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Libya: Tippling, Tires, Tripoli, Tyrants And A Tree


A personal account of travelling to Libya on various business trips.

By Robert Steven Duncan

My first experience of Libya was via a KLM flight out of Amsterdam that had all the trappings of a B-Budget film.

Besides being crowded, the flight had a bedraggled appearance that was heightened by the worn glean of the tapestry and the decidedly 70s cut-and-color of the stewardesses uniforms. Passengers looking a mini-United Nations, chatted in stunted English. And then there were the aloof well-dressed Middle Eastern gentlemen, together with a stunning mid-aged American blonde. The destination: Tripoli.

The majority of the flight’s occupants were workers headed for Libya’s rich oil fields, minus a couple of women with children in tow. “We are going to see the grandparents,” said the six-year old daughter of a fashionable American-Libyan mom. At least that’s what it sounded like she said given her strong Bronx accent.

For their part, the well-dressed Middle Eastern men appeared to be businessmen and government workers. The Blonde never did say what her job was, although she appeared to know quite a few of the businessmen. Perhaps she was a U.S. Civil Servant.

Off the coast of Tunisia an intercom voice announced that alcohol would no longer be served, nor was it permitted to bring alcohol into Libya. The voice added that it was also prohibited to take pictures inside the Tripoli airport. Just prior to the plane landing the stewardess handed to all passengers miniature, modeled ceramic buildings. She said they were collectibles.

I noted that the knick-knacks normally housed something stronger than water.

“Yes,” admitted the stewardess, “these are usually full of alcohol. But we cannot give them as such to passengers on this flight.” As if an afterthought she added, “But people do like them as presents.”

I gave my miniature three-storied model of classic 19th-Century Dutch architecture to the well-dressed Libyan gentleman beside me — who seemed to believe that his ticket also purchased the right to half of my seat — who promptly presented it to the American Blonde as a gift. Who says chivalry is dead?

Ironically, this would not be the last time that the subject of alcohol would be broached while I was in Libya. “I have never drank so much in any country as I have in Libya,” said a foreign businessman. (For obvious reasons I will leave him un-named).

“At holiday time, or on weekends there is always a party in the neighborhood,” he explained, “and everybody shows up with a bottle or two. The only problem is if you are out in the street and being very vocal about it. But if you are just among friends or drinking at home, there is no problem.”

This businessman also claimed that he and a few European ex-patriot buddies had a going wine concern. “We buy the grapes here (in Libya). Last year we bought a machine and (imported) the cork to stop up the bottles.” In case you did not catch that, this businessman claimed to be manufacturing and bottling wine in Muslim Libya.

“There are a bunch of us in on this. We made over 400 bottles of wine last year. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad,” he said, and added the wine was for personal consumption or to be given as a gift. “Who knows, this year, maybe more!”

I was doubtful of this story at first. And doubtful of others I’d heard. So as any good journalist would, I double-checked my facts and had two other people verify the basics. One of those fact-checkers happened to be a European ambassador, who not only repeated key ingredients to the above conversation, but also added a few colorful details.

“The problem with your religion,” the ambassador scolded a waitress at an up-scale hotel in my presence, “isn’t that it’s against alcohol because it’s (alcohol) bad, but because it doesn’t want people drunk when they pray.”

If that’s the argument against alcohol, then I’m with the Muslims. That said, I also found it interesting that both the ambassador and the ex-pat businessman claimed that the Sub-Saharan ambassadors were picking up funds on the sly by smuggling alcohol into Libya.

“A bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label (whiskey) goes for $200,” they both said.

But I digress. Back to the airport.

I am at a loss to explain why no photos are allowed of the airport. What touristic value there would be in such pictures — other than perhaps of a documentary nature noting the peeling paint that appeared to have once been a 1960s green-blue, undoubtedly unloaded by some unscrupulous Frenchman during the years of American embargo in the desire to rid himself of outdated paint stock. One got the feeling that they are waiting for a second embargo to repaint.

In fairness there may have been some photojournalistic value in the brand-spanking new LG air-conditioners that lined the airport’s passageways, or the men lounging around the lobbies, or the endless lines to pass through security controls and scanners or the various stalls selling tea and bitter yoghurt drinks.

That said, resisting an urge to hum “from the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli,” I passed through the controls and was ushered out of the airport to the waiting hotel mini-van.

As one might expect the landscape of Tripoli is dotted with minarets, from which there are periodic calls to prayer. Not being one to believe in statistical absolutes, and at the same time knowing that around 97% of the Libyan population is Sunni Muslim, I thought to ask my driver who the remaining 3% were. “We are all Islam,” he said.

