The Libyan capital once boasted grand movie houses that packed in smartly dressed couples for a special night out, but how times have changed.
Today, the sole major cinema left in Tripoli is a men-only zone stripped of glamour, offering a diet of violence-packed films and blunt warnings that women are not welcome.
And the city’s old epithet, “Mermaid of the Mediterranean”, jars sharply with what has become a mainly Islamist-run capital of a country plagued by conflict and political chaos.
The rot started even before the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi, and has since seen movie houses bolt their doors one after the other.
Today’s lone silver screen is the Omar al-Khayyam, where a sign tells women to stay away: “Access is formally banned because there are people who indulge in acts contrary to customs and religion.”
Films full of blood and violence like “Scarface” and “Die Hard” pass muster with the militias that have controlled the city since August 2014, driving Libya’s elected parliament and internationally recognised government to take refuge in the far east of the country.
It was not always so, Tripoli residents insist, recalling the city’s former cultural diversity.
In the pre-Kadhafi glory days for cinema-goers, there were no less than 20 movie theatres — and some live on in the memory of locals.
‘Elegant and majestic’
“In the 1960s, we used to live near the Arena Giardino (outdoor cinema) and all I had to do was lean on the window on the second floor to watch the films,” said Abdelmonem Sbeta, a geologist and active member of a post-Kadhafi civil society group.
“Cinema was the reward at the end of the week, but we all had to get dressed to the hilt. That was the rule for everyone, for Muslim and Jewish Libyans, Italians, Europeans and Americans.”
“My best memories of cinemas in Tripoli go back to 1974 when my parents took me to watch ‘The Tamarind Seed’ (a British-US film with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif).
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a beautiful theatre, not even in Europe,” said Karima Leguel, an Anglo-Libyan who was an impressionable nine-year-old at the time, now a mother-of-two.
“Everything was so elegant and majestic: the velvet seats, the decorated curtains and the precious wood-panelling.”
In 1969, the bloodless coup which overthrew Libya’s monarchy and brought Colonel Kadhafi to power swept away the old order.
Under his rule, the cinema was seen as both frivolous and superfluous. Businesses were nationalised and foreign movies were equivalent to a “cultural invasion”.
“Tripoli without cinemas was the beginning of the end for us because it was on a par with the decline of Libya,” said Leguel.
‘Bruce Lee was our hero’
The Royal cinema, renamed Al-Shaab (The People) during Kadhafi’s initial drive toward his brand of Arab nationalism in the North African state, used to stand near Martyrs’ Square in downtown Tripoli. Now it is empty, waiting to be converted into a parking lot.
“For people in the area, the cinema was all we had for distraction,” recalled Mohamed Kamel, owner of a busy local coffee shop.
“When we were children, we would wait eagerly to go see an Indian or karate movie. Bruce Lee was our hero,” he said, harking back to the days of Kadhafi’s Libya when such movies were all that were on offer — driving many to DVDs and satellite channels.
Others, like 39-year-old graphic artist Wael Garamalli, have less fond memories.
“I went to a cinema on December 24 Street in the 80s to see a karate movie. I felt so uncomfortable, it was like being locked up with a bunch of yobs. Nothing like the audiences of my parents’ time.”
But for Leguel, whatever the films on offer, “a city without cinemas is inconceivable”.
In a country whose troubles appear far from over, geologist Sbeta, meanwhile, remains optimistic.
“No one can take away this city’s joie de vivre, its elegance and its desire to move forward,” he said. “It’s part of the DNA in all of us in Tripoli.”
Kenya’s triumphant world championship athletes were given a rousing welcome home on Tuesday, with thousands of supporters and the east African nation’s leaders out in force for the homecoming.
Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was crammed with well-wishers as the team returned from Beijing, where they topped the medals table for the first time since the championships started in 1983.
Kenya garnered seven golds, six silvers and three bronze. There were also two rare individual title wins for Julius Yego in the men’s javelin and Nicholas Bett in the 400m hurdles.
“We are here to welcome our heroes who have stunned the world. You have made us proud,” said deputy president William Ruto, who led the line-up of Kenyan leaders welcoming the team. He later hosted the athletes for breakfast at his residence.
“Every village, every town and every corner of Kenya is celebrating our win and our success. We are not the biggest country in the world nor the strongest country but we are simply the best,” Ruto said.
“Kenya is not only a cradle of mankind but this is the only place where village girls and village boys, with one effort become champions.”
Kenya’s sports minister, Hassan Wario, said the team’s success was a good pointer towards next year’s Olympics, but said a lot of work still needed to be done to ensure there will be a well-rounded reprepresentation.
“This success augurs well for our preparations for Rio. The Olympics will be a different kind of ball game because the Olympics is slightly wider than the world championships,” he said.
“There is fencing and other events which we don’t do very well in. But we have shown we are number one in the world in terms of athletics and we can now improve in other things for the Olympics.”
Two new Ebola vaccine trials began on Wednesday with volunteers in Britain, France and Senegal getting “prime-boost” immunisations developed by Bavarian Nordic, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson.
The mid-stage, or Phase II, trials are designed primarily to test the vaccines’ safety, but will also assess whether they provoke an immune response against the deadly virus.
