August 27, 2009

In the Land of the Brother Leader

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(Note: I wrote the following account of my trip to Libya years ago for the LA Weekly, but the staff recently revamped the Web site and took my story offline. It's one of my best, I think, and I want to republish it now because it's no longer available anywhere else. If you missed it when it came out, I hope you enjoy it today. – MJT.)

When you visit another country, it's hard to get a feel for what it's actually like until you leave your hotel room, go for a walk, take a look around, and hang out while soaking it in. Not so in Libya. All you have to do there is show up. It will impose itself on you at once.

My Air Afriquiya flight touched down on the runway next to a junkyard of filthy, gutted and broken-down aircraft in an airport otherwise empty of planes. When I stepped out of the hatch into the jetway, I came face to face with three uniformed military goons who scrutinized me and everyone else from behind reflective oversize sunglasses.

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, mastermind of the 1969 Al-Fateh Revolution (a euphemism for his military coup), Brother Leader of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, greeted arrivals in the passport-control room from a menacing, almost snarling, gold-gilded portrait. A translated overhead sign (rare in Libya) said "Partners Not Wage Earners." In other words: Don't expect to be paid.

A bored official glanced at my visa, rubbed his face, stamped my passport and pointed me toward my first Libyan checkpoint. A man in an untucked button-up shirt, with a cigarette jutting out the side of his mouth, waved me toward a metal detector. He hadn't shaved in two days. I walked through. The alarm screamed and I braced for a pat-down. He just stood there, took a long drag on his cigarette and stared bleary-eyed into space over my shoulder. I guessed that meant I could go. So I did.

There were no other planes coming or going, so it was easy to find my ride. His name was Abdul. He wore a snazzy black-leather jacket and a Western-style goatee.

"Welcome to Libya!" he said as he led me into a parking lot the size of an Applebee's.

"We're really busy right now. This is Libya's high season." They must shut down the airport entirely during the low season.

The capital city of Tripoli was an asteroid belt of monolithic apartment towers. The streets were mostly empty of cars, the sidewalks empty of people. I saw no restaurants, no cafés, no clubs, no bars and no malls. Nor did I see anywhere else to hang out. Libya, so far, looked depopulated.

We drove past a shattered former government compound surrounded by a lagoon of pulverized concrete that once was a parking lot. It was obvious when that thing was built. The 1970s were the 1970s everywhere, even in Libya.

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Only as we approached the center of Tripoli did traffic pick up. Hardly anyone walked around, and it was no wonder: A mile-long pit on the side of the road appeared to be the place to give juice bottles, plastic wrappers, garbage bags and worn-out tires the heave-ho.

I saw no corporate advertising: no Pepsi signs, no movie posters and no cute girls flashing milk-mustache smiles for the dairy industry. I did, however, see one hysterical propaganda billboard after another. They were socialist-realist 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.

The Happy Worker theme was a common one; smiling construction workers wore hardhats, and Bedouins-turned-widget-makers basked in the glory of assembly-line work. One poster showed two hands chained together at the wrist below an image of Qaddafi's sinister Green Book descending from heaven.

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My hotel, Tripoli

At the hotel I ran into my second Libyan checkpoint. A metal detector was set up at the entrance. A young security agent sat at a metal desk and showed off his open copy of the Green Book. He propped it at such an angle that I could read the cover, but he couldn't possibly read what was inside.

I stepped through. The alarm screamed, detecting (perhaps) my dental fillings or zipper. He looked up, gave me a nodding "what's up, dude" smile, and went back to pretending to read.

I poked around the lobby while Abdul checked me in at the desk.

The gift shop offered a wide range of totalitarian propaganda books and pamphlets in multiple languages. A fantastic selection of Qaddafi watches ranged in price from $25 to $600. I bought one for $25. Qaddafi is shown wearing his military uniform, officer's hat and sunglasses like a swaggering Latin American generalissimo. It was busted right out of the box, the hour hand stuck forever at 9 o'clock.

The lobby was plastered all over with portraits of the boss in various poses. He wore shades in most of them, but in some pictures from his early days, he wore a buffoonish 1970s haircut instead.

I had to suck down my giggles. God, was this guy for real? His unexportable Third Universal Theory was internationalist insofar as it obliterated any sense that Tripoli was Middle Eastern or African — at least from the point of view of the back seat of the car. I could have been in any former Soviet republic, or even in some parts of the Bronx. But look at those portraits! Now there was something exotic.

Most of the other men in the lobby (I hadn't seen any women since I landed) looked like Arab businessmen who bought their suits from Turkish remainder bins. The only expensively dressed man sat at a shiny wooden desk, the kind you'd expect to see at a law firm. He had no work in front of him, not even papers to shuffle. His job was to stare holes through everyone who stepped in and out of the elevator.

