Friday, May 11, 2007

Leaving Libya

It is three years to the day since I arrived in Tripoli and one year to the day since I left. Twelve more hours and I will be three years since I landed in the baking hair-dryer heat of Tripoli airport and was taken by company mini-van to the Baab Al-Bahar Hotel, where I gazed out of my lonely hotel room on the eighth floor. The view was a familiar one - the dull blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, tufted and ruffled slightly by balmy winds. I would have preferred a city view. In truth, the sight of the Mediterranean Sea bored me, though I was not that bothered. And so I looked out at a familiar sight from my past as I thought about my future in Libya.
What was on my mind that day? Certainly, there was trepidation. I really did not know what I was getting myself into. There is a lot in the guidebooks about Leptis Magna, Ghadames, the Sahara, the Medina, the history of Libya but as to day- to-day life, what my life was actually going to be like, what my job would be like for the next two years, I knew almost nothing.I had spoken to an Egyptian acquaintance who had lived in Tripoli about what to expect. He paused before replying “As long as you have a good job and live in a good place then it doesn`t matter where you are.” It wasn`t really the reassurance I had been expecting but I suppose, on reflection, a response not without its wisdom, as diplomatically phrased as it was. Another person who had lived in Tripoli told me not to worry. “It is not as if you are going to prison.” I am not sure if it is just my imagination or if he really added: “Not quite.” I had made a determined resolution though, that no matter how bad it was, I would stick it out.
And how did I feel just one year ago to this day? I can`t lie. I felt excited to be going. At the same time though, it was genuinely hard to be leaving. There was a sad, confounding feeling of dislocation that I had not even contemplated possible when I sat alone in my room at the Baab Al-Bahar. Is this really much of a life to live? To go to places and meet people and accept their hospitality and friendship and then, when it suits us, to up and leave forever? Finish the jigsaw and then break it up again and put it back in the box? It seems so heartless in a way, so ungrateful. Basim, to my astonishment, had even cried the day I left work for the last time. A year ago yesterday. Basim, an Everest of a mountain of a bear of a man and he cried because I was leaving? Clearly, he was insane but I was moved and patted him on the back and lied and said that I would see him again.
I went home and gave the rest of the stuff I couldn`t take to the maintenance men in orange boiler suits (a video, cheapo electric keyboard and portable radio) and packed my bags. The next morning, I gave the rest of my Libyan money to a welcome and unprotesting Mustafa and he waved me off as I caught a taxi to the airport.It is so hard to look back.

It feels like it was just a dream. Especially now I am so far away. I sometimes close my eyes and run a film in my head to try to imagine what is happening in all the places I have lived and loved and try to picture it just as I remembered it. And in Tripoli right now, another glorious sun has risen but the city is mostly still sleeping. The few people on the streets are in their traditional garb for the Friday prayers. Flowing white and brown embroidered robes and those matching brimless hats that Muslims wear. Perhaps packs of dogs pick at rubbish heaps in the Medina, the hawkers wheel their stalls into place at the Friday market, yellow taxis blaze past the fish stalls by the old lighthouse, suitcases are loaded onto the tops of minivans and buses heading south to Sebha, west to Tunis, east as far as Egypt even. Confused, aging, head-scratching, tourists stumble into the sunshine, fanning themselves with guidebooks.
And what about the place where I used to live, my flat inside the compound? Maybe yesterday morning at this time, someone was standing outside my company flat in the same place I used to stand waiting for our driver to take him to go to work to sit at my desk and do my job. But right now, presumably he is sleeping in my bed. These things are hardly the greatest mysteries of the cosmos but their strangeness can sometimes be hard to take in, to really accept as reality.
I thought it would be easier to reflect on Libya if I gave myself some time to allow my thoughts to sink in, to somehow melt into the mental stew of experience, to get a clearer sense of perspective. But in truth it is harder.
So hard now to believe that all that happened, that those people and things existed, far too many things to mention; the markets with monkeys, that office with the maps with Israel blacked out, Ali skulking in the corner, beaming Basim carrying desks on his back, the headless mannequins in boutique windows, the air-conditioner hose dripping into an over-flowing plastic jerry-can, talks with anguished Mustafa outside his internet cafe, barbecues at farmhouses on the outskirts of the city, dust, concrete, the blaring call to prayers, the shifty expat crowd and the good ones too, camels by the roadside, a Roman city to myself on a June afternoon, the Sahara desert stretching out into infinity, wedding dishes of camel meat and couscous the size of satellite dishes, satellite dishes like little suns on top of concrete houses in the orange haze of impossible, unreasonable suns that yield no mercy and then drop away so quickly like half-parried pinballs, into the abyss of the sea. All those warm, sometimes weary, smiles and handshakes, the sometimes unbearable kindness of strangers, the unremitting, sometimes unfathomable warmth, the maddening driving, living, working practices of the delightfully crazed Libyan people.

