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.


Blogger khadijateri said...

Imagine how doctors must feel. They study for years only to end up making 250 dinars a month. No one in Libya even respects doctors anymore. It's not uncommon for them to be insulted by patients or their patient's families. Sometimes verbal abuse leads to physical abuse!

Of course Libyans all think the magic answer is to open their own business. But they all think it's a get rich quick scheme and can't understand why they aren't rich after about a month. Not everyone is cut out to be a shopkeeper - most have no idea how to run a shop or how to treat a customer.

I once asked a teenage neighbour boy if he wanted to come and do odd jobs for me and make some pocket money. He said 'What kind of odd jobs?' and I told him 'Sweeping the sidewalk and the steps in front of my building and helping me wash carpets. Stuff like that.' I was prepared to give him 5 dinars an hour. It would add up to a decent salary for a Libyan teenager and get him off his parents back. He was always nagging and complaining about not having all the things he wanted, but he was horrified that I would suggest that he would do work that a black African should be doing. He said he wanted a job in a shop.

I mention here that he never got a job in a shop - all the shops in our area had shopkeepers sitting idle. Why would they want to employ someone to sit idle with them? So the boy had no job, no income and nothing but complaints about how poor he was. . . sigh . .

5:43 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Thanks for the interesting comment khadijateri. I think 5 dinars an hour would have been a pretty generous wage by Libyan standards. A lot of people only make 5 dinars a day, although that is ridiculously low of course.

10:27 am  
Anonymous Sebby said...

The people I talk to who are struggling to make decision whether they are going to let their dream come true or not are pretty happy I`ve realised.

4:54 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Thanks for that comment Sebby. It has made my day.

10:09 pm  
Blogger Molestine said...

My former arabic teacher used to tell me the story of his son who is grduated and dediced not to work and instead open a shop....
That's why shopping in Libya is not that nice. They are really excellent buyers, but selling is not their best activity

11:09 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

I know what you mean molestine. I wanted to buy a carpet which was displayed outside an unattended shop. The guy in the neighbouring shop said that they would be back soon. I returned an hour later, and then the next day and then a week later but I never found anybody in.

10:17 am  
Blogger david said...

Cyberdigger - a certain Stephen Clarke has made a mint with his book "A Year in the Merde" - a funny, observant but fairly trivial account of life in France seen through the eyes of a Brit. He went on to publish "Merde Actually" and my spies tell me that he's onto his third book.

Thajjar xbin!

1:45 am  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Well, I don't know if I could pad out a whole book, but if you come across publishers interested in such an unlikely premise for a book, don't hesitate to let me know. There is always more material out there.

2:03 pm  
Blogger Erezija said...

And how would My life in the Merde translate in a Libyan context, i.e. what's LIbyan for shit? but are you in the shit cyberdigger? I think not.

10:51 am  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Well, I think zeft is the word for shit. I am not in it. Yet. But I may have gone out on a limb and my cover is about to be blown. Watch this space.

12:28 pm  
Blogger Molestine said...

Are you Ok?? shall I wait for Cyberdigger unveiled? Wow, I'll watch out.

3:56 pm  
Blogger Erezija said...

fingers crossed

10:17 am  
Blogger david said...

Cyberdigger, Erezija - the "Merde" in the title turns out to be a little unfair considering the actual contents of the book. Ok, he does have to juggle with 'strange French habits and pronunciation' (remember he's a Brit). But apart from that it's a walk in the park. Or rather a romp considering the variety of Veroniques and Marie's he encounters (and beds) on the way...

so no need to exaggerate the "hara" side of things... :-)

12:06 pm  
Blogger Hannu said...


Interesting blog you have. I came across it about a week ago and still kind of figuring it out... Eventually, I'll get the hang of it.

Zift means asphalt which is black, hence the use to describe tarry situation, affair, state of mind, etc.

10:51 pm  
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