Published: April 2009
By Sean Rocha
Long off-limits to Americans, this remote country with a troubled past is making a bid to rejoin the world. <b>Sean Rocha</b>, drawn there by the sands of the Ubari, the cafés of Tripoli—and his own family history—reports
On the day I landed in Tripoli, Libya's busiest international airport was expecting a total of 10 flights and looked every bit as forlorn and forgotten as one might expect in a country long isolated by international embargo. The terminal had been built on an enormous scale in the heady, optimistic days of the oil-driven seventies and appeared to have been slowly abandoned, story by story, in the years since. But there was a small measure of life within: a phalanx of men waiting to greet disembarking VIP's, a woman working at an antiquated duty-free store with no customers. I handed my American passport to the immigration officer, who smiled politely and pounded my name into a computer that dated to the early days of information technology, his thick fingers jabbing at the loose keys one at a time. "Ahlan," he said, returning my passport and welcoming me to Libya. I waited, assuming it had to be more complicated than that after all these years of official animosity between his country and mine. He smiled again, this time with enthusiasm, and waved me through.
Decades earlier, in the summer of 1963, my father had arrived in Tripoli for a 72-hour visit that gave him just enough time to marry my mother, who had grown up in an American diplomatic family in the Middle East. The wedding was held in a modest chapel just east of the city, on the grounds of Wheelus, the largest American air base outside the United States. The base was intended as the launchpad for nuclear bombing runs on Moscow in the event of war with the Soviets; in the interim, it served as a Little America of backyard barbecues and tail-finned Pontiacs. My parents' wedding was something of an event on the local social calendar, and my father, to this day, jokes about scouring the photos for a chance sighting of Muammar al-Qaddafi. But the man who would become America's tormentor, and perhaps the world's most imaginatively dressed head of state, was then an impoverished 21-year-old bedouin still six years away from the 1969 coup d'état that would make him famous. Indeed, Libya, in my parents' time, was a desperately poor kingdom in the process of being carved up by Western oil companies, and almost everything for which it is now known lay in the future: Qaddafi's capricious rule and theatrical posturing, Lockerbie, pariah status, international embargoes. Instead, the Libyan stories my mother's family told were of Tuareg nomads, unseen Saharan landscapes, and spectacular but little-known Roman ruins. This was the Libya I had come to find.
I fled the airport and rushed to Tripoli. More accurately, I waited for the city but it was slow to arrive; in its place, I saw mile after mile of makeshift concrete development scratched from the dry land. It was dreary, half-finished housing of a kind that in other Arab cities like Cairo or Casablanca is found in only the poorest suburbs, where it breeds radicals. Here, it draws migrant laborers. Libya boasts the highest per capita income in Africa, albeit unevenly distributed and almost entirely the result of oil, so there is more chance of work here than in Lagos or Dakar—and more still in Germany or Italy, where most of them hope to go next. Until then, they stand as the primary manifestation of Qaddafi's latest fanciful dream, which was of a pan-African union with Libya at its head. He'd had a similar dream once before, in the seventies, but then it was of a pan-Arab union and that never quite worked out.
The heart of Tripoli was surprisingly graceful. The old walled medina is a tranquil enclave of covered souks, small workshops, and narrow alleys that constituted the full extent of the city for the first two millennia of its history, from its founding by the Phoenicians in 600 b.c. (when it was known as Oea) through the Roman, Arab, and Ottoman periods. It was the Italians, wresting control of Libya from the Turks in 1911, who laid out the new town beyond the walls to the east of the medina's gates, lining its long boulevards with elegant apartment buildings and colonnaded walkways. Tripoli was a waterfront city in my mother's day, but land reclamation has pushed the Mediterranean several hundred yards north, and only a few artificial basins and the cooling breezes remain as reminders of the sea.
Between the medina and the Italian quarter lies Tripoli's central meeting place, Green Square, which by day is given over to impromptu open-air photo studios where couples can have their picture taken with objects that suggest affluence or tradition: motorcycles, flower-festooned benches, tethered gazelles. At night, especially on Fridays, young men hang out with friends or race their cars around the square before setting out on the unpromising hunt for girls. One of my mother's most vivid memories of Tripoli is of the women veiling themselves in the burnoose, but the only Libyan women who do that now are her age; the younger ones wear the simple head scarf known as a hijab, or else none at all. Still, there are few young women in Green Square on a Friday night, so most of their would-be suitors retreat to the Internet outlets just off the square. There they spend hours in video chat rooms seducing middle-aged European housewives—often three or four at a time, on different screens—with an abbreviated courtship that can move from first introductions to protestations of love and brazen testing of the likelihood of a conjugal visit, all within 10 minutes. Meanwhile, men a generation or two older gather at the sidewalk cafés, drinking espresso and lamenting their lost youth.
