December 29, 2005

Totalitarian Tourism – Libya, at Long Last

My first person account of hanging out in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – the most oppressive country in the world after North Korea – has been published by the LA Weekly: In the Land of the Brother Leader.

I don’t know if this is the best thing I’ve ever written, but it’s certainly my favorite. Please be sure to read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 29, 2005 12:30 AM

Very good article!

Impressive even for your standards.

I didn't think it was that bad in Lybia!

Posted by: Andrew Brehm at December 29, 2005 04:06 AM

Great article! I was impressed when you told about the emptied berber city, and about the shopkeeper who opened his heart. They had a dramatic impact.

Posted by: Fabian at December 29, 2005 04:55 AM

Great article! I was impressed when you told about the emptied berber city, and about the shopkeeper who opened his heart. They had a dramatic impact.

Posted by: Fabian at December 29, 2005 04:58 AM

Stunning article. I had no idea about the conditions in Libya being so completely repressed.

Posted by: Cowgirl at December 29, 2005 05:22 AM

"...nothing to sigh at."

Very eloquent and poignant. Nice writing.

Posted by: Daniel Berczik at December 29, 2005 05:54 AM

Indeed. That article was quite captivating. When you got to the part where you were out in the desert making bread and mint tea, I got a little shiver when you talked about how libertine this was for them. You could almost sense it contrasted with the piece up to that point. When the shopkeeper started raning about Quadaffi, I got a little scared.

Our establishment politics in a liberlized country seem so superficial when their are places in the world where speaking your mind is still dangerous.

Posted by: Dustin R. Ridgeway at December 29, 2005 06:18 AM

I live in Libya in the mid 50s. My father was in the USAF and we had a large base there, Wheelus. I love the city and the people and it hurt reading your description of the “old city.” To a 10 year old kid that was one of the most fascinating places I’d ever been. The French Legionnaires were there on leave and I thought I’d wandered into a remake of Beau Geste.

We would drive across the desert to the mountains and everywhere we went the people were glad to meet us. There used to be people who lived in manmade caves that branched off from huge square holes cut into the ground. I wonder if they are still there.

The Roman ruins were always a treat and were basically empty when we use to explore them. I still have a handful of Roman coins I found sifting through the part of the city that had been a port. Does that make me a budding Indiana Jones or just a juvenile looter of antiquities?

I’d even toyed with doing the same as you had, and gone back to visit, but having read your article I suspect that dream will die an undeserved death.

Pity, it was a lovely place once maybe after he snuffs it, it will be again.

Posted by: Jim in Texas at December 29, 2005 08:19 AM

What an eye opener! My father-in-law served there with the British army until the Brother Leader took over, and he has rather rose-tinted memories of the place.

Posted by: Paul Briggs at December 29, 2005 08:33 AM

You know what's really sad? Reading this, you can see a Mediterranean paradise filled with business, money flowing freely, tourists, laughter and lots of other good things that never seem to appear with socialism. If only the right leadership was in place. Kinda like Cuba, come to think of it.

Posted by: DC at December 29, 2005 08:56 AM

Hi Michael,

You might remember me, Timur from WebTrends. Sid sent me the link to your site since my family is from Turkey. I very glad to hear that you enjoyed Istanbul -- I have always thought of it at the level of the some of the world's best. I hope you also get a chance to travel the west and south coast for some rocky coast, sun and extremely beautiful mountains and sea.

Well I'm back at WebTrends (about 6 months) t really good to be back working with my friends and the work is much beter this timne around. John left and his last day is the 31st. Things will never e the same again...

Keep up the travel articles ad have a great time.

Timur Kiykioglu
(Even hard to pronounce in Turkey!)

Posted by: Timur Kiykioglu at December 29, 2005 09:00 AM

Thanks Michael, for a great read. Came this way by Powerline, a blog who's judgement I trust. Keep up the work, we wait for your "geatest" to keep coming.

Posted by: Ray Evans at December 29, 2005 10:21 AM

Great story. Nice to have reinforced the idea that the common people everywhere are basically nice. via Powerline

Posted by: Mike at December 29, 2005 10:31 AM

Michael, when you first started your travels I requested posting more photos. However, this article didn't need any...

