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Tripoli's Lone Chinese Restaurant Still Delivers

Jun 30, 2011
Originally published on August 1, 2011 9:00 am

Most foreigners fled Libya earlier this year when a popular uprising to oust Moammar Gadhafi turned into a brutal war. But in Tripoli, one Chinese family that runs a restaurant is trying to hang on.

Few people come to al Maida Chinese restaurant, which once counted Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, among its customers. NATO airstrikes and gun-toting thugs make eating out an unsavory prospect for most people still in the capital.

The exceptions are foreign journalists seeking an escape from the lackluster cuisine of the hotel they are restricted to by the Libyan government.

It takes a week of nudging Libyan officials for NPR and The Washington Post to get permission to go to al Maida. A government minder and driver are assigned to tag along.

They aren't keen on Chinese food or the pop music playing in the restaurant. So after a quick look around to make sure the reporters aren't secretly meeting anyone for an interview, they head back to the van.

Restaurant owner Dai Songxian beams as her son jots down the reporters' orders. One or two customers are all she can count on these days. The 55-year-old is proud of her waterfront restaurant, which is decorated with red lanterns. A statue of the Chinese god of wealth and fortune and a much larger picture of Gadhafi adorn the front hall.

She says she first came to Tripoli in 2004 to open a clothing store for women.

"But we discovered that Libyan women were very fat," she says. "So we changed to the restaurant business."

Her dishes reflect the cuisine of her native Zhejiang province along China's eastern coast. She serves no pork or alcohol in keeping with Libya's Islamic laws.

Dai had high hopes for this place, which she says her family spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on to rent and renovate earlier this year. A month later, the war broke out.

"If I left, I would lose everything I have here. So I gritted my teeth and decided to wait and see what would happen," she said. "I didn't know it would drag on for so long. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were over in a couple of months."

The three other Chinese restaurants in Tripoli have since closed. Even Dai's spotless kitchen is shuttered until the journalists call.

The food is surprisingly good, considering ingredients are hard to come by with a growing food and fuel shortage in Libya.

Their delivery truck is out of gas. So Dai's son, Alex, delivers take-out orders by taxi to the journalists. It's a long trip through the many security checkpoints. The 21-year-old says the police stop him and ask him the same question every time.

"'Where are you from?' I say 'China' and they say, "OK, China. Go!" he says.

One of the restaurant's fans is Wang Yuguo, a correspondent for China Central Television who is on assignment in Tripoli.

"Comparing with the food in China, I think it's in the middle, but upper, a little bit upper, so ... I'm satisfied," he says.

Wang notes that Chinese people often operate restaurants in war zones. He says the owner of the Golden Key Chinese restaurant in Kabul told him it's because he can make a lot of money when there is no competition.

But Dai says she doesn't know how much longer she can hold on if business doesn't pick up. She says she's already had to let six of her 15 staff members go.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to Libya where the war has affected every part of life. Libya was a country where many foreigners came to work; from American engineers to North Korean doctors, to Egyptian laborers. Most foreigners have fled Libya, if they can. But one Chinese family is trying to hang on. They run a restaurant in Tripoli. They once served Moammar Gadhafis son, Seif al-Islam.

Today, NATO air strikes and gun-toting thugs tend to cut down on the number of people eating out.

NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson sent us this item from her reporter's notebook.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It takes a week of nudging Libyan officials for NPR and The Washington Post to get permission to go to Al-Maida Restaurant. A government minder and driver are assigned to tag along.

(Soundbite of music)

NELSON: They arent keen on Chinese food or the Asian pop music playing in the restaurant, so after a quick look around to make sure we arent secretly meeting anyone for an interview, they head back to the van.

Washington Post reporter Ernesto Londono orders carry-out for a couple of hungry colleagues stuck back at the Rixos Hotel.

Mr. ERNETO LONDONO (Reporter, The Washington Post): So one sweet and sour.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Mr. LONDONO: One cashew chicken.

Unidentified Man: Yes

Mr. LONDONO: Can it be spicy?

Unidentified Man: Yes, spicy.

Mr. LONDONO: Okay. And steamed rice

Unidentified Man: Steamed rice.

Mr. LONDONO: and spring rolls.

Unidentified Man: Sorry. Excuse me. How many, please? How many, please?

Mr. LONDONO: Two people.

NELSON: Restaurant owner Dai Songxian beams as her son jots down the order. One or two customers are all she can count on these days. They're usually journalists seeking to escape the lackluster cuisine of the hotel they are confined to by the Libyan government.

(Soundbite of conversations)

NELSON: Dai is proud of her waterfront restaurant, which is decorated with red lanterns. A statue of the Chinese god of wealth and fortune, and a much larger picture of Moammar Gadhafi adorn the front hall.

Ms. DAI SONGXIAN (Owner, Al-Maida Restaurant): (Chinese language spoken)

NELSON: The 55-year-old says she first came to Tripoli in 2004 to open a clothing store for women. But she says she found Libyan women too big for Chinese fashions, so she decided to go into the restaurant business.

Her dishes reflect the cuisine of her native Zhejiang Province along China's eastern coast. She serves no pork or alcohol in keeping with Libyas Islamic laws.

Dai had high hopes for this place. Her family spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent and renovate it earlier this year. A month later, the war broke out.

Ms. SONGXIAN: (Through Translator) If I left, I would lose everything I have here. So I gritted my teeth and decided to wait and see what would happen. I didnt know it would drag on for so long. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were over in a couple of months.

NELSON: Three other Chinese restaurants in Tripoli have since closed. Even Dais spotless kitchen is shuttered until the journalists call. Then the cooks spring into action.

(Soundbite of kitchen preparations)

NELSON: The food is surprisingly good, considering that ingredients are hard to come by with a growing food and fuel shortage in Libya.

One of the restaurants fans is Wang Yuguo, a correspondent for China Central Television, who is on assignment in Tripoli.

Mr. WANG YUGUO (Correspondent, China Central Television): Comparing with the food in China, I think its in the middle but upper - a little bit upper. So Im very interested and satisfied.

NELSON: Wang notes that Chinese people often operate in restaurants in war zones. He says the owner of the Golden Key Chinese Restaurant in Kabul told him its because he can make a lot of money when there is no competition.

Ms. SONGXIAN: (Chinese language spoken)

NELSON: Still, Tripoli restaurant owner Dai says she doesnt know how much longer she can hold on if business doesnt pick up. She says shes already had to lay off six of her 15 staff members.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.