Libyans would assure me many times in the weeks ahead that their country is finally returning to normal, but they each meant something different by it. For some, it was the resolution of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which ended a United Nations embargo that had madeflying into the country illegal even for Libyans. For others, it was the prospect of improved relations with the United States. For most, normal meant domestic calm: a better economy, an end to the radical rhetoric, a scaling back of the intelligence services and the persecution of political opponents, and a reform of Qaddafi's invented political institution jamahiriya, or "state of the masses," which had produced many elections but resulted in little change or accountability.
For most Western visitors, Qaddafi has taken on the peculiar celebrity of a rock star. I would see tourists throughout the country backing up against outsized portraits of the Leader while flashbulbs burst in their faces. It is as if he has gone from a wild-eyed, scandalous youth to an idiosyncratic but essentially harmless old man admired for his sheer longevity—rather like a Libyan Mick Jagger, to whom Qaddafi bears an ever-greater resemblance with each passing year. Tripoli did feel normal, but the hard edge of politics is inescapable. The markets in the medina are tranquil, in part because of Qaddafi's ruinous 1981 decree forbidding private trade. The large mosque on Algeria Square was a Romanesque cathedral during the Italian period; the weed-strewn lot west of the city is the old Jewish cemetery, abandoned when most Jews began to leave the country in the late 1940's. Even navigating the city is political: Qaddafi banned the use of foreign languages on public signs, so everything except his inscrutable exhortations—PARTNERS NOT WAGE WORKERS or NO DEMOCRACY WITHOUT POPULAR CONGRESSES—is in Arabic, making it difficult for visitors to get around. Politics, and time, also conspired to erase the record of America's presence, and with it that of my family. Wheelus Air Base was closed in the first year of Qaddafi's rule and now, much rebuilt, serves as a domestic airport. The ornate Municipio where my parents went for their civil ceremony had been torn down. And when I tried to locate my family's villa in Giorgimpopoli (renamed Gargaresh), west of the city, I found that the quiet expatriate enclave was now so overdeveloped that the directions my uncle gave me might as well have belonged to a different city.
I left Tripoli to join a tour group for a four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser caravan into the Sahara. Libya is a vast country, yet its population of 5 million is concentrated within 30 miles of the coast. During the trip inland to Gharyan across the spectacular mountain range that divides the semi-fertile north from the arid south, the air grew cool and clear and I felt that I was entering another country. On the far side of the range lie 375 miles of searing heat and bleak, hard-packed ground, featureless save for flat-topped buttes. Decorating the roadside were giant, shredded truck tires and cars crushed in high-speed traffic accidents, their steel frames further vandalized by the sun.
Near Sabha, sand suddenly appeared, gathering in small drifts and forming isolated dunes that hinted at the approaching Sahara. Scrub brush and a burst of palm trees indicated the underground water line that supports a string of small settlements: Fjeaj, Tekerkiba, Al-Ghoraifa, Germa. From Germa to Ghat, an oasis town in the southwestern corner of Libya, the landscape is defined by the punishing demands of long-distance desert travel, with isolated petrol stations taking on the role that watering holes once played. Here, I thought, is the human Sahara: heavy trucks on their way north driven by men from Mali and Niger, their dark eyes visible through slits in turbans of fuchsia and azure; caravans of Land Cruisers headed south into the Jebel Acacus carrying tourists, most of them Italian or French, led by Tuareg guides. It felt almost impossibly remote but the drivers ran into old friends, greeting them warmly and trading tips about the harsh conditions waiting beyond.
The Acacus is where the breathtaking desert of my imagination began. Ocher dunes snake along the Algerian border, settling against striated mountains that rise a thousand yards out of the sands, their silhouettes flattened by the haze of heat. To the east lies a series of connecting wadis, the dry riverbeds that constitute the off-road highways of the desert, which we followed in search of the 12,000-year-old rock art that depicts giraffes and other animals long extinct to the region and renders the shaded underbellies of the cliffs in deep reds and earthy yellows. In four days and 185 miles of travel through the Acacus I saw only one permanent structure, a concrete hut sheltering a water well. We camped in valleys, soothed by the breeze that picks up at sunset. I could hear the wind as it rushed past me, the coarseness of my clothing as I moved, and the sand flies as loud as helicopters in the silence. A small touch, as light as a finger, on the windward edge of a dune would cause a cascade of sand many yards away. And with nightfall a blinding darkness set in, followed by a moonrise that cast shadows with its brilliance.
