Friday, May 11, 2007

Leaving Libya

It is three years to the day since I arrived in Tripoli and one year to the day since I left. Twelve more hours and I will be three years since I landed in the baking hair-dryer heat of Tripoli airport and was taken by company mini-van to the Baab Al-Bahar Hotel, where I gazed out of my lonely hotel room on the eighth floor. The view was a familiar one - the dull blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, tufted and ruffled slightly by balmy winds. I would have preferred a city view. In truth, the sight of the Mediterranean Sea bored me, though I was not that bothered. And so I looked out at a familiar sight from my past as I thought about my future in Libya.
What was on my mind that day? Certainly, there was trepidation. I really did not know what I was getting myself into. There is a lot in the guidebooks about Leptis Magna, Ghadames, the Sahara, the Medina, the history of Libya but as to day- to-day life, what my life was actually going to be like, what my job would be like for the next two years, I knew almost nothing.I had spoken to an Egyptian acquaintance who had lived in Tripoli about what to expect. He paused before replying “As long as you have a good job and live in a good place then it doesn`t matter where you are.” It wasn`t really the reassurance I had been expecting but I suppose, on reflection, a response not without its wisdom, as diplomatically phrased as it was. Another person who had lived in Tripoli told me not to worry. “It is not as if you are going to prison.” I am not sure if it is just my imagination or if he really added: “Not quite.” I had made a determined resolution though, that no matter how bad it was, I would stick it out.
And how did I feel just one year ago to this day? I can`t lie. I felt excited to be going. At the same time though, it was genuinely hard to be leaving. There was a sad, confounding feeling of dislocation that I had not even contemplated possible when I sat alone in my room at the Baab Al-Bahar. Is this really much of a life to live? To go to places and meet people and accept their hospitality and friendship and then, when it suits us, to up and leave forever? Finish the jigsaw and then break it up again and put it back in the box? It seems so heartless in a way, so ungrateful. Basim, to my astonishment, had even cried the day I left work for the last time. A year ago yesterday. Basim, an Everest of a mountain of a bear of a man and he cried because I was leaving? Clearly, he was insane but I was moved and patted him on the back and lied and said that I would see him again.
I went home and gave the rest of the stuff I couldn`t take to the maintenance men in orange boiler suits (a video, cheapo electric keyboard and portable radio) and packed my bags. The next morning, I gave the rest of my Libyan money to a welcome and unprotesting Mustafa and he waved me off as I caught a taxi to the airport.It is so hard to look back.

It feels like it was just a dream. Especially now I am so far away. I sometimes close my eyes and run a film in my head to try to imagine what is happening in all the places I have lived and loved and try to picture it just as I remembered it. And in Tripoli right now, another glorious sun has risen but the city is mostly still sleeping. The few people on the streets are in their traditional garb for the Friday prayers. Flowing white and brown embroidered robes and those matching brimless hats that Muslims wear. Perhaps packs of dogs pick at rubbish heaps in the Medina, the hawkers wheel their stalls into place at the Friday market, yellow taxis blaze past the fish stalls by the old lighthouse, suitcases are loaded onto the tops of minivans and buses heading south to Sebha, west to Tunis, east as far as Egypt even. Confused, aging, head-scratching, tourists stumble into the sunshine, fanning themselves with guidebooks.
And what about the place where I used to live, my flat inside the compound? Maybe yesterday morning at this time, someone was standing outside my company flat in the same place I used to stand waiting for our driver to take him to go to work to sit at my desk and do my job. But right now, presumably he is sleeping in my bed. These things are hardly the greatest mysteries of the cosmos but their strangeness can sometimes be hard to take in, to really accept as reality.
I thought it would be easier to reflect on Libya if I gave myself some time to allow my thoughts to sink in, to somehow melt into the mental stew of experience, to get a clearer sense of perspective. But in truth it is harder.
So hard now to believe that all that happened, that those people and things existed, far too many things to mention; the markets with monkeys, that office with the maps with Israel blacked out, Ali skulking in the corner, beaming Basim carrying desks on his back, the headless mannequins in boutique windows, the air-conditioner hose dripping into an over-flowing plastic jerry-can, talks with anguished Mustafa outside his internet cafe, barbecues at farmhouses on the outskirts of the city, dust, concrete, the blaring call to prayers, the shifty expat crowd and the good ones too, camels by the roadside, a Roman city to myself on a June afternoon, the Sahara desert stretching out into infinity, wedding dishes of camel meat and couscous the size of satellite dishes, satellite dishes like little suns on top of concrete houses in the orange haze of impossible, unreasonable suns that yield no mercy and then drop away so quickly like half-parried pinballs, into the abyss of the sea. All those warm, sometimes weary, smiles and handshakes, the sometimes unbearable kindness of strangers, the unremitting, sometimes unfathomable warmth, the maddening driving, living, working practices of the delightfully crazed Libyan people.

A people who sadly share the lot of all people born with the misfortune of being ruled by a tenured crackpot. To live in a sort of limbo of their own contemporary prehistory, waiting, much more in hope than expectation, for when their time will come to really join the modern world. And a people who for the most part carry that burden with such well-humoured resignation.
There was something bizarre happening on the streets of Tripoli on this day three years ago. Swarms of locusts had landed on Tripoli`s downtown streets. Clearly having detached themselves and taken a wrong turning from the rest of the swarm, they were hazily darting into windscreens like kamikaze pilots and wilting on the pavements. More than a few just missed my head as I made my way across the patch of wild wasteland outside the hotel and walked along the coast road. There were locusts everywhere; alarming little yellow winged beasts as big as humming birds everywhere you looked.

It is all so hard to come to try and understand all of it now. I was only in Libya for two years, a few drops in time. In truth, I may have put the pieces back in the box but I never came close to finishing the jigsaw. It is hard to make sense of these things as I sit here and my eyes wander to look through a new window at kids all decked out in white uniforms and caps on a terracotta baseball pitch at a new desk in what is still a new life in Japan.