Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mustafa and Fatima

Mustafa had a preoccupation which was torturing him night and day. A teenage problem really, but in the Arab world, puberty seems to arrive ten years later. Or maybe not. Mustafa said that he was the only one from all his friends who was still a virgin. He said that it wasn't so much that he wanted to have sex but that he didn't want to be the only one left out. He said that all of his friends had had sex but I just didn't believe him. I would not normally be so dismissive a young person's account of what his own generation is up to, but when it comes to sex, you have to be wary. Lies are the nasty cold that sex caught and just can't shake off. People lie about sex, people lie to get sex and then lie and then say that they haven't had sex. Some even lie during sex. But more commonly people lie and say that they have had sex when they haven't. This is the most favoured lie amongst young men and it is a lie that is virtually one of the necessary pains of growing into adulthood. I told Mustafa that all young men lied about sex. I told him that it was the same in my day, that all the boys lied, that I lied, that everyone lied and lies about sex, that even several Presidents of the United States had lied about sex but he didn't seem to believe me.
Fatima, who cleaned my flat every week, can not lie. She is not a virgin. Young men love to speculate about which girls or aren't virgins, but unless you are actually the mother of God, childbirth settles the argument incontrovertibly. We know for sure that Fatima has had sex at least once. Fatima's daughter, Selma, is six. I asked Fatima if she was married and once she told me that she was divorced and another time she told me that her husband had died in a traffic accident. I don't think she wanted to lie; it is just that she was ashamed. The truth emerged later. Extremely rare in the Muslim world, and so hard to believe of Fatima, who is so pious and god-fearing, Selma was born outside marriage.
So great is the taboo on sex outside marriage that in Libya, women who are, to use the official terminology "vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct" are locked up indefinitely in rehabilitation centres, described by Human Rights Watch as "de facto prisons." The moral misconduct that these women and girls, some as young as 16, are guilty of is invariably that of having had sex, sometimes without consent. Disowned by their families, their fate falls into the hands of the state, which is itself criminally inept and insensitive to delicate social issues. Upon admission to these centres, the girls are subjected to virginity inspections. So after being raped, they are disowned, they then have their vaginas inspected and then, when they have been stripped of every shred of human dignity, they are imprisoned.
Only God knows the limits of suffering that can be inflicted by those who really believe that they are serving the greater good, and whether such misguided fools actually inflict any less pain than truly evil men. But while there are no corresponding institutions for men who have engaged in illicit sexual activity, it is not only the women who suffer.
A friend told me about a Libyan work-mate who had discovered that his unmarried daughter was pregnant. He walked to the roof of the three-story building where they worked and jumped off, head first. Miraculously, he survived. After many months he recovered and finally returned to work where he promptly did the same thing, this time successfully. They say that in the west, the concept of shame wilted away and died, that it was trampled to death by individualism. In the Arab world, it has never been healthier.
So I have to take it with a pinch of salt when Mustafa tells me about his braggart friends. A few of the more adventurous among them may have visited a Moroccan prostitute or two, but I expect that that is the limit of their collective sexual experience. It is actually a well-known fact that the guards at the compound where I live trade access through the gate for sex with African and Moroccan cleaners. One form of access for another, to put it crudely. But Mustafa's friends boast of having sex with Libyan girls. I asked Mustafa where they would even go to have sex for a start and he went silent. "There are places," he finally protested. I might be wrong but I don't believe that they have sex any more than the boy at school who told me that his father was Batman.
In Fatima's case, her predicament was brought about by sex and though I think that, like seemingly quite a few women by their late 20s, Fatima would be quite happy to put sex behind her. But it refuses to go away. Fatima complained bitterly of harassment from the guards and I told her that I would speak to them about it and she said that if I did that then there was no way they would ever let her into the compound again. And so it continued and then one day Fatima just stopped coming. Maybe she found a full-time job. She always talked about catching a night-boat to Europe and I told her that she would be crazy to as she can not even swim and that they often throw people out miles from the shore. She always pined for home and talked about how much she missed her daughter and kept dropping hints so in a mad fit of generosity I gave her 500 dinars (300 euros) to go to Morocco for Ramadan. To be honest, I felt relieved by the prospect of having some Saturday mornings without the noise of the vacuum cleaner or constantly having to shift rooms like a Bedouin in my own home but sure enough, come Saturday she turned up at 9.oo a.m. sharp as usual saying that she had sent the money to her mother to spend on Selma. At first I felt angry, but then I suppose that once I had given it to her it was her money to do with what she liked. But where she is now, I do not know.
As for Mustafa, he has a girlfriend now. They don't have sex but they meet and sit in the light of the monitor screen at an internet cafe, one of the very few haunts where young men and women can meet like boyfriend and girlfriend. Sometimes they even hold hands. For now, that is enough. It will have to be enough.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Funky Old Medina

When I first arrived in Libya, the company put me up at the Baab Al-Bahar (Door to the Sea) Hotel in Tripoli. The Baab Al-Bahar is a five star hotel which one must assume beat up a smaller hotel in a fight and took a few stars off it, as not all of its five stars seem to have been acquired through any legitimate means. But despite its modest service, its passable buffet and the unpredictably of its souvenir shop's opening times, it has a location on the Tripoli coastline unenvied even by Tripoli's genuine five star Corinthia Bab Al-Africa (Door to Africa this time). The Corinthia, by far Libya's plushest hotel, is a near-skyscraper of a building with a shadow whose radius reaches and almost hits the Bab Al Bahar and then turns to rest and fade on the Medina as the sun sets.
