Francisco Real killed people. He smuggled illegal immigrants. He sold drugs and collected taxes for the Mexican Mafia. He ran a gang and family criminal enterprise that made his street in Glassell Park one of the most dangerous in Los Angeles. But L.A. being the city of reinvention, last week...
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Young men who like their comforts, and a dainty table, or who wish to pass
their time pleasantly in the company of women, must not go to Arabia.
Carsten Niebuhr, Description of Arabia, 1772
When you visit another country, its hard to get a feel for what its
actually like until you leave your hotel room, go for a walk, take a look around,
and hang out while soaking it in. Not so in Libya. All you have to do there
is show up. It will impose itself on you at once.
My Air Afriquiya flight touched down on the runway next to a junkyard of filthy,
gutted and broken-down Soviet aircraft in an airport otherwise empty of planes.
When I stepped out of the hatch into the jetway, I came face to face with three
uniformed military goons who scrutinized me and everyone else from behind reflective
Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, mastermind of the 1969 Al-Fateh Revolution (a euphemism
for his military coup), Brother Leader of the Great Socialist Peoples Libyan
Arab Jamahiriya, greeted arrivals in the passport-control room from a menacing,
almost snarling, gold-gilded portrait. A translated overhead sign (rare in Libya)
said Partners Not Wage Earners. In other words: Dont expect to be paid.
A bored official glanced at my visa, rubbed his face, stamped my passport and
pointed me toward my first Libyan checkpoint. A man in an untucked button-up
shirt, with a cigarette jutting out the side of his mouth, waved me toward a
metal detector. He hadnt shaved in two days. I walked through. The alarm screamed
and I braced for a pat-down. He just stood there, took a long drag on his cigarette
and stared bleary-eyed into space over my shoulder. I guessed that meant I could
go. So I did.
There were no other planes coming or going, so it was easy to find my ride.
His name was Abdul. He wore a snazzy black-leather jacket and a Western-style
The Andes of sand:
Grand Erg Oriental
Welcome to Libya! he said as he led me into a parking lot the size of an Applebees.
Were really busy right now. This is Libyas high season. They must shut down
the airport entirely during the low season.
The capital city of Tripoli was an asteroid belt of monolithic apartment towers
with all the charm of gigantic sandblasted filing cabinets. The streets were
mostly empty of cars, the sidewalks empty of people. I saw no restaurants, no
cafés, no clubs, no bars and no malls. Nor did I see anywhere else to hang out.
Libya, so far, looked depopulated.
We drove past a shattered former government compound surrounded by a lagoon
of pulverized concrete that once was a parking lot. It was obvious when that
thing was built. The 1970s were the 1970s everywhere, even in Libya.
Only as we approached the center of Tripoli did traffic pick up. Hardly anyone
walked around, and it was no wonder: A mile-long pit on the side of the road
appeared to be the place to give juice bottles, plastic wrappers, garbage bags
and worn-out tires the heave-ho.
I saw no corporate advertising: no Pepsi signs, no movie posters and no cute
girls flashing milk-mustache smiles for the dairy industry. I did, however,
see one hysterical propaganda billboard after another. They were socialist cartoons
from the Soviet era, the same kinds of living museum pieces still on display
in North Korea and other wonderful places where starving proles live in glorious
The Happy Worker theme was a common one; smiling construction workers wore hardhats,
and Bedouins-turned-widget-makers basked in the glory of assembly-line work.
One poster showed two hands chained together at the wrist below an image of
Qaddafis sinister Green Book descending from heaven.
At the hotel I ran into my second Libyan checkpoint. A metal detector was set
up at the entrance. A young security agent sat at a metal desk and showed off
his open copy of the Green Book. He propped it at such an angle that I could
read the cover, but he couldnt possibly read what was inside.
I stepped through. The alarm screamed, detecting (perhaps) my dental fillings
or zipper. He looked up, gave me a nodding whats up, dude smile, and went
back to pretending to read.
I poked around the lobby while Abdul checked me in at the desk.
The gift shop offered a wide range of totalitarian propaganda books and pamphlets
in multiple languages. A fantastic selection of Qaddafi watches ranged in price
from $25 to $600. I bought one for $25. Qaddafi is shown wearing his military
uniform, officers hat and sunglasses like a swaggering Latin American generalissimo.
It was busted right out of the box, the hour hand stuck forever at 9 oclock.
