Friday, March 24, 2006

Defining Causes

The riot policeman outside the 11 June stadium seems nervous. He has a baton, which he uses to routinely prod spectators as they file into the ground but there is no real violence in his action. Inside, an aura of gentle, good-natured anarchy is in the air. Green and red flares are propelled towards the pitch to the rhythm of a constant drum beat that reverberates around the ground with the periodic explosions of cherry-bombs, as we prepare for the Tripoli derby. I am surprised to see that the Ahli fans seem to outnumber the Ittihad supporters by about two to one. I choose to sit down in a sort of buffer zone away from the throbbing of supporters. I am surrounded by more Ahli than Ittihad fans though. There are about 30,000 in the green of Ahli to my left and maybe 15,000 Ittihad supporters in red to my right. I decided there and then that I would be an Ahli supporter. There was not that much to distinguish between them as far as I could surmise, but once the choice is made, there is no going back.
Identity is often clearly delineated and established by defining oneself according to someone or something else. Some people define themselves by comparing their lot with the Joneses, although this may not be helpful as the Joneses may be operating in entirely different sets of circumstances. Britain defines itself by looking at Europe and America, though this can be problematic as Britain can not easily be compared to Europe, as it is a continent, or America, as it is a super-power. For Ahli and Ittihad there are no complications in defining themselves. They are defined against each other. Through mutual hatred, they both find a purpose, a reason to exist. They are like mirror images, born miles apart in the port of Tarabulus. They could have been brothers. Like Cain and Abel.
Inside the stadium, a teenage Ahli fan clambers over the fence and the steep trench separating the fans from the pitch and sprints along the running track with the green flag billowing behind him. To the cheers from the Ahli faithful, he charges towards the Ittihad mob, heading headlong into enemy territory, buoyed seemingly with the courage of that Chinese protester stopping a column of tanks of Tiananmen Square. But then a plastic bottle, launched from what must have been forty metres up in the stand, misses him millimetrically. Another lands at his feet. As more rain down, he slows, U-turns and beats a hasty retreat, with the Ahli cheers now drowned out by the Ittihad jeers.
Others follow suit, from both sides. Not quite brave enough to attempt the running track route, most instead head for the pitch itself. Out of range from the plastic bottles and half-dinar rubber mats meant for sitting on, the new game for one Ahli supporter is to leave his flag nestling on top of the goalpost, where the Tihad players are now warming up. Managing the task, he kisses the turf and returns to the warm embrace of the crowd. The Ittihad tribe does not like this. They send their own emissary, who also kisses the pitch, hugs his goalkeeper, displaces the Ahli flag from the roof of the goal, stamps on it and replaces it with a red Ittihad umbrella. As is always the case at football matches at these moments, there is simultaneously a roar and a groan. Soon there are a dozen fans on the pitch, racing around mazily, play-fighting, trying to tear flags out of each other's hands. Players from both teams continue to warm up, seemingly not bothered by the commotion or perhaps wise enough not to intervene. The police look on nonplussed. For now.
There are no women in the stadium and I would say the average supporter age is around 20. The almost exclusively male youth factor gives the crowd a raw energy that is so powerful that when Ahli go 2-1 half-way through the second half, it feels like the stadium is about to collapse. And stadiums have collapsed in Libya before.
As the kick-off nears, a particularly impertinent Ittihad fan appears behind the fence below to bait the Ahli crowd, lewdly grabbing his crotch and slapping the inside of his right elbow with his left palm. When one of the Ahli boys, with his allegiance daubed on his forehead in green paint, runs down to confront him, the Tihad scoundrel takes flight and retreats back to the safety of the red side, like a coward. 'Typical Ittihad' I think to myself. Neither of the boys are older than 10. In fact there are many children here unaccompanied. Some in groups, some on their own.
