Sunday, July 1, 2012

What We Have in Common with the Libyans

I met this friend on my layover in Rome - she was very helpful as we both navigated the long transfer lines
to our flight to Tripoli.  Hope to see her again in England, where she is studying genetics. 

Against the advice of many, including the State Department, this last week I had the privilege to visit Libya for a bit of work (see my post on my professional blog here to read about upcoming Libyan elections).  Although my fears were very real in going there, the most dangerous thing that happened to me was attempting to cross the street (they have few crosswalks).

While there, I learned from my friend pictured above that Libyans and Latter-day Saints have a fair bit in common.  Other than the usual suspects expected of any other LDS/Muslim comparison--no drinking (the country is more of a dry state than Utah!), disapproval of smoking (although most Libyans seem to not be bothered by this bit of their religion), and no sex before marriage--we have one more, less obvious commonality: community.

Community among Latter-day Saints means that you can rely on a Mormon network wherever you go. Sometimes, this is abused, as with the case of young single adults showing up in a new city without a job, prospect of one, housing, or money, but it's a network all of us have benefited from at some point or another.  When, after moving into a new congregation and promptly falling very ill in Washington, DC in 2007, I had strangers in the new congregation provide meals and all kinds of support.

I found that, due to their background as a close-knit tribal culture where many are related or share other forms of kinship, this same kind of community kindness is prevalent among Libyans.  Even though I was not part of their particular network, I was the grateful recipient of this culture.

I arrived in Libya a week ago today and was expected to pay 100 dinars for my one-time entrance visa (I do hope to go back, but under different auspices).  The problem with this is that it is impossible to get Libyan dinars outside of Libya (including Heathrow Airport - don't try!).

The other problem was in getting Libyan dinars once there. I have found in traveling that it is easiest and cheapest to exchange money by means of a cash machine--credit card companies will often give you the best exchange rate.  Therefore, I rarely travel with hard currency of any kind when I travel, expecting to get local currency from an ATM upon arrival and not wanting to have two forms of currency in my wallet.  This approach works, of course, when there are working ATMs.  

Passport control at the border were happy to allow me to proceed into the airport to get cash.  This left me quite worried - I was not comfortable leaving my passport anywhere, let alone with people who did not speak English, but I had no choice.  I went on through baggage control and into the main terminal in hopes of finding an ATM.

Of perhaps six ATMs at the Tripoli airport, most had no power and the one that I could slip my card into simply spit it back out.  None of the banks could help, either.  If I had had more US dollars or British pounds, none of this would have been a problem, as there were plenty places to exchange money.

Flustered, without my passport, blonde hair poking out of my headscarf (I learned later that all of the stares I got were from people wondering why I, clearly a Westerner, was wearing it), and no sign of my driver anywhere, I began laughing at myself out loud.  I should have known better.

But all was not lost.  One of the several unofficial "money exchangers" who first approached me to exchange the few dollars I did have spoke better English and was awfully persistent.  He first tried to get one of the ATMs working for me.  Then he offered to loan me the money and drive me into town to  find an ATM where I could pay him back.  I continually brushed him aside: I had a driver.  Finally, he made it clear that he didn't need to drive me into town - he would simply loan me the money.

I refused again, saying I couldn't pay him back.  "Your driver can," he confidently said.  I tried calling my driver, but to no avail.  He looked at me again - "He'll pay me back," and pushed 100 dinars into my face.

I went back through the baggage area and up to passport control.  On my way, I ran into my driver and explained what had happened.  Without blinking, he said of course that was how it should be.  I paid my loaned 100 dinars, got my passport, and now, accompanied by my driver, went in search of my benefactor.

Unlike I expected, the gracious money exchanger did not expect any kind of interest on his loan.  My driver simply paid him the 100 dinars.

Grateful, and a bit stunned by the generosity of two strangers, we went off into the Libyan heat to find my hotel in an unconditioned car.

It took a few days for me to understand what had happened, and to appreciate why - Libyans, similar to Latter-day Saints, understand community, where you take care of others, and they take care of you.  The money exchanger (sounds like some biblical reference to people Jesus drove out of the temple...) was simply being generous and taking care of me, and fully expected my driver to take care of me in return.  It was not the last time I would benefit during the trip from the graciousness of these wonderful people.

sandbags and rubble from demolished Gaddafi compound

Can you see the Feb. 17 and freedom graffiti? Put up for the benefit of the world media.

With colleague George Grant of the Libyan Herald and Hani ben Ali, driver and head of
development for the Libyan Herald.

Roman ruins forming the gateway to the old city.

This pot, sealed with bread baked on top, contained my dinner of steamed baby camel.
It was cracked open in order to access the tender meat.  

Martyr's Square, formerly Green Square, is now occupied, instead of bloodied bodies, by
capitalistic children's fair equipment.    

1 comment:

  1. Great pics!

    It's nice to know that there are still people who have no qualms vis a vis helping others out with no expected return.

    I am glad you had the experience in Libya.