The lobby was plastered all over with portraits of the boss in various poses.
He wore shades in most of them, but in some pictures from his early days, he
wore a buffoonish 1970s haircut instead.
I had to suck down my giggles. God, was this guy for real? His unexportable
Third Universal Theory was internationalist insofar as it obliterated
any sense that Tripoli was Middle Eastern or African at least from the point
of view of the back seat of the car. I could have been in any former Soviet
republic, or even in some parts of the Bronx. But look at those portraits! Now
there was something exotic.
Most of the other men in the lobby (I hadnt seen any women since I landed)
looked like Arab businessmen who bought their suits from Turkish remainder bins.
The only expensively dressed man sat at a shiny wooden desk, the kind youd
expect to see at a law firm. He had no work in front of him, not even papers
to shuffle. His job was to stare holes through everyone who stepped in and out
of the elevator.
There were no towels in my room. The bathroom was, however, generously stocked
with products, all of them packaged in green the color of Islam and Qaddafis
so-called revolution. The hotel gave me green shampoo, green soap, green bath
gel, green toothpaste and even a green shoehorn and comb. All were clearly (and,
I must say, unnecessarily) marked Made in the Great Socialist Peoples Libyan
Arab Jamahiriya. There was no booze (its banned), no soda, no water, no juice
in the mini-bar. A burn the size and shape of a deflated basketball was seared
into the carpet.
I switched on the TV: nothing but hyper state-run propaganda. I couldnt lower
the volume (the knob was broken), but at least I could change the channel and
choose whether I wanted to be droned at or screeched at in Arabic.
My window overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and, closer in, a drained and stained
swimming pool. There was a forlorn rocky beach down there, cut off from the
hotel and everything else by a blank gray slab of a wall. The cold wind whistling
into the room from the patio sounded like moaning ghosts trapped in a well.
Tripoli's main souk:
Not one of the
me when I walked by.
Until the middle of 2004, Americans were banned from Libya, not
by Qaddafi but by our own government. The travel ban has been lifted, but tourists
are still required to book their trip through a Libyan agency. The regime wont
tolerate tourists running around loose on their own. You can make your own trip
you dont have to be a part of a tour group but youll still be baby-sat by
I didnt go to Libya to see the sights such as they are. I wanted to see a
once-forbidden country as it really was. So I set out on foot on my own while
I had a brief chance.
It was a jarring experience.
The main drag along the sea into the city was one straw short of a freeway.
There were no houses, businesses, restaurants or shops along the way only
clusters of vertical human-storage units surrounded by empty lots the size of
Trash was smeared on the sidewalks. It clogged all the street gutters. Almost
every available blank space (and, oh, were there plenty of those) was a dumpsite.
I got agoraphobia walking around. The streets were too wide, the buildings too
far apart, the landscape barren. The traffic was too fast, too close and too
hectic. I was pinned on a thin ribbon of sidewalk between the Mediterranean
and the freeway.
There was no way I could cross that river of mayhem and steel unless I found
a traffic light and a crosswalk an unlikely event from the look of the place.
There wasnt much worth seeing on the other side anyway. Those towers and the
empty lots strewn with soda cans, candy-bar wrappers and billowing plastic bags
didnt get any prettier as they got closer.
The sea was all but boarded up behind blank white walls and a decayed postindustrial
concrete catastrophe of a waterfront. In the few places I could get a glimpse
of the shoreline, it didnt have the look and feel of the familiar Mediterranean,
but rather an inland sea in a Central Asian republic. The city felt harsh and
jagged, and the close but unreachable sea could not take the edge off.
Three young boys crouched next to the dry side of the seawall. They ran up when
they saw me and asked for cigarettes. Those kids could not have been older than
10. I had two choices corrupt Libyas youth or be a stuffy, uptight naysaying
American. I chose to corrupt the children. When I handed over the smokes, each
slapped his fist on his heart and cried, Allahu Akbar!
The freeway continued as far as I could see without any way for me to cross
it. Traffic was relentless, and I didnt dare wade into it without knowing the
rules. I could have just bolted in front of the cars and they would have stopped.
But I hadnt been in the country for even two hours. I didnt know how anything
worked yet. So I went back to the hotel and ordered some dinner.
Id say that was my mistake, but I did have to eat.