There were no towels in my room. The bathroom was, however, generously stocked with products, all of them packaged in green — the color of Islam and Qaddafi's so-called revolution. The hotel gave me green shampoo, green soap, green bath gel, green toothpaste and even a green shoehorn and comb. All were clearly (and, I must say, unnecessarily) marked "Made in the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." There was no booze (it's banned), no soda, no water, no juice in the mini-bar. A burn the size and shape of a deflated basketball was seared into the carpet.

I switched on the TV: nothing but hysterical state-run propaganda. I couldn't lower the volume (the knob was broken), but at least I could change the channel and choose whether I wanted to be droned at or screeched at in Arabic.

My window overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and, closer in, a drained and stained swimming pool. There was a forlorn rocky beach down there, cut off from the hotel and everything else by a blank gray slab of a wall. The cold wind whistling into the room from the patio sounded like moaning ghosts trapped in a well.

*

Until the middle of 2004, Americans were banned from Libya, not by Qaddafi but by our own government. The travel ban has been lifted, but tourists are still required to book their trip through a Libyan agency. The regime won't tolerate tourists running around loose on their own. You can make your own trip — you don't have to be a part of a tour group — but you'll still be baby-sat by a guide.

I didn't go to Libya to see the sights — such as they are. I wanted to see a once-forbidden country as it really was. So I set out on foot on my own while I had a brief chance.

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It was a jarring experience.

The main drag along the sea into the city was one straw short of a freeway. There were no houses, businesses, restaurants or shops along the way — only clusters of vertical human-storage units surrounded by empty lots the size of a Wal-Mart.

Trash was smeared on the sidewalks. It clogged all the street gutters. Almost every available blank space (and, oh, were there plenty of those) was a dumpsite.

I got agoraphobia walking around. The streets were too wide, the buildings too far apart, the landscape barren.

The traffic was too fast, too close and too hectic. I was pinned on a thin ribbon of sidewalk between the Mediterranean and the freeway.

There was no way I could cross that river of mayhem and steel unless I found a traffic light and a crosswalk — an unlikely event from the look of the place. There wasn't much worth seeing on the other side anyway. Those towers and the empty lots strewn with soda cans, candy-bar wrappers and billowing plastic bags didn't get any prettier as they got closer.

The sea was all but boarded up behind blank white walls and a decayed postindustrial concrete catastrophe of a "waterfront." In the few places I could get a glimpse of the shoreline, it didn't have the look and feel of the familiar Mediterranean, but rather an inland sea in a Central Asian republic. The city felt harsh and jagged, and the close but unreachable sea could not take the edge off.

Three young boys crouched next to the dry side of the seawall. They ran up when they saw me and asked for cigarettes. Those kids could not have been older than 10. I had two choices — corrupt Libya's youth or be a stuffy, uptight naysaying American. I chose to corrupt the children. When I handed over the smokes, each slapped his fist on his heart and cried, "Allahu Akbar!"

The freeway continued as far as I could see without any way for me to cross it. Traffic was relentless, and I didn't dare wade into it without knowing the rules. I could have just bolted in front of the cars and they would have stopped. But I hadn't been in the country for even two hours. I didn't know how anything worked yet. So I went back to the hotel and ordered some dinner.

I'd say that was my mistake, but I did have to eat.

At the restaurant, there was no sign that said "Please Wait To Be Seated." Should I seat myself? Who knew? I felt ridiculous just standing there at the entrance. So I found a table.

A waiter finally came over.

"Are you a tourist?" he said.

"Yes," I lied. Libya is a total-surveillance police state. One person in six works for the secret police. Best, I thought, to keep my journalistic intentions to myself.

"For tourists we have fish," he said. He did not give me a menu. I didn't see a single menu anywhere in the country. In Libyan restaurants, you sit down and eat whatever they give you.

"What kind of fish?"

"Eh," he said, taken aback by the question. "Fish. Fish. You know, fish."

"Great," I said. "I'll have the fish."

He brought me two small fish the size of my hand, each fried in a pan. Heads, fins and eyeballs were still attached. Bones and guts were inside. They tasted bad and smelled worse. The businessmen at the tables around me drank nonalcoholic Becks "beer." But all I got was a bottle of water.

Abdul picked me up again in the morning. His job was to show me Tripoli's sights. There weren't many: Green Square, the museum, and an old city smaller than downtown Boise. That's it. That's all there is.

We started with the museum. Phoenician and Roman artifacts were on the first floor. Upstairs was the "Islamic period." The top floor was entirely dedicated to the glorification of Qaddafi.

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Qaddafi dedicated an entire floor to himself at the national museum

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Qaddafi thinks he's the sun of Africa

One room displayed gifts to the colonel from foreign officials and heads of state — swords, jeweled boxes, a crystal map of "Palestine" that included Tel Aviv. A living-room set upholstered with a tacky floral print was roped off in a corner. "That's where Qaddafi sits with foreign guests he wants to impress," Abdul said.

