[To protect the privacy of friends and colleagues and because of the sensitive nature of Lorianne's work, this post has been edited from its original version.] by guest author T. Lance (aka my husband - look forward to his daily record while we are here in Tripoli. But perhaps this is risky business, as he might put me out of a blogging job...)
Sunday, January 20, 2013 – Day 1
London, UK & Tripoli, Libya
We had an 8:55am flight from Heathrow Airport in London to Tripoli, Libya. Our flight was about 30 minutes delayed so we waited in the British Airways lounge (Lorianne is a Silver member and has privileges) and had breakfast. After boarding we were notified that we would be further delayed because the plane’s wings had to be de-iced: weather was very bad and cold in London. As the plane ascended, Lorianne’s worst fears regarding this trip began to plague her. Was it really safe? I, however, promptly fell asleep and didn’t wake until several hours into the flight. Lorianne stayed awake for most of it to read and prepare and entertain the little Libyan girl sitting one row back.
Flying over Tripoli before the descent to the airport gives one a sense of the color of the country. From above, everything looks brown and gray. The soil is a fine, red sand. A gutted plane that looked like a 1960s Soviet bomber lay in a field in the airport like an animal skeleton. We disembarked into 80 degree weather – a sharp contrast from the snowy, freezing temperatures in London. Five or six very stern looking Libyans in military uniforms were waiting at the entrance to the airport from the tarmac and they eyed us suspiciously as we entered. I nodded at them very confidently like I was the Secretary of State even though I was thinking “what in the world have we done coming here?”
We needed Libya visas to enter the country, visas which are obtained in the Libyan airport and paid for with 100.50Libyan dinars (“LYD”; a dinar is worth about 80 cents). However, one cannot obtain Libyan dinars anywhere but Libya. In essence, we had to obtain 201 LYD from our “fixer”, a Welsh man named Jon from MENA Consulting, beyond the Libya border in the arrivals area to pay for our Libyan visas so we could enter the country. Now, how were we going to do that you ask? I didn’t rightly know either, but I trusted in Lorianne’s greater knowledge, experience, and gumption to see us through. After handing our priceless American passports to a Libyan bureaucrat through a cubby in the plexiglass (from which I was not sure they would emerge again), we waited for 30-45 minutes to be helped. Our fixer had instructed us to “look impatient” to get quicker service (the squeaky wheel gets the grease in this country apparently), so Lorianne eventually went to the window to see what was going on. A man, apparently an employee of the border agency but wearing plain clothes, took in our story (we hoped – he spoke little English) and eventually led us downstairs and led Lorianne into the arrivals area where she collected the needed dinars from Jon. I had to stay with the luggage downstairs while Lorianne and this man went upstairs to pay for and collect the visas (a separation I was certainly not comfortable with but saw little way around at the time). Luckily, just as I was certain I had lost my pregnant wife at the Libyan border, I saw her red flappers hat bobbing down the stairs, all smiles with visas in hand.
While I was waiting in the baggage arrivals area for Lorianne to return, I attempted to retrieve my bag. Foolishly, I thought things worked in Libya as advertised and I stood by the carousel with our flight number over it, which unfortunately was stone still, empty, and occupied by sitting Libyans. But I trusted the sign and waited uncomfortably lonesome for the carousel to begin moving. I was eventually asked by a Libyan man if I needed anything. Not wanting to be hassled I tried to brush him off. He was persistent so I eventually told him I was looking for my bag. He asked my flight, I told him, and he led me to a far corner of the room where I was certain I was to be knifed and robbed. He then gestured to a far carousel that had no tell-tale markings. Our bag had been removed, probably long before, and deposited in a pile of other baggage. I thanked the man and sheepishly retrieved our bag. This experience is a nice metaphor for some of my experiences in Libya thus far: the exterior appearances of this place are stark and dismal, but the people seem to largely be warm, helpful, friendly, and courteous. We’ve had to trust some of them to get anything done.
Our fixer Jon was accompanied by a British-Libyan named Jamal who would serve as our driver/translator for our first week. Jamal is in his mid-twenties and has completed some training as an airplane mechanic. His father is Libyan and his mother is British; even though Jamal has spent some time in the UK he is decidedly Libyan. Jamal keeps his long hair slicked back into a tufty mullet and wears a moustache, goatee, and a tight grey suit and white shirt. When he wears his sunglasses he looks like a young hitman or fake Rolex salesman. You would not be surprised if he opened his suit jacket to reveal a pistol holster or a selection of counterfeit watches. His English is OK but he is no talker – more of the strong, silent variety. He largely will not speak unless asked a question, and then will respond in the fewest words possible. I have given up on laboring through manufactured conversation and we two sit in manly silence when Lorianne is away. He’s no dazzling conversationalist but he’s fit-for-purpose: he speaks Arabic, knows Tripoli, and drives with the right mix of patience and courage.