A people who sadly share the lot of all people born with the misfortune of being ruled by a tenured crackpot. To live in a sort of limbo of their own contemporary prehistory, waiting, much more in hope than expectation, for when their time will come to really join the modern world. And a people who for the most part carry that burden with such well-humoured resignation.
There was something bizarre happening on the streets of Tripoli on this day three years ago. Swarms of locusts had landed on Tripoli`s downtown streets. Clearly having detached themselves and taken a wrong turning from the rest of the swarm, they were hazily darting into windscreens like kamikaze pilots and wilting on the pavements. More than a few just missed my head as I made my way across the patch of wild wasteland outside the hotel and walked along the coast road. There were locusts everywhere; alarming little yellow winged beasts as big as humming birds everywhere you looked.

It is all so hard to come to try and understand all of it now. I was only in Libya for two years, a few drops in time. In truth, I may have put the pieces back in the box but I never came close to finishing the jigsaw. It is hard to make sense of these things as I sit here and my eyes wander to look through a new window at kids all decked out in white uniforms and caps on a terracotta baseball pitch at a new desk in what is still a new life in Japan.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mustafa and Fatima

Mustafa had a preoccupation which was torturing him night and day. A teenage problem really, but in the Arab world, puberty seems to arrive ten years later. Or maybe not. Mustafa said that he was the only one from all his friends who was still a virgin. He said that it wasn't so much that he wanted to have sex but that he didn't want to be the only one left out. He said that all of his friends had had sex but I just didn't believe him. I would not normally be so dismissive a young person's account of what his own generation is up to, but when it comes to sex, you have to be wary. Lies are the nasty cold that sex caught and just can't shake off. People lie about sex, people lie to get sex and then lie and then say that they haven't had sex. Some even lie during sex. But more commonly people lie and say that they have had sex when they haven't. This is the most favoured lie amongst young men and it is a lie that is virtually one of the necessary pains of growing into adulthood. I told Mustafa that all young men lied about sex. I told him that it was the same in my day, that all the boys lied, that I lied, that everyone lied and lies about sex, that even several Presidents of the United States had lied about sex but he didn't seem to believe me.
Fatima, who cleaned my flat every week, can not lie. She is not a virgin. Young men love to speculate about which girls or aren't virgins, but unless you are actually the mother of God, childbirth settles the argument incontrovertibly. We know for sure that Fatima has had sex at least once. Fatima's daughter, Selma, is six. I asked Fatima if she was married and once she told me that she was divorced and another time she told me that her husband had died in a traffic accident. I don't think she wanted to lie; it is just that she was ashamed. The truth emerged later. Extremely rare in the Muslim world, and so hard to believe of Fatima, who is so pious and god-fearing, Selma was born outside marriage.
So great is the taboo on sex outside marriage that in Libya, women who are, to use the official terminology "vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct" are locked up indefinitely in rehabilitation centres, described by Human Rights Watch as "de facto prisons." The moral misconduct that these women and girls, some as young as 16, are guilty of is invariably that of having had sex, sometimes without consent. Disowned by their families, their fate falls into the hands of the state, which is itself criminally inept and insensitive to delicate social issues. Upon admission to these centres, the girls are subjected to virginity inspections. So after being raped, they are disowned, they then have their vaginas inspected and then, when they have been stripped of every shred of human dignity, they are imprisoned.
Only God knows the limits of suffering that can be inflicted by those who really believe that they are serving the greater good, and whether such misguided fools actually inflict any less pain than truly evil men. But while there are no corresponding institutions for men who have engaged in illicit sexual activity, it is not only the women who suffer.
A friend told me about a Libyan work-mate who had discovered that his unmarried daughter was pregnant. He walked to the roof of the three-story building where they worked and jumped off, head first. Miraculously, he survived. After many months he recovered and finally returned to work where he promptly did the same thing, this time successfully. They say that in the west, the concept of shame wilted away and died, that it was trampled to death by individualism. In the Arab world, it has never been healthier.
So I have to take it with a pinch of salt when Mustafa tells me about his braggart friends. A few of the more adventurous among them may have visited a Moroccan prostitute or two, but I expect that that is the limit of their collective sexual experience. It is actually a well-known fact that the guards at the compound where I live trade access through the gate for sex with African and Moroccan cleaners. One form of access for another, to put it crudely. But Mustafa's friends boast of having sex with Libyan girls. I asked Mustafa where they would even go to have sex for a start and he went silent. "There are places," he finally protested. I might be wrong but I don't believe that they have sex any more than the boy at school who told me that his father was Batman.