When Ittihad score a dubious late penalty to give a full-time 2-2 score line, things turn slightly nasty. The referee and his officials make a dash for the tunnel to escape the hail of debris. Moving faster, it must be said, than they did during the game. 'If only they had been a bit faster earlier', I thought to myself 'then maybe they wouldn't have to move so fast now.' Ali, who befriended me at half-time, is incandescent. He shows me an action replay of the penalty incident, which he has incredibly recorded using the camera on his mobile phone, though the picture quality is ridiculously bad. But I don't tell Ali that. He is somewhere else. In a place where people sometimes go when they are drunk or on drugs or angry and you can just not reach them. You can't take a bus or walk there, and you certainly can't use reason. I nod and he slowly calms down and tuts and surveys the emptying stadium. Only a few clusters of fans remain on either side. On the other side of the stadium, we can see some Ittihad fans break pieces of wood from the seats and hurl them at the police, all of who now have the visors down. They charge into the throng, and the crowd scatters up the terraces like a swarm of bees. Ahli fans fifty metres to our left respond by starting little fires. Ali tuts again and I motion to leave but he urges me to stay, saying that something else might happen. Something else at which he will doubtless tut disapprovingly. But there is nothing else, although I am later told that the Ittihad coach was injured by a piece of flying wood. As we finally leave I tell Ali that Ahli played well but he shakes his head. "Ahli are not good any more", he says. "We should beat them easily. In the past, in the 1980s, Ahli were one of the best teams in Africa." At first I thought that maybe I was wrong about Ahli defining itself against Tihad and in his talk of pan-African influence and domination, Ali was beginning to sound like someone else who came into mind. I understood how he felt though, as Ali had travelled from Brega, a ten-hour car journey, to see the game. Ali breathes and lives Ahli. Apart from the absence of an 'h', he actually is Ahli.
There is no use pretending though. Ahli will not reach dizzying heights in African football any time soon. Beating Ittihad is the one that really matters and deep down Ali knows that. I don't think Ali is really that interested in being Africa champions anyway. Africa just happens to be where Libya is, though I sometimes think Libyans wish they could detach their country and sail it somewhere else. Where else though? And what does Libya define itself against? It has borders with Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Sudan, Algeria and Egypt. It is also just 45 minutes from Malta and a bit further from Italy. But I don't think Libya defines itself by looking at any of these nations. Despite all the talk of African unity, Libya looks further east for its role models, to the Gulf states, which have comparative oil revenues and Islam, of course. 'Why are the Tunisians richer than us when they don't even have oil?' 'Why can't we be more like Kuwait?' 'When will we be more like Dubai?' 'When will we get proper roads, like they have in Saudi?' are all common questions which have been put to me. Of course, I can not answer them. Only one person can. He was once asked, in a manner of speaking, inside the 11 June stadium almost exactly 10 years ago when anti-government chanting broke out at the same Ahli-Ittihad fixture. The reply they got was in the form of machine gun bullets and eleven people died.
Some people just stopped going after that. When I asked Abdul Rahman who he supported he sighed and said, "I used to support Ahli, but I don't support anyone any more."

Friday, March 17, 2006


There are two staple jokes in my boss's comic repertoire, though neither are exactly jokes. The first of his comedic devices is to affect a funny nasal voice. The closest approximation that I can make is Kermit the Frog, though I don't think that Abdul Rahman has ever seen the Muppet Show so it is a funny voice entirely of his own creation. The second, and this works on two levels, is to say 'Good Afternoon' when it is half past seven in the morning and conversely to say 'Good Morning' at three in the afternoon. We finish work at three and do not socialize outside work, so he has not yet had the opportunity to employ the gag to its full, devastatingly funny effect at, say, 10 o'clock in the evening.
Now a great deal of, if not all, humour relies on some form of inversion. A man dressing up as a woman is just one example which springs to mind. Whoever said that sarcasm was the lowest form of humour was wrong. A man in a dress is lower. So I cannot fault Abdul for using a time-honoured comedic tradition. However, there is a general consensus that the very funniness of a joke dissipates with its repetition. This is the tragedy of comedy. It is intrinsically disposable, although this does not account for the way people will continue to double over at the sight of a man wearing women's clothes.However, what Abdul lacks in material, he makes up for with delivery. There is a wide-eyed enthusiasm to the way he says 'Good Afternoon' as I step through the door into work before the sun has come up that seems to suggest that he feels that he has tapped into some way to buck the law of diminishing comedic returns. He is the comedian who has laid the universal, golden joke. The joke that is funny for all people at all times. Of course, with this I cannot agree with him. Where I could once manage a titter, now the best I can do is grin for the duration of his glance to make sure that I am grinning and confirm to himself that the old magic has not deserted.
