June 28, 2004

No Visa

We did not get our visas for Libya.

My contact at the Libyan embassy told me as much over the phone Friday. They needed a few more weeks. So the fact that they didn’t pull it together in the last minute was expected.

That was about all I expected. I had never been inside an embassy before, let alone the embassy for an erstwhile enemy police state. I would have been surprised if goats were hanging from the ceiling, but not by much else.

The Libyan embassy is in Suite 1000 of a modern glass office tower. So I found the right building, went inside the elevator, and pushed 10. The doors opened up to a darkened hallway and a small waiting area next to a well-lit room shielded with bullet-proof glass and a little window for passing documents through. On the wall in big flaming back-lit letters, first in English, then in Arabic: People’s Bureau of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahariya. This must be the place.

Two women worked behind the desk. The older one wore a blue head covering, and a younger 30-something woman did not.

“Hi,” I said. “My name is Michael Totten. My wife and I applied for tourist visas and I need to pick up our passports.” The woman with the head covering recognized my name. She was Rena, my phone contact.

She knew why I was there and what I needed, to my relief. I had a whole backup contingency plan in case, for whatever crazy reason, the embassy wouldn’t hand over our passports. (Trust me. You would worry about this, too, if you spent the past four months submerged in Libyan bureaucracy.)

She sat me down in the little waiting room. Another woman with a thick Arabic accent (and, a bit to my surprise, blue eyes and red hair) served me coffee in a little cup on a dainty china saucer. She insisted on putting the cream in my coffee for me, then she insisted on stirring the coffee for me, too. After the cream turned the coffee color to caramel she asked "Is that good enough for you?" She seemed to me one of the world’s sweetest people. Over her left shoulder was a framed photo of a fist-pumping Moammar Ghaddafi.

While I waited, a 50-something man in a power suit strutted out of the elevator and barged through the security door like he owned the place. He must be the boss, I thought. Then another man did the same thing, followed by several others. None of them smiled at me, but one did say “Good morning.” One was a dead-ringer for Saddam Hussein, moustache and all.

A young black man about my age stepped out of the elevator and walked up to the reception window. He spoke in Arabic and – hey – I even understood some of it.

“As-salaam ahlaykum. Ureed blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, lau samaht.” Which means (translation obviously mine): “Peace be upon you. I’d like blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, please.”

So, okay. My knowledge of Arabic isn’t comprehensive just yet. I have no idea what the man wanted. But a month ago I wouldn’t have understood even that much. All of it would have been blah blah blah. When I’m just starting to learn a new language, it’s satisfying when I can understand even a fragment. It gives me confidence I can eventually pick up the rest of it.

Rena came out and handed me our two passports. There were no visas stamped inside, but there was 160 dollars in cash – our application fees. They could have kept the money and I would not have complained.

I don’t blame the folks in the embasssy for not getting this finished on time. They can’t issue visas without a green light from Tripoli. They did what they could within the confines of the leviathan.

I can’t say I got a good vibe from the Libyan men in the embassy. I was furniture to them, and so were the women. But the Libyan women were wonderful and they left me with a good feeling. We're determined to reapply for visas the minute we get back from Tunisia. We’ll get them next time, Inshallah.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 28, 2004 08:58 AM

Although it was 14 years ago, I applied for my Libyan visa in Tunisia (in Sousse I think) and it only took two days. I had to have my passport translated into Arabic first and pay some small fee. You may want to try that when you are there, or at least ask about it with other travellers.

I was going to do an overland trip to Egypt through Libya but at the last minute I flew instead so I never saw the country, just the outside of the embassy.

Posted by: John at June 28, 2004 10:10 AM

In my experience it's next-to-impossible to guess anything about the character of a given country and its people by the style and personalities of the employees in an embassy or consulate or anything like that. I'm basing this only on my experiences with two countries: Brazil and South Korea, but in both cases I formed certain impressions (mostly negative) about what the people there would be like based on these kind of contacts and they turned out to be almost entirely wrong, though that certainly might not hold in this case.

