Libyans’ new love affair with ice cream

By Rana Jawad
BBC News, Tripoli


Since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libyans have begun a love affair with ice cream.

It is often said that to taste real gelato, one needs to go to Italy; but now its former colony Libya may well be en route to becoming another ice cream haven.

Never before has the decadent Italian influence on Libya been more visible.

Before the revolution, there were only a handful of ice cream shops, known as gelaterias, in the capital, Tripoli.

Since the uprising, gelato shops have been opening up in almost every busy street - with names such as Buenissimo, Limona and GilatiItalia.

"There's a market for it here… Libyans are proud of things like this because we didn't have it before," says Hussein Bannour, the owner of Buenissimo.

He says he fell in love with the idea and craft of making gelato when he lived in Italy for two years.

His younger brother is the artisan in the shop.

"He likes creating flavours. We specialise in the chocolate ones like Snickers, Baci, Nutella."

Nutella is apparently his biggest hit.

image captionBaklava flavour is a new creation for sale at Ruweida al-Rayes' shop

Across town in the upmarket residential and commercial district of Gergaresh, another ice cream shop, GilatiItalia, has just opened its doors.

Framed pictures of Italy's iconic monuments decorate the bright yellow-painted walls and there are three red tables and colourful stools to match.

For owner Ruweida al-Rayes launching her second ice cream shop in winter has not been a problem - a throng of young and old quickly lined up for a taste minutes after the opening.

"It matches the weather - but we still have sun," one customer enthused, looking at the dizzying range of 36 mounds of gelato on display.

Children squealed with delight as they dug into the soft ice cream. "I love it!" one seven year old said.

Ms Rayes' husband is behind these creations - from a new baklava flavour with notes of honey and crumbled pastry in the mix to a minty After Eight.

"After the revolution, many guys wanted to open up Libya - the new Libya - with new shops and new cafes," Ms Rayes says.

And with many Libyans loving to travel to Italy, they have brought back ideas for businesses such as pizza restaurants, coffee shops and ice cream parlours, she says.

Popular jingle

Ice cream vans are also a feature of Tripoli with a few being spotted around the city since the summer.

There are a couple of glossy, red, imported vans, complete with famous Pixar characters plastered on them, serving soft ice cream with colourful syrups.

The unmistakable cheery jingles are also popular with locals who have been marvelling at such business ventures.

image captionIt was hard to get a street trading licence under Gaddafi's rule

Local entrepreneur Mohamed Ghoulam's van is more of a home-made affair with colourful images of sweet treats stickered to the vehicle.

He spotted the business opportunity on a visit to Tunisia and on his return, transformed what was once a taxi into an ice-cream van.

"I bought this van, ripped out the seats, bought an ice cream machine, a fridge and a generator," he says.

He has even hired a chatty Tunisian vendor, though the incongruous tune Just the Way You Are by US musician Bruno Mars blares out from the rickety radio - not conventional jingles.

Failing to find a device loaded with jingles in Libya and other accessories like a large plastic cone to top the van, Mr Ghoulam has turned to friends for help.

"The Italians wouldn't give me a visa… I asked my friends travelling there and to Malta to search for me."

image captionMany Libyans have a sweet tooth

If all else fails, he will find a jingle on the internet and connect a CD player to a big speaker to play it, he says.

But he says all this would not have been possible before the uprising - and it is proving profitable.

"It was almost impossible to get a circulation [street trading] licence before. They would have confiscated the van from me - it's easier now," Mr Ghoulam says.

"I'm working on another van that will hopefully be more luxurious than this one. This took me three months because I had no experience.

"The second one won't - I'll finish it in a month."

And all the ice cream entrepreneurs agree the secret to their success and the craze for other Italian eateries is Libyans' love of food.

"Libyans like to eat. It is the most important thing here - eat, eat, eat, eat - especially sweets," says Ms Rayes, collapsing into laughter.

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