Posted by: cardeblu at December 29, 2005 11:13 AM

what impressed me most about this article, michael, is that you've managed to write it in such a way that the experience of reading the piece closely mimics the emotional trajectory of your trip. i guess this is how all great travel writing should be, how it aspires to be... but it just isn't. you've captured the rarest of qualities.

and it doesn't hurt that the article is full of effortlessly poignant moments, jarringly vivid descriptions, and laugh-out-loud dry humor. just brilliant!

as a side note, i hope the LA weekly might consider commissioning a somewhat more positive piece on the region from you sometime soon. angelenos may start to get the wrong idea about michael totten (though if they looked you up online, i guess they'd be straightened out rather quickly).

anyways, again, congratulations!! it was definitely worth the wait... hope you took shelly somewhere reeeeally nice to celebrate! :)

Posted by: carine at December 29, 2005 11:20 AM

Fantastic -- as I expected; but of course, so unexpected in the way brilliance is.

Your "Fish" conversation was fabulous. "I'll have the Fish" (Laurie Anderson Live, "Grits", by the guy, not Laurie? "What are they?")

On socialism, and the Dem Party "dream" of social justice, I loved your:
"They were socialist cartoons from the Soviet era, the same kinds of living museum pieces still on display in North Korea and other wonderful places where starving proles live in glorious jackbooted paradise."

I don't think Cuba's this bad, nor even Vietnam (after murdering 700 000, supported by anti-war activists). Nor would Allende have been so bad.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at December 29, 2005 12:24 PM

Two big kisses right back at those two.....and a big KISS MY ASS to Muammar.

Great article....thanks for going there and letting us know what the scoop is.

Posted by: Easycure at December 29, 2005 01:06 PM

Excellent article. Every time I read an account like this (ie. describing conditions in some 'far off' land) I am struck by two thoughts; First how incredibly fortunate (and how under appreciated) we are to enjoy the freedoms and standard of living of the United States, and second how the Internet, by making information accessible to people living in less fortunate conditions could become the great equalizer. Hopefully it will facilitate the end of some of these regimes. But that may be too much to hope for. In any case your account of Libya is a real eye-opener and it is depressing to hear that people have to endure life under those conditions.

I'm looking forward to reading more about your travels.

ps - Not that the US is any better, but doesn't it strike you as hypocritical for the freedom loving French to be doing business with such a prick?

Posted by: A Fan at December 29, 2005 03:16 PM

Very enjoyable read.
Were you being literal or facetious in your reference to Boises downtown? I was just wondering if you had any experiences here, or if it just sounded funny to say "downtown Boise" as if we were a good example of small town decay.

Posted by: John O at December 29, 2005 03:19 PM

Thank you. Very informative, vividly written. An outstanding piece.

Posted by: Tom in Burbank CA at December 29, 2005 04:32 PM


Great article on Lybia. Power Line tipped me off to it, for which I thank them greatly. Lybia sounds like a real vacation spot from hell. And I'm now a teatotaler. But for most people, the ban on alcohol alone would rule out Lybia for a vacation. Lucky you happened to run into a few nice people. After finishing the article, I thought how self-inhibiting it was for the West to have feared Quadafi so much circa 1983.

John Judge
Alameda, CA

Posted by: John Judge at December 29, 2005 06:23 PM

It is a great piece. People who have voluntarily visited Libya are very rare. It seems to have a reputation in the Middle East. My Arabic teacher, an Egyptian, didn't even like to drive near the border. She shuddered in horror and said "why?" when I mentioned that I knew someone who chose to travel there.

It's true, if you smile at strangers in New York, you won't get a positive reaction. Whenever I travel upstate, away from the city, I'm always disconcerted by people who greet me with a smile. It takes a while to get used to.

Posted by: mary at December 29, 2005 06:45 PM

Sorry , but i assure you that most of your impressions on Tripoli are wrong, probably because you stayed in the run-down areas and did not get to see the well - off and more interesting stuff , maybe due to limits in your beduget for the trip.. Just imagin Travelling to Paris or London and then writing about the slums and backs-streets instead of writing about the nice places and toursist aattractions ..

Posted by: A Libya Reply at December 29, 2005 07:34 PM

That was an interesting article. I loved the bit about the Berber city...very interesting.


