Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Libya Ledger, Days 11-14




[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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 – Day 11
Tripoli, Libya
We met our new driver this morning:  Big Ali.  Yes, that is what he calls himself.  The name fits; he is a big man.  More on Big Ali later.

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Lorianne spent the rest of the afternoon writing up a first draft of a comprehensive editorial covering the activities of the major civil society organizations with constitutional programming....

A few words on the economic situation in Libya.  Libya is roughly the size of Alaska and has a population of about 6.5 million people.  About 3.5 million of those people live in or around the two biggest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, both of which sit on the Mediterranean coast.  The rest of the country is sparsely populated, and a good part of the country, hundreds of thousands of square miles, belongs to the Sahara Desert.  The economy relies heavily on oil (about 25% of GDP, but many people say it’s significantly more than that).  Much of the economy is state-run and government subsidies or intervention in different markets creates all sorts of distortions (e.g. gas is too cheap so there are constant gas shortages; ironic for a Middle-Eastern country swimming in oil).  Agriculture is mostly poor in the arid country and a lot of the country’s food gets imported.  Very few banks exist.  The country runs mostly on cash.  Credit is hard to come by, which makes transactions difficult (our housemate, for example, had to pay 1 year of rent in advance for our home – apparently over 100,000 euros).  There is no investment banking presence to speak of and there are only a handful of companies on the Libyanstock exchange.  Most interestingly, GDP per capita is about $5,800, about one-ninth that of the U.S.  We are told that many jobs in Libya, including those of important public positions like police officers, etc., are paid 500 LYD ($400) a month.  Imagine trying to make ends meet on that.  Our house help is comparatively well paid as she earns 700 LYD per month for full-time work.  Unemployment is over 20%.  I think there is hope for the economy as the situation improves here, but the people are clearly recovering from many years of state-run, government-led economic rule.  It will take some years for vibrant entrepreneurial economic activity to return en force.

He caught me off guard - possibly the only prego pic I will have taken of me...

Thursday, January 31, 2013 – Day 12
Tripoli, Libya
....

A few words on Big Ali.  By the end of this day Lorianne had spent two full days with him and gotten him to know a bit.  He is a good, safe driver, and is very attentive to Lorianne’s needs.  When she complained of the sun, the next day Big Ali had installed window shades in the backseat and put a parasol in the trunk.  He is also very serious about his responsibility to take care of Lorianne to keep her safe.  That said, he is not shy about putting Lorianne occasionally in her place and reminding her she is in his care.  When at Congressman Langhi’s office a guard started to take away Lorianne’s passport for security purposes, she began to panic.  He quietly but firmly managed the situation, and then later advised her:  “Do you think I am small?” he asked her.  “I know Libyans.  I will take care of you.  You must trust me.”

And Big Ali also has a great sense of humor.  It is one of his defining characteristics.  The humor of what he says is sharpened by his rudimentary English.  “Do you know why you are called woman?” he asked Lorianne.  “Because you cause woe to man.”  When he asked if we had a name for our baby, Lorianne told him we were thinking of Gideon.  This was very difficult to pronounce, which he tried to do unsuccessfully many times.  Finally he ended his pronunciation lesson with, “Come out baby.”  When Lorianne forgot her makeup in the car this night, Big Ali was anxious to get it back to her.  “If my wife finds the makeup, she will think I am traitor,” he explained.

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Leptis Magna Bascillica


Friday, February 1, 2013 – Day 13 – “The Sabbath Day”
Leptis Magna, Libya
Today was our Sabbath Day, and we started our church service early, shortly after 7:00am.  We sang a hymn, had an opening prayer, and I blessed the sacrament.  Lorianne taught a great lesson on some of the brethren’s words on Islam and other religions, and I led us in study of the lesson from Teachings of the President of the Church:  Lorenzo Snow.  We ended with a hymn and prayer.

We were headed to the ancient Roman ruins of Leptis Magna for the rest of the day.  An American .... and two American political scientists ... were going to go with us.  Unfortunately, the driver they had attempted to arrange through the embassy had fallen through, and they were unexpectedly left without their method of transportation.  Lorianne had prematurely offered them a ride with us, but both Big Ali and I expressed grave concerns.  The car was simply not big enough for six people, seven if you count baby boy Toler.  More concerning, Big Ali and I didn’t want Lorianne to get jostled by a packed car.  Attempting to convince Big Ali that we could make it work, Lorianne told Ali that [her American friend] had even offered to ride in the trunk – Big Ali rightly thought this was laughably the craziest thing he had ever heard, and for the rest of the day Lorianne was known as “trunk lady”.  Big Ali had a friend, Isam, who could drive [the others] to Leptis Magna and back again for 150 dinars, and they agreed it was worth the cost.

