The surreal experience of visiting Libya

With news today that Col. Gaddafi called in Libyan fighter jets to bomb pro-democracy protesters, a strange man gets only stranger and I am reminded of the surreal weeks I spent traveling across Libya in 2004 — the article I wrote and photographed for Travel + Leisure about that trip can be seen here.  In many ways, the country is a good deal more ordinary than one would expect given the flamboyance with which Gaddafi has long strutted the world stage; yet this placid civic life is hard won and below the surface there was a combustible mix of repressed aspiration and wildly imaginative paranoia that said something about the way in which Gaddafi’s capricious rule had disoriented his citizens.

This was my last journal entry as I waited at the airport, finally feeling at liberty to record things I had not wanted to write down earlier — chief among them, a risky and indiscreet conversation I’d had with a Libyan human rights activist as we raced through the narrow alleys of the medina in order to elude eavesdroppers:

The drive to the airport was done at 160km per hour, with the driver’s eyes lingering on every female in the cars we passed. His feeling was that just about everything in this country was pretty bad, from the top down. Libyans, he allowed, were reasonably good but there were none left amid the Egyptians and Africans flooding his country. The airport itself positively bustled compared to my arrival – they have ten arrivals this afternoon, said the sign – but on the departure side the crowds owed much to the total disarray at the check-in lines. Still, I got through, had every piece of paper on my person stamped at passport control, and took the escalator up to the world’s most boring departure lounge. There is more to buy here than on arrival, but as I’m preparing to depart for the modern world the dusty trinkets and antiquated duty-free goods hold little appeal.

This sign glows to my left, backgrounded in green:

“Wines and drugs are total destruction weapons, Hashish is like the bacteriological and chemical weapons and the atomic bomb. Person who deal therewith he seems like he takes a weapon from the enemy and do explode it inside his country.” – The Revolution Leader

Below that, in white:

“Dear Passenger: Take yourself away from drugs route, it is destructor and killer, it murders any one comes near to or deals with it. Dear Passenger: The people’s Congresses in Great Jamahiriya have issued strict laws against all who deals with this lesion to destroy our happy jamahiriyan society considering that a political case. Dear Passenger: Be aware in dealing with strangers who you don’t know, and don’t volunteer to carry their luggage or any other luggage except yours, and remember always that law do not protect stupidest…”

Behind it, in the distance, I see my last painted portrait of Gaddafi.


Now that I am through what I expect is the last of the security checks at the airport – not, it should be said, especially thorough one, consisting of two bag x-rays and no questions – I can write about my strange encounter with a political activist I’ll call Idir. I was introduced to him in Tripoli but it was at a site along the coast that our conversation changed. He is a Berber and likes to joke that that is why he is five feet tall standing on his toes. Hirsute, friendly, educated, a former Marxist, intended Christian convert, and human rights activist, Idir is an ebullient but unhappy man. Much of what I’ve written in the last couple days came out of conversations with him and much of what follows came on my last day in Tripoli as we walked the narrow alleys of the medina at high speed to avoid eavesdroppers, a deceptive maneuver that felt intermittently chilling and ridiculous.

Idir is under surveillance by the mukhabarat, he says: his emails are filtered, his phone is tapped, and he receives occasional visits designed to intimidate him. It hasn’t worked, but it has made him paranoid and when with him I always had the suspicion we were being overheard and, at the same time, that he was somewhat overstating the depths of the secret insights he was offering me. He returned to Libya in the early-1980s – the country’s peak, he claims in retrospect – and says he has been “documenting” this period. He told me several times about the 25,000 images, 200 CDs, and eight hard drives worth of information he has stored at his house outside Tripoli. I thought it would be an easy matter for the government to break into his house and steal them, but he said the only scenario he feared was of a paid mob laying waste to the place. He wants to smuggle them to America and asked my help in arranging an invitation for him to visit; failing that, he gave me two CDs to take out of the country. It is revealing, somehow, that I expect they will either be profoundly damning of the regime or totally meaningless, with nothing in between. In any case, his real preoccupation is with the 7th century, not the 21st century, when the Arabs came and ruined everything. He has despaired of Islam, which he sees as hypocritical and politicized, and has what I believe is an unrealistic view that Christianity today is a purer and more honest faith.

It is Idir’s voice on the tape recording I made a few days ago, talking of how little this regime cares for antiquities and the theft by Gaddafi’s sons of priceless Roman statues. I stopped recording because for the first time I felt the project was putting someone at risk, but whether it was him or me was not clear at the time. On the tape he mentions a Roman city supposedly found deep in the desert and blown up by the minister of education. The other person with us at the time then leaves (mercifully) and Idir and I pretend to say goodbye, but off the tape Idir continued an oddly veiled conversation about the Roman age that was really about Gaddafi. Later, Idir talked about the executions common in the ‘80s and the day the Leader woke up and decided to ban trade, shutting down the medina and decimating its shops. It has been the capriciousness of Gaddafi’s rule, as much as its brutality, that has made life so difficult. But it has had no shortage of brutality, including a war with Chad (and, Idir says, a humiliating defeat) that was fought over a small strip of land at the cost of many lives.

After many hours of conversation Idir speculated, somewhat belatedly, that I understood far too much about Libya for the time I’d been there and might be a CIA agent. I thought this absurd, of course, but then realized that my not being an agent was totally impossible to prove and that I would, in fact, behave precisely this way if I were in intelligence. This led to a long, indiscreet debate about whether Gaddafi was really a US agent because, really, how else could a junior officer in his twenties have succeeded in launching a coup d’état against the king in 1969? All the while, our scary/surreal race through the medina continued.


Click here to read the article about Libya I wrote and photographed for Travel + Leisure.  Or here for the reasons I thought we should intervene in the rebels’ fight to overthrow Gaddafi and, in particular, why this intervention marks the end of the (oft-used) neo-colonial argument.  Or here, for my post on the day the rebels finally broke through the regime’s defenses and were dancing in the heart of Tripoli.


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