerias and cafes have proliferated in the ex-Italian colony, which sits just across the Mediterranean Sea from its former ruler.

“I can't start the day without a coffee,” declares Salem, clutching a Macchiato-like beverage as he sat with friends on the terrace of “Cafe Omar al-Mokhtar,” named after Libya's anti-colonial hero.

But the retiree just pulled a face when asked about the worsening security situation in his country, where interim authorities have failed to establish order amid deadly fighting between rival militias.

Three years after Gadhafi's removal from power — and subsequent grisly death — Libya has slipped into anarchy, torn apart by clashes pitting nationalist fighters against Islamist-linked militants.

Thousands have been displaced nationwide, and the violence has made parts of the capital Tripoli no-go areas — the airport among them, where intense clashes have been taking place in recent days.

But in the peaceful areas of the city, the coffee trade is booming as young Libyans open new cafes and foreign businesses arrive, trying to capitalize on the post-Gadhafi era.

'Best coffee in town'

At a coffee shop on a main thoroughfare, a sign proclaims “The best coffee in town.” The cafe is open 24 hours a day so Libyans can enjoy their fix around the clock.

Until the Italians arrived, the inhabitants of Libya were known as tea drinkers. Now coffee is an integral part of their everyday lives.

Gadhafi, whose reign began in 1969, did not welcome investment from abroad, but since his fall a large Italian coffee company has opened three cafes in Tripoli.

“It's exceptional,” said the director Rashid, a Moroccan who quit working for a coffee company in Dubai before deciding to try his luck in Libya.

“Our customers come back every day,” he enthused at the cafe, where every table was full and women were present — a rare sight in the country's male-dominated society.

Mohammed — a thirty-something — owns the “Adreyan Cafe,” a small place on the waterfront which he says offers high-end coffee.

“I choose coffee with the utmost care,” he said proudly, pointing to the golden bags of a famous Italian brand.

Pizza, Libyan-style

Residents of Tripoli, it seems, also can't get enough of one of Italy's famous other exports — pizza. But rather than seeking the pure Italian taste, many pizzerias adapt their recipes to suit local preferences, often avoiding particularly strong sauces.

At “Il Forno” and a handful of other pizzerias, however, they try to stick as close as possible to traditional Neapolitan wood-fired pizza, although procuring good cheese can be a problem.

“My kids want it every day,” said one Libyan, surrounded by his three children, all tucking into pizza at the restaurant in the city center.

Ahmed, a pizza chef, said young people made up the majority of the clientele. Customers chatted and ate, seeming a million miles away from the gunfire tearing apart the south of Tripoli, where the airport is located.

Libyans' love of espresso, pizza and pasta, which they are also big consumers of, underline their ties with Italy.

But so does something else. Despite the dire security situation, Rome is one of the few Western countries still to have a diplomatic presence in Tripoli.

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An employee serves a pizza at a cafe in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Thursday, Aug. 21.

(AFP)

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