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."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is poetry. I share the same feeling about these terrible old dirty guys, but I have ever enjoyed a lot sitting down with them and listen to their adventures in the desert or open sea.

Molestine (I start hating blogger)

10:54 pm  
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Blogger vellamatic said...

"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"


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