At the restaurant, there was no sign that said Please Wait To Be Seated. Should
I seat myself? Who knew? I felt ridiculous just standing there at the entrance.
So I found a table.
A waiter finally came over.
Are you a tourist? he said.
Yes, I lied. Libya is a total-surveillance police state. One person in six
works for the secret police. Best, I thought, to keep my journalistic intentions
For tourists we have fish, he said. He did not give me a menu. I didnt see
a single menu anywhere in the country. In Libyan restaurants, you sit down and
eat whatever they give you.
What kind of fish?
Eh, he said, taken aback by the question. Fish. Fish. You know, fish.
Great, I said. Ill have the fish.
He brought me two small fish the size of my hand, each fried in a pan. Heads,
fins and eyeballs were still attached. Bones and guts were inside. They tasted
bad and smelled worse. The businessmen at the tables around me drank nonalcoholic
Becks beer. But all I got was a bottle of water.
his Land Rover
Abdul picked me up again in the morning. His job was to show
me Tripolis sights. There werent many: Green Square, the museum, and an old
city smaller than downtown Boise. Thats it. Thats all there is.
We started with the museum. Phoenician and Roman artifacts were on the first
floor. Upstairs was the Islamic period. The top floor was entirely dedicated
to the glorification of Qaddafi.
One room displayed gifts to the colonel from foreign officials and heads of
state swords, jeweled boxes, a crystal map of Palestine that included Tel
Aviv. A living-room set upholstered with a tacky floral print was roped off
in a corner. Thats where el-Qaddafi sits with foreign guests he wants to impress,
Right outside the museum was Qaddafis Green Square which isnt green, by
the way. Its famous, but it shouldnt be. This is no Italian piazza were talking
about. Its an asphalt parking lot ringed by a six-lane urban speedway.
The nice thing about Green Square is that its central. The Italian quarter,
built by Italy during its fascist-imperialist period, is on one side. The old
city the medina is on the other.
The medina was the only neighborhood that looked Middle Eastern. Too bad much
of it also looked like the back-street slums of Havana. Not all of it, though.
A few buildings like the old mosques, a soaring clock tower and the Arch of
Marcus Aurelius were stunning.
It was a pleasant place, actually. Ancient buildings with handcrafted details
on them are dignified even in squalor. Rotting grandeur is still grand, after
The streets were too narrow for cars. Not one of the shopkeepers harangued me
when I walked by as they did constantly in Tunisia when I visited there a few
months ago. There were hardly any cheap tourist gimcracks on sale. I could walk
the old city in peace.
Almost everything was solely for local consumption: clothes, fabrics, jewelry,
shoes, batteries and so on. One of the narrower streets was lined with almost
medieval metal forges where copper pots and crescent moons for the tops of minarets
were banged into shape with hammers and tongs over fires.
I didnt see theaters, clubs or any other places of diversion or entertainment.
Until two years ago, Abdul said, there was nothing to do in Libya but sleep.
Things are better now.
Things werent much better, though. Libyas economy was still mostly socialist.
There will be no fun without capitalism. Sorry. The state just isnt gonna provide
it, especially not a state that cant even pick up the garbage.
So, Abdul, I said as we walked through the souk. How many Libyans wear a
Um, he said, and laughed grimly. Not very many. There are, you know, enough
pictures around. He leaned in and whispered, I dont like him much, to be
I had imagined not.
Look over there, he said, and pointed with his eyes. You see those two?
I saw a couple in their mid-20s chatting next to one of the gates to the old
city. He wore a black-leather jacket, she a long brown overcoat and a hijab
over her hair. They stood close together but didnt touch. They looked soft,
comfortable and content together as if they were married.
Five, ten years ago I never saw anything like that. It was absolutely forbidden.
He told me to take off my shoes as he led me into a mosque. Seeing the handmade
carpets, high ceilings, marbled walls, Roman columns, intricate tile work and
soft lighting was like slipping into a warm bath for the soul. The heart-stopping
beauty and serenity of the mosque in this harsh urban parking garage of a landscape
was a strong incentive for piety, I suspected. Im not religious, but I could
see why some sought refuge from the modern in God. Modernity in this oppressive
dystopian city was a spectacular galactic-size failure.
Berber city forcibly
evacuated by Qaddafi
( bottom): Inside Ghadames,
Libya's emptied adobe
He dropped me off at my hotel before dark. Now that I knew the
layout of the city, I decided to return to Green Square alone. I wanted to know
what the real Tripoli, the not-touristed Tripoli, looked like.