The development of the prime-boost and other vaccines was accelerated in response to vast outbreaks of Ebola in West Africa, where at least 11,200 people have died so far in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“The current Ebola outbreak has reinforced that speed of response is crucial,” said Egeruan Babatunde Imoukhuede, who is coordinating one of the trials in Senegal.
“Outbreak diseases spread quickly, so any vaccination approach must be able to keep up.”
Data from the World Health Organisation show there were 30 confirmed cases of Ebola in West Africa in the week to July 5.
In Liberia, which was declared Ebola-free in May, a sixth new case was confirmed on Tuesday in what health officials fear is a new wave of the outbreak.
While the number of Ebola cases has dropped sharply in recent months, researchers said the flare-up in Liberia underlines the need to push ahead with developing potential vaccines that may help control this and future outbreaks.
The trial of the Bavarian Nordic and J&J prime-boost combination initially aims to recruit more than 600 healthy adult volunteers in Britain and France.
Bavarian said it hoped to launch another phase of this trial in Africa later this year involving 1,200 volunteers, but other large clinical trials have recently been thwarted by the drop in case numbers.
Previously planned trials of GSK, Merck and J&J shots in West Africa have been struggling to recruit volunteers with enough exposure to Ebola to prove whether their vaccines are doing the job and preventing infection.
The second trial will be conducted in Senegal and uses two vaccines tested first in people at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and being developed in a partnership with GSK. The first, based on a chimpanzee adenovirus, is designed to stimulate, or prime, an initial immune response, while the second is designed to boost that response.
Each vaccine is based on genetically modifying safe viruses to carry just one part of the Ebola virus that will stimulate the body’s immune system. Researchers stressed that none of the shots contains any live Ebola virus.
A motorbike accident two years ago in the Cape Town suburb of Milnerton left Pascal Kassongo with a leg fracture, multiple cuts and a written-off bike, crippling his courier business.
Two weeks in hospital, followed by several more of physiotherapy and recovery, drove the father of four into near destitution.
Too weak to buy and deliver goods to clients, his opportunity to earn R300-R400 ($24.40-$32.60) a day was gone.
Originally from Uvira in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Kassongo fled the war there in 2007, and had only a few friends he could call on for help in South Africa.
One of them was a pastor who took him to Scalabrini, a centre that helps migrants settle and find an economic foothold in South Africa.
As well as receiving regular food parcels, Kassongo was recruited for the “Amandla!” Project, whose name means “power” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages.
The scheme trains unemployed people, especially migrants, to run small businesses using a solar-powered kit called Ecoboxx.
Inside the box
The Ecoboxx is a lightweight, portable power supply, charged with two solar panels, that can provide 50 hours of power. It comes with two LED lights, a USB-driven fan, hair clippers and a charging cable for cell phones and other devices.
The kit was designed for the Amandla Project, with the intention of giving entrepreneurs a tool to power their activities, said Merle Mills of Community Chest, the organisation that came up with the project.
Using the kit, an individual can make up to R1 600 per month cutting hair five days a week, or at least R1 400 by charging up to seven cell phones at once with the device, Mills added.
Community Chest CEO Lorenzo Davids said a Dutch investor had backed the Ecoboxx as a way of helping Africans access economic opportunities.
“Getting into green or solar technology is the ideal platform to ensure we give our people low-cost and sustainable resources so they can develop the economy for themselves,” Davids told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Community Chest started Amandla in January after getting funding of almost 2 million rand, on condition the kit would be made available at a nominal cost of R200 to keep people out of debt.
Davids said the Ecoboxx would help entrepreneurs in townships and rural areas “electrify” their homes, and set up businesses to generate income for their families and communities.
At first, it was targeted at individuals who find it hard to break into the mainstream economy, like African migrants and communities where small businesses lack access to electricity.
The solar device, which retails for R4 000, is manufactured by a technology company that also supplies to retail stores in South Africa.
So far, Amandla has distributed 300 kits – almost a third of the planned total – including 50 to foreign nationals.
Spreading the light
“After spending a month in Pollsmoor prison for selling pirated DVDs and CDs, I was determined to sustain myself through legal means,” said Papy Shereza, 31, a bio-chemistry dropout from a Congolese university.
After enrolling in the Amandla programme, he was given an Ecoboxx, which he uses to run his own barbershop in the community of Du Noon.
“On weekends I make good money, but during the week I have to supplement my income by selling other hair products for women,” he said.
He also charges cell phones, and in a good week, he can earn up to 1,000 rand.
In the sprawling community of Gugulethu, Janet Bete, who came to South Africa from Zimbabwe in 2007, is equally happy. Her son, 24, uses an Ecoboxx to power a family barber shop.
“In my neighbourhood there is a man who runs a spaza (tuck shop) but has no electricity, so I hire out the solar lights to him daily from 5am when he opens, to 7am when it’s no longer dark,” said Bete.
The enterprising woman, who also manages a crèche, rents out the solar lights for evening church crusades and parties too.
“Whenever there is a funeral in my community and there is no power, I donate my lights – it’s my way of paying (people) back for living well together,” she added.
In Milnerton, Kassongo has adopted a different approach.
“I don’t own a barbershop, but I hire out my kit to local South Africans who do. We share the proceeds,” he said. “It helps put something on the table.”
Joe Pereira, head of strategy for Community Chest, said the Amandla project aimed to expand its opportunities to all “deserving” South Africans.
“Being creative around renewable energy will benefit many people,” he added.