I don't dislike Abdul though. He is a genuine, honest, warm and conscientious person with only a modicum of the pomposity that comes with seniority in Libya. The best comic moment I have heard from Abdul's superior, Izdeeen, came after I told him that I was going out for a break. 'Have a break, have a Kit-Kat!' he replied. The smugness was written all over his face as he broke into laughter. 'That was a good one,' he was thinking to himself. 'I should be on a stage somewhere'.
And, after all, Abdul does have his funny moments, albeit sometimes unintentional ones. He was recently sent to Britain for a management course and returned with a hairstyle which resembled a member of the Jackson 5 who had just spent the day inside a tumble-dryer. The reason for his bouncing, exaggerated hair-don't was that in Manchester, where he had been doing the course, or at least been enlisted on a course, a haircut would have cost him 25 dinars, while in Tripoli he could get one for 3 dinars. There was no way he was prepared to cut into, or even trim, the generous expense account afforded by the company for the sake of a haircut. To Libyans, this is not a question of greed but often a simple matter of economic survival.
Despite virtually floating on oil and gas, the average salary for the vast majority of Libyan employees has been frozen at an annual 2,500 euros for twenty five years by the universally reviled and despised Law 15. However, companies can send their employees abroad for training where they are able to give them generous expense allowances. As students, they live as frugally as possible and return to Libya with the remainder of the expense money (probably about 95% of it), together with anything else they have managed to rustle up. The expense money is the only real windfall most men are likely to receive in their lifetimes. Women are not normally sent abroad. For some men, being sent abroad by their companies is the only opportunity they will have to save enough money to build a house and get married. Not getting married seems to represent some sort of pariah status and does not bear thinking about. I asked Bashir what you do if there is just no woman prepared to take you. "Then you marry an Egyptian," he said, with a smile, not seeming to countenance the fact that Egyptian women are, after all, women too.
While the sluggish Libyan work ethic can sometimes be exasperating, with salaries barely at a level of subsistence, it is hardly that surprising how little commitment there is at the work place. Work seems to serve more of a social function for many Libyans. Indeed, in the corridor outside my office sometimes they stop to chat and laugh for half an hour at a time. I would say something but normally they are high-ranking management, although joined by a cleaner, driver or whoever happens to be around. With wages so low, seniority becomes extremely important, although it is not a barrier to social interaction at work.
Many Libyans take second jobs, often working in shops that operate with a bare minimum of stock. A few weeks ago I was walking in the medina when I heard my name called out from someone inside a shop off Omar Muhktar Street. It was someone from work and I went in and we talked for a while. After a while I asked him how long he had been working there and he said, "Oh, I don't work here, I work over there", pointing at a mobile phone accessory shop (a particular favourite in Libya at the moment) across the road. The Libyan practise of closing your shop to go and sit in someone else's, or on the pavement, for a chat and a coffee is widespread. In theory, you should sit at on a plastic chair at a vantage point where you are able to monitor any potential customers coming and going. This does not always work though and sometimes you can stand around waiting to be served for five or six minutes, or until you decide to go somewhere else. It is also common to see a shop-keeper glued to a TV set, in an attempt to alleviate the crashing, careening boredom that is an occupational hazard of working in one of the multitude of small Libyan shops. An engineer told me that his wife had told him to leave his job at a prominent oil company and get a job as a taxi driver. But even this is not a guaranteed improvement in income. It costs twenty dinars to rent a taxi for the day, which means that you need to get seven or eight fares before you even start making money, which is not easy when you consider the number of taxis on the road. "I used to be able to charge ten dinars for a fare like this, but now I can only charge three," an older driver told me bitterly. Just as with the shops, there are too many taxis.
