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Brazzil - Impressions - August 2003

Dreaming of Rio, in Tripoli

We have warmed to one another. I now feel it is the moment
to reach into my bag and take out a very special object. It is
my mata-saudade that goes with me whenever I'm away from
Brazil. He cannot control his joy as he ambles once
again through the Rio of 30 years ago, a city he knew so well.

David Alexander Robert


Yesterday I was completely stuck for a story for this column. Right now I'm being introduced to a Brazilian soccer star by the Brazilian Ambassador for Libya. I think there might be something here.

This one needs a bit of explaining. I've been in Tripoli for a couple of months doing a bit of teacher training. It's been getting progressively harder to write thoughtful pieces on Brazil as the smell of pão de queijo wafts away from my senses, and visions of dental floss bikinis get covered in ankle-length gowns and headscarves.

I'm desperado. So I get thinking that I could do a piece on the Brazilian community in Tripoli. A call to the personal assistant to the Ambassador informs me that there is no community to speak of. So I leave details of my journalistic credentials ("haven't you ever heard of The Umbrella?) and request an interview with the Ambassador. To my surprise he's on the phone the very next day to invite me to lunch.

At precisely the arranged time (is this guy really Brazilian?) a big, dark blue car with leather upholstery pulls up in front of my hotel. I am ushered into the plush upholstery by the French speaking chauffeur where I am greeted by what I can only describe as Brazil's answer to Orson Wells. The result of the dangerous combination a Brazilian's love of food and years of those exquisite diplomatic dinners. We exchange a few pleasantries, in English as not surprisingly the guy is fluent. He is a Carioca who has lived in all the classic bairros; Flamengo, Copacabana, Botafogo, Ipanema…

I tell him I consider Rio to be my home and pass him the April copy of The Umbrella, trying to explain why an Englishman wants to write an article about Brazilians in Tripoli for a publication in Rio. He flicks through the colourless pages, noticeably salivating on seeing the ads for the Natraj and Nam Thai restaurants. He stops at the sight of my photo, beneath the title "Só Para Inglês Ver?" and chuckles the name of the story under his breath: "Carioquinha da Gema." I hope the ice has been suitably broken.

He takes me to lunch at The Corinthia Towers, a new hotel in Tripoli. It is a huge, textureless, curved block that looms over the multilayered, intricate medina, the old city. Nonetheless it is the pride of the Libyan establishment; a testament to the good relations between Libyan and Maltese property developers.

Rumour has it that when the hotel opened last month, Colonel Gaddafi swaned in, liked what he saw and ordered them to change the name of the hotel to The Gateway to Africa. He also got them to put aside a suite for his exclusive use. We go to the Italian restaurant and Ambassador Joaquim Palmeira proceeds to tell me about the Brazilian community, or the lack of.

It consists of a small embassy staff, a couple of guys working in oil in the dessert, and a selection of Brasileiras married to Libyans, one to an Italian and one to a German who works for Mercedes Benz. The most interesting Brazilian is a football player who plays for the league winning team, Tehad. "Can you put me in touch with him?" "Unlikely, he keeps a very low profile."

The community used to be much larger, in the days of Petrobras, but the embargos put an end to all that. He tells me that since the embargos were lifted at the beginning of the nineties, Brazil has looked to Libya again. No new companies have come, but there are "interests." He is reluctant to reveal anything more about these "interests"; when pressed he tells me that Brazil exports anything, though mainly sugar, coffee and iron ore. It buys oil, now Libya is a member of OPEC. He seems uncomfortable talking business, so I ask him if the community is active in a cultural or social sense. He laughs: "No, we're not like you British."

Our pizzas arrive, so I put down my pad and pencil. I am at a loss to how to proceed with this interview. He doesn't want to talk business, and can't talk politics; the interview is supposed to be about the Brazilian community, but my hopes of samba dancing, caipirinha swigging, feijoada stirring nights have been dashed. So we sit in silence and chew on our respective crusts. He asks me a few questions about myself; I answer and show a similar interest in him.

And all of sudden we get chatting. Both grandfather and father diplomats, he's been in the diplomatic service for 40 years. Went to boarding school in Bristol. He's worked all around the world. Married with two grown-up kids who live in Brazil. Hasn't got any grandchildren yet, but would like some. He's been in Tripoli for three years and likes playing golf at The Tripoli Diplomatic Golf Club. He meets a lot of Scots there. He's also a member of the British run Archaeological Society. His passion is cruising around on his huge, old BMW motorbike with sidecar.

We have warmed to one another. We share travel stories in Brazil and talk about our favourite lugarzinhos in Rio, like the Cariocas we are. I now feel it is the moment to reach into my bag and take out a very special object. It is my mata-saudade (longing-killer) that goes with me whenever I'm away from Brazil. It's a small, red, plastic television that you hold up to your eye as you click through seventies postcards of the sights of Rio. He cannot control his joy as he ambles once again through the Rio of 30 years ago, a city he knew so well.

"Maracanã, Corcovado, the bondinho, the ponte to Niterói, praia do Flamengo. Wow, these pictures are old." He lingers in silence upon the final picture. He hands it back and thanks me. I am curious to know what grabbed his attention for so long, so I have a peek. It's a picture of Copacabana beach full of bronzed, bikinied bodies. Not quite the bikinis of today, but a far cry from the fully-dressed bathers of Libya. Having stared at the scene myself, we relish a moment of shared silence, a carioca moment to matar saudade.

Joaquim asks for the bill, but the groveling, Maltese restaurant manager tells him it's on the house. Joaquim won't have it, they never let him pay and this time he wants to.

"They must like you here," I comment.

"No, they hate me. That's why they try to buy me. But I can't be bought for the price of a couple of pizzas."

As we are leaving, a tall, dark man greets Joaquim in Portuguese. We are introduced. He's Fabrício, the Brazilian football player, who invites me for a coffee. I notice that Fabrício calls him "Your Excellency," and it dawns upon me that everyone has been addressing him by his title. Except for me. Perhaps my unintentional error has been working in my favour. As he slides into the squeaky upholstery of his car, he gets my hopes up:

"Perhaps I'll get all the Brazilians together for a feijoada and a few caipirinhas in your honour."

Perhaps I'll get the Brazilian story I was looking for after all.


David Alexander Robert is a freelance writer and English Language Consultant who's been living in Brazil for over five years. He can be contacted on davealexrob@yahoo.com




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