Jon and Jamal took us to our hotel, the Hotel Corinthia, where we intend to stay for three nights as a secure, certain “launching pad” for less expensive, longer-term housing arrangements. During our drive we heard what sounded like gunshots (and we’ve heard them periodically ever since). Not to worry, Jon told us, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday was approaching and people were celebrating with fireworks. We should be able to tell the difference between the sounds of fireworks and gunshots by the time our trip was over he told us – encouraging. We arranged to meet Jamal later that evening to take us to another hotel, the Radisson, where we were going to meet Huda Abuzeid so she and Lorianne could discuss mutual interests and possibly working together over the next month. Lorianne made a few phone calls while I settled into our room. We then met Jamal and he took us to the Radisson. (Note: Much of the business in Tripoli is done in the hotels, especially the Rixos, the Radisson, and the Corinthia. They are safe, conveniently located, neutral meeting places with good food and drink – tea and coffee, that is: Libya being a Muslim country there is no alcohol here).
We met [a work colleague] at the Radisson....
We ate dinner at the Radisson (seafood pasta, steak salad, mango smoothie) and met Jamal, whereupon Jamal drove us back to the Corinthia for the night.
First impressions of Libya:
Lance: The country looks like what it is: one that has recently been through a difficult revolution (people who lived here before, during, and after say circumstances have not changed much in the country though). Things are chaotic, disorganized, and property, buildings, and vehicles are everywhere in shambles and disarray. Garbage is everywhere, sometimes stacked up against the sides of the street and burning. Many buildings appear to have been bombed, burned out, or only half constructed. Graffiti is ever-present, most of it in Arabic, but some of it in English featuring mocking images of Gaddafi as a buffoon or in states of being beaten or killed. Traffic is a nightmare at certain times of the day in parts of town and lane lines, traffic lights, and driving rules are less than mere suggestions. There is a deep Islamic religiosity here that pervades the culture and the social order. In addition to the honking horns and occasional firecrackers the other representative sounds of this place are the periodic Arabic calls to prayer. Libyan women wear headscarves or full burkas 99% of the time. I also notice that very, very few women are seen on the street in the late afternoon or evening – this country is clearly ruled by men. There is also a clear racism here. Sub-Saharan Africans, those with much darker skin, are looked down upon and seem to be treated badly. When asked by one to politely scoot our chairs forward during our lunch, Jamal told us to “pay him no heed”. When we tipped the man 2 LYD after our meal he was very surprised and visibly delighted to be treated kindly. But I have also been impressed by the warmth and kindness of the people we have met. So there are contrasts, a country with sharp edges but a warm people, some wrong traditions and a sharp temper, but enormous hope and potential.
Lorianne: I had many of the same impressions as Lance upon arrival – not a pretty picture from the sky, and a country in shambles on the ground. The first impression of the arrivals area was 1950s meets Star Trek – turquoise, irregularly-shaped guard stalls that must have been cool right when Gaddafi took power, ramps that were in serious decay and had no air-conditioning nor cleaning since Gaddafi took power. The visa process seemed illogical and antiquated, and yet reflects Gaddafi mentality – nothing but Arabic on signs and visa documentation, and all transactions done in Libyan dinars, which you can get nowhere else. The official from the Prime Minister’s office who helped us this time around said that he was originally from Tunisia, where no visas are required, and that the whole process of requiring visas and then paying for them was influenced by the Gaddafi regime; people’s mentality had not yet changed. From our experience, it’s also a touchpoint for corruption, as the official amount is 100.50 LYD, but the “soft” amount for the handler processing them is that plus about $400.
In any event, the country is a mess, but there are beautiful parts to it – ancient Roman walls from 150 B.C.-ish perfectly intact, Italian architecture from colonial days, and then the blue of the Mediterranean. But there are no zoning laws, and new buildings have sprung up next to bombed/burned out shells, buildings in states of repair, and abandoned projects.
However, with the chaotic juxtaposition of buildings and people, I have come to appreciate the graffiti and the bunting/display of the new/old Libyan flag that is everywhere a symbol of the people’s patriotism and pride in the outstanding fact that they ousted their tyrant. When people were afraid to speak to each other, not knowing whom to trust during the revolution, graffiti was the first means of demonstrating resistance. Gaddafi had painted everything green – doors, buildings, and his infamous square. This was replaced by the tri-colors of the flag. His image was defaced – a very dangerous, courageous act. Graffiti was the silent means of communication, and many were killed for it until Gaddafi was overthrown. So now, passing through the town again at glacial pace due to traffic, I am inspired by the defacement of so many buildings.
And Lance is right. These people soon overwhelm you with their warmth. I blogged about my first experience in the airport with a complete stranger back in June. I was taken aback by the generosity of a taxi driver who loaned me the money I needed for my visa, trusting that my driver would pay him back, and not requiring any remuneration whatsoever. I later learned that the warmth and taking care of one another as family members is due to their tribal backgrounds. It’s wonderful to experience.