My guess is that this is because the people who work in these kind of places are utterly atypical of the people in the country, i.e. they're bureaucrats (a sort of universally annoying type that exists in every country) and they live overseas. I'm sure that the Americans who work in these places probably aren't that pleasant either.

Posted by: Eric Deamer at June 28, 2004 10:34 AM

Oh man, bummer. And you had to fly to Ottawa to find this out? That sucks.

Entertaining blog post about it, though, so all was not in vain. And if you stick around for the election results, Ottawa is the place to be.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at June 28, 2004 10:43 AM

D+UG: Oh man, bummer. And you had to fly to Ottawa to find this out? That sucks.

The real reason I flew to Ottawa was to get our passports back in my hand. I did not trust them to mail them back to me on time, and if they screwed up our entire trip, which is paid for in advance, would have been cancelled. I just could not entrust the fate of our entire trip to the Libyan government. I am a bit bummed, but at the same time I am very relieved to have our passports back. We fly to Rome in two days.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 28, 2004 11:25 AM

Eric: I'm sure that the Americans who work in these places probably aren't that pleasant either.

I've heard that, but I haven't experienced it myself.

I have, however, had some negative experiences with Canadian border people. One time when entering BC by car I was told to pull over to the side. The border police took every single last thing out of my car and stacked it on the pavement. I asked, why me? One of them said "because it makes a powerful impression on the people in the line behind you."

I once drove from Michigan into Ontario in the middle of the night and was interviewed by five separate people asking me the same inane questions over and over again. It took two hours. There was no one behind me to make an impression on. That time was all about me. They made me feel like a criminal for no apparent reason, and they were extremely rude about it, as though they were offended that I wanted to enter Canada. I think it goes without saying that most Canadians are a lot nicer than those people. Since I'm writing this from inside Canada, I'm quite sure of it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 28, 2004 11:33 AM

>>>"She sat me down in the little waiting room. Another woman with a thick Arabic accent (and, a bit to my surprise, blue eyes and red hair)."

Crusader blood no doubt.

Posted by: David at June 28, 2004 11:46 AM


post something on the early handover. That should provide some grist for the mill while your travelling.

Posted by: David at June 28, 2004 12:02 PM

Red Hair? in Libya? Could be anything. Italian, Roman, Vandal, German, British, American etc etc etc....

Posted by: eric blair at June 28, 2004 12:50 PM

I though Mo G. was going to change it to "People's Bureau of the People's Great People's Socialist People's Libyan People's African People's Jamahariya."

Posted by: Bob71 at June 28, 2004 12:54 PM

Michael - re: the border thing.

After 9/11, the policing of the Canadian border became quite an issue, despite the fact that terrorists entering the US via the US/Canada border are let in by US Customs Officials, not by Canadian ones.

We're also trying to keep certain guns out of Canada. You'de be amazed at the number of Americans that try to bring guns in.

Despite that, there's no reason they can't be nice about it. I'm sorry to hear that they aren't. Sometimes slapping a uniform on someone gives them attitude.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at June 28, 2004 12:55 PM

Michael -

You were treated with remarkable courtesy by the lady; you didn't mention it, but was your coffee slopped over the edge of the cup, ever so slightly, into the saucer?

If so, that would have been an even more concrete gesture of respect.

You must remember that times like this are very unnerving for the apartchiks of dictators. Working for a whack like Khadaffi is bad enough...but making nice with civilization carries the possibility he might have to cough up some underlings in the course of his transformation from thug to Respected World Leader.

Those males you saw all jump every time the phone rings or another email arrives. Count on it.

Have a fine one, and best of luck in your travels.

Posted by: TmjUtah at June 28, 2004 02:40 PM


"Crusader blood no doubt".

Maybe, maybe not. If I remember my history correctly some 200,000 Asding Vandals crossed into Africa in 428, and some of them settled in what is now Libya. True the Crusaders did a lot of nasty things, however I don't think they ever went to Libya (it isn't the holy land). Just ask a Berber what they think of the Arab conquests in the 8th Century and the following 1200 to 1300 years of cultural colonialism.

