In The Midst Of Libya's Turmoil, New Cafes Spring Up To 'Change The Mood'

May 17, 2016
Originally published on June 7, 2016 8:25 am

In the best of times, opening a new restaurant is risky. But doing it in Libya – where political conflict and economic crisis have reigned since dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled in 2011 — takes true courage.

Yet, the ongoing instability in Libya is exactly why Abdelmuttaleb Twigiri has set up shop in the capital city of Tripoli. In April, he opened his Toucan restaurant, which he calls a "piece of heaven" with stunning views of the Mediterranean. Diners are surrounded by greenery and look out at date palms planted to replace a wall built by Gadhafi's sons to block access to the beach. The menu offers a mix of Italian and Lebanese dishes.

Twigiri says people need places like his "to change the mood, the way of life. People want to go out. They want to dress up, they need to live," he tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.

His eatery is one of several that have recently sprung up in Libya's capital along a nine-mile stretch of road that links multiple neighborhoods. It's a bid for a bit of normalcy among the chaotic backdrop of violence and political volatility.

"Logically, it's not the right time to invest," Twigiri acknowledges. "But when we invest as business people, we don't invest just for ourselves. ... I will buy from the butcher, I will buy vegetables. At least 30 families will live from this business."

Twigiri tried to start a Greek restaurant in 2009, but 10 days before it opened, "Gadhafi, they took it from me, so I fight. ... And seven years later, I open another one and I make my dream to open a restaurant in front of the sea. And I made it."

Since April, a UN-backed unity government has been gradually trying to assume control over Libya, after a rival administration dissolved itself amid years of factional fighting. New entrepreneurs are hoping the unity government can diffuse some of the chaos, particularly as more extremists groups – including the Islamic State – seek haven in Libya.

"I'm trying to give people a place where they sit and enjoy," says Twigiri, who admits that not all of his customers are happy because "they're afraid." But, he says, "I told them, we don't have to wait. We can't know how long we will live."

Favorite dishes include spaghetti with seafood, and penne alfredo with cream, chicken and mushroom. And, of course, many customers enjoy a good cup of strong Italian coffee.

Twigiri is generally optimistic, but unsure, about the future of his country. "I do not think it will get worse," he says, "but it's not going to be finished soon. The Gadhafi regime was 42 years — it's a generation, you know. So it needs time to change."

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Clearly, Libya is not the most obvious place to open a new restaurant, which did not stop Abdelmuttaleb Twigiri. Last month, he opened the restaurant Toucan. Throughout the troubles following the overthrow of Gadhafi, Twigiri did manage to keep open his first restaurant in Tripoli. But he always yearned for a place with a view of the Mediterranean.

ABDELMUTTALEB TWIGIRI: I already tried to open a restaurant in 2009, by the sea. And 10 days before I opened, they took it from me. Gadhafi, he sent some people. They took it from me, and after around seven years, I opened the other one. I make my dream to have a restaurant front of the sea.

MONTAGNE: For Twigiri, the instability in Libya is precisely why it was time to set up shop again.

TWIGIRI: We can't wait for things to be good to live our lives. So I'm trying to give people a place where they sit and enjoy it. And they don't have to think about how much they will spend in the place. They need it for change - change the mood, you know? The way of life - people, they want to go out. They want to dress up. They need to - to leave. That's it. I mean, this is the point.

MONTAGNE: Yes, I'm looking at your restaurant on the web. And, in fact, if you're talking about people being able to relax, there's a beautiful view, it looks like, of the Mediterranean.

TWIGIRI: Yeah. And we offer Mediterranean cuisine. A mixture of Italian and Lebanese dishes. And so with the sea views, and I made the decoration full of plants. You sit between the plants and front of the sea, it's a piece in heaven.

MONTAGNE: It does look that way. Tell us about one of your favorite dishes.

TWIGIRI: Spaghetti with seafood. This is the most, I think, we serve. And the other one is penne Alfredo. So with the cream, and chicken, and mushroom.

MONTAGNE: And there's a dessert that - that I'm looking at, a photograph of a dessert, and it's...

TWIGIRI: Yeah. We made a volcano - Toucan volcano. It's a - a kind chocolate bowl filled ice cream and some fruit. And we serve it with a hot coffee or caramel. I can't offer you one because it's so far from me, so I - but if you taste it, I'm sure you will love it.

MONTAGNE: I'm telling you, I'm savoring it with my eyes. It just looks that good.

TWIGIRI: Thank you. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: What have your customers been saying to you as they've started coming to it?

TWIGIRI: They're really thankful. I can't say all of them, they are happy. Some of them, they ask me, it's not the right time to invest because they're afraid. But I told them it's - we don't have to wait. We can't know how long we will live, so we have to live our life.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

TWIGIRI: You're welcome. You're welcome. And I hope to see you here in my restaurant one day.

MONTAGNE: I hope to be there one day.

TWIGIRI: You are welcome anytime. You will be my guest.

MONTAGNE: All right. Looking forward to that. That was Abdelmuttaleb Twigiri. His restaurant Toucan opened last month on the shores of Tripoli, Libya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.