Saturday, January 28, 2006

Girls and Boys

Male teenagers are a common evening sight on a typical Libyan thoroughfare pavement. Not gangs, just clusters, gaggles, giggles of friends. They stand there and chat and smoke and laugh and they sometimes throw a rock, a hubcap or a lump of wood at each other. But that is not their main purpose. These are mere interludes from their main business. The main item on their agenda is that of harrassing, or as a Libyan apologist put it "teasing" young females.
Of course, it would be unreasonable to be too po-faced and comdemnatory about such behaviour. Young and not so young men the world over have been known to vocalise their appreciation for the female form in all its splendour since time immemorial. Construction site humour seems to be one of the occupational hazards of womanhood and, however unacceptable some of us may judge it to be, it isn't going anywhere fast.
Indeed, there seem to be at least three behavioural traits that are universal to male teenagers in every known society in the modern world. One is a desire to routinely kick each other in the head. The other is to bleat "There is nothing to do here", often contrived as a valid pretext for the consumption of drugs and alcohol. In fact, to give the sentence its full lustre: "There is nothing to do here except drink and/or take drugs." The third is to make lewd suggestions to women in public places. Thus, when you hear the older Libyan generation bemoan the ways their youths are heading, it is invariably their fighting, drug-taking and "teasing girls" that are carted out as examples of their delinquency.
However, in Libya this sort of female-baiting takes on a bizzare hue. Things are happening in a way they should not happen. Here, the easiest bait of all is girls who choose to eschew the traditional Muslim headscarf, although of course the headscarf, or hijab, has a cultural signifiance that predates Islam. I think that the sight of female hair is not actually the main erotic stimulant, and rarely the part of the female anatomy which the teenage haranguers focus on. Instead, the absence of a headscarf is more of a perceived indication that a girl may be thought to be more liberal and possibly more permissive, more attuned to the proclivites of the Western World, presumably via the emerging channels of the internet and Friends and Oprah on MBC. A Western world where, as all us men from there know, women invariably respond favourably to a cry of "Come over here, you sexy bitch!" when shouted across a busy street.
And here we come to the creation of a devilishly twisted paradox. The young men on the street corners don't want young women to dress conservatively or wear headscarves. But through their behaviour, they often force women into wearing them. Fatma, a Morroccan girl, detests having to wear one and never would back home, but says that she just doesn't want to put up with the hassle over here. Consesequently, the boys act as agents for conservative values they most evidently do not share wholeheartedly. Why would the Koran-bashing fundamentalist mentals need to patrol the streets to enforce the dress code when they have an army of thousands who are unwittingly doing it for them?
Their own worst enemies, it would be easy to be harsh on the young men of Libya and if I was a young woman, I might feel very bitter indeed. What is normally relatively harmless harrassment can sometimes be what would appear to be a flustering and even disturbing experience. I once witnessed a blonde girl walking on the pavement being kerb-crawled by no less than three cars. The combined six or seven drivers and passengers were all shouting suggestive obscenities and wolf-whistling and she just continued to walk on, with her head bowed, lowering her gaze to the ground. Supposedly amusing male humour directed at women can sometimes teeter close to lynch-mob humour. Well, she wasn't wearing a hijab! And she was blonde! She was asking for it!
Having said that, I think, as my Libyan friend said, the general motive, if not effect, is more of a wind-up than an act of harrassment, though there must be some level of real misogyny at play. I am sure that the vast majority of men who whistle at women in the street do not expect it to elicit enthusiastic responses. So what response do they expect? Discomfort and embarrassment, presumably. I really don't know exactly what the expression they hope to see on girls' faces is. Maybe there isn't actually a word for it. There has to be something more than a little bit cowardly in targeting teenage girls of your sneering and bullying, even if you are a brainless teenager yourself.
On the other hand, it is hardly surprising that many young Arab men are not conditioned to deal with women in any meaningful manner. The only thing that they are really taught about women is that you should not go anywhere near them (and are literally policed - you can be pulled over and asked to prove the woman in your passenger seat is a relation) until you marry them, and then the rest will sort itself out. As Najib piously told me: "In front of a woman, we should just be polite and put our heads down to the floor and not even look at them in the face." It is not a code of behaviour I have seen heeded very much and indeed, Najib himself could not have been looking at the floor when he pointed out about a female colleague, "The way she dresses it is like she is saying she wants to have sex." The lady in question does not exactly dress like Cher on Oscar night and always wears a headscarf and has her knees and arms covered. It is useless to point out that the Koran proscribes modesty of dress for both women and men and after all, this admonishing did come a day after Najib had given me an unwelcome, conspiritorially laddish description of a girlfriend he says he has holed away in Tunisia. There is a hypocrisy towards women which is so deeply concealed in the male Arab psyche that I think it would be hard to even get one to acknowlege that it exists. It would not surprise me in the least if most of the female taunters that I see in the street are the first to unfurl their prayer mats once they are behind closed doors. Not that Libyan men are the only people guilty of pious hypocrisy or able to carry around totally contradictory ideas around in their heads.
