We had heard
before leaving for Libya how friendly the people there were, but we
weren't prepared for the experience. By the end of the first week,
many of our group agreed that the most overwhelming thing we had
experienced – more than the eclipse, more than the magnificent Roman
ruins – was the warmth, friendliness, sincerity and generosity of
the Libyans we met everywhere.
On the first
day, shortly after checking in, I walked out of the hotel and I
immediately ran into a man who was staying at the hotel, and who worked
for the National bank of Libya. [Photo on left] We chatted a
bit, and then I said I was going to walk around a bit. “I’ll go with you”, he said.
At one point, he suggested we take a cab to Green Square and the
I have to admit that I wondered – despite my trust
in what I knew of Libyans – was this a good idea? Here I am: in a
foreign country (one many people around the world consider
“dangerous”), and immediately on exiting my hotel someone comes to
me, asks to follow me, and suggests we get in a taxi and drive
somewhere else in the city..
At any rate, I
had little time until our group had to meet, so instead we walked in
the neighbourhood of the hotel. When we crossed a very busy street,
he always went ahead of me, and made sure he stood on the traffic
side of me, constantly looking back to make sure I was safe. Later,
he said he was staying in the hotel all week, had a car, and offered
a drive anywhere, money if I needed that, information,
advice – anything.
That was the last moment I had
the slightest apprehension in the country. His name was Nasser, and
I wish now that I had his contact information. He was the one
that truly took me across that "foreign border", and was the
true immigration official to welcome me to this amazing country.
For the next two weeks,
everywhere we went, we were taken aback by the people there. Walking
anywhere in public, all we had to do was to offer any kind of greeting --
“Salam aleykum” or "Hello" -- to invariably get back a warm welcome and smile.
If we couldn’t carry on a conversation, I would at least point to
myself, and offer up
“Canada” so the person could place us. That got an even better
response, and almost always “Welcome to Libya!” (I suspect almost any
country would get an equally friendly greeting), followed by
whatever amount of conversation or communication we could manage.
It seemed no
matter how much or how little English people could speak, you could
feel an incredibly deep warmth, openness, friendliness and
curiosity. The depth of feeling was so constant, and so moving, that
after about a week, I said to one of our fellow travelers (speaking
figuratively), “I almost don’t want to meet any more Libyans… the
experience is so intense that I don’t know if I can take
anymore”. He knew exactly what I was talking about.
returning to Canada, I have found a few other people's reports
on travel in Libya -- both for the eclipse and at other times.
Invariably, they all marvel at the warmth and openness of the
the only exception we found to this friendliness was with many
people working in "service" jobs, such as hotels and airlines.
(Mind you, if I had to work for Libyan Arab Airlines -- especially if I had
to fly with them -- I wouldn't be too happy either!) These are
the types of jobs at home that are often filled by people who
enjoy meeting people and show it; if not, they are at least
trained to be friendly and polite.
We had to
wonder how you could take some of the warmest, friendly people
in the world, put them in jobs serving the public, and then
often end up with unhappy, sometimes unfriendly or
uncommunicative people. Must be some pretty poor working
just about everyone else in the country more than made up for
Oksana with a new friend at the concert on the night before the
Bilgasem and Oksana
Poster in Tripoli:
"Tourism: A Bridge of Love and Peace Between People
At the eclipse
site, we met two university students (Abdul Salam and Ahmed) who had a
small booth selling art and crafts (some made by Ahmed). Although we
met them late in the stay, we learned more about the country, and
perspectives of some students. They were outgoing, intelligent,
curious, with great senses of humour (and great cowboy hats!). We
discovered that someone else from our tour group had been eating
dinner with them through our stay there, and became quite close..
The five of us
spent our last couple of hours at tent city together. When the buses
pulled out to take us to the airstrip, there were large letters dug
into the sand: “Goodbye, Jim, John, Oksana”.
John, Abdul Salam, Ahmed, Jim & Oksana just before leaving the eclipse
Then there was
Mostafa. Tourists traveling in much of Libya need to travel with a
guide, and depending on location and numbers, with security: The
Libyan Tourist Police. Our security guy was Mostafa. We figured out
his role the first day while touring one of the Roman sites, when it
was clear that he was following the group, always making sure
everyone was accounted for. The other thing we noticed were his
At the end of
that first day when we returned to the hotel, we asked his name and
introduced ourselves. He had seemed pretty serious in his job, but
he soon burst into a huge friendly smile. He spoke almost no
English, but every moment he saw us, he greeted us by name, shook
hands, smiled, and we had whatever conversation we could. And
although language was a real challenge, our communication improved,
as it can despite language barriers. Over our time, we grew very
close to him.
We had thought
he would be with us only for the first week and not on our Sahara
trip, so we made arrangements to contact him when we returned to
Tripoli on our last day. (He was going to help us buy Touareg
When we sat in
the bus waiting to head for the airport for the desert adventure, a
taxi pulled up, and out jumped Mostafa with his luggage – and our
two headdresses! We’d be with him for the next week after all.
We knew he was
keen to learn English, and it soon became apparent that he was also
very determined, and picked things up quickly. During the next week,
Oksana spent quite a bit of time with him every day teaching
English. He didn’t know the alphabet at all – couldn’t even spell
his name – but she worked on that, often by writing in the sand. Now
that we are back home, we bought some English language materials for
Arabic speakers to send to him.
We are still in
touch with Mostafa (as much as language barriers allow) through email, and by
Mostafa at Sabratha
John, Mostafa, Oksana in Ghat
Women & children
On our second day in Libya, while touring the ancient Roman site of
Sabratha, we saw several teenage girls (with a male escort not far
away). walking along the seashore sea We said hello or Salam, said
we were from Canada, and had a brief conversation, as they spoke as
little English as we spoke Arabic. Two of them posed for pictures,
one holding Oksana’s hand.
We didn’t think
at the time it would be the last conversation we would have with any
Libyan women during our time there. (Except for a few “business”
conversations on the few occasions when we experienced women working
in a service job at a hotel or airport).
In fact, we saw almost no other women. Travelling in Tripoli, or driving
through small towns, there were always scores of men on the streets,
including small crowds outside many small shops, or standing near
the road. Women were rarely seen – an invisible part of life there.
We saw equally few children.
From what I know
of Libyan society, in some ways, things are more relaxed than in
some other countries. There were certainly few if any burkas seen,
and most women we saw were wearing “normal” (to us) western-type
clothing, with head covering. Ghadaffi’s bodyguards are all women.
But obviously, there seems to be little public life for women, in
More serious was
the report put out by Human Rights Watch shortly before we arrived
in Libya about conditions for women and girls who are suspected of
being “vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct”. See
Roman sites: Sabratha & Leptis Magna
Friends: at Sabratha