Apparently the above-mentioned ambassador also believed in statistical absolutes: “There are no other practicing religions here in Libya.”

I got a slightly different picture from a Berber who was my guide for a couple days. “People practice (other religions) discreetly.” He added his aside as if this was a novel thing, “and the government allows it.”

My guide volunteered to prove his point by taking me to a Catholic church. “There are two Catholic churches in Tripoli,” he announced. Unfortunately, by the time I was able to drag him away from all the souvenir shops that he kept taking me to it was dark when we passed by a boarded up building that seemed to suggest basic Christian architecture.

“It is really well attended,” he assured me.

On a separate visit, I did indeed visit a Catholic Church, which had an active Sub-Saharan congregation. Following Mass I even visited with the priest, while Mother Teresa’s sisters attended visiting poor. In the guarded words of the Monsignor, we were told that foreigners were free to practise their faith – although he had the problem that most of his congregation was just waiting for an excuse to jump a ship on its way to Italy.

According to The CIA World Factbook, “From the earliest days of his rule following his 1969 military coup, Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi has espoused his own political system, the Third Universal Theory. The system is a combination of socialism and Islam derived in part from tribal practices and is supposed to be implemented by the Libyan people themselves in a unique form of ‘direct democracy.’ Qadhafi has always seen himself as a revolutionary and visionary leader. ”

A lot of people probably do not realize that Qadhafi is also a prolific writer, including in his portfolio that smash best seller, “The Village, The Village, The Earth, the Earth and the Suicide of the Astronaut.”

According to the publishers; “Muammar Qadhafi first gained international recognition as the author of the famous Green Book, a slim text in which he outlined solutions to the political, economic and social problems besetting the modern world. First published in the late 1970s, the Green Book was widely seen by political activists worldwide as an alternative to both capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic Marxism.”

“By the early 1990s Muammar Al Qadhafi had turned his attention to writing short stories with the same penetrating analysis and insights that made him a controversial revolutionary thinker.”

“When Muammar Qadhafi’s collection of twelve short stories first went on sale in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, the literary centre of the Arab world, nearly 100,000 copies sold within two weeks ‘The Village, The Village, The Earth, the Earth and the Suicide of the Astronaut,’ became an overnight sensation and has gone through a number of reprints to meet the demand of Arab readers.”

Here’s a paragraph in a chapter titled, “The City.”

“The city was long ago, let alone nowadays, life’s nightmare and not its pleasure as is thought. If it had been a pleasure, it would have been so planned. But the city has never been established for luxury, pleasure, or joy. Rather, the city is a scavenging multitude in which people find themselves by necessity, as no one ever comes to live in the city for pleasure, so much as for a living, greed, toil, want… and employment, which forces him to live in the city.”

Eighty-six words that could have been edited down to five: “Go back to the farm.”

The problem with that in Libya is that if you don’t live in the city, you probably live in the desert. Over 90 percent of the country is sand and more sand. In fact, there’s so much sand that Libya is working on the world’s largest water development scheme — the Great Manmade River Project — that aims to pipe water from aquifers under the Sahara desert into the coastal cities.

No word if the poet leader is working on a new name to replace the project’s current utilitarian title.

No trip to Libya would be complete without a visit to the desert. But if you are planning on going into the desert you will first need to get a “desert visa,” which is not to be mistaken for a normal visa to get you through the country’s front door, nor the worthless, plastic VISA, and American Express — which you might as well leave both at home.

Once you have a “desert visa,” the next goal is to find a guide whose rigs have rollbars and seatbelts. And above all believe the guides when they claim their drivers can drive at midnight across the desert dunes with their eyes closed. I know, because one of ours did just that.

Coming out of the desert one evening the tail-lights from one of the beat-up four-wheelers in front of us disappeared. When we got closer we discovered that the driver had driven over the top of a dune to discover the other side had shifted, creating a sharp drop. The four-wheel jeep did a somersault. The driver broke his ribs on the steering wheel. I noticed he didn’t join us on our other desert excursions.

But it’s not just the drivers that have accidents. On a separate trip with foreign journalists one of our group failed to buckle up. The result being a lesson in gravity: Speeding up over the bumps bodies do fly.

This in turn allowed us to see more of the Libya than our guides had originally proposed – including a search for a local hospital where Libyan doctors set a temporary cast on a shattered elbow.

