BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Browsing through the racks of printed T-shirts and scarves, a handful of shoppers inspect the latest designs in what has become one of the most popular clothing stores in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
One of them, Ali, a student, holds up a T-shirt printed with a popular Libyan expression “Grab what is new before it becomes old”, one of the many catchphrases that adorn the designs in Boza, a small shop in an upmarket neighborhood.
“I always bought clothes with English writing on them but now for the first time, I am buying a T-shirt with Arabic print,” he said. “I am so happy.”
Ali is one of the hundreds of Libyans who have flocked to Boza since it opened a few months ago, eager to get their hands on designs that have become a talking point among the youth in Benghazi’s popular coffee shops.
Its name meaning “stylish”, the store - the first of its kind in Libya according to its owners - sells T-shirts, bags, head and neck scarves printed with “Made in Libya”, “Walk like a Libyan” or a jumble of letters spelling out Benghazi.
Some T-shirts are printed with “I love Cyrenaica”, referring to Libya’s eastern province where calls for more regional autonomy have heightened since Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011.
Benghazi was the cradle of the Libyan revolt and discontent has mounted over continued neglect from Tripoli. Easterners say their oil-rich region was starved of cash under Gaddafi.
Other colorful T-shirts carry portraits of King Idris, whom Gaddafi ousted in his 1969 coup.
“Our designs have political messages, it is difficult to separate daily life from politics,” Ahmed Benmussa, a 32-year old oil engineer and Boza co-owner, said.
“We take inspiration from Libyan heritage because we have a rich culture. Reviving history is one of our aims.”
Some of the T-shirts tackle the serious issues plaguing post-war Libya - the mass of weapons on its streets and the armed militias which have hobbled governance.
“Better the devil you know” reads the message on one T-shirt accompanied by the drawing of a knife.
“Some of the messages are critical, perhaps in a more humorous way,” Benmussa said. “This is how we express ourselves, unlike those who actually use weapons.”
The shop itself is a mix between old and new. An old record player lies idle in the middle of the store while a large television screen beams Boza’s latest designs.
Importing blank T-shirts and scarves from Turkey, its designers use a small printing machine to decorate the clothes and accessories. Customers can also personalize goods or propose new designs on a “suggestion wall” in the store.
Boza’s T-shirts, which sell for around 50 Libyan dinars ($40), are popular among Benghazi’s youth who say the designs allow them to express themselves - a still relatively new freedom after Gaddafi’s 42-year iron-fisted rule.
“This is a great way in which you can express yourself in a modern and fashionable manner,” Alaa al-Baba, a 24-year old engineer, said. “It would be great if everybody could do that.”
Boza’s owners use social media site Facebook to promote the store, both at home and abroad, posting pictures of the owners’ friends wearing designs around town like professional models.
“We have sent T-shirts to customers in Saudi Arabia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, United States, Qatar, Ireland, France, Egypt and Spain,” Benmussa said.
Capitalizing on Boza’s success in Benghazi, plans are now under way to open a branch in the capital.
“There will be a Boza in Tripoli in coming days,” he said.
Writing by Ghaith Shennib and Marie-Louise Gumuchian