It was worse on foot than by car, and exactly what I expected: all right angles
and concrete. Almost everyone in this part of town lived in a low barrackslike
compound or a Stalinist tower. Landscaping didnt exist. There were no smooth
edges, no soft sights, nothing to sigh at. Tripolis aesthetic brutality hurt
I walked parts of the city hardly any foreigners ever bothered to see. It looked
post-apocalyptic, as if it had been evacuated in war or hit with a neutron bomb.
The sound of machine-gun fire off in the distance wouldnt have seemed out of
Less than 1 percent of the people I saw were women. All those who did go outside
wore a hijab over their hair. So much for Qaddafi being a feminist, as he
claims. Tripoli had as many women out and about as a dust-blown village in the
boondocks of Afghanistan.
The few men I did see walked or huddled together. They looked sullen, heavy,
severe. I felt raw and exposed, wondering what on earth they must have thought
when they saw an obvious foreigner wandering around the desolate streets.
So I did what I could to find out. I smiled at everyone who walked past. You
can learn a lot about a people and a place by trying this out. In New York,
people ignore you. In Guatemala City, people will stare. In Libya, they all
smiled back, every last one of them, no matter how grumpy or self-absorbed they
looked two seconds before.
I never detected even a whiff of hostility, not from one single person. Libyans
seemed a decent, gentle, welcoming people with terrible luck. It wasnt their
fault the neighborhood stank of oppression.
Most apartment buildings were more or less equally dreary, but one did stand
out. Architecturally it was just another modernist horror. But a 6-by-8-foot
portrait of Qaddafi was bolted to the façade three stories up. It partially
blocked the view from two of the balconies. The bastard couldnt even leave
people alone when they were home.
The posters werent funny anymore. There were too damn many of them, for one
thing. And, besides, Qaddafi is ugly. He may earn a few charisma points for
traveling to Brussels and pitching his Bedouin tent on the Parliament lawn,
but hes no Che Guevara in the guapo department.
I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty
wore off in less than a day, and hes been in power longer than Ive been alive.
He was an abstraction when I first got there. But after walking around his outdoor
laboratory and everywhere seeing his beady eyes and that arrogant jut of his
mouth, it suddenly hit me. He isnt merely Libyas tyrant. He is a man who would
His Mukhabarat, the secret police, are omniscient. His visage is omnipresent.
His power is omnipotent.
And he is deranged. He says hes the sun of Africa. He threatens to ban money
and schools. He vanquished beauty and art. He liquidates those who oppose him.
He says he cant help it if the people of Libya love him so much they plaster
his portrait up everywhere. Fuck him. I wanted to rip his face from the walls.
If you go to Libya, you simply must visit Ghadames. Known by
travelers as the jewel of the Sahara, its worth all the money and all the hassle
you have to put up with to get there.
In the early 1980s, Qaddafis regime emptied the ancient Berber Saharan city
by decree. Everyone was shepherded into the modern concrete new town, which
begins right outside the mysterious tomblike adobe gates of the old.
The old city doesnt look like a city when youre inside. It looks like a vast
underground system of tunnels and caves lit by skylights. Its not underground;
it was built with a roof over the top to keep the infernal summer heat out and
the meager winter warmth in. Some of the streets (which really are more like
passages) are pitch-black even at noon. There was no need for light. The inhabitants
had memorized the walls.
It is not a small town. Its an enormous weatherproofed adobe minimetropolis.
There are seven quarters and seven gates, one for each resident tribe. Everything
you expect in a city is there streets, homes, offices, markets, public squares
and mosques, all made of painted mud and sparkling gypsum. The only thing missing
from the old city is people.
If Libya were a normal country, and if Ghadames were a normal city, the old
city would be packed with hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, Internet
cafés and desert-adventure tour offices. But Libya is not a normal country,
and Ghadames is an unwilling ghost town.
My travel agency replaced Abdul with a second guide for the trip to Ghadames
and into the desert. Yasir, I said to him. Why were the people of Ghadames
forced out of their homes?
I knew the answer already. It was part of Qaddafis plot to Arabize the Berbers
and to construct the New Man. (Berbers are also forbidden to write anything
publicly in their own language.) But I wanted to see if a local was permitted
to say it. He couldnt at least didnt answer my question. He only shook
his head and laughed nervously. There were others around who could hear.