An even more surreal experience awaited in the sand sea of Ubari, whose endless, massive, honey-hued drifts are so pure and uniform in color that in the flat midday sun they create a lineless universe that is giddily disorienting. I lost my sense of direction within 10 minutes, never to regain it, and had no ability to gauge scale or distance. We would drive up a dune, resting on the crest, and what I took to be almost flat land ahead would hide a sheer, 650-foot drop that caused the luggage stowed inside our Land Cruiser to spill forward, nearly decapitating me. A soft laugh heard at dawn could belong to a person so far away that he appeared the size of an ant. And a long, exhausting climb along the peak of a dune produced no evident change in position: the destination came no closer and only the starting point receded. In the middle of all this, Ubari hides an unexpected treasure, a group of small palm-ringed lakes that look like green gashes against the towering dunes. Swimming in the largest, Gebraoun, I was buoyed by the high salt content; it was impossible to sink and my skin was left stiff and crusted afterward. It was a kind of paradise.
We headed back into the trackless sands for several more days before connecting with the paved road, near Qardah, that took us north and west to Ghadamis, on the border where Libya meets Algeria and Tunisia. Coming after such a grueling journey, Ghadamis seemed a stunningly prosperous small town, much as it would have to the ancient trade caravans that contributed to its early wealth. But what I perceived as current-day prosperity was merely the palpable sense of history that survives in Ghadamis yet is, I realized, largely absent in the rest of the country. After Qaddafi came to power, he began a modernization program akin to the Cultural Revolution in China, in which Old Towns were emptied and old ways abandoned in the name of pro-gress. In Germa and Ghat and Gebraoun, the desolate Old Towns now lie derelict; in Ghadamis, too, mud-brick houses and subterranean alleyways had been left behind for larger concrete houses and running water available beyond its walls, but here families retained ownership of their former house and were responsible for its maintenance. The Old Townbursts to life every October, when residents move back for the three-day festival. Even during the other months, though, it is still possible to feel the past: to rest my hand on the thick palm planks of a door or run my fingers in the complex water channels that course through the district and, in so doing, feel connected to the society of which they were a part.
A few days later, I discovered a way to connect to my own family's history in Libya—on the north coast, at the ancient Roman ruins of Sabrata and Leptis Magna. These cities, among the greatest of the second and third centuries, lay unexcavated until the 1920's, when Mussolini, eager to resurrect the Roman Empire in Africa, restored them as a symbol of his mission to make Italy a world power once again. I walked the sprawling grounds, awed by the grandeur of the Hadrianic Baths and the dizzying volume of the theater and moved by the delicacy of the mosaics, carrying photographs that my mother's father had taken on a visit 42 years earlier. As I came upon the columns and buildings and sculptures he had photographed, I positioned myself to shoot the same image. I never knew my grandfather: he died young, the year before I was born; so while the pictures were, for him, merely snapshots of the ruins, they had become, for me, a record of his presence there. At the Severan Basilica at Leptis Magna I climbed upon a high pedestal, slipped my foot into a small crevice in the weathered stone, and saw, from the alignment of columns through the lens, that my grandfather could have stood only in that precise spot, his foot resting as mine was, to take the photograph I held in my pocket. It was a small thing but, having found it, I was ready to go home.
SEAN ROCHA is a frequent contributor to Slate and has completed a novel about dictatorship. He was a columnist for the Cairo Times in Egypt.
On June 28, following the announcement of the restoration of limited diplomatic relations with Libya, a U.S. Liaison Office opened in Tripoli offering limited services for US citizens. In addition, the lifting of the embargo means that it is now permitted to use credit cards and checks drawn on U.S. banks; in practice, however, few businesses in Libya will accept them and cash is still preferable. For detailed guidance on travel to Libya, go to: http://travel.state.gov/travel/libya_warning.html
Veteran U.K. adventure-travel group, with 8- and 15-day tours of the north coast and the Sahara. TOURS FROM $1,130. 800/227-8747; www.exodus.co.uk
Operates a 13-day tour to the Greek and Roman ruins on the coast and the oasis town of Ghadamis. TOURS FROM $6,995. 800/992-2003; www.travcoa.com
Travel Dynamics International
Offers an 11-day yacht cruise from Crete calling at ports along Libya's Mediterranean coast, including visits to its Greek and Roman ruins. TOURS FROM $6,995. 800/257-5767; www.traveldynamicsinternational.com/libya
Wings Travel & Tours
Based in Tripoli, Wings Travel is the Libyan partner running the ground operations for many of the English-speaking tours from the States and Great Britain, so it is sometimes easier (and certainly cheaper) to contact them directly. TOURS FROM $275. 218-21/333-1855; www.wingstours.com