Right outside the museum was Qaddafi's Green Square — which isn't green, by the way. It's famous, but it shouldn't be. This is no Italian piazza we're talking about. It's an asphalt parking lot ringed by a six-lane urban speedway.

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Green Square, Tripoli

The nice thing about Green Square is that it's central. The Italian quarter, built by Italy during its fascist period, is on one side. The old city is on the other.

The old city was the only neighborhood that looked Middle Eastern. Too bad much of it also looked like the back-street slums of Havana. Not all of it, though. A few buildings — like the old mosques, a soaring clock tower and the Arch of Marcus Aurelius — were stunning.

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Clock tower, old city, Tripoli

It was a pleasant place, actually. Ancient buildings with handcrafted details on them are dignified even in squalor. Rotting grandeur is still grand, after all.

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Old city, Tripoli

The streets were too narrow for cars. Not one of the shopkeepers harangued me when I walked by as they did constantly in Tunisia when I visited there a few months ago. There were hardly any cheap tourist gimcracks on sale. I could walk the old city in peace.

Almost everything was solely for local consumption: clothes, fabrics, jewelry, shoes, batteries and so on. One of the narrower streets was lined with almost medieval metal forges where copper pots and crescent moons for the tops of minarets were banged into shape with hammers and tongs over fires.

I didn't see theaters, clubs or any other places of diversion or entertainment. "Until two years ago," Abdul said, "there was nothing to do in Libya but sleep. Things are better now."

Things weren't much better, though. Libya's economy was still mostly socialist. There will be no fun without capitalism. Sorry. The state just isn't gonna provide it, especially not a state that can't even pick up the garbage.

"So, Abdul," I said as we walked through the souk. "How many Libyans wear a Qaddafi watch?"

"Um," he said, and laughed grimly. "Not very many. There are, you know, enough pictures around." He leaned in and whispered, "I don't like him much, to be honest."

I had imagined not.

"Look over there," he said, and pointed with his eyes. "You see those two?"

I saw a couple in their mid-20s chatting next to one of the gates to the old city. He wore a black-leather jacket, she a long brown overcoat and a hijab over her hair. They stood close together but didn't touch. They looked soft, comfortable and content together as if they were married.

"Five, ten years ago I never saw anything like that. It was absolutely forbidden."

He told me to take off my shoes as he led me into a mosque. Seeing the handmade carpets, high ceilings, marbled walls, Roman columns, intricate tile work and soft lighting was like slipping into a warm bath for the soul. The heart-stopping beauty and serenity of the mosque in this harsh urban parking garage of a landscape was a strong incentive for piety, I suspected. I'm not religious, but I could see why some sought refuge from the modern in God. Modernity in this oppressive dystopian city was a spectacular galactic-size failure.

He dropped me off at my hotel before dark. Now that I knew the layout of the city, I decided to return to Green Square alone. I wanted to know what the real Tripoli, the not-touristed Tripoli, looked like.

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It was worse on foot than by car, and exactly what I expected: all right angles and concrete. Almost everyone in this part of town lived in a low barrackslike compound or a Stalinist tower. Landscaping didn't exist. There were no smooth edges, no soft sights, nothing to sigh at. Tripoli's aesthetic brutality hurt me.

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Tripoli, Libya

I walked parts of the city hardly any foreigners ever bothered to see. It looked post-apocalyptic, as if it had been evacuated in war or hit with a neutron bomb. The sound of machine-gun fire off in the distance wouldn't have seemed out of place.

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Tripoli, Libya

Less than one percent of the people I saw were women. All those who did go outside wore a hijab over their hair. So much for Qaddafi being a "feminist," as he claims. Tripoli had as many women out and about as a dust-blown village in the boondocks of Afghanistan.

The few men I did see walked or huddled together. They looked sullen, heavy, severe. I felt raw and exposed, wondering what on earth they must have thought when they saw an obvious foreigner wandering around the desolate streets.

So I did what I could to find out. I smiled at everyone who walked past. You can learn a lot about a people and a place by trying this out. In New York, people ignore you. In Guatemala City, people will stare. In Libya, they all smiled back, every last one of them, no matter how grumpy or self-absorbed they looked two seconds before.

I never detected even a whiff of hostility, not from one single person. Libyans seemed a decent, gentle, welcoming people with terrible luck. It wasn't their fault the neighborhood stank of oppression.

Most apartment buildings were more or less equally dreary, but one did stand out. Architecturally it was just another modernist horror. But a 6-by-8-foot portrait of Qaddafi was bolted to the façade three stories up. It partially blocked the view from two of the balconies. The bastard couldn't even leave people alone when they were home.

The posters weren't funny anymore. There were too damn many of them, for one thing. And, besides, Qaddafi is ugly. He may earn a few charisma points for traveling to Brussels and pitching his Bedouin tent on the Parliament lawn, but he's no Che Guevara in the guapo department.

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I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty wore off in less than a day, and he's been in power longer than I've been alive.