Posted by: Nouri at December 29, 2005 08:50 PM

It’s George W. Bush’s fault. The Libyans are forced to live in this manner because of American imperialism. We stole all of the good stuff they owned. Also, Muammar el-Qaddafi is actually an employee of Halliburton.

Posted by: David Thomson at December 29, 2005 09:06 PM

Wow. Great article, Michael. It really is one of your best ever.

Posted by: Asher Abrams - Dreams Into Lightning at December 29, 2005 09:14 PM

The good news... This is probably the best article you've written. The bad news... it is probably a 5 on a scale of one to 10. Not enough hard hitting reporting, more like a "tourist in a place where most tourists have sense not to go" type reporting. You may be better suited to travel writing than actual journalism which really isn't that bad a gig when you get down to it.

Posted by: Graham Leach at December 29, 2005 09:52 PM

Fantastic work— forget what that Graham guy said about 5 out of 10 (though he's right to call it a travel essay rather than a newspaper article). You do in this piece what other similar essays try (and generally fail) to do: report what things are like on the ground and let politics generally sort themselves out— not that you come off as politically unaware, you just don't focus on that in this piece.. Most of the time that someone tries to write an article like that, it comes off as a hackneyed attempt to cover up obvious political biases with some emotional anecdotes and pretty sunsets, but your essay really does work in this regard: the reader sees the effects of socialism, sees what the people dealing with it think of it, sees hints of the West's implication in the system, sees te beginnings of globalization happening in its good and its bad.
And you do all this in a way that is gripping, occasionally humorous and clearly intelligent. You could say that you get beyond mere journalism and into the realm of literature (if you want to make journalism into less than it has to be).

Posted by: Drew C at December 29, 2005 10:26 PM

Hey Michael, Thanks for giving us another glimpse of the world through your eyes. I'm a fellow Portlander who has followed your travels for the last year or so, and I have appreciated the opportunity to turn my focus on places and people that would not necessarily have drawn my attention without your blogs and TCS articles. Some of what you write makes me very sad, like this look at Libya. Some captures my imagination and makes me dream of travels of my own, like your visits to Lebanon and Puerto Rico. (My husband and I are giving some real thought to the concept of a trip to Istanbul thanks to you.) Some of your writing engages me from a social perspective, some from a political prespective, and some simply inspires an appreciation of the beautiful things to be found in the world. All of what you have to say, however, makes me think, and for that I thank you. You know, I don't always agree with you politically, (being slightly to your right I would say), but I always appreciate your fairness and intellectual honesty. I hope you keep travelling and sharing your experiences. We enjoy them here in our little corner of Portland.

Posted by: Kat at December 30, 2005 12:36 AM

Thanks for all the great compliments.

Graham gets a cookie for figuring out all on his own that this is a piece of travel writing, rather than journalism. Great reading skills, Grant. Did you learn how to do that in college?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 30, 2005 12:43 AM


I was completely pulled in by your article. I felt like I was there with you experience the sights (such as they were). That doesn't often happen when I read an account such as this.

Your next assignment...North Korea. :-) Somehow I think it'll be awhile before you're allowed there. But that would be equally, if not more, fascinating.

Posted by: Megs at December 30, 2005 08:21 AM

Actually i don't want to stand up against all your lies , But i only wanted to mention that this was an old article you wrote 3 or 4 years ago. I don't know what's the point behind all of that .. Thanks

Posted by: You're lying on us at December 30, 2005 09:17 AM

Fascinating article. I found it on the Reason website. It may be thought of as mere "travel writing," but your descriptions of the people and places told us more about the politics of the place than any "hard-hitting" piece could have.

The two American-educated men whom you met as you were leaving were particularly poignant. It saddens me to think how many thousands of people like them there are in the Muslim world. They don't "hate us" at all. At least, not yet.

Posted by: Lady K at December 30, 2005 11:06 AM

Thank you for a great article. What a facinating experience this visit must have been for you. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Leach's posting directly above: I will never see Libya and I sincerely appreciate being able to experience it vicariously through your excellent article. Thank you.

Posted by: Shar at December 30, 2005 11:52 AM

"If you're going to do political writing, then interview some politicians and people in power and stop with this man on the street nonsense."

Because we all know the man in the street is politically insignficant and deserves to stay that way....