In Fatima's case, her predicament was brought about by sex and though I think that, like seemingly quite a few women by their late 20s, Fatima would be quite happy to put sex behind her. But it refuses to go away. Fatima complained bitterly of harassment from the guards and I told her that I would speak to them about it and she said that if I did that then there was no way they would ever let her into the compound again. And so it continued and then one day Fatima just stopped coming. Maybe she found a full-time job. She always talked about catching a night-boat to Europe and I told her that she would be crazy to as she can not even swim and that they often throw people out miles from the shore. She always pined for home and talked about how much she missed her daughter and kept dropping hints so in a mad fit of generosity I gave her 500 dinars (300 euros) to go to Morocco for Ramadan. To be honest, I felt relieved by the prospect of having some Saturday mornings without the noise of the vacuum cleaner or constantly having to shift rooms like a Bedouin in my own home but sure enough, come Saturday she turned up at 9.oo a.m. sharp as usual saying that she had sent the money to her mother to spend on Selma. At first I felt angry, but then I suppose that once I had given it to her it was her money to do with what she liked. But where she is now, I do not know.
As for Mustafa, he has a girlfriend now. They don't have sex but they meet and sit in the light of the monitor screen at an internet cafe, one of the very few haunts where young men and women can meet like boyfriend and girlfriend. Sometimes they even hold hands. For now, that is enough. It will have to be enough.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Funky Old Medina

When I first arrived in Libya, the company put me up at the Baab Al-Bahar (Door to the Sea) Hotel in Tripoli. The Baab Al-Bahar is a five star hotel which one must assume beat up a smaller hotel in a fight and took a few stars off it, as not all of its five stars seem to have been acquired through any legitimate means. But despite its modest service, its passable buffet and the unpredictably of its souvenir shop's opening times, it has a location on the Tripoli coastline unenvied even by Tripoli's genuine five star Corinthia Bab Al-Africa (Door to Africa this time). The Corinthia, by far Libya's plushest hotel, is a near-skyscraper of a building with a shadow whose radius reaches and almost hits the Bab Al Bahar and then turns to rest and fade on the Medina as the sun sets.
While some of the Corinthia's residents' windows face the sea, others directly face the ancient limestone walls of the Medina, fronted by the fronds of massive palm trees. What the international business traveller will not be able to see, as he enjoys this pleasant, perhaps exotic, view from his hotel room is that the ground at the top of the ramparts is covered, in places knee deep, with rubbish. Also, there are dogs.
It is almost two years to the day since I left the Baab Al-Bahar to explore the Medina for the first time. As I waved to the receptionist, who unusually for one in his profession did not speak a word of English, those dogs were waiting. I was just a blip on their radar. Perhaps they were slumbering, all curled up at the top of the steps. They were probably in precisely the same position when I next saw the receptionist only fifteen minutes later, as his puzzled eyes settled on the tattered, gnawed hem of my trouser leg, now unraveling from the bermuda type leg wear I had fashioned from the remaining material after an encounter with three large, white dogs at the top of the steps of the Medina wall. They had only drawn a little blood and as concerned and embarrassed onlookers gathered round after I had reached the safety of the ground at the bottom of the steps, I had to laugh. One street hawker remonstrated with a bemused old man at the top of the steps, the owner of the dogs. I told them that it was OK. As I was later to notice the more I used the Medina, it was his area, that bit at the top of the steps. His daytime hangout. Impeding access to a UNESCO Heritage Site, albeit, but his area none the same.
The contrast between the pampered luxury enjoyed by visiting oil company executives at the Corinthia and the extreme poverty in parts of the Medina, just yards away could not be greater in any one place in all of Libya. But the Medina is not a joyless, souless place. Its aging beauty may be crumbling as its veil slips to reveal the scars of the tumbling years, but it is definitely not dead.
Between the narrow western gate and Rashid Street, shouts of "saraf, saraf, change money, change money" compete with the "Sebha Sebha" "Benghazi Benghazi" Tunis Tunis" of taxi drivers. Their roof-racks are slowly loaded with market trader's wares which set off on back-breaking journeys in all directions. The journey starts when the car is full - unless the passengers decide they have waited long enough and agree to split the fare to compensate for the shortfall.