He was an abstraction when I first got there. But after walking around his outdoor laboratory and everywhere seeing his beady eyes and that arrogant jut of his mouth, it suddenly hit me. He isn't merely Libya's tyrant. He is a man who would be god.

His Mukhabarat, the secret police, are omniscient. His visage is omnipresent. His power is omnipotent.

And he is deranged. He says he's the sun of Africa. He threatens to ban money and schools. He vanquished beauty and art. He liquidates those who oppose him. He says he can't help it if the people of Libya love him so much they plaster his portrait up everywhere. Fuck him. I wanted to rip his face from the walls.

*

If you go to Libya, you simply must visit Ghadames. Known by travelers as the "jewel of the Sahara," it's worth all the money and all the hassle you have to put up with to get there.

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The entrance to Ghadames

In the early 1980s, Qaddafi's regime emptied the ancient Berber Saharan city by decree. Everyone was shepherded into the modern concrete "new town," which begins right outside the mysterious tomblike adobe gates of the old.

The old city doesn't look like a city when you're inside. It looks like a vast underground system of tunnels and caves lit by skylights. It's not underground; it was built with a roof over the top to keep the infernal summer heat out and the meager winter warmth in. Some of the streets (which really are more like passages) are pitch-black even at noon. There was no need for light. The inhabitants had memorized the walls.

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A covered street in Ghadames

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A Skylit street in Ghadames

It is not a small town. It's an enormous weatherproofed adobe mini-metropolis. There are seven quarters and seven gates, one for each resident tribe. Everything you expect in a city is there — streets, homes, offices, markets, public squares and mosques, all made of painted mud and sparkling gypsum. The only thing missing from the old city is people.

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An exterior street in Ghadames

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Ghadames wall art

If Libya were a normal country, and if Ghadames were a normal city, the old city would be packed with hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, Internet cafés and desert-adventure tour offices. But Libya is not a normal country, and Ghadames is an unwilling ghost town.

My travel agency replaced Abdul with a second guide for the trip to Ghadames and into the desert. "Yasir," I said to him. "Why were the people of Ghadames forced out of their homes?"

I knew the answer already. It was part of Qaddafi's plot to Arabize the Berbers and to construct the New Man. (Berbers are also forbidden to write anything publicly in their own language.) But I wanted to see if a local was permitted to say it. He couldn't — at least didn't — answer my question. He only shook his head and laughed nervously. There were others around who could hear.

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Ghadames from above

The old city was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. A few engineers were inside shoring up the foundations of an old mosque.

"It's astonishing," one of them said when I chatted him up. He was an Arab who had studied engineering at a Western university and spoke masterful English in fully formed paragraphs. "The sophistication and aesthetic perfection in the old city contrasts markedly with the failures in the new."

No kidding. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. Neither have you. Because there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. And there never will be.

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Inside a traditional Berber house in Ghadames that was preserved for tourists to look at

"We're here to make this place livable again because someday, you know . . ." He trailed off, but I knew what he wished he could say. Someday Qaddafi will die. When his bones are pushing up date palms, the people of Ghadames can abandon their compounds of concrete and move back into the city that's rightfully theirs.

I returned to the old city at night by myself and saw a single square of light in an upstairs room of an ancient house. The owners are forbidden to stay there at night. But it's nice to know that some of them still leave the lights on.

*

When you visit another country, it's inevitable: You are going to meet other travelers. And you'll almost certainly talk about other places you've been. Go to Costa Rica, and conversations will turn to Guatemala and Bolivia. If you hang out in Cancún, you'll meet people who like the Virgin Islands and Hawaii. In Paris, you'll hear talk of London, Prague and Vienna.

So what happens when you bump into others in Libya? In Tripoli, I met a photographer who spends every summer in Darfur. Out in the dunes, I met a longhaired, goofy, bespectacled English guy named Felix. This was the first time he had ever set eyes on a desert. (He really went for it.) He had a thing for totalitarian countries. "I like to visit places based on ideas," he said. Then he checked himself. "That doesn't mean I like the ideas."

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Sahara Desert near Ghadames

"Where to next, Felix?" I said.

"North Korea, if I can get in."

"I'd like to see North Korea," I said. "But after that, what's left?"

"Only the moon," he said, and laughed. "This is great, meeting you here. It's nice to know someone else who's open to nuttiness."

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The road toward the Grand Erg Oriental from Ghadames

You'll find nuttiness in Libya even out in the boonies. On the treacherous so-called road from Ghadames into the dunes, someone used an enormous piece of ordnance that looked like a mini–Scud missile to mark a 3-foot chassis-busting hole in the ground.

Yasir couldn't take me on that road in his van. So we hired Bashir to come with us. He was a burly man with a turban and beard who taught philosophy in school. We didn't hire him, though, for his brain. We wanted his Land Rover.

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Bashir driving me to sand dunes outside Ghadames

The three of us left Ghadames and headed straight toward the Algerian gate only a couple of miles away.