In all seriousness, articles like this return politics to the personal (or at least the local) and gives readers a feel for the reality of a situation, and not just the consensual caricature we normally see. Here's hoping you keep traveling to places wonderful, strange, horrific, and just plain sad, and keep writing.

Posted by: Mark Poling at December 30, 2005 11:57 AM

The long-standing ban on Graham has been reinstated. If he switches computers and decides to post again, please don't feed him. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 30, 2005 01:30 PM

Wasn't Hemingway a travel writer?

Posted by: Travis at December 30, 2005 09:33 PM

A great piece Michael! And much thanks for bringing
this part of the world to the rest of us in literary
form. To be honest, I hadn't read much of your
work since your coverage of the Cedar Revolution.

Having just read this piece, and viewing your coverage from Istanbul, I may have to rethink my decision not to return to Turkey after my stint at Incirlik in 1975. Istanbul certainly looks beautiful from your shots, though I don't recall it that way. Guess I'll have to go back and find out.

At any rate, thanks again for the beautifully written piece on the horribly disfigured country of Libya.

Posted by: Lee at December 30, 2005 10:27 PM

Hi Michael,

I treasured the Libya piece. I have followed your blog for some time now and am always enchanted with your writing and your ability to put me, sitting here in Austin, Texas, in exotic lands far away. I love to travel, but would not choose many of the places you go, for obvious reasons (I tend to agree with your Mom). Yet through you, I can sense the atmosphere of a very different culture. What a gift from you!

Thank you, Michael.

Posted by: Kathy from Austin at December 31, 2005 08:22 AM

Excellent article. I was always curious about Libya since the travel ban was lifted. Qaddafi seems to always be posturing politically with the international community, giving a sense of slowly growing openness, but we never really hear much about what's happening daily in Libya.

Baghdad sounds better, minus the organized terror of course.

Posted by: Shawn in Tokyo at December 31, 2005 09:54 PM


Your article on Libya sure brought back some memories. I was living in Tripoli (Wheelus) when Qaddafi took over and saw the country start to go downhill at that very moment. Most of the educated and elite were killed or managed to get out of the country. Even I was accused of being a spy (new name for amateur radio operator) and if it wasn't for my commander, Col. James, I might not have been able to get out of their 9 months later. I have to admire anyone wanting and daring to go there. Not me, never again.

That brings up a suspicion I've had about the supposed Libyan nuclear program. When I left, their top Air Force Pilot barely had a 6th grade education. Qaddafi probably less. Where did they come up a nuclear program, some of the most uneducated people in the world? The pictures shown in the news showed all their equipment crated up ready for shipping. I suspect that the equipment had already been shipped --- from Iraq, some of Iraq's non-existent WMDs. I have no proof, it's just the only answer I can think of that makes sense, knowing the Libyans as I did.

Great article. It has reinforced my suspicion


Posted by: Hey-You at December 31, 2005 10:59 PM

Excellent article, very well written. Thanks. I learned from it.

Posted by: Don Cox at January 1, 2006 04:54 AM

Loved it ! The guy at the end who let loose on Qadaffi, the "idea traveller" in the dunes, the whole feel of Tripoli and what kind of a place to live in comes from the mind and soul of a Qadaffi.

Great writing !

Posted by: tanstaafl at January 1, 2006 07:10 AM

woohoo, the comments are back :).

Posted by: Kod at January 1, 2006 12:01 PM

I'm glad to see the comments - I just wish you (or LAWeekly) had trackbacks. Best one of yours I've read yet - and that's saying a lot. Thanks.

Posted by: Kathy K at January 1, 2006 12:30 PM

Decent travel writing Mike. However, if you want to get to your ultimate goal of journalistic writing as opposed to travel writing you need to get past your fear of travelling to dangerous places. I've been to Lebanon many times and it is really quite a nice place to visit. Not a real risk from my point of view. Have you considered going to Iraq to do some reporting from there? That might be more interesting methinks.

Posted by: Jim Jones at January 1, 2006 03:12 PM

The tagline for the article was funny: "Totalitarian tourism and the search for truth... and a good meal". Did you find either one Michael? I doubt food was as good as in Lebanon though.