That said, in various visits I was once able to travel four hours across the Sahara desert to the middle of nowhere to look at prehistoric rock carvings of giraffes, cows, rhinoceroses, elephants and camels. Our guides showed us some ancient graves marked by stacks of rocks. Most of the graves appeared to have been picked over by two-legged scavengers. In nearby slate infested areas, stone cutlery could be found lying in abundance. So much so, that it would suggest this is one reason why today we don’t see many elephants roaming the Libyan sands.

But my favorite memory of Libya’s desert was our group complaining because the local tour guide hadn’t met us with food at the prearranged spot. Telephone calls were made, and GSM locations exchanged. After a couple of hours, hope that the food would arrive had long since vanished. About 10 kilometers on the way back, in a large stretch of sand, there was one lone tree. In the tree’s shade were the local guide and his team. They knew the terrain better than the GSM.

I gather that part of Qadhafi’s Third Universal Theory is based on heavily investing in the Arts, or at least in the poster-board economy. Arriving in Libya I was struck by the ingenuity of these artists working with such limited material, as witnessed by the myriad headshots — many of which include portions of sayings attributed to the nation’s leading poet — and which plaster building facades. No office or hotel is complete without a dozen examples of the nation’s leader. Something tells me they aren’t all painted by his painter son, and likely successor, Saif al Islam Qadhafi, who is president of the Qadhafi International Foundation.

Actually though, if I were to choose a national icon it would be a toss-up between the countless poster portraits of Qadhafi, or that other national symbol: the “burnt-out tire resting along the roadside.” In an informal survey administered on a desert highway connecting to Algeria I counted an average of 16 burnt-out tires per kilometer.

I first noticed those tires on the highway leading into Tripoli, a city that reminds me of Lima, Peru. They both share dusty coasts with fairly well paved freeways with cars stopping in the middle of traffic, or driving the wrong way.

At least I’m pretty sure they were driving the wrong way, but maybe that is they way they drive in Tripoli. Who knows, maybe we were driving the wrong way. Or maybe my vision was hazy as I blinked through the sweat pouring into my eyes because our driver noticed we were warm.

Guided by the philosophy that any breeze even if it’s from the pits of Hell was better than no breeze, he promptly closed all the van’s windows and blasted us with hot air from the vehicle’s malfunctioning air-conditioner.

The longer I stayed in Tripoli my impressions strengthened with respect to the physical twinning to that of Lima. Both cities lack grass, but have plenty of litter. They also have similar block style homes that never quite seem to be finished being built.

There is one area though where Libya has Peru beaten hands down. While both cities have teams of unemployed men standing on the street corners, in Libya this has been raised to a fine art. Clusters of men use mattresses, boxes, and dilapidated chairs to form ad hoc committees. The only thing missing is a cappala singing.

There were signs of new money flowing into Libya, judging by some of the construction projects and the spiffy new hotels going up. When I asked Libyans about these new projects, the general answer undoubtedly can be summed up by one optimistic chap’s response.

“There’s lots of work now that the Americans are coming back,” in reference to improved relations with the United States and the hopes that big American oil companies will return.

When I mentioned that somebody forgot to tell that to the teams of future recording stars I saw lounging around on the street corners, my guide responded. “They are sub-Saharans.”

While I did not want to disagree, I countered that not all of these men appeared to be immigrants.

“Now that there is lots of work, we have lots of “black” immigrants. This is a real problem,” he replied.

If that’s true, then somebody needs to update the government’s official immigration records. As of July 2004, Libya only had around 150,000 registered non-aliens — most of who now appeared to warming corners in Tripoli.

“We are trying to control the borders, but once these people arrive here they bring crime and drugs. The blacks come here and they don’t work, they bring drugs,” said my guide to end the conversation.

Racist comment aside, I was struck by the thought of how poor some of these African countries must be if Libya is now an immigrant’s paradise. In fairness though, there is a word of truth in those statements. A quick glance at the countries that border Libya — Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia — shows none are economic beacons. And with oil revenues pouring in, and a relatively small population of around 5.6 million spread over an area the roughly the size of Alaska, this has converted Libya into having one of the highest per capita Gross Domestic Products in Africa.

There is a sense that things could be improving and businesses are seeking to be ready when the hoped for planeloads of Americans start rolling in.

The Corintios Hotel where I stayed was elegant, spotless, and had an extremely professional staff. My Texas-sized suite also had a bathroom bigger than my children’s bedrooms back in Madrid. There was a spa, a giant swimming pool, and even loads of non-alcoholic green-bottled Beck’s beer.

I’m sure there is a story there too, but I was never able to find out more. Still, I’d like to find out who was the Beck’s marketing genius behind that smooth — yet cruel — deal. A tingent taste of beer, withholding the thrill of the alcoholic buzz.

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