Someone sees a gap in the market for, say, an internet cafe and their business thrives until six other internet cafes open up around them, the market is saturated and then the pavement is lined with bored young men sitting in plastic chairs or watching the Arab version of 'Who wants to be a Millionaire?' Not that they would be bored enough to follow the Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans onto the construction sites.Even though Libyan slaries are so low, expatriate workers are of course competitively remunerated, although not exaggeratedly so. This creates a situation where the manager of a major oil company will earn little more than $250 dollars a month, while his foreign secretary is paid twenty times that amount.It is a situation which I also embarrassingly enjoy in my relationship with Abdul, though it is a taboo subject at work and has never been discussed, or even mentioned. I know that there is another employee who is very bitter about it, though he just stops himself short of saying so. I understand how he feels, but I didn't write Law 15, with its comic inversion which I suspect that even for Abdul, who replies 'Hi Hitler!' when someone says 'Hi!', ceased to be a laughing matter a long time ago.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Orange Men

I once saw an orange man praying in the shade of a satellite dish. Andy reckons that it was an orange man who stole his two bags of cement. It must have been at least two orange men, as they were big bags. Sometimes orange men set up base in the gardens of disused flats. Sometimes not disused ones. They travel on tractors with trailers attached to the back. One driving, the others in the trailer. There is one orange man outside Peter's house who uses the outside part of his air-conditioner as a clothes rack. When you see the orange men in the shop they are always buying tins of tuna and about twenty bread rolls. I sometimes see orange men out late at night, sitting on a bank of grass under the sodium street lights, which hum like giant mosquitoes. They can look slightly sinister, sitting there with scarves wrapped around their faces like bedouins. I don't think there is anything dangerous about the orange men though, as they slink around the compound in a somnolent slumber. Paula said that someone once found an orange man asleep on their bed when they got home from work. But I don't believe anything Paula says. I think the only difference between me and the orange men is opportunity.
The orange men aren't orange. They are, without exception, black Africans, from Somalia, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and other sub-Saharan countries. I call them orange men because of their uniform flourescent orange waistcoats. The orange men, and there must be around fifty of them, although it sometimes feels like there are a thousand, are there for the general purposes of security and maintenance. Maintenance includes things like pruning the trees, sweeping the road, setting the lawn sprinklers to water at least part of the grass, but mostly the road and security involves sitting around, staring into space. On my part of the compound, there is more than a fair share of orange men. They sit on pieces of cardboard on the lawn of a vacant flat, eating couscous out of bowls like satellite dishes. This is how everyone eats in Libya; huddled around an enormous bowl, with each diner carving out their hollow in the mass of food. The shape of a starfish emerges, and then the shape contracts into itself, just like a dying star. But most of the time they just sit there watching the world go by, like the audience at an interminably boring play, or perhaps the cast themselves, in Becket's 'Waiting for Godot.'
Hamid was my orange man. Of course, he wasn't in my employment but he seemed to have taken a liking to the area beneath my stairs. I didn't really mind him being there although when I walked out onto my balcony, which is on the first floor, he always seemed to be there and turned his head up, grinned in my direction and gave a wave. Sometimes I didn't really feel like waving back. I started to feel that I was being spied on when Maria told me that she had called round at my flat and Hamid told her that I was out. She asked him when I had gone out and he said something like. "Well, he left by car at 9.00. Then he came back at 10.00. I think he had been shopping. Then he went out again at 11.00. This time he was walking." The funny thing was that I didn't recall seeing Hamid. He had seen me though. I don't know what became of him. One day, he just wasn't around any more. He was a good guy though. He once climbed onto the roof with me to change the position of my satellite dish.
But sometimes I just wish the orange men would take a few weeks off. Just not be around for a while. I know an Irish woman who just got fed up with the orange men lounging on the lawn opposite her flat and snapped and screamed and bawled and chased the orange men away. They only came back later on though. It's not their fault though. There is just not much for them to do.