The old city was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. A few engineers were
inside shoring up the foundations of an old mosque.
Its astonishing, one of them said when I chatted him up. He was an Arab who
had studied engineering at a Western university and spoke masterful English
in fully formed paragraphs. The sophistication and aesthetic perfection in
the old city contrasts markedly with the failures in the new.
No kidding. Ive never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. Neither
have you. Because there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. And there
never will be.
Were here to make this place livable again because someday, you know . . .
He trailed off, but I knew what he wished he could say. Someday Qaddafi will
die. When his bones are pushing up date palms, the people of Ghadames can abandon
their compounds of concrete and move back into the city thats rightfully theirs.
I returned to the old city at night by myself and saw a single square of light
in an upstairs room of an ancient house. The owners are forbidden to stay there
at night. But its nice to know that some of them still leave the lights on.
When you visit another country, its inevitable: You are going
to meet other travelers. And youll almost certainly talk about other places youve
been. Go to Costa Rica, and conversations will turn to Guatemala and Bolivia.
If you hang out in Cancún, youll meet people who like the Virgin Islands and
Hawaii. In Paris, youll hear talk of London, Prague and Vienna.
So what happens when you bump into others in Libya? In Tripoli, I met a photographer
who spends every summer in Darfur. Out in the dunes, I met a longhaired, goofy,
bespectacled English guy named Felix. This was the first time he had ever set
eyes on a desert. (He really went for it.) He had a thing for totalitarian countries.
I like to visit places based on ideas, he said. Then he checked himself. That
doesnt mean I like the ideas.
Where to next, Felix? I said.
North Korea, if I can get in.
Id like to see North Korea, I said. But after that, whats left?
Only the moon, he said, and laughed. This is great, meeting you here. Its
nice to know someone else whos open to nuttiness.
Youll find nuttiness in Libya even out in the boonies. On the treacherous so-called
road from Ghadames into the dunes, someone used an enormous piece of ordnance
that looked like a miniScud missile to mark a 3-foot chassis-busting hole in
Yasir couldnt take me on that road in his van. So we hired Bashir to come with
us. He was a burly man with a turban and beard who taught philosophy in school.
We didnt hire him, though, for his brain. We wanted his Land Rover.
The three of us left Ghadames and headed straight toward the Algerian gate only
a couple of miles away. Just beyond it, a 300-foot-tall mountain of sand was
piled in layers.
You see that sand, Bashir said, and pointed. I could hardly take my eyes off
it. Two weeks ago, I drove some Japanese tourists out here. The old guy asked
me who built it. He chuckled and shook his head. I told him, well, my grandfather
worked for a while on that project, but now hes dead.
We cant go there, Yasir said. We must visit Libyan sand. Last month some
German tourists were kidnapped right on the other side of the border.
More than 100,000 people were killed in Algeria over the past several years
in a civil war between the secular police state and Islamist fanatics.
Have you ever been to Algeria? I asked.
No one here goes to Algeria, he said.
We drove over a hill and were surrounded on three sides by dizzying, towering,
impossibly sized dunes. We slogged our way to the top, gasping, with calves
and thighs burning, not daring to look down, to watch the sun set.
The top was unreal. The desert floor was another world far below ours. If birds
were in flight, I could have looked down on them. On the western horizon was
the Grand Erg Oriental, a sea of dunes bigger than France that looked from the
side like a distant Andes of sand. Bashir made bread and sticky mint tea. I
watched the sun go down and the sky go out.
By Libyan standards, this was radical freedom. Life goes on even in countries
like this one. No government, no matter how oppressive, can control all the
people all of the time especially not in the vast, empty Sahara.
We ran down the sand and climbed back into the Land Rover. Bashir hit the gas.
He zigged us and zagged us, up, down and across 300-foot-tall dunes along the
border with Algeria. At one point and I couldnt tell if he was joking or
serious he said we had actually crossed into Algeria.
The stars came out. A full moon rose, turning the sand into silver. We laughed
like boys as we rode the dunes in the moonlight.
