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KS Cover no. 72 2006 May

MAY 2006 :: 072

 

Behind Libya's green door

TRIPOLI, Libya — Recently, I traveled behind enemy lines. Some US administrations would have you think so, any- way. But I viewed Libya with less suspicion. I knew that its rich Roman and Greek heritage held great travel promise. I also knew that Libya on the ground would be, like most hot-spots in the world, far less dangerous than on TV. Now, in light of Muammar Qaddafi's recent WMD confessions and promises to disarm, even US lawmakers have softened their stance against the Mad Dog (as Qaddafi was once called).

Long synonymous with sponsored state terrorism or, at best, a desert, a trip to Libya promises visits to some of the most significant and best persevered Roman and Greek ruins in the Mediterranean and gracious hospitality.

My 15-day tour included an air-conditioned mini-bus, three star hotels with breakfast, entrance fees, and guide, Jamal al-Sager. My 9 fellow tourists and I were also accompanied by Mahjdi, a guide-in-training, driver Khairi, and Mahmoud, a minder. They spoke candidly and with fondness about their little-known country.

“Welcome to Libya,” Jamal greeted us in the immigration hall bene-ath a banner calling for 'Partners, not Wage Workers'. The welcome mat was out for us all over the country.

“People are very nice here,” Jamal said in fluent English. “If you smile, they will smile back. And if they can speak some English, they will want to talk to you.”

After settling into a seaside hotel, I set out with my roommate into Tripoli's busy streets. Our first encounter with a local was a moment of truth. British by birth but American by upbringing, I was hesitant about broadcasting my US citizenship. The US government still imposed its own sanctions on Libya.

“I'm from America,” I said to the young man. “You are very welcome to Libya,” he responded. Relief!

Tripoli is a 3,000-year-old riddle. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, Spaniards, and Italians all left their mark, particularly the latter, whose wonderful architecture merges with a bland Libyan design. But high rise offices and apartment buildings are giving the place a 21st century feel and an entrepreneurial image. That's hardly the image I expected to see.

Today, most visitors stop only long enough to be briefed on the nation's history at the Jamahiriya Museum and to take a night's lodg-ing at both ends of a tour. But I liked the place for its wide streets and timeworn 1930s urbanity, its hospitable air and quaint though much neglected Medina (Old City).

Libya's streets and souqs (markets) are free of overbearing shop-keeps who pervade other North African tourist routes. Maybe it's because Libyans don't feel the economic need. By law citizens are guaranteed pensions, health care, and housing. They live modest lives in modern apartment blocks complete with satellite TV.

“TV is a Libyan's eye on the world,” explained Jamal. “We watch CNN, BBC, and Discovery Channel, too.” Internet is also available.

“Libyans are a small, peaceful people,” said Jamal, who experienced a life of mod-cons during a two-year stay in the USA. “We have traditional ways. We don't want the fast American life where you know your neigh-bor's name from the mailbox only.”

Perhaps more of a concern for Libya's 5.5 million souls is the thousands of migrant workers in the country, many of whom are here illegally. From Sudan to Nigeria, these economic nomads seek better wages by doing chores that Libyans simply don't want to do.

The nation's tangled history proves these people are following a well-beaten path to economic gain. It's a road that leads back three millenniums.

The Phoenicians were the first to arrive, establishing mineral, food-stuffs, and slave trading posts along the coast. The Carthaginians dis-placed them six centuries later but were defeated by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. The Greeks arrived a few hundred years earlier. All left legacies of civilization, economic might, and architecture.

But perhaps the most significant invasion was in the 7th century AD when the Arabs brought Islam. Their gospel remains firmly rooted to this day in virtually every aspect of a Libyan's life.

Turks conquered the country in 1551 and Libya became an outpost of the Ottoman empire. Italy annexed the nation in 1911 and made it a colony two decades later. In 1951, the United Kingdom of Libya became an independent country.

Oil started to flow and so did civil disquiet. Taking matters into his own hands on September 1, 1969, Muammar al-Qaddafi grabbed power in the White Revolution. In 1977, he renamed the country to the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (meaning, state of the masses). In practice, leadership remains a military dictatorship.

We left Tripoli for the ancient Carthaginian trading post of Sabratha, an important trans-Saharan port. It was a permanent Roman city complete with temples, baths, a basilica, and the largest theatre in Roman Africa. Today, thanks largely to British and Italian restoration projects, a visit hardly feels 2,500 years removed from its foundation.

In every site we visited, from 7th century BC Greek Cyrene and Apollonia to 5th century BC Phoenician-Roman Leptis Magna, an ancient presence was our guide. Details demonstrated that erstwhile residents were not rogue settlers. They were sophisticated, clever-minded people who enjoyed the best things in life from plumbing to theatre, from good roads to temples. I like those same things.

