A photo-journal of our Libyan Solar Eclipse & Sahara trip, Mar.-Apr. 2006
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Photos & journal by John Leeson (Toronto, Canada)
 email:  jooktoronto@gmail.com

THE LIBYANS: an amazing people

Click on photos for larger images:           

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 medina.


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.


Since 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 Libyans.


Except for...

Strangely, 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 conditions!


Fortunately, just about everyone else in the country more than made up for this lack.

Outside Sebha

Oksana with a new friend at the concert on the night before the eclipse

Bilgasem and Oksana

Poster in Tripoli:
"Tourism: A Bridge of Love and Peace Between People

The Cowboys
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 site.


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 great boots!


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 headdresses).


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 phone.

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 our sense.


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 http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/02/27/libya12725.htm


Next: the Roman sites: Sabratha & Leptis Magna

Friends: at Sabratha

Children in

PAGES: Index | Tripoli | People | Roman sites | In Tent CityEclipse | Tent City story |To the Sahara
In the Sahara | Sun, sand, water |  Desert notes | Drivin' | Some civilization | Last days