It is amazing the extent to which women will go in order to preserve their modesty. Although women and families are normally segregated from the single male population on Libyan beaches, you do sometimes see women swimming, fully clothed in their abayas and headscarves.
I was walking in the corridor the other day when some locks of very long, flowing raven hair poked out of the side of an office girl's headscarf. Her female colleague realised and rushed to shield her as if her breast had been exposed.
Not that all Libyan girls are shrinking violets. A Polish-Libyan University student told me that a lot of her fellow students change their clothes and make-up in the toilets as soon as they get to the campus. I think we are talking jeans, rather than miniskirts and hotpants here though.
There is a feisty Libyan girl, Samira, at the company where I work who refuses to a headscarf, and openly discusses her favourite episodes of Sex and the City in the office. Her father died when she was younger, which leaves her with just her brothers to contend with. If a woman is seen to be too independent, her brother is likely to receive flak from his friends, on the grounds that he is not able to "control" his own sister, as it was put to me. I think that Samira's brothers must tear their hair out in trying to deal with her and, even though I have heard some men in the company say that she "must be a whore", another girl in the office confessed to me that she wished she could be a bit more like her.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Fear and Loathing in the Sahara Desert

I have been in the desert for four days now and every night I settle down in the evening to read Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in America, a collection of his letters from 1968 to 1976, by torchlight. This has made me mindful of the need to create a large enough body of correspondence, in order to support me in my pension years. I am not sure how this will work, as unlike HST I am not a writer, but anyway. Although, obviously HST will not be enjoying the royalties from Fear and Loathing in America as he shot himself to death last year.
Anyway, to that end I am writing this e-mail to you. I arrived in the desert on Monday night and stayed in the Funduq Afriqia and was Range Rovered by my guide/driver/cook/desert expert to the Jebel Acacus the next morning. Here, ancient volcanic rock structures protrude atop orange mountains of sand, like chocolate syrup spooling over the tops of massive scoops of mango ice-cream. No-one in sight for miles and miles around and, when the wind drops, only the sound of the plumbing of your own body. I am not against pickled sharks and silkscreens and elephant dung on canvas but when it comes down to the real thing, the natural world still has the edge on things of beauty that make me want to cry.
On the rock walls ten thousand year old carvings tell the tale of man the hunter to man the shepard and to man the vandal and man the defacer. There are some more recent Tuareg carvings, though of course they lack that subtlety of composition.
My Arab guide, Mohammed Omar, seemed to harbour ambiguous feelings about the Tuareg. Having forgotten to pack sugar, by day two he could no longer bear the horror of withdrawal and set about prowling the parts of the desert where he thought we might meet fellow travellers. We must have driven fifty miles but to no avail, when suddenly we saw a white vehicle maybe half a mile ahead. A frenzied chase ensued until the car, a white Isuzu pick-up, came into clearer view. Mohammed took his foot off the pedal, sighed and cursed, "They are Tuareg. They never give anything. They say they live here so, they don't give anything." There was some bitterness there.
He was a great guide though, even if his selection of road music wasn't quite to my tastes. Maybe Arab wedding music is an acquired taste but when those cats get into a drum groove, you had better hope it is a good one, as the chances are they will still be knocking out the same beat half an hour later. There must be a fearsome amount of repetitive stress injury amongst Arab rhythym sections. Still, the sort of guttral, Turkey-like sound that Arab women make when they are happy, particularly at wedding ceremonies, laid over the top made it a bit more interesting.
There was a nod towards Western music in the form of orchestral versions of Metallica songs and a convenient meeting of cultures half-way in the form of Cat Stevens's greatest hits. Music was also a topic of conversation, though I have to say Mohammed sometimes stretched my musical knowledge to its outer stratospheres. I had dealt with "What is a buffallo soldier?" and "What does 'I sit and drink Penny Royal Tea' mean?" to Mohammed's satisfaction when he hit me with "What is the name of that group, there are three girls and the letter X in their name?" I racked my brains in vain. I could have racked until wrack and ruin. The answer, after repeated questioning: The Cranberries. Jesus Christ! There is no X in the name, and only one fucking woman in the band!! Ah well.
