How I got to Libya one month after the embargo was lifted

My permission from the State Dept to travel to Lybya, photo by Sean Rocha

Though the anniversary is little noticed, it was precisely ten years ago that the US embargo on Libya was lifted and the country was brought in from the cold.  I remember this principally because at that time I was among the last — quite possibly, the very last — American to receive the then-required special State Department validation allowing  travel to Libya.

It was February 2004 and I was going to Libya on assignment for Travel + Leisure, in part because my parents were married in Tripoli in the era before Gaddafi radicalized the place.  The permission process for travel to Libya was so rarely requested that the US passport center had no idea how to do it and then, once they figured it out, botched the job.  Still, I received the validation on 4 February; less than three weeks later, the US lifted an embargo it had had in place for nearly a quarter-century.  You’d think this would have made it easier to get a Libyan visa but, in fact, the change paralyzed them: no one in Libya wanted to make a mistake and jeopardize this hard-won improvement in relations.

In the end, I received my Libyan visa 24 hours before departing for Milan’s Malpensa airport — this being the only place I could buy a ticket to Tripoli because the embargo had made commercial transactions with Libya in the US illegal.  On 25 March 2004, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, flew to Tripoli, shook Gaddafi’s hand, and officially ended Libya’s international isolation.  Five days later, I landed in Tripoli.

Below are excerpts from my journals describing the ridiculous logistics required to secure a Libyan visa during that period of transition.  Little did I know, worse was to come: this visa would become the object of suspicious curiosity for every immigration officer I encountered for years into the future.

New York 4 February 2004

I went today to get my passport validated for Libya, a process so rare that its very existence was denied by the information desk at the passport center.  I had to call the legal affairs department in Washington on my cell phone – the center claimed to be unable to call and I somehow remembered the number – to clear it up.  At the desk upstairs, where word had gotten around about my unprecedented request, I was greeted with, “Oh, you’re the famous Sean Rocha.  They sent around a big fax just about you.”  The validation is an ink stamp, one second of work, but they set the normal service at 2-3 weeks so they can charge $60 as an expedite fee to get it same day.

[A few hours later] I picked up my passport, which now reads: “this passport is also valid for one round trip to Lybya.”  Yes, the State Department misspelled Libya in its official amendment to my travel documents.  When I pointed out the error, there was much irritation (with me, somehow) and I was made to wait for another hour for the ‘y’ to be replaced with an ‘i’.  But what they did, instead, is stamp my amendments page with an enormous ‘VOID’ and bury the corrected text on page 17, lost amid the other visas and travel stamps.  No doubt the Libyans will think I was denied permission altogether.

New York 11 February 2004

Libya scares return.  Tony Blair just met with Gaddafi, the US just issued a press release praising Libyan cooperation and signaling that an upgrading of relations is around the corner, and the effect for me has been entirely negative.  With US-Libya negotiations ongoing, the visa process has been cast into political limbo with no one on the Libyan side wanting to do anything wrong so they do nothing at all.  The Libyan Mission to the UN no longer issues visas, the Libyan Embassy in London no longer serves US nationals, so after many unrevealing conversations today I have deduced my only chance is this: ask my UK-based tour operator to contact their Libyan tour partner, asking them to contact the Immigration Department in Tripoli, which must send a fax to the Libyan Mission here in New York approving the visa.  In short, without permission from the top no one will move.  The irony is that after eighteen years of embargo this will all be unnecessary a month, or two, or six from now.

New York 25 February 2004

My attempt to get into Libya has been unfolding against a backdrop of spectacular change in US-Libya relations.  The embargo has been in place since 1980 but the Bush administration was due to lift travel restrictions on Tuesday — until Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem suggested that Libya was not responsible for the Lockerbie bombing and had merely “bought peace” by paying compensation.  So the travel ban remains in place, at least until a retraction can be extorted.  Meanwhile, I am due to arrive in Tripoli in 38 days.  I had been waiting for confirmation that Exodus’s Libyan tour partner will get the immigration department to fax permission to the Libyan Mission — which I just received, and then was told by the Libyan Mission that it has to go to the Libyan embassy in Canada.  I am now going to assume, Middle East style, that there will be many bureaucratic twists and turns and no clarity until the eleventh hour but ultimately it will all work out.