Just beyond it, a 300-foot-tall mountain of sand was piled in layers.

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Saharan dunes near Ghadames

"You see that sand," Bashir said, and pointed. I could hardly take my eyes off it. "Two weeks ago, I drove some Japanese tourists out here. The old guy asked me who built it." He chuckled and shook his head. "I told him, well, my grandfather worked for a while on that project, but now he's dead."

"We can't go there," Yasir said. "We must visit Libyan sand. Last month some German tourists were kidnapped right on the other side of the border."

More than 100,000 people were killed in Algeria over the past several years in a civil war between the secular police state and Islamist fanatics.

"Have you ever been to Algeria?" I asked.

"No one here goes to Algeria," he said.

We drove over a hill and were surrounded on three sides by dizzying, towering, impossibly sized dunes. We slogged our way to the top, gasping, with calves and thighs burning, not daring to look down, to watch the sun set.

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The top was unreal. The desert floor was another world far below ours. If birds were in flight, I could have looked down on them. On the western horizon was the Grand Erg Oriental, a sea of dunes bigger than France that looked from the side like a distant Andes of sand. Bashir made bread and sticky mint tea.

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The skyline of the Grand Erg Oriental

I watched the sun go down and the sky go out.

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View from the top of the dunes near Ghadames

By Libyan standards, this was radical freedom. Life goes on even in countries like this one. No government, no matter how oppressive, can control all the people all of the time — especially not in the vast, empty Sahara.

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We ran down the sand and climbed back into the Land Rover. Bashir hit the gas. He zigged us and zagged us, up, down and across 300-foot-tall dunes along the border with Algeria. At one point — and I couldn't tell if he was joking or serious — he said we had actually crossed into Algeria.

The stars came out. A full moon rose, turning the sand into silver. We laughed like boys as we rode the dunes in the moonlight.

*

I didn't go back to Tripoli to hang out in Tripoli. Tourists use the city as a base to visit the spectacular nearby Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna. I'm not exactly a ruins buff, but trips to these places came with the package. So I went. And I saw. And I was nearly alone. I shared Leptis Magna with only my guide and some goats. Sabratha would have been empty if the vice president of the Philippines hadn't dropped by at the same time.

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Roman ruins at Leptis Magna

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The fabulous Roman theater at Sabratha

But I was glad to be back in Tripoli. This time my hotel was in the Italian quarter, just two blocks from Green Square. Not again would I have to walk through a swath of Stalinist blocks to get to a proper neighborhood.

My new hotel was more upscale than the first. The management (or was it the state?) pretended to have tighter security. The metal detector just inside the entrance wasn't being watched by a college kid. It was staffed by the military.

Okay, I thought. Now they're gonna be serious. I stepped through and the metal detector screamed. The soldiers ignored me, joked with each other and never looked up. The same thing happened every single time I walked through it.

Libya is a totalitarian police state. But it's an awfully lethargic totalitarian police state. It's been a while, I thought, since anyone there drank the Kool-Aid.

The heater in my room sounded like a chopper over the jungles of 'Nam. It was broken and stuck forever on "cold," but the maid left it on anyway. So while it was 60 degrees and cloudy outside, it was a teeth-chattering 50 degrees in my room. I opened the window, and the cold wind off the Mediterranean actually warmed the place up.

A bath could have made me feel better, but the hot-water knob came off in my hand. The hotel had the outward appearance of spiffiness, so I'm sure there was hot water somewhere in the building behind the hole where the knob in my hand had come off. I just couldn't get to any of it.

The elite were downstairs in the lobby. Slick men in suits, mostly from Arab countries, all but ignored the French delegation that was in town while Jacques Chirac cut new oil deals with Qaddafi. There were no Americans, no tourists and no women. I felt underdressed and out of place in my khakis and sandals, but what could I do? I was in a hard-line, oily-sheened Arab police state. I couldn't have blended in if I tried — except, perhaps, in one little corner of the Italian quarter.

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Italian quarter, Tripoli

If you were dropped from the sky onto the main street that ran through that district, you could be forgiven if you thought you were somewhere in the West. It was strung from one end to the other with hip, cutting-edge perfume and clothing stores. These places had bright lights, colored walls and fancy displays. They piped in Western music through sophisticated sound systems. The salespeople wore snappy, stylish clothes. The customers were young and cool. There were, amazingly, hardly any portraits of Qaddafi in this part of town. (Perhaps the warehouse was out of stock and the new stores had them on back order.)

There was far less commerce in Libya than in most countries, but this little micro-corner was bustling. I found French cheese (but not prohibited wine), Japanese DVD players, Belgian chocolate and Swiss instant coffee.

At first I thought the only coffee shops in the city could be found along a single block on one of the back streets. Old men sat out front in cheap plastic chairs and grumpily smoked hookahs. That didn't look like very much fun.