After we left the Acacus, we made our way to the sand dunes. Now it has often been said that the colour of the modern cinema screen is so much realer than the real world. The dunes dispelled that myth for me. The two-tone richness of blue and orange, slowly turning to luminescent, radioactive grey as the moon rose was not just cinematic. It was even better than even better than the real thing. But the real thing at the same time.
I wandered lonely for a while and thought about all those dunes of sand. Almost on cue, a raven flew by going cawing like a rusty old motor and I thought about how these grains of sand were here before me and all my forefathers and they will bury the children of my children's children and maybe one day they will bury the entire human circus. Then again, I thought, I have more cells in my body than there are grains of sand in this whole desert (although I am not sure that is accurate) and the sand has no cells. Not even one. I can dance and sing and play the piano. I can live and love and hate and pray to be a better person. To make a minor correction: I can't sing and dance and my piano playing is not so good either.
The night was painfully cold. I awoke in the night and unzipped the tent and, able to see two hundred metres ahead of me, I surmised that the sun had returned and got unsleepingbagged and dressed to watch it. It transpired that it was merely the strength of the full moon that was giving me the ilusion of visibility almost as strong as the day. I went back to the tent, certain that with the discomfort of that cold, sleep was impossible. When I awoke, the day had broken. The guide told me that a fennec (a funny-looking desert rodent with big ears) had taken the left over chicken that he had left out for the ravens.
Next, we drove down to see the Ubari lakes, oasises in the heart of the Sahara. The oasis of Umm al-Maa ( Omm l-ilma) stood out for me. A shade of aquamarine, surrounded by reeds and bamboo shoots, surrounded by the dunes, it was like the hazy actualiasation of some parallel dream of a childhood imagination spent in the sun-kissed warmth of love and protection. A pity then, when a team of seven Italian scramblers dressed in orange shattered the stillness by charging up and down the dunes on their bikes. After a couple of minutes one of their entourage sensed that they were out of order and rushed out shouting "Basta per oggi. Ora basta!"
The last of the four lakes was Mandara. Here, a village community used to live, in front of a lake whose colours they say used to change from emerald to blue and even to red in places. However, in 1991, the village folk were forcibly removed by Gadaffi, presumably on the reasonable grounds of a lack of proper sanitation. The remains of their buildings still stand, though with walls and roofs caved in in order to stop any ideas of repatriation from the new concrete hamlet of Mandara Jedid, I think the guide said it was called. Not that they would want to move back now. Over the last couple of years, the lake has run dry and evem the reeds are beginning to die. Only a handful of Tuareg remain, selling ornaments and silver to the slow drip of tourists. As we drove off up into the sand, I looked back down on what must have once been such a harmonious scene of man and nature, now reduced to an impossible sadness.
Now I am back in Sebha, the largest Libyan town in the Sahara. My plane back to Tripoli leaves in four hours, so I will wander around until then. The people are not as surly and suspicious as I had been told they would be. There are clusters of black Africans at the roundabout in the centre of town, trying to sell their labour, though demand could never match up with the daily increasing supply that is flooding the route from sub-Saharan Africa to the coast. Still, if they have made it this far, they are only twelve hours by car from Tripoli and then, the other sea awaits. This time of water though, rather than sand. Maybe, if they are lucky, they will make it to Fortress Europe. Or be rewarded with a savage beating at the Hal-Safi detention centre in Malta.
I stayed at the Funduq Afriqia again last night, my last night here. I was watching a James Bond film on MBC2 in my room when the TV suddenly started changing channels on its own, settling on an Egyptian singer warbling a song called 'Salem Alekum', presumably the Arab riposte to Lionel Ritchie's 'Hello'. Not a ghost though. It transpired that there is only one cable connection in the hotel, which is linked to the TV in reception and illegally connected to all the other TV sets. Thus, the receptionist becomes the effective big brother. Not the Orwellian one who views us, but the one who decides, because size and might are right in the jungle of the living room, what we view on TV. In disgust I went out and bought a readily cooked chicken and ate it in my room. There was a restaurant in the hotel and eating a cooked chicken in your room may be against the rules, but I did it anyway. I guess you can take a hobo out of the streets, but you can't take the streets out of the hobo.
So for the few remaining hours I will roam the streets of Sebha and maybe read some more HST under a palm tree. Remember to keep this e-mail for posterity. Actually, maybe I will put in my blog. Yeah, I had forgotten about that. That's what I'll do.