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Inside Libya

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.

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