New York 27 February 2004

Retraction extorted, the US lifted travel restrictions on Libya yesterday, meaning that I received one of the last validations ever given.  Presumably, this also means the Libyans can once again issue visas to Americans (the Libyan Mission had received no word of a change when I called today, but it is Friday) and that I will really be going.  I have been saying I expected to go but, in truth, I wasn’t acting on it; now, suddenly, I awake to the reality of having a month to organize a trip to this country about which everyone knows so little.

[A month of preparations passed, then…]

New York 23 March 2004

As of this moment I will not be able to go to Libya.  The Libyan embassy in Canada received my application for a visa on 11 March and told me it would take ten days.  I have called several times since and it was only today that they told me that they are still waiting for approval from the immigration department in Tripoli; for some reason they are not allowed to contact the department to check on my status.  Worse, the ten days start once approval is received, making it impossible (at least by standard procedure) for me to receive my visa in time.  Even worse than that, the consul is out of the office today (Tuesday), the Libyan weekend is Thursday/Friday, the Canadian weekend is Saturday/Sunday, and I am due to leave Monday.  I just don’t see how it is going to happen.

And now, forty minutes later, somehow it is possible.  I called Wings Travel in Tripoli — visas are tied to tours with Libya — the man there called the Libyan embassy in Canada and talked to a man of unknown authority named Tawfik who said he would personally issue a visa tomorrow.  How this can happen and why the all-powerful immigration department in Tripoli is no longer involved I don’t know.

New York 24 March 2004

One of the most stressful days of my life.  The saga at the Libyan embassy managed to reach a whole new level of absurdity: Yes, they said, you will get your visa but you paid for it with a US dollar money order and the Canadian dollar has gotten infinitesimally stronger in the time it took to process so you’re a couple dollars short.  I would not have believed it myself if I hadn’t lived it.  They proposed I put a C$ money order in the mail — they would not charge it to the credit card number I gave them — and then, once that was received, they would send my passport.  Extraordinary.  I talked them into returning the passport first (I think) but I will not believe it until I have it in hand.

New York 25 March 2004

The visa is in hand, so I’m going.  It’s a beautiful thing: big, colorful, with lots of official-looking stamps and untranslated Arabic, with a little hologram to make sure the unwanted hordes of Western tourists can’t fake their way in.  And in the fateful timing that has marked this trip, Tony Blair arrived in Tripoli today, shook Gaddafi’s hand, and officially ended three decades of isolation.

Tripoli 30 March 2004

On arrival, Tripoli International Airport had all of two planes waiting at the gates with three more parked on the tarmac.  Dust-brown concrete spread out in every direction, ready to embrace more traffic than it will ever see.  The terminal, built like a bunker on an enormous scale, appeared to have been abandoned story by story over the last thirty years.  But there was a small measure of life within: listless, friendly officers and a phalanx of men to greet disembarking VIPs.  Queued at the otherwise vacant passport control was my 40%-full planeload of passengers.  A woman staffed the Duty Free shops, not selling anything.  A sign in the terminal read: “Partners not Wage Workers” in large English and Arabic type above a heroic painting of Gaddafi looking off into the middle distance, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses…

That last paragraph became the lead into my article for Travel + Leisure, which included going off-road and camping in the Sahara as well as revisiting sights my grandfather had photographed forty years earlier when he had lived in Libya.  You can read my Travel + Leisure article here.  I also shot the photographs for that article: outtakes from that assignment can be seen here.

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One Response to “How I got to Libya one month after the embargo was lifted”

  1. […] embargo against the country. It was a nightmare trying to get permission to go — you can read about that here — but it was an amazing experience and the article that resulted (you can read it here; I […]

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