I don’t want to go to Libya. It's 1979 and we are still recovering from the evacuation of Iran in the midst of the revolution. My first stony act of rebellion takes place 20,000 feet in the air. The entry form for admission to Libya is a full page long and we are expected to fill in every gap. Beside Religion I carefully write “Agnostic.” My husband of slightly more than a year pitches a fit. He was the one who pushed to go to Libya.
“It’s filled in with something. That’s all they want.” Turns out I’m right.
The airport is a low white building, almost empty except for a few baggage handlers and the occasional man in Arab garb and sunglasses. We have to identify our bags before they are taken from the runway to the building. It is a routine, one of the few I will ever appreciate in Libya that we will get used to. It becomes somehow reassuring to place my hand on my bag on the runway before it is loaded onto the plane; it is more reassuring to watch my fellow travelers do the same.
The hotel is a throwback to one of the more recent periods of colonialism in Libya. It is a mix of Italian design and British proclivity to pretension while in lands that have a better climate and belong to people other than the British. It suffers from benign neglect and old age. The balcony overlooking the Mediterranean is the size of a large ballroom. We are not allowed to use it while Billy Carter and his henchmen are guests. They have arrived as guests of Ghaddafi for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the revolution. There will be fireworks.
There are always fireworks, haphazard displays of the supposed bright lights of freedom. There’s a display for the kicking out of the Italians, the British, and the arrival of the revolution courtesy of Muammar Ghaddafi and members of the military he apparently coerced into deposing the elderly and western friendly King Idris. One of the displays will coincide with our wedding anniversary. We will take ourselves up to the roof of the apartment building where the crosshatching of rope clotheslines serves to dry both laundry and sheep intestines.
Young thugs sit on every street corner, revolutionary youth in American style garb and mirror sunglasses. They apparently also have access to western style porn. Their English is limited to short sentences with permutations of the words “fuck” and “whore.” I learn to keep my shopping forays to well populated streets. It doesn’t do me any good in the end.
The building is on Abdul Nasser Boulevard. The street is a wide well made sweep that brushes past the Mediterranean for the full length of the city. There are strangely placed and unnecessary overpasses. Ghaddafi’s attempt to have Benghazi look more city-like. The overpasses act like speed ramps for the impulsive and inexperienced Libyan drivers. Their accidents create a panoply of the impossible. One car is impaled from stem to stern by the guardrail on one overpass. The car sits swaying like a weathervane on top of the overpass, the guardrail protruding from its rear in a twisted tale of speed.
The apartment is on the sixth floor. There is no elevator. The head of a department at the university lives across the hall. One evening he comes to the door in his striped nightgown and Willy Winkie nightcap. I never meet the couple who live at the end of the hall but I know they lose a child to miscarriage. A candle burns outside their door. A bowl of salt sits beside the candle.
Inside the apartment a small entry room leads to a hallway and the kitchen. On the left is a room we use as a dining room. The kitchen is minute; I can touch both walls standing with arms outstretched. There is no counter space, just a sink with a space for dishes and a cupboard under the window. The window overlooks the back of the building and a narrow balcony. We sit out there most evenings as it begins to cool. We watch the rats, as big as cats, wander among the rubble and rubbish at the back of the building. They have no fear. There are rumors of the plague in eastern towns near Tobruk.
We sleep in the back room that has only one small high window. It is cooler in the dark. The two fans whirr us through the night. One night we are awakened by the sound of water. We awake to the sight of small waves rippling down the hallway. The overflow pipe of the water cistern for the building is sending a torrent of water splashing onto our tiny balcony, rippling under the door into the entrance room and down the hall towards the bathroom. The torn rag that was once used as a plug for the pipe has jettisoned into the rat’s nest below.
I teach at the British School. It was once the British School for British Petroleum employees’ children. The school consists of three older villas side by side at the dusty end of an unpaved street on the outskirts of town. The villas are the same dun color as the dust that surrounds them. I teach the second year kindergarten students. By the time they have been through their first year with Sylvia they are wonderful readers and have learned how to sit quietly on hot days.
Sylvia is the quintessential English school marm. She wears a long-sleeved dress and pantyhose every day no matter how hot the day. She remains cool and calm under every trying circumstance and simply continues with her focused pursuit of educating the young. She teaches every one who is willing how to play the recorder in all its variations. At the end of each year her students give a concert that is stunning in the level they have attained, a musical miracle in the dust. She teaches them how to cross stitch bright colors on rectangles of burlap. They take their projects home to their grateful parents.
Mo brings me a runner and matching rectangular doilies. They are beautifully cross-stitched in shades of violet and beige and yellow onto a soft aida cloth. The back is lined with a silky smooth polyester attached with meticulous neatness. The set was made by an eight-year-old Palestinian orphan in the tradition of the crafts he brought with him from the place he once called home. There are many orphans.
There are many Palestinian refugees. Mo has them in his classes at Garyounis University. Young girls eager for an education, desperate to be heard, longing for a place to call home. They have no home. They are captive in Libya; their travel documents removed from them as soon as they arrive, their men forced to become revolutionaries or part of the forces Ghaddafi sends to places like Chad or Uganda or they disappear into the camps in the dessert; camps for terrorists in the making. American and Israeli mercenaries train those who arrive at the camps. It is not a rumor. Ultimately they are all doomed. To the Palestinian students, Mo is America and freedom. Little do they know. They write heart-wrenching poetry of their plight. Their words drop into the dust at the edge of the University.
There are rumors that students, not considered revolutionary enough, have their throats slit before the student body. The sleek black limousine brushes past us on the way out of the university. Ghaddafi on his way back to Tripoli. Carefully selected members of the unrevolutionary populace are left kicking their last breath in the public squares.
There are rumors that soldiers captured in Uganda are defaced, literally; their noses, ears and lips removed. Their deepest wound is shame. They are not seen. Families of the fallen are sent a bag of rice and a sheep. No telegram.
Food becomes more and more scarce. It is being sent to the forces in Chad and Uganda. Ships languish at sea waiting to unload their cargoes, food rots in containers at the port, store shelves empty even of the ever-present olives and tuna. There is a near riot over tomatoes at the central market. The souk, centuries old, is closed. A forlorn woman stands outside one of the shuttered stalls, holding out her wedding silver to me. She looks ancient; life in Libya is harsh for its women.
My favorite chicken store in the main square just closes down overnight. I still owe him $1.40. I didn’t have the correct change. He gave me what I wanted and trusted I would return tomorrow with the money. There was no tomorrow for him. The shoe store across the square is still open. He no longer offers shoes for me to take home for my husband to try. There are rumors that children are turning in parents and family members for not being revolutionary enough. There are reports of crime, unheard of break-ins and theft. Trust begins to slowly leak into the dust. A way of life begins to disappear.
There are demonstrations of a sort in the streets. A television camera in the back of a flat bed truck slowly sweeps over the faces of the small crowd of paid revolutionaries who shake their fists and shout slogans to demonstrate their belief in the revolution in general and Ghaddafi in particular. There are plenty of unemployed survivors who have pushed a barrel of water across the dessert to reach Libya in the hope of work and a better way of life. Shouting their pretended allegiance to Ghaddafi is an easy way to make a living. The odd procession makes its way up Abdul Nasser Boulevard. The majority of the people on the streets barely glance at the strange display. They will get to watch the carefully edited version on television.
Villas are taken over by the military. Foreigners are sent to Bennina, a compound built for the military. Bennina becomes a United Nations of Russians, Italians, Czechs, Scots, English, and a hodge –podge of the world’s travelers. Reagan, ignorant of all that happens in Libya, will bomb Bennina. By some miracle it does not kill foreign nationals nor start a war.
Each New Year’s eve we go into the dessert. We travel south to Ajdhabiya then at Brega we make a left turn into the Sahara. Brega is just a small oasis in the middle of nowhere. There are date palms, surprisingly short and stumpy but heavy with dates. The dates are harvested, pitted and compressed into sacks. Chunks are cut from the solid mass of nutrition that has sustained the dessert tribes for centuries.
We pass duck rock, a massive outcrop of mica shaped like a duck that forms one of the gatekeepers to the Sahara. We pass mountainous dunes and camp under the heavy stars beside the remains of a WWII tank. Its turret and muzzle are slanted toward the stars as it makes its creeping descent into the sands of the Sahara. In Benghazi the war cemetery holds the young remains of the soldiers who died here, in the dessert, in the dust. A long empty opened can of army rations lies perfectly preserved beside the dying tank.
The dessert holds and preserves that which it destroys. I find a perfect sand dollar. It’s young, probably from the Jurassic period, a mere 300 million years old. On one occasion we stumble across a wadi completely filled with brilliant color, flowers on flowers, on flowers. Wild flowers sprung suddenly from the open empty wadi, from seeds long dormant, long waiting for the rain that had finally released them into a brief and beautiful life.
Ghaddafi spends enormous amounts of money trying to reclaim the Sahara. The dessert is more than equal to the task of accepting his largesse and good intentions and sucking them all dry. Mostly he spends money on weaponry. Franco tells the story of the five fighter planes brought in from Italy. On a demonstration flight the lead plane experiences some difficulty and smoke begins to pour from the engine. The lead pilot ejects to safety. The four pilots following him mimic his example and the dessert claims all five fighter planes.
Each New Year brings another repression of the Jamahiriya, the people. Ghaddafi devalues the currency. The people swarm the banks as their life savings disappear overnight. Surely there will be a counter revolution! But no, the people accept whatever new scheme Ghaddafi dreams up to press them to the edge of their ability to survive, and then appears to give them some small reprieve, some gift from his fatherly benefice. And they are grateful. If they are not, they lose their homes, their stores, and sometimes their ability to walk.
I participate in ballet lessons lead by a waif like creature from Romania. We waltz to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty in the “theater” villa of the British school. I take over teaching an aerobics class from Cici, the Italian physical therapist after she and her husband leave. On Thursdays I participate in a yoga class. Most other days I play tennis under the hot sun and stares of some of the Libyan men who dare to be so flagrant. One masturbates up against the fence around the tennis courts. He follows us home, assuming that his display is as perfectly acceptable as our display of legs and arms.
We visit the ancient remains at Cyrene and the port at Apollonia. There is one lone archaeologist working under constant threat of dismissal. The remains are astonishing in their breadth and degree of preservation. Even the paintings have been preserved in the almost complete dwellings. Everywhere we look there is another mound of discovery of our collective history. I slip between the cracks in a rock and find myself in the baths of Diane, perfectly preserved. I sit in the hollowed rock and feel the centuries wash down the water troughs. The Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations flourished here, their amphoras of olive oil still sit in the bays at the port, their temples still stand, the doors to their homes forever opened.
There is an influx of Korean workers. They are constructing high-rise buildings near the tennis courts. Maybe it will be a hospital. Benghazi’s medical services are primitive at best. Tall, slender men and women from Cameroon or maybe Chad argue with the manager of the “peoples” store that is now on the ground floor of our building. I am sure the argument is about money, about something owed. The women are extraordinary creatures, tall and graceful they float along the jagged pavements of Benghazi wrapped in the beautiful colors of the cloth from their home country. They have crossed the dessert to be here.
Western ex-patriots begin to leave in droves. Life is becoming more and more difficult. Reagan orders all Americans to leave. On summer vacation we talk with the person in charge of the Libyan desk. He admits that he had to look Libya up on a map when he got the job. He has no idea what is happening in Libya. He doesn’t seem very interested in learning about Libya. We return for another year.
Another year of picking our way across the beach trying to avoid the clumps of oil, another year of scouring the stores for something to eat, another year of enduring the hot red dust of the gibli’s as they sweep up from the dessert, another year of watching and waiting for the counter revolution that never comes, another year of dodging the traffic on Abdul Nasser Boulevard, another year of brewing our own beer and wine, another year of increasing hostility on the streets of Benghazi from the revolutionary thugs. But, in our building, Mo’s Libyan colleagues are grateful we have returned, appreciative that we have stayed despite Reagan’s orders, kind to us in ways that only those who know how to survive the dessert are kind.
In the end we are paid well for our three years of service. The bonus for our endurance is more than the jihad tax we have had to pay. There is almost nothing of Libya we take with us. There is nothing Libyan left to buy. A silver wedding bracelet Mo bought for me in the souk before it closed, the runner and placemats from the Palestinian orphan, some photos, and these images of Libya.