Posted by: Richard O at June 28, 2004 07:18 PM

When I was in college I met a guy from Saudi Arabia who had red hair and green eyes. Being curious I asked him about this and his only answer was that his family was originally from Turkey.

Regarding embassies I have nothing but praise for the one U.S. embassy I had to visit on several occassions in Bangkok where I was staying at the time. All the staff were very professional, helpful and friendly. My wife, who is a Thai national and had to deal with the staff there while applying for a U.S. visa, was also very impressed with the overall experience.

Regarding crossing the Canadian border I've done this a few times and ran the gamut of experiences (these were all pre-9/11). I've been pulled to the side and searched, always asked if I was carrying any weapons, and other times simply been allowed to pass with just cursory questioning. I never take any of it personally. They're just doing their job.

Posted by: MB at June 28, 2004 07:58 PM

That little bit about the "blah blahs" in your one-month understanding of Arabic completely cracked me up, Michael. I know a handful of people who speak Arabic and from them I know it's not the easiest language to pick up. So, don't feel too bad about it. Just keep trying at it. You'll get it.

In the meantime, have fun in Rome. I envy you in the worst way. :)

Posted by: Grant McEntire at June 28, 2004 09:26 PM

That's really too bad, Michael.

I would have loved to have read a credible and interesting first-hand report about Libya so soon after full diplomatic relations were restored between us and them.

Enjoy Italy and Tunisia, though.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at June 28, 2004 09:55 PM

Have a great trip.

Posted by: Oberon at June 29, 2004 07:25 AM

Sorry, Michael. But maybe it is better not to go to Libya after all.

On a different topic, here is something you might want to look at: http://www.newsmax.com/archives/ic/2004/6/28/192038.shtml

Although it is from Newsmax, it does point to how the stem cell debate is being mischaracterized by the media.

Posted by: Jonathan at June 29, 2004 07:31 AM

The interesting thing to me was not that the visas were fouled up for whatever reasons, but the closing snapshot of the male attitudes. "Furniture" -- good insight.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at June 29, 2004 08:17 AM

One reason you see redheads living in semitic countries dates back to the dark ages when Arab and Byzantine slave traders raided north-eastern europe for slaves. The word "slave" is derived from "slav" (or vice-versa). In the Judean desert there is a village of red-headed bedouin who are supposedly descended from Byzantine Greeks.

Posted by: MarkC at June 29, 2004 10:32 AM

Sorry to hear about Libya, but I guess there's a brighter side. This gives you more time to work on your Arabic.

I've heard that people are happy if you can do a few basic greetings. Since these greetings are difficult to master (I've tried those tapes) I guess they should appreciate it...

Enjoy Italy & Tunisia!

Posted by: mary at June 29, 2004 10:40 AM

Try working it out with the Libyan embassy in Rome. Generally I've found it much easier to get a visa from a third country on the road. If nothing else, when you get to Rome, contact a travel agent and find out who they have do their visa processing and contact them directly.

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at June 29, 2004 01:34 PM

"In 1861, a man named William Lloyd was paid $200 a month by President Abraham Lincoln to infiltrate the Confederacy and provide information on the rebel army's troop movements and fortifications. The man's estate later attempted to get more money. The justices, in a case called "Totten vs. United States," decided that such "secret service" contracts cannot be reviewed by the courts. "

A Union Spy! That's why. :)

Posted by: Bleeding heart conservative at June 29, 2004 04:22 PM

BHC: A Union Spy!

Ooh, busted.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 29, 2004 08:22 PM

at least once you get it... you get it.. the U.S. gives the visa and then takes it back in five min. Inshallah it wont happen to you!! or you wont be having to wait for three years before they call you!! Inshallah you wont have to be waiting for your visa outside the u.s. embassy in the cold, freesing weather cause your baby was cring and they sent you out... inshallah you will go to Libia and have fun inshallah!!

Posted by: sabat at July 1, 2004 08:42 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member


"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere

Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com

News Feeds


Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button


Tip Jar


Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn