Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Roads to Excess

The Gargarish Road stretches four miles from the compound where I live down to the Medina. It slumbers for a while after the rush hour and then after the sunset last call to prayers it returns, with its traffic like water in a sea of glass and metal. Every space is filled as quickly as it was created, sometimes overflowing onto the pavement, threatening somtimes to engulf the hapless pedestrian, already contending with the rubbish plies and the sticky sifting sands. It a road of a thousand chancers a minute and a hundred near misses a second. The horn is wielded mercilessly as a psyhcological tool, designed to break the other driver's nerve, to bend his will. When the moment of impact inevitably comes the drivers emerge, often surprisingly calm, to negotiate and survey the damage. To try and stare it away before settling, shrugging and taking solace in the fact that they had a dent on that side anyway. In effect it is a dent to a bump. Or else it creates a certain pleasing symmetry when you consider the dent to the bump on the other side.
Now I have lived in places where people take a certain pride in how badly they drive. All along the Mediterranean shores there seem to be contenders for the worst drivers in the world accolade. And bad, very bad, as many are, this must be the place where the debate is settled. The Italians are reckless rather than careless and step on the accelerator at the sight of a pedestrian crossing at a pedestrian crossing. The Turks are keen to join the same European school as the Italians but too often woeful town planning has not left them with the room to maneouvere and truly express themselves in all their badness. The Maltese often lay claim to be able to outdo the Italians on the grounds that while the Italians are merely ignoring the rules, they don't know even them. Anyone who has been stuck behind a tractor hogging the fast lane on the Tal-Barrani road can morosely testify that there is some truth to this.
The thing is that it is not that the Libyans don't know the rules. They don't even know that the rules exist. There is one question to the Libyan driving test that needs to be answered correctly. How much do you bribe the examiner?
In Libya it is nothing to reverse back down the motorway towards incoming traffic if you have missed your turning. It is nothing to undertake someone who is already undertaking someone else. Less than nothing. It is nothing at all to drive on the wrong side of the road while the person travelling towards you is also travelling on the wrong side of the road because you are trying to avoid a manhole which is gaping because someone has stolen the cover to make a barbecue out of while he is trying to avoid a collapsed piece of street lighting that has been lying there in the sun for seven years, but to reach an understanding that as long as you are both in the wrong then that's all right because sometimes two wrongs do make a right, even when you are both on the left. It is less than nothing. It is a way of life.
And when you are sitting in a taxi and the driver is slalom-ing past other cars which are themselves driving at 100 miles an hour and the fear outweighs the exhiliration you finally realise that you are no longer young it teaches you something about life. That driving fast is just not funny any more.
But then there is a cult figure in Libya who goes by the name of NaFouzi and CD-Vs of his exploits excite the masses so starved for living local heroes. NaFouzi is a skilled driver, there is no doubt about it. But he also has cheap circus tricks to thank for his following, like putting one leg out of the window while he tearing up the airport road. The word on the street is that the police, appreciative of his talents, asked him to join the force, as a sort of poacher turned game-keeeper, assisting them with their high-speed chases. NaFouzi agreed to join, but only if they could catch him over prearranged route. An unorthodox approach to police recruitment, it could be argued. And not a successful one however, if of course the rumour is to be believed, as they just couldn't catch him.
Perhaps Libyans drive the way they do because it is the one area where they are allowed to do whatever they want. It is a simple truth that they are born into hundreds of rules governing every aspect of their behaviour and by and large they abide by them, because the punishments are real and they are harsh.
I think there is definitely some truth to this. Driving is be a fiercely individualistic pursuit in a society where the individual is constantly coereced to subsume to the greater power of God or people or country. Maybe some just think that if you can't live in freedom then maybe you can die with it. But then perhaps it goes deeper. Maybe the wider sense of civic discipline required to drive with so many strangers jars with the small community bedouin ethos that the Arab people evolved from. Then again, I suppose there is never one neat explanation as to how people behave.
An Iraqi Armenian friend, Jamal, told me about an incident he had back in Baghdad, many years before the present crisis. He had stopped at a red light when someone went into the back of him. Stepping out, he was surprised to find him being the one berated by the other driver. "Why did you stop?", the driver demanded. "Because there was a red light!" Jamal retorted. "Yes", the man replied. "But there was no traffic coming, was there?"
It was a time, I suppose, when Jamal was more inclined to laugh at lawlessness. His brother was shot dead last year. It was nothing political. He was just a successful businessman who had somehow continued to thrive after the occupation. He had just bought a BMW. I remember Jamal telling me about it down by the beach on the compound. I really didn't know what to say to him, except "I don't know what to say", though I sensed that he wanted to speak about it. "I told him not to buy such a flashy car. That it would bring attention to him. But he wouldn't listen."

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Barry Manilow

To start off with, I should point out that I may have to change a few names in order to protect the innocent from the guilty. I don't want to put too fine a point on it but I must tread lightly. Hopefully there is not a room somewhere with a gang of proverbial monkeys typing combinations of website addresses looking for subversive blogs. Not that I aim to be subversive. I just want to describe my life here, though I guess there will have to be some degree of self-censorship. I have not included my name anywhere on the blog.
I feel bad choosing this as the subject for my first blog but I suppose it would be hard to ignore the events in London of last week. I lived in London for four years before coming out here, so it has been on my mind a lot.
As I am sure most educated, informed people are aware, the majority of Muslims abhor terrorism in all its forms and Libyans are no different, despite the rather sinister image the country is still trying to shake off. Without exception all the Libyans who have spoken to me about the bombing have expressed genuine shock and sympathy. A few have qualified it by adding, "but the same thing happens in Baghdad and Palestine every day." I have been tempted to reply, "Yes, I suppose there are a lot of Arab terrorists indiscriminately blowing up people in those places as well." I haven't because I know that it would have been unfair, though I was slightly annoyed that they should want to start a debate about politics after I had just told them that I was a bit worried aboiut my brother, who works in Central London. In any event, no-one I know in London has been hurt, though everyone claims to have "just missed it" by two hours or five miles or so. Still, I suppose it's easy for me to be blase. I have never been even that close to being ripped apart by a bomb.
A friend of mine told me that her boss punched the air in delight on September 11 and there is no doubt that the idea that the Americans had it coming to them is quite common currency here. However, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the senseless nature of terrorism, I think that appetite for taking the war back to the Americans has dissipated on the so-called 'Arab street'. In Iraq it has been other Muslims on the receiving end of the bombs and as a friend of mine, Osama, said to me, "I am as much of a target as you are. I wear jeans. I listen to rap music."
In Libya at least, the authorities seem to have kept a tight lid on any Islamic insurgency.
Esam, who seems to be moving in the direction of fundamentalism (he stopped watching television two months ago), told me that he doesn't go to the same mosque every day to avoid being a target for the authorities on the look-out for extremists. At first it seemed incredible to me that religious persecution against Muslims could exist in Libya, but it is a very really fear for anyone whose beard is too long. "They don't drop by your house and explain where they are taking you and let you pick up some things. They just take you and you're gone," Esam said.
Of course, while some Arabs may have expressed some satisfaction on September 11, there is also a popular theory that it was "the Jews" who bombed the World Trade Centre. What would, in Europe at least, normally qualify as wacko conspiracy theories formulated by nutcases on the margins of society can sometimes form the basis of mainstream thinking here, at least where the Jews are concerned. One person actually tried to explain to me how the Jews were responsible for the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. There was a lot about force fields and magnets and nuclear scientists and other such things and his English wasn't very good so I wasn't able to grasp the finer points of his argument. I decided to be charitable and point out that Barry Manilow, who sang the song 'The Bermuda Triangle' was actually Jewish and so there might be something to his theory. He accepted my point gratefully. Another time someone said something innocuous in the office, like "What is the capital of Israel?" and a Libyan replied, "We do not accept that that place, the one that you mentioned, exists." And indeed they don't. All the pages relating to Israel in the atlases have been ripped out and it has been blacked out with a marker pen on the maps of the world.
There is some real hatred towards the west though and sadly it is not that hard to understand. I was once in the office of Haj Mohammed, a normally gentle, good-natured sort of man, who was sort of a glorified photocopying boy, since retired. He was on his laptop looking at a website featuring images of Iraqis being tortured by American soldiers. No words, just pictures, dozens of them. Besides the familiar ones, including the ones faked by The Daily Mirror, there was one of an old woman wearing a hijab having her clothes torn off. "One day we will get together and come and kill you all," he said to me, with tears in his eyes. He never mentioned it again and the next time I saw him he was back to his usual, affable self, joking about jamming the photocopier so that he wouldn't have to do any work.
In Saudi the insurgents were getting a lot of bad press because they were breaking into compounds, much like the one I live on, and just killing anyone they came across. Inevitably, some Muslims got shot as well, which lost them support even amongst their grassroot supporters. So the next time they went on a similar raid, they asked their victims two questions: 'Are you a Muslim?' and 'Can you speak Arabic?' If you gave the wrong answer you got shot. While I am still struggling with my Arabic, I have mustered up enough to understand and answer those two questions.