But then I found an Italian-style café fronting Green Square. I ordered a double machiato and a cheese pastry, and actually found a nice dainty table. I looked around and thought, heck, this could be Italy or even Los Angeles if it weren't for the total lack of women around. Globalization penetrates even Arab socialist rogue states these days. And what a relief, really. You'd never know you were in the beating heart of a brutal dictatorship while sitting in that little place.

Both of my guides, Abdul and Yasir, took me to dinner. We could have eaten in the Italian quarter. But no. They had to take me out to the Parking Garage quarter, which is to say, anywhere else but the old city.

I groaned silently to myself. I liked these guys — if not their taste in dining establishments — but I hated being schlepped around all the time and never being asked when or where I wanted to eat.

The only time I truly needed a guide was on the road between Tripoli and Ghadames.

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Roadside propaganda in the Libyan desert

I couldn't read the Arabic road signs. Armed soldiers demanded papers at checkpoints. I was grateful my guides had the stacks of papers prepared. But in the city, I was perfectly capable of finding a place to eat on my own. It wasn't easy, but it could be done with effort and patience.

I appreciated the hospitality, even though it was bought and paid for. Abdul and Yasir seemed to enjoy "buying" my dinner, but I felt micromanaged and baby-sat. Come here, look at that, sit there, eat this. They were great guys. But I lusted for solitude. If I said so, they would have been offended.

They took me to a restaurant in a neighborhood that was downright North Korean, it was so chock-full of concrete.

"We really hope you like this place," Yasir said.

It wasn't quite as bad as a parking garage, but it was a near miss. The main floor was reserved for a wedding, so we were shepherded upstairs to a huge, dimly lit room mostly empty of tables. The wedding party hadn't arrived yet. There was no one else in the building.

I didn't know what to say in this gloomy warehouse of a restaurant. I felt like we were the only people out for dinner that night in all of Libya. Abdul and Yasir hoped I would like this place? Oh, the poor dears. I was embarrassed for them and wondered what tourist in his right mind would come to Libya when he could go to Tunisia, Morocco or Turkey instead.

*

Worlds can't meet worlds. But people can meet people. I forget who said that, but I like it, and I thought about it as I walked around inside Libya, hanging out, and talking to regular folks.

In a nation where so many report to the secret police, where a sideways word can get you imprisoned or killed, walking around blue-eyed and palefaced with an American accent has its advantages. I met one shopkeeper who opened right up when he and I found ourselves alone in his store.

"Do Americans know much about Libya?" he said.

"No," I said. "Not really."

He wanted to teach me something about his country, but he didn't know where to start. So he recited encyclopedia factoids.

He listed the principal resources while counting his fingers. I stifled a smirk when he named the border states. (I had looked at a map.) When he told me Arabic was the official language, I wondered if he thought I was stupid or deaf.

"And Qaddafi is our president," he said. "About him, no comment." He laughed, but I don't think he thought it was funny.

Al Fateh Forever Libya.jpg
Propaganda carved into the side of a mountain says "Al Fateh Forever," referring to Qaddafi's one-man "revolution"

"Oh, come on," I said. "Comment away. I don't live here."

He thought about that. For a long drawn-out moment, he calculated the odds and weighed the consequences. Then the dam burst.

"We hate that fucking bastard, we have nothing to do with him. Nothing. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We do our jobs, we go home. If I talk, they will take me out of my house in the night and put me in prison.

"Qaddafi steals," he told me. "He steals from us." He spoke rapidly now, twice as fast as before, as though he had been holding back all his life. He wiped sweat off his forehead with trembling hands. "The oil money goes to his friends. Tunisians next door are richer and they don't even have any oil."

"I know," I said. "I'm sorry."

"We get three or four hundred dinars each month to live on. Our families are huge, we have five or six children. It is a really big problem. We don't make enough to take care of them. I want to live in Lebanon. Beirut is the second Paris. It is civilized! Women and men mix freely in Lebanon."

*

Almost everybody I know thought I was crazy to travel to Libya. The unspoken fear was that someone might kill me.

Well, no. Nobody killed me. Nobody even looked at me funny. I knew that's how it would be before I set out. Still, it's nice to have the old adage "people are people" proven through experience.

Libyans are fed a steady diet of anti-Americanism, but it comes from a man who has kicked them in the stomach and stomped on their face for more than a third of a century. If they bought it, they sure didn't act like it.

I crossed paths with a middle-aged Englishman in the hallway.

"Is this a good hotel?" he asked.

It sure beat my last place in town. At least I wasn't stranded out by the towers.

"It's a good hotel," I said, not really believing it but grateful for what I had.

"I think it's bloody awful," he said.

I laughed. "Well, yes," I said. "I was just trying to be nice. You should see the place where I stayed when I first got here."

I heard footsteps behind me, turned around, and faced two Arab men wearing coats and ties and carrying briefcases. One wore glasses. The other was bald.

"It has been a long time since I heard that accent," said the man with the glasses.