Outside the gate, an impromptu trade in second-hand mobile phones has sprung up during the day, joined by the desperate caravan of the burglars' market at night. You enter the Medina and the first thing that strikes you is the stench of a small mountain of fresh rubbish. As you walk through the narrow, labyrinthine streets, ebony-skinned ladies emerge from black shadows, with babies cradled to their chests. Young girls sit on blanket pitches on the pavement selling Chinese shoe polish, Vaseline, razor blades, plastic combs and matches. As the sun sets, an a cappella muezzin cups his hand to his mouth and booms out the haunting call to prayers.
At its heart, where the copper and gold markets sway to the beat of the smith's hammer and men polish silver in tiny doorways, the Medina is a humming hub of activity, if not of opulence. But then you turn a corner and come face to face with rubbish cascading out of demolished houses like frozen waterfalls. Houses which look like they have just groaned and collapsed and been left to rot and, with bed frames, cookers, fridges and boilers rusting away. Little African markets set up stall in some of the vacant wasteland, selling fake designer gear, second hand clothes, pots and pans but lately these have been moved away and now the rubbish is rising in this space as well, like a man-made fungus that spreads over everything in its way . Here and there are the more permanent African presence of little cave-like barber shops in the walls, decorated almost obligatorily with life-size murals of the near demi-god poet and prophet of sub-Saharan Africa, Bob Marley.
In truth, there is little that is magic about the Medina. There is nothing here which could easily leap into the glossiness of a travel agent's brochure. But then again, magic is just trickery anyway. I am not sure how I feel about the Medina. I love to get lost in it but I do not think I would like to live a life of having my lungs filled with putrid, rotting refuse as I jostle down narrow streets with teams of goats. This was once not only Tripoli's centre but in fact all that Tripoli was and now it is considered the worst part of the city to live in. I feel that there is something unyielding and stubborn about it, perhaps even unwittingly, a refusal to be shaped and bought, gentrified and sanitised by popular ideals. But then the concrete patch-up jobs caked onto layers of clay on limestone will not hold the walls up forever. The heart of the city is certainly not dead yet, but its foundations are slowly slipping away from it. Maybe, in some ways, the Medina is a lot like the person who keeps it the way it is.
There is no magic but I remember once walking through the Medina at dusk during Ramadan and seeing a barefoot toddler run full pelt through the alleys, holding a bag of French loaves aloft like a trophy shouting the Libyanised Italian "mangaria mangaria" just as the naked light bulbs protruding out of masses of wires sagging over the alleys flicked on. I walked down the narrow way that leads past the old Ottoman Harem, later the British Consulate, past the floodlit Aurelian Arch onto the seafront. There was a warm breeze blowing but Tripoli Castle was reflected perfectly in the water. There was not a single soul in sight and it felt like I had the whole city to myself.

Sunday, April 30, 2006


Howard is dead. He didn't look well, it must be said.
I saw him slumped unconscious on a plastic white table at a party a year ago and his face was as red as beetroot. Howard's favourite vegetables were chips and tomato ketchup. His daily intake of water was actually over the recommended amount at a healthy two litres. However, when you consider that this water was taken solely to dilute on a 50/50 ratio with the amount of Flash he consumed, the figure is less impressive. At least health-wise.
Flash is the most common, only slightly ironic, euphemism given to the alcoholic tipple of Western expats who reside in gated camps and compounds all over the ostensibly dry outposts of the Muslim world. Actually, it is less a tipple and more pure, distilled alcohol, diluted with water according to personal requirements in order to decrease its toxicity. I have heard that some of the expats develop such a taste for it that they even make and drink it back home. Which is behaviour which must be something akin to the psychotic-depressive institutionalization of the mind. Or something like that. It is a bit like the cartoon Eskimo who shunts your offer of a cosy, heated and duveted bedroom in order to try and squeeze himself into your freezer. And you can sort of understand it when you have cooked a gourmet meal for the visiting exchange programme Kalahari bushman when he pushes it aside and instead skewers your kids' pet guinea pig on an open flame in the garden.
But while to drink Flash in any circumstances is an act of pitiful self-destruction, unless you are a tractor, to drink it out of choice can only be described as a psychiatric disorder. But Howard will be missed. By some. I will not be a hypocrite. From what I knew of him, he could be a most unpleasant man. But when you looked past his violently xenophobic air of obnoxious righteousness, which really only flared up when he was drunk, albeit very often, he could be a kind man. His xenophobia and racism were in fact, like the best xenophobia and racism, genuinely rooted in a misguided, mythical love of his own race.
Howard was part of the old school, Libyan expat brigade, who descended on Libya during the first oil boom in the 1960s. Most deserted the desert when the Lockerbie sanctions kicked in and some are now returning. But, Howard, one of the ones who was born to live and die as expats, never left. Until now.
Unsurprisingly, for almost all the Western expats I have met in Libya, money is the major motivating factor. For most, there is no dark subtext. But sometimes expatriation is a response to familial breakdown and sometimes can be the cause of it. Constant dark rumours flutter around the compound like bats at dusk of his wife and girlfriend back in Britain, who know nothing of each other or his goings on in Tripoli. Her credit card addiction. His time spend inside. The spats are almost comically endless. At one point four people who live on the same street on my compound were all not speaking to each other for different reasons and each was defensively proclaiming that they could not have wished for a more satisfactory situation. And these are not long streets. Indeed, it can be so exhaustively time-consuming to charter the poisoned diplomatic waters of the expat scene that I have found that the best course of action is to abstain from forming part of the entire movement. Or at least, if one must be on the stage, then to be placed at the wings, as far away as possible when the drama explodes and so much closer to the exit.
At some of the expat gatherings I have been to, it has been obvious that the people assembled had nothing in common with each other but had to force themselves through the grinder of social interaction with each other because of their shared expat identity and the fact that they had no particular reason not to speak to each other. And there we, the rent-a-crowd, socialised so difficultly, like floating pieces of driftwood, gathered together on the bonfire of social interaction and doused in spirit and light in the hope of generating some warmth of human interaction. The spirit usually does the trick.
I have sometimes received invitations to parties which were extended to anyone else I wished to ask, just as long as there were "no Libyans." Yes, in their views, some of expats can be the most depressing people you will ever meet but sometimes this is less of a standard racist knee-jerk than a discomfort at the idea of drinking alcohol in front of Libyans. Who also drink in large numbers, but feel uncomfortable about doing it in front of expats. Like an alcoholic couple who both drink in secret and can not look each other in the bleary eyes. Although I think I know whose eyes are blearier.
While the authorities normally turn a blind eye to expat alcohol consumption, this is not always the case. Earlier this year, two expats were imprisoned after a group grape-treading session in the garden of a villa in Janzour, a suburb of Tripoli, was witnessed by Libyan neighbours. They were reported and the villa was raided, uncovering hundreds of litres of red wine. Both were released on bail. The last I heard, one of them was granted an emergency visa to return home to Britain and of course will never be seen on these shores again. I think he is in Kuwait, hopefully a little wiser and treading his grapes indoors from now on.
Of course there are the toga parties, the fancy dress, the quiz nights and fun runs where new runners are initiated by being made to drink home-made beer out of their shoes. Fun for some, fine for some, but sadly this pre-packaged group merriment is just not in my heart. I do not look down on it. It is just not in my heart. Well, I do look down on it. But because it is not in my heart. I suppose we must all machete our way through the jungle of expat life in the way we know best.
A few expats are just looking to flee unhappiness, often attempted fugitives from a misery they can not escape because they have misdiagnosed its causes as being in their environment when it is actually inside them. It can indeed be hard to distinguish between someone who is truly unhappy because of the world around him and one who is truly unhappy and merely blames the world around him for it. Sometimes it comes back to alcohol. A few are naive enough to land in Libya in the belief that an officially dry Muslim state will be a perfect place for alcohol detoxification. I had a work colleague who came under ths mistaken belief and promptly went AWOL and could not be roused from his flat for days on end, always returning foul-breathed and red-eyed with the sheepish claim that he was suffering from a migraine so intense that he couldn't answer the door.
The sad fact is that those who drink in their own countries do not drink less in a Muslim state, but more. I heard of one person who went to Saudi a moderate, social drinker and returned to Britain a year later a raving alcoholic.
Personally, I have found some solace in exercise, the unusual pratice of interacting with Libyan locals and the companionship of a handful of other non-scene expats. Therein lies the problem with the whole expat scene paradigm. Everyone speaks scornfully of the "expat scene" just in the same way that journalists who are mass-doorstepping some hapless politician or celebrity objectively report that they have discovered the presence of a "media circus", as if they themselves were not part of it. Why is it always someone else who is part of the expat scene? Why is it always, always 'someone else'?
But this is all really just the tittle tattle of the desk-bound, town-based expats. Then there are permanent expats, the rotationers, the riggers and the desert trash, the rugged, lifelong brigade. Although Howard had worked in the town in recent years, he was a desert expat at heart. They spend half their lives in the desert, in places where there are no women for hundreds of miles, although they have committed no crime. No wives, no daughters.
So what future for them, these men? Due to the government's policy of Libyianisation, their numbers fall every year, as technical field positions are increasingly being given to Libyan nationals. Some retire, some seek work elsewhere, in Russia or the North Sea. Some will continue to lead a Quixotic life of retreating behind ever-bigger satellite dishes and bolstering bank accounts, just to drink themselves to death for the grace to be buried in a golden, velvet-lined coffin, draped in the flag of a homeland which they both loved with every beat of their hearts and simultaneously could or would not live in permanently.
For one, I salute them, these misguided, dwindling, romantic, sun burnt, confused, sometimes bigoted and sometimes maddened few. But I will not join them. As a wise man, a man of many stories, took me aside and told me on my first day at the company: "You're young. Spend a couple of years here. Get some experience here and then move on. I've been here 29 years, it's too late for me now. But you can just leave. Don't get stuck here."

Friday, April 21, 2006

Basim and Ali

Before I knew exactly who or what human beings were and before I had mastered the cognitive skills needed to differentiate between personalities and even genders, estimate ages and judge characters I remember the warm nicotine-scented breath and the bristles of a cheek brushing against my face of a man bending down to hug me as I lay on a bed or maybe even a cot. My since errant, absent father perhaps? Another relative? I don't know who it was. But I think that it was a man like Basim. A large, bearded grizzly bear of a man, Basim is nominally the cleaner at work, but in reality he is a sort of general gopher, no-fixed-job-description, maintenance man, odd-jobber and donkey/dirty worker. Basim is a contract worker, not a direct employee of the company and is therefore not issued with the standard company coveralls and safety boots which normal employees, including desk-bound ones, get. Someone once gave him a green company boiler suit and, though now oil-stained and tattered, it is his uniform to work, though in theory he could wear anything he wanted to. Basim works every day of the week, from 7.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. and is paid 6 dinars (about 4 euros) a day.On a normal day, Basim can be seen pruning roses, hosing the ground to keep the dust down, carrying desks on his back, distributing office stationery with a wheelbarrow, emptying the bins, cutting down poles with grinders and spraying the offices with air-freshener at the precise moment that people are getting their sandwiches out for the lunch break. Although only 24, Basim's teeth are a muddy brown on account of the five spoons of sugar that he shovels into his coffee. Like many Libyans, he uses a tablespoon for putting the sugar into the cup but then finds that this spoon will not fit into the cup and has to use a teaspoon for stirring. Maybe this is where he gets his energy, his carbonated enthusiasm, his sunshine smile that seems to suggest that he has been somewhere no-one else has been and seen what no other eyes have seen. Basim is always in a good mood. If you cross his path 15 times a day, he will stop and say hello and, if he is carrying anything, put it down and slap you on the back all 15 times. Basim once tried to hold hands me with as we walked across the hard, the way Arab men often do. I didn't want to be culturally insensitive but that was just one bridge too unbearable to cross. I think he understood.
I once told Basim that a taxi-driver had overcharged me, and Basim earnestly described to me in detail how much the taxi-driver was going to suffer in hell for what he had done. Any conversation with Basim, and indeed any conversation in Libya can quickly take on a theological hue. In the little English that he is keen to practise, Basim told me that while the Prophet Mohammed was unquestionably his "number one", the Leader of the Revolution, Muamar Ghadaffi was equally undoubtedly his "number two." These are perpetually the two positions in Basim's league table. Others may concur, but certainly not everyone does. Ali definitely does not.
Ali is unusual in that he sometimes tells me that he wishes that America would invade his country. While everyone in Libya I have spoken to is vehemently opposed to the Iraq war, Ali says that if the Americans came they would sort the country out. Ali works in the office and has that universal, crushed, slumped demeanour of the disgruntled office worker. The company sent Ali to Britain to do his MA and he bought a Toyota SUV with the expense money that he saved up. But now, with the trip behind him, he has nothing to look forward to. He hates the work, he hates all the bosses and he also hates Basim, though I don't think Basim realises it. Misery loves company and hates anyone who has what it can't have. I think Ali feels that Basim's mood reflects badly on him. Ali certainly resents the way that Basim feels comfortable in just taking a seat in the office and starting to banter and chat when it takes his fancy. He feels that it is not Basim's place and though not openly hostile towards him, he sometimes just ignores him and glowers behind his computer. It confuses Basim that there is somewhere which will not take his charm as a substitute for genuine authority, but if it bothers him then he certainly doesn't let is show.
But more than Basim, Ali is unhappy with how little he is paid. He does two jobs and probably takes home four times as much as Basim a month but this is still not enough to sustain the lifestyle that he aspires to. In a socialist system of government like Libya has, there are undoubtedly some workers who secretly enjoy the fact that their mediocrity will go undetected, that their own inefficiencies will be drowned out by the wider inefficiencies of the system. But Ali is the other type, the one who is frustrated that his perceived talent and superior ability will never be rewarded.
For Basim, I think that within the context of his religious faith, the lack of financial reward does not trouble him greatly. For now, at least. I have no doubt that Basim will make an excellent father one day. With his broad shoulders, love of football and his knowledge of poisonous snakes, one day he will make an excellent playground boast, a lunch-break threat of reprisal.
But Basim is not a father yet. Ali is, though he only gets to see his year-old daughter when he gets home at 8 o'clock in the evening. Ali was hoping that when his wife gave birth in Britain, it might give him a legal right to stay there, but it didn't work out that way. Sometimes Ali's moods are so dark that I really think that he might sliding into serious depression. On some days, all he seems to do is sit there and sigh deeply. I try to talk to him about it, or at least to change the subject. Once I tried talking to him about music and he smiled when he recalled how he used to play the guitar in a band when he was at school. "We were going to play a concert, but it got cancelled, because someone at the top didn't like music," he said and his face reverted back to its defeated frown. Admittedly, among the songs they were going to play were Iron Maiden's "666 - The Number of the Beast" but I don't think that the concert was cancelled because of satanic lyrical content but because of a deeper religious objection to any type of music. This incident seems to sum Ali up. He tried, but they wouldn't let him, so he won't try any more. There isn't really much I can do. I just hope that Ali's situation, or at least his outlook improves before his daughter gets much older. The Americans aren't coming to invade and as I know, children can pick up on these things way before they learn to speak.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The River of Dreams

Geological surveys in the 1970s confirmed that there was more than 120,000 cubic kilometres of pure fresh water lying under the sand of the Libyan Desert. In an extraordinary session of the General People's Congress in October 1983, the leader of the Revolution suggested transporting this water to Libya's coastal towns and thus started the Great Man Made River Project, the "8th wonder of the world", an engineering project on a scale never seen before in human history.
The pipes, the largest ever made, dwarf the transporters they are carried on and the pre-stressed steel in their manufacture would circle the earth 280 times. The quantity of aggregates used in the construction of the project would build 20 pyramids the size of the Great Pyramid of Khofu and the pipe transporters will have travelled a distance equivalent to going to the sun and back when the final phase of the project has been completed. It is envisaged that the 13000 wells that have been drilled will pump 6.5 million cubic metres of water per day. While Tripoli and Benghazi, and most of the west of the country are presently served by the Great Man Made River Project, when it is finally completed, it will deliver water to the entire Libyan nation.
The water has been beneath the Libyan Desert for between 14,000 and 38,000 years but at the car park at work, Fawzi just sprays it onto the gravel to keep the dust down. Sometimes he leaves the hosepipe on and goes away and the ground turns to white mud and the water trickles out of the gate and starts to fill the potholes in the road. A road that is strewn with cans and old tyres and empty plastic bottles of mineral water.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Third Nalut Cultural and Tourism Festival

Of course, not all Libyans are Arabs. In the south, there are the nomadic Tuareg and the Toubou, who trudge the Saharan plains, often roaming past resented borders into Niger, Algeria and Chad. But small in number, these tribes forge their own path outside the mainstream of Libyan society. Then there are the Berber. Popularly known as Berber, though they prefer the term Amazigh to Berber, which is after all a Latin derivation of barbari, they predate the Arab settlers and their modern day population is spread across Northern Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. Some estimate that the Berber make up as much as five per cent of the Libyan population. Precise figures are impossible. Some are not even sure themselves. Last weekend, Mohammed took me to Nalut for the festival. Mohammed's parents are Berber and I asked him if he was also a Berber. He said that he didn't speak the language and that he identified more with being an Arab, having been schooled in Arabic, though he quickly added that he was proud to be a Berber as well. If that is allowed.
Of course, it has always been allowed to be a Berber, though it has not always been permitted to be too vocal about being one. The first Nalut Cultural and Tourism Festival took place in 1975 in the eponymous mountain town perched in the rocky hills of the Jebel Nafuza, the heartland of Berber Libya. The 1976 festival never took place. Hardliners in the revolutionary government fearful that the festival might prove a covert breeding ground for Berber nationalism pulled the plug and it was not until 2005 that the second festival took place. "Finally, the bastards let us have our festival", as a Nalut inhabitant told me bitterly. "We never wanted a country, or even a flag. We only want to celebrate our culture, to let our children see how their grandparents lived." The gulf between how the young people of Nalut live and their grandparents' lifestyles is indeed great. In the two generations between the camel and the Toyota pick-up truck, things have changed almost beyond recognition for the Berbers, just as they have changed for all Libyans.