The drive to Leptis Magna took a little more than an hour – we stopped twice, once to take a picture of some roadside camels, and second for Big Ali to buy some gas (he was excited to find a gas station with a line that was “only” 6 cars long).  The ride was interesting, and we got to see some of Libya outside Tripoli – shepherds with their sheep, olive groves, roadside butchers slaughtering camels and sheep and displaying their bloody parts and hides.  Upon arriving at Leptis Magna, we met an archaeologist named Majda (I believe) whom [the political scientists] had arranged to hire for us for the day for 150 dinars.  He was an expert on the site, its archaeology, and its history.  Leptis Magna, or Leptis the Magnificent, earned its name as the largest Roman city in Africa.  Because it was built of sturdy, earthquake resistant limestone, and preserved by sand dunes, the city, which stood for over 1,000 years, is the largest archeological site in the world after Rome—even bigger than Pompeii.  We visited the Septimus Severus Arch, then the Hadrianic Baths (including sauna, hot baths, warm baths, cold baths and communal luxury toilets), then the temple to the nymphs, the Severan Forum and Basillica, the market, and finally the Roman theater.  Its enormity and state of preservation overwhelmed us.  It was particularly helpful that Majda had pictures of what the completed buildings and structures originally looked like.  He told us over 70% of Leptis Magna is still buried.  Many of the statues and other treasures unearthed at the site eventually found their way to the Tripoli Museum.  We immediately decided to go there as soon as we could.

We drove a short distance to the site of an enormous amphitheater / coliseum that had been dug into the bowl of a limestone quarry.  We imagined gladiators battling to the death on the floor of the coliseum or prisoners being killed by wild animals for the crowds’ entertainment.  A hippodrome for chariot- or foot-racing, 3-4 times the size of the amphitheater had apparently washed into the sea over the course of over 1,000 years, and only a faint footprint of it could be seen near the shore.  Lorianne and I marveled how civilizations could fall and go extinct and how a city inhabited for over 1,000 years could eventually be abandoned and buried by the blowing sands.

After viewing the amphitheater, [the others] had to head back to Tripoli.  Majda was not done though, and had one more site to show to me and Lorianne.  Big Ali drove us a few kilometers west of Leptis Magna to the site of the Villa of Sitin, a Roman villa sitting right on the Mediterranean shore.  The villa dated back to the early centuries A.D. and had the most remarkably beautiful, colorful, detailed, and complete floor mosaics we had ever seen.  Lorianne described it as “better than Pompeii”.  The villa was so well-preserved because it had essentially been entombed in sand for approximately 1,500 years, and only discovered and unearthed in 1974.  Some of the mosaics showed scenes of Roman gods.  One, perhaps the most impressive, showed a scene of acrobats doing flips over a charging bull – apparently if those consigned to a fate in the amphitheater could accomplish this feat a referee might grant them their freedom.  The site was pleasant and the weather was perfect, with the Mediterranean to the north and the sun shining and wind blowing softly.  The villa was complete enough that one could easily imagine what a remarkable site it must have been in its time.  Lorianne and I marveled as we drove away what a treat it was to have seen it.

On the way home we stopped to buy some navel oranges and blood oranges from one of the roadside stands.  Libyan oranges are native, in season, and amazing.  Two very large bags cost us 11 dinars.  We were exhausted when we got home.  We did some quick shopping in the fading daylight, luckily finding one or two shops still open.  Lorianne had enough energy to make us chicken and rice which we ate before collapsing into bed.

Saturday, February 2, 2013 – Day 14
Tripoli, Libya
We attempted to go to the Tripoli Museum this morning, but discovered it closed.  Apparently, as we would later find out, the museum was more or less closed indefinitely because, since the Revolution, poor staffing and the anarchy of the country lead to pilfering of its treasures—a pity.  We can still get in, but apparently have to do so with “connections” by being accompanied by someone who has access.

Well, we had planned to go to the Tripoli Museum for our Family Home Evening activity, something we do on Saturday mornings.  We decided instead to explore the Old City for a few hours.  Tripoli’s Old City is a maze of covered hallways, open courtyards, small shops and stalls, and alley ways, all bustling with people selling their wares.  Most of the stuff being sold was uninteresting – clothes and appliances made in China or India – but some of the shops were interesting and full of sacks and boxes of spices, herbs, medicines, and powders.  We eventually found an alley that was well off the beaten path and left a wake of curious onlookers as we walked down, peeking in shops and doors as we passed.  We stumbled upon a “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant, if you could call it that, where three men were frying dough in a huge pot of corn oil.  They took an interest in us and we in them and what they were doing.  We decided to eat there for lunch – gluten sensitivity be damned.  We ordered one of these scones straight up and one with an egg, which they scrambled in the middle of the deep-frying dough and covered with another dough wrapper for a deep-fried dough/egg sandwich.  These creations were absolutely delightful.  They were supposed to cost 0.50 dinars each, but when we went to pay the men would not let us pay the full price.  It was a gracious act of hospitality on their part, and we felt very grateful and welcome.  I have been consistently impressed by the warmth of the Libyan people.

After our delicious discovery we stopped in a cafĂ© to rest, eat oranges (our FHE treat), and drink a bitter soda.  (I have mentioned bitter sodas before – that is what they are actually called.  They are a bright red colored soda that taste like a mixture of Nyquil and gasoline.  They are supposed to aid digestion and I get some masochistic pleasure from drinking them.  Additionally, I feel genuinely Libyan when I drink them.  Lorianne abstains.)  While sitting there Bobby and Larissa walked by, on their way to the airport, and we talked for a bit.  Funny how white people find each other in Libya.

Lorianne had her meeting set up ... for noon, so Isam (who was standing in for Ali for a few days) drove her straight there from the old city before taking Lance home after FHE. 

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