For its imperial glory and town planning, including the largest baths outside Rome, Leptis Magna was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Established to secure the eastern border in the face of Greek expansion, the city came under Roman control in the 2nd century BC. Prosperity peaked under the rule of Emperor Septimus Severus four hundred years later. An earthquake in 306 AD devastated the city.

At Ghadhames, an ancient trans-Saharan caravan stop noted for its uniquely adapted desert architecture, we hurriedly made our way from a blistering 43 degrees Celsius (110 F) to the chilled alleyways of the uninhabited old town. Stepping inside was like falling into a cold pool.

 

We ferreted the labyrinth's white-washed tunnel-like lanes. The way to courtyards and houses was lit by flashlights and occasional open roof sky lights.

We passed through a green door (the color of Islam and the national flag), and emerged in a richly ornamented living room. Hand-painted walls and sumptuous cushions invited us to envision bygone life.

The 1,500-kilometer drive to the eastern Benghazi province was punctuated by intriguing little stops, including slumber in Syrte (Libya's official administrative center), and informative stops at oil presses, granaries, museums.

We drove past forsaken old towns literally crumbling adjacent to new towns. The contrast is a beacon of oil wealth. So are the pipelines of one of Qaddafi's most ambitious civil projects.

The Great Manmade River (GMR) is a US$27 billion project designed to bring water from ancient desert aquifers to thirsty farmland and coastal cities hundreds of kilometers away. There are also plans to build a 3,000 -kilometer rail network designed to link urban centers. Both endeavors match the boldness of those ancient ruins we had seen.

To reach Al Bayda, a non-descript town conveniently situated for visits to nearby Cyrene and Apollonia, we ascended the Green Mountains. Cooler temperatures and lush, red-soiled landscapes provided fertile relief from the arid humdrum elsewhere.

A Friday evening's stroll round the center revealed an amiable quality to the place. Men heeded calls to prayer while women leisurely window-shopped. I liked that.

By the time we reached the commercial city of Benghazi the journey had been highlighted by numerous telling moments. Many of them were had round the dinner table, exchanging ideas and impressions about Libya's role in the world. I asked Jamal what he wants for the future.

“I want less bureaucracy and more freedom to travel outside Libya,” he said immediately. “When you hold up your passport, it says, 'British'. When I hold up mine, it says, 'terrorist'. This is not right.”

I agreed. And for a moment, I thought that behind enemy lines was a place called home.

Text & photos: Jono David

:: Online Articles

:: FEATURE

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The great culture exchange

:: TRAVEL

Behind Libya's green door
Libya, North Africa

:: GETAWAY

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:: SPECIAL

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:: HEALTH

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:: PROFILE

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:: Listings

:: CINEMA LISTINGS

Up to date cinema listings guide so you always know what's on, where and when!

:: ART

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:: EVENTS

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:: LIVE

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:: CLUB

Parties not to miss + listings

:: Also in this month's mag

:: FOOD

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:: DRINK

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Turkish bar Maytur, Sannomiya

:: FESTIVAL

Concert on the Rock
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:: UPDATE

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:: CLUB INTERVIEW

From one X-Dream to another
X-Dream on their new release

:: FESTIVAL

Best festivals + listings

:: READ

New releases and top ten paperback books

:: FILM

Reel reviews of the silver screen

:: NEWS

Domestic and international news


WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE:
Most visitors arrive by air, though sea arrivals from Malta and border crossings from both Tunisia and Egypt are also possible. Nearly all major European national carriers have flights to Tripoli, including KLM, British Airways, Alitalia, Lufthansa, Air Malta, Egypt Air, and Syrian Air.

WHEN TO GO:
Libya is mostly a desert country and therefore one should be prepared for high temperatures, particularly inland. Coastal areas can be equally hot and occasionally muggy. The overall best time to visit Libya is between November and March when daytime temperatures are relatively cool (30s Celsius/90s F).

MONEY:
The currency of Libya is the Dinar (LD). The dinar is divided into 1000 dirhams. US$1=LD1.33 (January 2006)

VISAS:
Libya welcomes applications for tourist visas from every nationality in the world. Every visitor to Libya requires a visa except for most people holding passports from Arab countries and Malta. Other visitors require an 'invitation' which can be provided by Libyan tour operators. Independent travellers are also welcome but should contact a Libyan-based travel agency for assistance.

TOUR AGENCIES:
A number of European-based companies operate good tours, usually 7-15 days. Independent travelers are welcome, but travel is difficult, especially if you do not speak Arabic.

• Explore Worldwide:
www.exploreworldwide.com
email: [email protected]

• Tour “Libya-Tunisia: Lost Cities of the Roman Empire” from around US$1,900. Includes all accommodation, transportation (by private mini-bus), guide and driver, entrance fees, breakfasts and a few other meals.
Air fares not included.

• Dragoman: www.dragoman.co.uk

ON THE WEB:
www.libyaonline.com
www.libyaonline.com/eclipse/