BTW, the picture of you under Gadaffi is funny. You look a little like that creepy Bane character in the Matrix... The one who was taken over by Agent Smith. see here:

Posted by: Sean White at January 1, 2006 03:46 PM

A thought-provoking article about Libya. Very interesting. Thank you.

Posted by: John Nichols at January 1, 2006 06:18 PM

So if you had to live in Tripoli (Libya) or in Dahyeh (and you're not allowed to go anywhere near Monot, Gemmayzeh, or anywhere near the surrounding mountains); which would you pick?


Posted by: Gab at January 2, 2006 01:29 AM


That's a tough question. I think I'd have to choose Dahye. The worst of Lebanon beats the best of Libya. Also, Dahye is more likely to improve in the medium run than Tripoli is. But God help me if I ever had to make such a decision in the real world.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2006 02:48 AM

It's funny that I've been living in Leb for about 13 years and I've only been to Dahye twice (both times just a month ago). It really freaked me out, it's like a whole different country, especially once u pass by one of the Hizb barracks.


Posted by: Gab at January 2, 2006 08:32 AM

Hiya Michael,

That was a well-done travelogue providing very vivid images. In particular, after having read you for some time now, your voice and the insight to your own thought processes are clearest in this piece (in comparison to your other fine work). V.S. Naipaul (another MERE travel writer) would approve.

Also, I would like to echo what other's have said, we'd love to read your take on Iraq (or even Iran!).

Posted by: JS at January 2, 2006 01:16 PM

Great work, except I don't necessarily agree with your comment about capitalism being superior to a socialist state. Hell, a good enough portion of western europe is socialist and if you get sick there you won't lose your shirt which can happen in the U.S. even if you have and health care have become a luxury for the rich. God knows there is quite a mess to clean up in the good 'ol US of A and hopefully not too many will fall prey to the apathy that kills the spirit of participation and using one's voice.

Posted by: Ruthie at January 3, 2006 12:38 AM


The "socialism" of Western Europe is not really socialism. It's social market capitalism. Socialism i Lnibya is the real deal: full-bore command economy communism.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 3, 2006 01:12 AM

I enjoyed this story and your vivid accounts of Libya, but I had some problems with it as well.
It reads like something of a "tweener," between travel writing and political comment but not always strong in either sense as you reach to make a point.
The lengthy descriptions of the broken, trash "smeared" streets of Tripoli come off as a bit smug, particulary when you compare them to other bad seeds to which, presumably, you've never traveled: North Korea, the Afghanistan boondocks, Russia. Is this a story of Communism's rot or a catalogue for the culture-shocked?
And your political commentary is at times a bit less than meaningful. To say that Ghaddafi sees himself as God rather than a mere tyrant is trite. And what of the Libyan political experience? Is it really enough to say people "drank the Kool-aid" without describing their thirst?
Surely somewhere between the broken cityscapes and the people who secretly wish to be Americans, or at least Parisians of the Middle East, there is a better story to be told.

Posted by: Scot at January 3, 2006 01:36 PM

What about the political ramifications of your article? Right about now it is the only coverage we have of Libya except Bush and Blair pointing to it as an achievement of the post-9/11 swamp-draining strategy.

We should be queasy about these claims as Qadaffi has avoided having his particular swamp drained and this should not be held up as a victory. Even if he has now become our bastard he is still eminently a bastard.

Well, I guess things have to be sorted one step at a time, and Libya is now on the backburner, Qadaffi isolated and hobbled so that he is a menace only to his own subjects. But we should not forget them. Even if the Coalition governments correctly choose to sacrifice the Libyan people, there should be a grassroots movement in the West to show up the plight of the Libyans under this nutty dictatorship. I doubt thatour human rights can be brought to give their energies to a genuinely oppressed people, but stranger things have happened, and your piece is an important step in that direction.

PS - Do you look like John Malkovitch as much as your photos appear to?

Posted by: Adam Khan at January 3, 2006 01:58 PM

You call Libya "the most oppressive country in the world after North Korea." Is it really worse than Burma? Sincerely curous; all three are clearly horror shows.

Posted by: William Jouris at January 3, 2006 06:55 PM

Great work Michael!

Were you able to take any photos?

Peace -


Posted by: Michael Heister at January 5, 2006 12:43 AM

Great work Michael!

Were you able to take any photos?

Peace -


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