The shame about the black Africans in Libya is that many of them, at least the ones from Ghana, Nigeria. Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe possess a skill which remains unexploited. A skill which so many upwardly mobile Libyans so dearly covet - they speak English. There is an irony that Libya has an underclass which is able to speak English, while its middle classes spend so much time, effort and money trying to learn it. Maybe not all of Libya's sub-Saharan immigrants are cut out to be English teachers, but it might help Libyans learn English if they just spent a bit more time speaking to them. Instead, they are viewed with deep suspicion and there have been public demonstrations demanding their removal. I caught a taxi outside the African market a while ago and the driver told me that I should stay away from the market, that it was full of thieves. But I have been there twenty times and not been robbed or even seen the slightest hint of trouble. I have been to Rome, the centre of western civilization and the seat of the Catholic Church, once and been robbed once.
Some can be cling-ons though. The barber I go to at the African market is always asking me to help him to get a visa to enter Europe. I try to explain that if I walk into the embassy and say "Hey, I have met this barber down at the African market. Can you give him a visa please?" I will be summarily laughed out the door. There used to be another guy who would sit with my barber in his shop. I asked where he had gone. The barber dramatically pointed towards the sea with his scissors. The route to Europe which requires no visa. I would get him a visa if I could, but he doesn't understand that there is really nothing I can do.
There is much muttering on the compound that you are more likely to have your house robbed by an orange man than a resident. If you want to improve security, get rid of the security, they seem to be saying. I don't know if it's true though I did once see one making off with ِPaul's ladder. I think he was only borrowing it though. But then there is the issue of Andy's cement. There is no proof that it was orange men, but Andy was using it to build a fence on his garden because he was fed up with orange men leaving their pieces of cardboard on his lawn. (Want to improve the rubbish situation? Get rid of the rubbish men.) That they should steal the very materials which were being used to take away what they regard as their territory (virtually all of the area of the compound which is outdoors) would seem to make sense. They had the motive. But while it is highly possible that it was an orange man, it could just as easily have been a white one.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Vans

"In Libya, you don't catch buses. The buses catch you!" as Abdul Hamid put it. And on one score, he was certainly right. You could be walking down the pavement, minding you own business, maybe whistling a tune from the new Mohammed Hasan MP3 (maybe you wanted to get the original one and send some money his way, but you just couldn't find it. 'What the hell?' you might think. 'He's got enough money'). And while you are whistling the tune, minding your own business, you may find yourself accosted by the sound of a blaring horn from a driver on the other side of the road, who is actually heading in the opposite direction to the one who are walking in. A quick shake of the head suffices and they take off in another burst of speed, just to slow down at the sight of the next pedestrian.
On another account, though, Abdul Hamid was wrong. They are not exactly buses. There are no buses in Libya. Like many other things in a groaning infrastructure, there used to be buses and I have asked people about them but I have never got a clear answer. There were buses with uniformed drivers, tickets, bells, everything. But one day everyone woke up to find that they were gone. Or so it would seem. Or maybe it was just some hazy dream.
Instead, public transport (although the drivers seem to inhabit that grey area between public and private enterprise) is served by Peugeot 405s, but in the main converted Japanese mini-vans. There are Mitsubishis, Mazdas, Isuzus and Toyotas with as many seats crammed in as is humanly possible. Normally, humans manage about 14, with folding seats springing down from the side when all the others have been taken.
Riding in these vans is a lottery, or as Forrest Gump's mother put it, a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. At the crowded lower end of the scale, often the doors do not close properly and the windows do not open, particularly bad on summer's days. If you are a bit luckier though, the windows will be broken, wafting hot air into your face, relieving you from the stench of unwashed humanity inside the van. The seats often collapse at the slightest of touches. On one occasion, I sat down to find that my seat had an unusual reclining function. As I leaned back, I realized that my seat seemed to be reclining further back than should be physically possible, as I was at the back of the van. To my horrostonishment, it dawned on me that the back windscreen was open, and I was leaning back towards the surface of the road. I spent the rest of the journey in a forward foetal position, contemplating whether I would have survived the initial contact with the tarmac and if I would be conscious as the incoming traffic drove over me. I suppose falling out of a mini-van would be a slightly humorous way to go though, sort of like having a grand piano fall on top of you as you are walking down the road. I can just imagine the conversation in some faraway scene.
