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Inside Libya

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.


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