I smiled. "It's been a long time since this accent was here," I said. Until just a few months ago, any American standing on Libyan soil was committing a felony.

"We went to college together," he said, and jerked his thumb toward his friend. "In Lawrence, Kansas, during the '70s."

"Yes," his friend said as he rubbed the bald spot on his head. The two were all smiles now as they remembered. "We took a long road trip up to Seattle."

"We stayed there for two weeks!" said the first. He sighed like a man recalling his first long-lost love. I watched both their faces soften as they recalled the memories of their youth and adventures abroad in America.

"What a wonderful time we had there," said the second.

They invited me out to dinner, but I was getting ready to leave. I didn't want to say no. They looked like they wanted to hug me.

We shook hands as we departed. And as I stepped into the elevator, the first man put his hand on his heart. "Give two big kisses to Americans when you get home," he said. "From two people in Libya who miss you so much."

-

The LA Weekly paid me for this article, but the costs of the trip exceeded my paycheck. Almost all freelancers go through a phase where they lose money while proving themselves, and I was just barely breaking into journalism when I wrote this. If you missed the story when it came out, and if you enjoyed reading it now, please don't hesitate to hit the tip jar.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 27, 2009 3:55 PM
Comments

This could have served as a hell of a lesson to us about what happens when a pathological narcissist is allowed into power.

Here's hoping the Libyans make something better for themselves when their sun-king finally exits the stage.

Posted by: Squires Author Profile Page at August 27, 2009 7:34 PM

What a lovely article, MJT. Thanks for republishing it.

Posted by: AZZenny Author Profile Page at August 27, 2009 9:05 PM

Surreal, and so sad, like a ghost prison. It took me back to a photograph I've never gotten out of my mind, of a broad, multilane highway in North Korea. At intersections young women wearing uniforms and white gloves "directed" no traffic, not a single car.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at August 27, 2009 11:37 PM

I must say I am a bit afraid about the fate of your shopkeeper who "burst the dam on Qaddafi". Not very afraid, but a bit afraid, yes.

In North Korea, I would be VERY afraid. The NK secret police would have perfect timetable of whatever you did and where for the whole of your stay, and they would be able to find such a guy in no time.

Libyan henchmen are probably less competent and more complacent, so I do not think that they would keep such a timetable on you. Too expensive and work-intensive, and Arabs are not Koreans in this regard.

However, if you had a cell phone with you, your movements around Tripoli might be tracked back even today, if they keep the location database of foreign numbers. (I do not know whether Libya even has a mobile network in the first place...)

Posted by: MarianCZ Author Profile Page at August 28, 2009 6:52 AM

MarianCZ,

Trust me, they don't know who that guy is. I went into too many shops, sometimes escorted by guides, and other times by myself when my guides went home for the night. I didn't have a cell phone with me, and they can't even know which day I had this conversation.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 28, 2009 9:41 AM

I got all the way through this and mostly enjoyed it. Doesn't ring the foreign policy bell in my mind. More like indie/literature anti-tourism with a dash of Orwell. I can tell the difference and that it's your earlier work.

I'm sometimes surprised when you visit places like this and find no resentment at all. Understanding when Middle Eastern governments are effective at controlling their populations' opinions of The Enemy and when they aren't is a tricky job.

I think that in totalitarian countries the non-connected folks often are glad to see strangers, but the consistency is surprising. You'd expect a dedicated minority to buy into it, a la Iran, Lebanon, even Syria.

Seriously, why shouldn't the Libyans waiting tables in the Italian sector have resented you? All the edible food and pretty knicknacks are available for Qaddafi's foreign whores ("business partners"), while the help goes back and sleeps in the concrete graveyard. It would have been quite logical for them to view all the foreign guests as enablers and co-participants in Qaddafi's scheme.

(And now you understand Anti-Americanism...)

Although I enjoy the urban wasteland descriptions, though, I did have two opposing thoughts - #1, gotta be careful at equating ugly and/ or repetitive architectures to slavery, Mike, you lean on that maybe a little too much, and #2,

trash is easier to hate when it's piled in front of your face, but it's easy to get along with when it's piled in someone else's face. Still, I wonder if all the garbage piled haphazardly, everywhere, in the poorer parts of the Arab world makes it harder to come back to America and argue in favor of people who make a living gutting the EPA and whining about how many forms they have to fill out before they can dump lead into rivers.

There's good aesthetics, if you enjoy the juxtaposition of positive forms with negative content, in writing about totalitarian tourism. Same thing goes for visiting poor countries, but that comes off a less moralistic and shallower (these jerks don't have hot water, ha ha, get a job!)

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at August 30, 2009 12:06 PM

Glasnost: Doesn't ring the foreign policy bell in my mind.

It wasn't supposed to, as you seem to understand. This piece is in the "Holidays in Hell" subgenre of travel writing.

