25, following a pleasant two days "de-jetlagging" in Amsterdam, we finally arrived in The Great
Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
It had been a
year of planning, preparation, and anticipation, and so we were quite confident
in our decision, and sure that we were in for a great time, but… As
we walked into the Tripoli airport terminal and joined the many other
eclipse tourists in the immigration line, we were not without some
concern. Were we right, or were they right – all those other
people who looked at us with surprise, puzzlement or shock: “Libya??!!”
To add to
the uncertainty, the visa documentation we had with us had some of our
passport information wrong.
turned out, the last concerns we would have on this trip (other than
flying on Air Libya!) would disappear within just a few hours.
Our documentation worries disappeared when
the last of three immigration officers we had been shuffled to clearly
couldn't read any non-Arabic information. I just
kept pointing out our names and eventually, he waved us
here we come!
While standing at the
immigration desk, I noticed one of the oddest sights I was to see in
Libya. On the desk was a pocket notebook sporting a “Halliburton” sticker
– the company of Dick Cheney and U.S. government contracts in Iraq, New
Orleans and everywhere else. But in Libya? It surprised the heck out of
me, but on return home, I learned a bit more. For example, see
(Apparently, even during the sanctions, Halliburton did business
with Libya through non-U.S. subsidiaries – and according to Halliburton
Watch, Mr. Cheney during his time at Halliburton was a leading opponent of
sanctions against oil-producing nations. The Washington Post
reports that Halliburton pled guilty in 1995 to violating the American ban
on exports to Libya).
get to see or experience a lot of Tripoli, as most of our time there was
in preparation for travel elsewhere. This was almost the only regret we
had about our entire two week stay in Libya. A few cursory
“Security” – depending on how you interpreted it – was a feature
of Tripoli hotels. We stayed in two different hotels, and in both,
everyone had to pass through a metal detector. The alarm went off
constantly, and equally constantly was ignored.
if following old Soviet Union traditions, the hotels stationed someone
around the clock to sit by the elevators, in order to watch everyone
come and go.
elevators in themselves were interesting. The Bab al Bahar hotel’s
website boasted of its “big modern elevators”. It seemed like an
odd comment until we saw the elevators in our other two Libyan hotels.
They were so small that they could accommodate only 2 or 3 people with
So, on a busy check-out morning (and hotels were pretty busy
around Eclipse time!), you had to wait an awfully long time to get one.
Elevators either would not stop because they were full, or the
“overweight” alarm would sound when someone attempted to get on.
Fezzan Hotel in Sebah had the same problem, but also had no working
electric eyes on the doors. Combined with quick-closing doors, it meant
you were inevitably slammed and pinned by the door until you managed to
twist around, and find the “open door” button.
lobbies were generally spacious and comfortable – except for the
cigarette smoke. Staff occasionally “cleared” the air by spraying
equally obnoxious room freshener.
colour green was everywhere. It’s the colour of Islam, and also the
colour of the Libyan flag. (The flag is plain green with no design). Col.
Ghadaffi's political treatise that forms the basis for the government is
called "The Green Book",
and the main public square in Tripoli is Green Square (although it's mostly
Many buildings we saw were drab grey, with just one trim colour: green. Mosques were generally white with green trim.
there was precious little green space. We saw almost no parks or
playgrounds in the city, and those I did see were dirt, and not well
equipped. One tiny soccer pitch consisted of a ragged goal on a tiny
dirt “field” nestled inside the cloverleaf ramp at a highway
in co-operation with Unesco, it has a deservedly excellent reputation
for its exhibits and historic treasures from the Greek, Roman and
Islamic periods, but we were disappointed that on the day we visited,
the top floor (post-Revolution Libya) was closed. (Although one of the
first exhibits you see on entering is the old Volkswagen beetle that
Col. Ghadaffi drove at the time he took over the country in
Unfortunately, there is very little signage in English or any
other foreign language. The Lonely Planet guide is very useful
housing such superb and invaluable treasures we noticed one guard
smoking inside the building.
video taken in
the museum (not mine) on You Tube.
area dates from the 16th-17th century Turkish
period, and contained the entire city until the 19th century.
Consisting of numerous paths winding between whitewashed earthen walls,
it’s easy (and enjoyable) to get lost. There are numerous shops,
mosques, cafes and homes. About 3,500 people still live there, but over
60,000 work within the medina.
spent some time walking through some of the market area. One of the
first things that strike most tourists when looking at or visiting shops
in Libya is the complete lack of any aggressive selling. In fact, shop
owners usually wouldn’t even say anything unless
Most common goods included jewellery (gold and silver), and
clothes. There was one shop that made crescents that sit on top of the
mosques’ minarets. I bought some Libyan music tapes, but passed on the
store selling “Twinkle Man” pyjamas.
Construction and/or deconstruction of buildings was everywhere
fact, this was also the case in most towns we saw). It wasn’t always
clear whether we were witnessing buildings going up or coming down –
particularly because even long-finished buildings were often surrounded
by a pile of apparently left-over bricks sitting abandoned and
his picture was everywhere (at least in Tripoli). It seemed that almost
every intersection had at least one billboard of the Colonel in various
“magnificent” poses, apparently either accepting the adulation of, or
inspiring, his invisible admirers. The billboards often showed the
African continent, with Libya coloured in glorious green, radiating out
its pan-African message.
foreigners, he appeared rather foolish in these pictures, and they were
the subject of many photos and just as many jokes. However, I left Libya
with two images of him planted in my mind. One member of our eclipse
group commented – with deadly accuracy – that his pictures made him look
like a 1970’s porn star.
other impression comes from his image on the one 1 dinar banknote, where
he stood in almost perfect imitation of the signature pose of the late
American comedian, Jack Benny.
However, obviously there are more serious issues than some silly
billboards. We never volunteered conversation or questions about
politics with any Libyans as we had been warned that this could be
dangerous (for the Libyans). However, on several occasions, Libyans
brought the topic up, and expressed frustration with the situation in
the country. During these conversations, we were aware of how closely
their eyes watched others passing nearby, and they would quickly stop
talking if someone else came too close.
person we talked to was at the site of the Italian consulate
demonstrations in Benghazi in February in which 10 or more people were
killed by police – in fact he had been standing very close to the first
person killed. That incident had been reported worldwide as another
violent demonstration concerning the infamous cartoons of the Prophet,
although there are questions about its real cause and how it escalated
into violence. For example, see various reports in Wikipedia:
waiting in the Tripoli airport for our Sahara-bound flight a week later,
I bought one of the classic tourist souvenirs: a Ghadaffi watch. I put
it on, but shortly afterward, thinking of how he was viewed by the
Libyans I had talked with, decided to take it off. To us, it may be a
quaint or comical souvenir. To many Libyans – a people I had grown to
greatly like and admire – it no doubt represented something else. I
didn’t want to be offensive, so took it off, and haven’t worn it
added bonus to our magnificent week in the Sahara: we saw no billboards
of the Colonel while there).
Libyan 1 Dinar note
The Colonel watches over our hotel lobby
For some more of my photos of Tripoli,