"What happened to that guy, who know what's his name? The guy who went to Libya."
"Oh him. Didn't you hear about him? Dead. He fell out of a van in Tripoli. Anyway, what are you having?"
"That's a shame. I'll have a pint please. And some crisps. Salt and vinegar please."
On another occasion, a mini-van driver who had been chatting on his mobile pulled over to the side of the road mid-journey and ordered everybody out, did a swift u-turn and drove off. He was apologetic, but there was just somewhere else that he needed to be.
As unpredictable as the mini-vans are as a means of transport, it has to be said that they are extremely cheap, at a quarter or half a dinar (about 15 or 30 euro cents) and very regular, with one passing by virtually every two minutes most of the time.
The absence of a bell means that the driver must be verbally requested to stop, with either of the commands "Alla yemin" (to the right) or "Alla genb" (to the side). At least in theory.
In my early days in Tripoli, I boarded an empty mini-van and naively sat in the back window seat, the same type which I was later to nearly fall out of. I anticipated that it would provide greater legroom, which it did, until someone sat in front of me and his seat involuntarily reclined to about six inches from my lap. Indeed, as more people got on, my initial smugness at having bagged the best seat on the van slowly waned and then evaporated as I realized that I would have to dislodge or clamber over at least seven bodies barring my way to the exit of the sliding door. Besides that, poised as I was on crying out "Alla yemin" as we neared my planned destination of the Orange Shop, the words would not come out. I knew that I would have to say it at a volume loud enough to distract the driver, who was deep in conversation with a passenger over the sound of Scorpions on the stereo. I was so conscious that my pronunciation would come under the scrutiny of 13 people probably desperate for a little amusement that I froze as we flew past the Orange Shop and I caught a confused glimpse of the Orange Shop proprietor, sitting as he always does, in a plastic chair on the pavement, with a bottle of mineral water at his feet and his mobile in his lap. In the next life, it was said, the meek shall inherit the earth. In this one, they must sometimes walk the extra mile.
If I had been wiser, I would have opted for the long front seat, shared by the driver. This is the most comfortable of seats though there is one drawback in that the incumbent must take on the responsibility of collecting fares. This seat is sometimes designated by the driver's companion, much in the same way that Maltese bus drivers sometimes have a buddy sitting to their left, to chat to and relieve the boredom and frustration they encounter as they traverse the island's perilous roads. In Libya, the prized front seat is normally up for grabs. I am always impressed by the way drivers strike up immediate friendships with whoever sits beside them. When Libyans complain that Westerners are unfriendly, I used to think that their definition of friendliness was a mis-diagnosis of what is actually an intristic reluctance to talk bullshit with every stranger that you come across in every given situation. However, there is some credence to what they say. Western people are less friendly than they used to be. Even I remember it, and I am not old. When my car broke down in Libya, I was surrounded by swarms of people offering to lend assistance. The very same people who, I have to confess, I would probably have no hesitation driving past if the tables were turned and they were in my predicament. Perhaps even with a smirk. Ah, what have we lost? And how can we ever get it back?
This week, for the first time, as an empty van slowed to pick me up, I decided to take the bull by the horns and sit next to the driver. And this was no ordinary van. It was an 8-seater Hyundai Trajet, in truth more of an SUV than a mini-van and it looked like it had just come out of the factory, replete with plastic covering the upholstery (The plastic still on the furniture/car seats is a common motif in Libya. The driver who takes us to work, Aymen has even fashioned his own plastic covering on his headrests, using polythene). Sitting in the front, in the cockpit, of this fine vehicle, I was more than ready to assume the role of half-dinar collector. I would even bark "Nofs dinar biss!" (only half dinars!) at anyone who gave me a note of denomination that was too large. Sadly, I think the unusual sight of such a grand car put people off. Perhaps they thought it was a taxi. Whatever the reason, despite generous helpings of horn being administered at every pedestrian in sight, no-one got on board. We didn't catch anyone.