I didnt go back to Tripoli to hang out in Tripoli. Tourists
use the city as a base to visit the spectacular nearby Roman ruins of Sabratha
and Leptis Magna. Im not exactly a ruins buff, but trips to these places came
with the package. So I went. And I saw. And I was nearly alone. I shared Leptis
Magna with only my guide and some goats. Sabratha would have been empty if the
vice president of the Philippines hadnt dropped by at the same time.
But I was glad to be back in Tripoli. This time my hotel was in the Italian
quarter, just two blocks from Green Square. Not again would I have to walk through
a swath of Stalinist blocks to get to a proper neighborhood.
My new hotel was more upscale than the first. The management (or was it the
state?) pretended to have tighter security. The metal detector just inside the
entrance wasnt being watched by a college kid. It was staffed by the military.
Okay, I thought. Now theyre gonna be serious. I stepped through and the metal
detector screamed. The soldiers ignored me, joked with each other and never
looked up. The same thing happened every single time I walked through it.
Libya is a totalitarian police state. But its an awfully lethargic totalitarian
police state. Its been a while, I thought, since anyone there drank the Kool-Aid.
The heater in my room sounded like a chopper over the jungles of Nam. It was
broken and stuck forever on cold, but the maid left it on anyway. So while
it was 60 degrees and cloudy outside, it was a teeth-chattering 50 degrees in
my room. I opened the window, and the cold wind off the Mediterranean actually
warmed the place up.
A bath could have made me feel better, but the hot-water knob came off in my
hand. The hotel had the outward appearance of spiffiness, so Im sure there
was hot water somewhere in the building behind the hole where the knob in my
hand had come off. I just couldnt get to any of it.
The elite were downstairs in the lobby. Slick men in suits, mostly from Arab
countries, all but ignored the French delegation that was in town while Jacques
Chirac cut new oil deals with Qaddafi. There were no Americans, no tourists
and no women. I felt underdressed and out of place in my khakis and sandals,
but what could I do? I was in a hard-line, oily-sheened Arab police state. I
couldnt have blended in if I tried except, perhaps, in one little corner
of the Italian quarter.
If you were dropped from the sky onto the main street that ran through that
district, you could be forgiven if you thought you were somewhere in the West.
It was Tripolis very own Melrose, strung from one end to the other with hip,
cutting-edge perfume and clothing stores. These places had bright lights, colored
walls and fancy displays. They piped in Western music through sophisticated
sound systems. The salespeople wore snappy, stylish clothes. The customers were
young and cool. There were, amazingly, hardly any portraits of Qaddafi in this
part of town. (Perhaps the warehouse was out of stock and the new stores had
them on back order.)
There was far less commerce in Libya than in most countries, but this little
micro-corner was bustling. I found French cheese (but not prohibited wine),
Japanese DVD players, Belgian chocolate and Swiss instant coffee.
At first I thought the only coffee shops in the city could be found along a
single block on one of the back streets. Old men sat out front in cheap plastic
chairs and grumpily smoked hookahs. That didnt look like very much fun.
But then I found an Italian-style café fronting Green Square. I ordered a double
machiato and a cheese pastry, and actually found a nice dainty table.
I looked around and thought, heck, this could be Italy or even Los Angeles if
it werent for the total lack of women around. Globalization penetrates even
Arab socialist rogue states these days. And what a relief, really. Youd never
know you were in the beating heart of a brutal dictatorship while sitting in
that little place.
Both of my guides, Abdul and Yasir, took me to dinner. We could have eaten in
the Italian quarter. But no. They had to take me out to the Parking Garage quarter,
which is to say, anywhere else but the old city.
I groaned silently to myself. I liked these guys if not their taste in dining
establishments but I hated being schlepped around all the time and never being
asked when or where I wanted to eat.
The only time I truly needed a guide was on the road between Tripoli and Ghadames.
I couldnt read the Arabic road signs. Armed soldiers demanded papers at checkpoints.
I was grateful my guides had the stacks of papers prepared. But in the city,
I was perfectly capable of finding a place to eat on my own. It wasnt easy,
but it could be done with effort and patience.
I appreciated the hospitality, even though it was bought and paid for. Abdul
and Yasir seemed to enjoy buying my dinner, but I felt micromanaged and baby-sat.
Come here, look at that, sit there, eat this. They were great guys. But I lusted
for solitude. If I said so, they would have been offended.
They took me to a restaurant in a neighborhood that was downright North Korean,
it was so chock-full of concrete.
We really hope you like this place, Yasir said.