While some of the Corinthia's residents' windows face the sea, others directly face the ancient limestone walls of the Medina, fronted by the fronds of massive palm trees. What the international business traveller will not be able to see, as he enjoys this pleasant, perhaps exotic, view from his hotel room is that the ground at the top of the ramparts is covered, in places knee deep, with rubbish. Also, there are dogs.
It is almost two years to the day since I left the Baab Al-Bahar to explore the Medina for the first time. As I waved to the receptionist, who unusually for one in his profession did not speak a word of English, those dogs were waiting. I was just a blip on their radar. Perhaps they were slumbering, all curled up at the top of the steps. They were probably in precisely the same position when I next saw the receptionist only fifteen minutes later, as his puzzled eyes settled on the tattered, gnawed hem of my trouser leg, now unraveling from the bermuda type leg wear I had fashioned from the remaining material after an encounter with three large, white dogs at the top of the steps of the Medina wall. They had only drawn a little blood and as concerned and embarrassed onlookers gathered round after I had reached the safety of the ground at the bottom of the steps, I had to laugh. One street hawker remonstrated with a bemused old man at the top of the steps, the owner of the dogs. I told them that it was OK. As I was later to notice the more I used the Medina, it was his area, that bit at the top of the steps. His daytime hangout. Impeding access to a UNESCO Heritage Site, albeit, but his area none the same.
The contrast between the pampered luxury enjoyed by visiting oil company executives at the Corinthia and the extreme poverty in parts of the Medina, just yards away could not be greater in any one place in all of Libya. But the Medina is not a joyless, souless place. Its aging beauty may be crumbling as its veil slips to reveal the scars of the tumbling years, but it is definitely not dead.
Between the narrow western gate and Rashid Street, shouts of "saraf, saraf, change money, change money" compete with the "Sebha Sebha" "Benghazi Benghazi" Tunis Tunis" of taxi drivers. Their roof-racks are slowly loaded with market trader's wares which set off on back-breaking journeys in all directions. The journey starts when the car is full - unless the passengers decide they have waited long enough and agree to split the fare to compensate for the shortfall.
Outside the gate, an impromptu trade in second-hand mobile phones has sprung up during the day, joined by the desperate caravan of the burglars' market at night. You enter the Medina and the first thing that strikes you is the stench of a small mountain of fresh rubbish. As you walk through the narrow, labyrinthine streets, ebony-skinned ladies emerge from black shadows, with babies cradled to their chests. Young girls sit on blanket pitches on the pavement selling Chinese shoe polish, Vaseline, razor blades, plastic combs and matches. As the sun sets, an a cappella muezzin cups his hand to his mouth and booms out the haunting call to prayers.
At its heart, where the copper and gold markets sway to the beat of the smith's hammer and men polish silver in tiny doorways, the Medina is a humming hub of activity, if not of opulence. But then you turn a corner and come face to face with rubbish cascading out of demolished houses like frozen waterfalls. Houses which look like they have just groaned and collapsed and been left to rot and, with bed frames, cookers, fridges and boilers rusting away. Little African markets set up stall in some of the vacant wasteland, selling fake designer gear, second hand clothes, pots and pans but lately these have been moved away and now the rubbish is rising in this space as well, like a man-made fungus that spreads over everything in its way . Here and there are the more permanent African presence of little cave-like barber shops in the walls, decorated almost obligatorily with life-size murals of the near demi-god poet and prophet of sub-Saharan Africa, Bob Marley.
In truth, there is little that is magic about the Medina. There is nothing here which could easily leap into the glossiness of a travel agent's brochure. But then again, magic is just trickery anyway. I am not sure how I feel about the Medina. I love to get lost in it but I do not think I would like to live a life of having my lungs filled with putrid, rotting refuse as I jostle down narrow streets with teams of goats. This was once not only Tripoli's centre but in fact all that Tripoli was and now it is considered the worst part of the city to live in. I feel that there is something unyielding and stubborn about it, perhaps even unwittingly, a refusal to be shaped and bought, gentrified and sanitised by popular ideals. But then the concrete patch-up jobs caked onto layers of clay on limestone will not hold the walls up forever. The heart of the city is certainly not dead yet, but its foundations are slowly slipping away from it. Maybe, in some ways, the Medina is a lot like the person who keeps it the way it is.
There is no magic but I remember once walking through the Medina at dusk during Ramadan and seeing a barefoot toddler run full pelt through the alleys, holding a bag of French loaves aloft like a trophy shouting the Libyanised Italian "mangaria mangaria" just as the naked light bulbs protruding out of masses of wires sagging over the alleys flicked on. I walked down the narrow way that leads past the old Ottoman Harem, later the British Consulate, past the floodlit Aurelian Arch onto the seafront. There was a warm breeze blowing but Tripoli Castle was reflected perfectly in the water. There was not a single soul in sight and it felt like I had the whole city to myself.