At the end of the day, I'd rather travel the world and simply describe it than about tell you or anyone else what to think about it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 30, 2009 12:38 PM

I do understand.

At the end of the day, I'd rather travel the world and simply describe it than about tell you or anyone else what to think about it.

I hear you. First thought is a minor sense of guilt that I'm totally willing to tell you and everyone else what to think about it. Second thought, on the other hand, simply describing your own reactions in a well-narrated context, or a realistic fiction context, is a great way to get people to identify with you, or at least huamnize your point of view.

For example, while I personally don't object to a message that boils down to "Fuck Qaddafi", some hypothetical people would be innately suspicious of a polemical, ideological essay whose point is "Fuck Qaddafi". They might see it as a Trojan Horse for some a, harmful, or b, american-superiority-perpetuating, kind of plans. So, a short narrative that is more genuinely documenting the "Fuck Qaddafi" message - that you genuinely felt at that specific time - that maybe does more for the Fuck Qaddafi cause than an outright, explicit advocacy essay saying Fuck Qaddafi.

Maybe. It might be more effective at reaching the non-core audience, anyway.

Maybe.

I am not suggesting that you have a hidden agenda. Maybe I'm suggesting that it's impossible not to tell the world what to think to a degree. I suppose you can tell them a series of contradictory things and it may me more up to them how to work it out...

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at August 30, 2009 2:31 PM

Glasnost: I am not suggesting that you have a hidden agenda.

Well, that's good!

Of course I do not like Qaddafi and won't pretend otherwise. Any American who supports this Stalinist and terrorist ought to be ashamed of himself. I won't hesitate for a minute to say that any more than I won't hesitate to say Kim Jong Il and every other jackbooted thug in the world can fuck off.

American journalists are supposed to give dictators bad press. The LA Weekly surely would have spiked my essay if it was pro-Qaddafi. My editor on that story, Marc Cooper (who also works for The Nation), is the good kind of old leftist who simply will not stand for that crap.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 30, 2009 3:00 PM

Glasnost: Maybe I'm suggesting that it's impossible not to tell the world what to think to a degree.

To a degree, yes. Neutrality is neither possible nor (in my opinion) desirable. As Microraptor said a few months ago, (who frequently criticizes me here, though he's a friend) it's better to be honest about your biases than to go to war zone and pretend not to give a shit what happens.

I suppose you can tell them a series of contradictory things and it may me more up to them how to work it out...

That's what I did recently when I got home from Baghdad.

Iraq is extraordinarily complicated. The fact that Qaddafi's a bad guy is not.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 30, 2009 3:04 PM

Iraq is extraordinarily complicated. The fact that Qaddafi's a bad guy is not.

Yep.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at August 30, 2009 9:31 PM

Michael, I trust you that you do not put your contacts into danger willingly or by recklessness.

I just had two worries. None of them may actually apply to you. I have experienced them more than once.

First, people from (relatively) free countries generally tend to underestimate the surveillance performed by totalitarian governments. (Unfortunately, the free world governments seem to be going in the same direction...).

Second, non-IT people generally tend to underestimate the amount of data that can be digged from databases such as the location database of a mobile operator.

Posted by: MarianCZ Author Profile Page at August 31, 2009 1:51 AM

Oops, it is probably "dug", not "digged".

Posted by: MarianCZ Author Profile Page at August 31, 2009 2:03 AM

"Qaddafi thinks he's the sun of Africa"

Not necessarily. Most likely he expects his people to believe so and overwhelming majority undoubtedly does.

"I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty wore off in less than a day, and he's been in power longer than I've been alive."

It may sound strange, but this is classic example of transformation of quantity into quality.

Over time you get so used to it that you no longer see it.

Ugly? Yes. Grotesque? Yes. Annoying? Probably not anymore. Besides, when you are born into this life you do not even realize there is something wrong with it. Its like a leaf on a tree. Who would object to that or even notice?

PS. That Libian shopkeeper with big mouth, guy got balls (and no brain).

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at August 31, 2009 6:27 AM

I was very impressed that the government was successful in actually keeping women out of sight and alcohol off the market (though I am not suggesting that this is laudable). It is one thing to declare those rules. It is another beast altogether to actually implement them.

I was part of the initial occupation of Baghdad. After Saddam's regime fell, there was alcohol for sale on every street corner the very next day. I can't imagine that it was shipped in from Syria that quickly. It had to have been readily available under the radar of the law.

Qaddafi is a douche, but he must be an effective one if he is able to bring the gap between policy formulation and implementation. I'm sure it sucks to live under a tyrant. It must suck even more to live under one who is effective.

Posted by: Schmedlap Author Profile Page at September 5, 2009 10:40 AM

definitly some of your best work! This was the first time I've read it and I loved it.

"He had no work in front of him, not even papers to shuffle. His job was to stare holes through everyone who stepped in and out of the elevator."

Hilarious!

Posted by: ramsis Author Profile Page at September 9, 2009 10:47 AM
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