There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

On the Current Troubles: Part 2 Libya

The Great SPLAJ – the ‘Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’ is a very different country from Egypt. It is twice the size but has one eighth as many people, and the presence of oil has ensured that those people are, on average, four or five times wealthier their Egyptian cousins. The Egyptians are almost all Arabs, while the Libyans are a much intermarried mix of Arabs and Berbers  - along with a few Tuaregs and smaller minorities.

The Waterfront, Tripoli

We visited Libya in 2006, flying to Tripoli and on to Benghazi before driving back to Tripoli along the coast, then south to the oasis town of Ghadames. Ghadames is 300 km south of Tripoli; another 1000 km of desert lie beyond. Most of Libya is uninhabited and uninhabitable, with the vast majority of Libyans living in cities along the coastal strip.

Our trip concentrated not on politics but on the remarkable remains of the Greek cities near Benghazi, - Ptolomais, Apollonia and Cyrene - on the Roman remains near Tripoli - Leptis Magna and Sabratha – the Berber towns of the Jebel Nafousa and the oasis of Ghadames. But politics can never be completely ignored.

Migrant workers await employement
while the Colonel looks elsewhere, Derj

Libya’s relative wealth drags in migrant workers, few of them legal. On the Egyptian coast road through Mersa Matrouh and on to Alexandria, it is common to see packed minibuses, their height doubled by a precarious stack of household goods, bringing Egyptian workers home from Libya. In Zliten, a distinctly edgy town 200 km east of Tripoli, we sat discreetly on a park bench beside a roundabout and watched a hundred or more migrant workers, mainly from south of the Sahara, squatting on the pavement, the tools of their trade before them. Occasionally a Honda pick-up would drive round the circle, blowing its horn. Men ran towards the truck, a lucky few would be selected and taken away for a few hours much needed work. Libya has no minimum wage and these were desperate men willing to work for almost nothing; unemployment among Libyans is high.

Looking up the Colonel's nose
Al-Kabir Hotel, Tripoli
Unlike Hosni Mubarak, Colonel Gaddafi set out to generate a personality cult. He intended to make his little green book as ubiquitous in Libya as Mao’s little red book once was in China. He failed, but every Libyan city has its quota of banners bearing his image draped down the sides of buildings. His stance is invariably ramrod straight with his head held back and his nostril flared, reminiscent of Mussolini (Libya was ruled by Italy from 1911 to 1943). No doubt, he believes the pose exemplifies nobility and power, I merely wonder why he wants me to look up his nose.

Gaddafi is unstable and erratic, which is perhaps why his personality cult never took off. The people fear him, with good reason, but we saw plenty of evidence that they do not respect him. When we started joking about the images of Gaddafi, 'A' (our much travelled Berber guide whose experiences included a spell cooking pizzas on Tyneside) was quick to join in. T-shirts bearing the colonel’s image are widely available, but I never saw anybody wearing one. When I bought one the stallholder was well aware that the purchase was made in a spirit of irony rather than awe, and made no effort to hide his contempt for Gaddafi. One floor of the otherwise excellent Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli is dedicated to Gaddafi memorabilia; his green book translated into many languages (and unread in most), his 1957 Volkswagen, and more photos than even his mother could bear to look at. M, who showed us round Tripoli, sneered as he told us about it. When we got there, the gallery was closed. The museum official charged with conveying that information seemed embarrassed that it existed at all.

The Berber town of Kabaw in the Jebel Nafousa

The Libyan people are largely good-natured and philosophical. They have never had much say in who their rulers are, so they merely shrug their shoulders and get on with it. Many laugh at Gaddafi behind his back, but opposition is neither easy nor safe, so they have tended to work round the problem; that was until last week.

Hosni Mubarak was a bureaucrat whose regime became old and sclerotic, Muammar al-Gaddafi is much more of a classical tyrant. He will fight back harder than Mubarak, and with fewer scruples but, as we have already seen, he cannot rely on personal loyalty.  It is time for the Libyan people to consign this monster to the dustbin of history. As A might say, Haway the Berbers.

Lynne at the mudbrick fortified granary of Qasr al-Haj

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