In Nalut, an imposing qasr, or castle, perched on top of the mountain used to serve as a store for grain, with the town inhabitants' chambers of sizes directly proportional to their wealth. Ingeniously ventilated, it is not hard to imagine how the cold winds must blow through the holes in the chamber walls on winter nights. Of course, the rocky chambers are now empty, but in days gone by, this was the town's bank vault, with its entrance on the top of sheer rock face in order to seriously restrict access by getaway camel for any would-be qasr robbers. When we got there for the festival, the qasr was mobbed with crowd. There were camel trains, wedding party re-enactments, mock circumcision ceremonies, veiled women weaving lambs wool blankets. They said that it takes four of them a month to finish one, which they then sell for 200 dinars. I asked Mohammed about the meagre economic gains and he shrugged and said that it was better than earning nothing, which is what they would get otherwise. "It gives them something to do", he added.
Elsewhere, there were stands selling ornaments carved out of palm wood and Tuareg had come to town to sell garishly coloured artifacts. I bought a leather mobile phone holder with the letters NOKIA stitched into it. Written proof, if any were needed, of the ceaseless march of globalization. All it needs is for some humourless lawyer to sue the beleaguered Tuareg for this copyright infringement and it will really feel like 2006.
In another part of Nalut, caves which once served troglodyte granaries and living quarters were converted into exhibition rooms for dinosaur bones, fossils, local pottery, glass-caged scorpions, iguanas, Berber furniture and assorted artifacts. And then there was the traditional Berber food, like bazin, a popular one with all Libyans, made of unleavened barley to look like mud but taste so much worse. Bseesa, a sickly sweet paste made from crushed seeds. Samel, something like ghee and not trying to hide the fact that it is in fact 100% saturated fat. The festival of Nalut should never have been stopped, but whoever is making this food should be tried for crimes against humanity.
But there was a rare generosity about the people of Nalut which I suppose will be diluted when or if the Libyan tourist industry expands. When we arrived, a friend of Mohammed's unhesitatingly handed over the keys to his house to us and went to stay with his mother and his wife went to stay with hers. As we toured the festival, curiosity seekers joined our entourage one by one and I found the camcorders and mobile phone cameras were being pointed at me. Next, a local television crew approached for an interview. There was no doubt about it. I had become part of the show.
At the evening concert in the main square, we were embarrassingly ushered into front row seats, against a backdrop of a fifty foot high painting of the leader. This is not the place for the faint-hearted or for the more fundamentalist elements, many of whom would have objected to the musical content anyway. Coming as it did, just days before the festival of Milud, Mohammed's birthday, when it is traditional to celebrate through the medium of fireworks, the boys are packing a seemingly endless supply of gunpowder. The way to dance here is to wave and flap your arms as if you are imitating a bird or as if you arms are two wet fish. The feet do not move much and many people can't move their feet anyway because they are standing on plastic chairs which they have stacked up on top of each other to get a better view. Some people go to dance at the front of the stage, in front of the row of VIPs, which the security do not like. An impromptu competition to see who the unlikeliest dancer is emerges. First, the old man, about 80, is pushed to the front of the stage, where he shuffles from one foot to another with soft abandon. Then two children, about five and six, not dissimilar to the old man, but somehow more self-conscious, with their eyes desperately checking for paternal approval like searchlights. Lastly, the man with the crutch, who caps this display of physical comedy by taking it to its natural conclusion and falling over. A belly dancer emerges onto the stage and the acrid smoke which has been going all night intensifies as all the little bangs seem to merge into one long bang. The only woman here, she is a magnet for the eyes of a thousand young men with the heat of 10,000 fireworks in their pockets. One behind me shows his appreciation with a short burst from a make-shift flame-thrower fashioned from a cigarette lighter and a can of fly-spray, though he is quickly disarmed by the security.
There was one image of Nalut which has burned into my subconscious like a cigarette. Outside the granaries, in the glare of the sun, where a three piece Tunisian band beat out a hypnotic rhythm and their dancer gyrated with a pot on fire on his head, there were photos of more recent Nalut history. Fading photos of young men in camouflage fatigues, with Kalashnikovs strapped around them. There was a particular photo of one with an enormous Afro and a massive grin as he posed on a rocky hillside somewhere. The hairstyle reminded me of someone I used to know somewhere, but I can't quite place. These were the photos of the ones who went to fight the Israelis in the 1970s and never came home. There is a sad little irony at play. While the minority Berber people were struggling to find their voice in Arab Libya, Nalut men were fighting for an Arab minority in Palestine. So what were these men, barely out of childhood, when they died so many miles from home? Were they Berbers? Arabs? Libyans? Maybe Muslim more than anything else. How did it all fit in? I didn't like to ask Mohammed as it is a sensitive subject and after all, he probably wouldn't know. Perhaps it was only the people in the photos who could have told me anyway.