It wasnt quite as bad as a parking garage, but it was a near miss. The main
floor was reserved for a wedding, so we were shepherded upstairs to a huge,
dimly lit room mostly empty of tables. The wedding party hadnt arrived yet.
There was no one else in the building.
I didnt know what to say in this gloomy warehouse of a restaurant. I felt like
we were the only people out for dinner that night in all of Libya. Abdul and
Yasir hoped I would like this place? Oh, the poor dears. I was embarrassed for
them and wondered what tourist in his right mind would come to Libya when he
could go to Tunisia, Morocco or Turkey instead.
Worlds cant meet worlds. But people can meet people. I forget
who said that, but I like it, and I thought about it as I walked around inside
Libya, hanging out, and talking to regular folks.
In a nation where so many report to the secret police, where a sideways word
can get you imprisoned or killed, walking around blue-eyed and palefaced with
an American accent has its advantages. I met one shopkeeper who opened right
up when he and I found ourselves alone in his store.
Do Americans know much about Libya? he said.
No, I said. Not really.
He wanted to teach me something about his country, but he didnt know where
to start. So he recited encyclopedia factoids.
He listed the principal resources while counting his fingers. I stifled a smirk
when he named the border states. (I had looked at a map.) When he told me Arabic
was the official language, I wondered if he thought I was stupid or deaf.
And Qaddafi is our president, he said. About him, no comment. He laughed,
but I dont think he thought it was funny.
Oh, come on, I said. Comment away. I dont live here.
He thought about that. For a long drawn-out moment, he calculated the odds and
weighed the consequences. Then the dam burst.
We hate that fucking bastard, we have nothing to do with him. Nothing. We keep
our heads down and our mouths shut. We do our jobs, we go home. If I talk, they
will take me out of my house in the night and put me in prison.
Qaddafi steals, he told me. He steals from us. He spoke rapidly now, twice
as fast as before, as though he had been holding back all his life. He wiped
sweat off his forehead with trembling hands. The oil money goes to his friends.
Tunisians next door are richer and they dont even have any oil.
I know, I said. Im sorry.
We get three or four hundred dinars each month to live on. Our families are
huge, we have five or six children. It is a really big problem. We dont make
enough to take care of them. I want to live in Lebanon. Beirut is the second
Paris. It is civilized! Women and men mix freely in Lebanon.
Almost everybody I know thought I was crazy to travel to Libya.
The unspoken fear was that someone might kill me.
Well, no. Nobody killed me. Nobody even looked at me funny. I knew thats how
it would be before I set out. Still, its nice to have the old adage people
are people proven through experience.
Libyans are fed a steady diet of anti-Americanism, but it comes from a man who
has kicked them in the stomach and stomped on their face for more than a third
of a century. If they bought it, they sure didnt act like it.
I crossed paths with a middle-aged Englishman in the hallway.
Is this a good hotel? he asked.
It sure beat my last place in town. At least I wasnt stranded out by the towers.
Its a good hotel, I said, not really believing it but grateful for what I
I think its bloody awful, he said.
I laughed. Well, yes, I said. I was just trying to be nice. You should see
the place where I stayed when I first got here.
I heard footsteps behind me, turned around, and faced two Arab men wearing coats
and ties and carrying briefcases. One wore glasses. The other was bald.
It has been a long time since I heard that accent, said the man with the glasses.
I smiled. Its been a long time since this accent was here, I said. Until
just a few months ago, any American standing on Libyan soil was committing a
We went to college together, he said, and jerked his thumb toward his friend.
In Lawrence, Kansas, during the 70s.
Yes, his friend said as he rubbed the bald spot on his head. The two were
all smiles now as they remembered. We took a long road trip up to Seattle.
We stayed there for two weeks! said the first. He sighed like a man recalling
his first long-lost love. I watched both their faces soften as they recalled
the memories of their youth and adventures abroad in America.
What a wonderful time we had there, said the second.
They invited me out to dinner, but I was getting ready to leave. I didnt want
to say no. They looked like they wanted to hug me.
We shook hands as we departed. And as I stepped into the elevator, the first
man put his hand on his heart. Give two big kisses to Americans when you get
home, he said. From two people in Libya who miss you so much.
Michael J. Totten, based in Beirut, blogs at www.michaeltotten.com.
His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal,The Daily Star
and Tech Central Station.
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