The Beach and the Watermelon

I have a cousin that has spent most of his life in Canada and for the last year or so has been taking some jobs teaching English at local schools ¬†in Tripoli while attending the university (it’s free here). It was refreshing to have another fluent English speaker around as constantly working to overcome the language barrier and fix the gaps in communication can be exhausting, especially on top of some of the cultural differences.

My cousin had been planning on returning to Canada to see his family before the beginning of Ramadan and would be gone until just before I leave myself so he invited me to spend an afternoon at the beach with him and his friends. Excited to get out of the house I accepted. We were going to go to Sabratha, another one of Libya’s larger cities about an hour out of Tripoli and home to some of the apparently better beaches and the partially preserved ruins of a Roman city. Years ago I saw them when I was visiting with my family and the whole scene was essentially a giant playground. Despite the lack of conscientious custodianship, the ruins are in remarkably good shape and very extensive. An ancient amphitheater remains as strong as ever and was the location of an exotic and potentially risque photo-shoot, the photographer and model of which my father had the pleasure of talking with.

We met up with his friends to carpool. Nobody spoke any English better than my limited and bastardized Arabic, but that didn’t stop anybody from trying to communicate. Despite the Revolution (Al Touyra as it was called I soon learned) Americans were still a rarity in the country so I got a lot of attention. There were two cars to take about seven of us, of whom only my cousin and myself could speak English and for me it was the only language in which I could effectively communicate. Naturally we split up. The ride was perilous, as all rides in Libya seem to be, and full of inquiries. ¬†Things like: What is America like? What did you do there? Why would you come here? What are the girls like? Why are you wearing a seatbelt? Do you want a cigarette?

A lot of people in the car (from what I could understand) had fought in the Revolution. They were all Men in their mid twenties, so it was far from surprising that some would be veterans. You wouldn’t know it, listening to them sometimes even if I could only understand 10% of what they were saying and that’s a generous figure. One of them sitting with me in the back grabbed my arm and ran my hand around a tiny scar until I touched the lump where the lead was still lodged in leg. It seemed more like a curiosity or a parlor trick, that bullet still stuck in his flesh, than a deadly instrument that had only just missed taking his life. He was very proud of it, the testament to his bravery and service. Unlike others, he had proof that he was a fighter. The other kind of proof you get is being dead.

We stopped a couple times for provisions; various fruits, drinks (all non-alcoholic) and tobacco products. I was tasked with picking out the right watermelon and taking it to the trunk of the car, and was rewarded with a share of the walnuts. I felt like an idiot, cracking down on the tough exterior to get to the soft nut inside and only getting shell pieces stuck to my teeth. They made simple work of the chests, snapping them in half with a single bite and dropping the chewy treasures into their mouths like DOTS at the bottom of a candy box. I eventually got the hang of it, but by the time I could I had already run out of practice material and was left only with the crunched bits that had fallen on my pants.

While at the convenience store picking up juice, an odd man was outside in his car with his chained monkey climbing on its hood. I had to do a serious double take, as no one else had seemed to notice the guy with a pet monkey and I didn’t really believe such a thing was normal even in Libya. Sure enough I’d just been the only one to notice and when I’d pointed it out the others gawked a bit. The guy just smiled, tutted the monkey back into his car and drove away, the creature’s head watching us half outside the fully open window.

Once at the beach, my cousin and his friends haggled with its caretakers for one of the many tents set up over the sand. The wind was brutal, and for a country that is known for its heat there was a bitter chill coming from over the crashing waves. We settled in, stripping down to our swimming suits and leaving the watermelon on the sand where the water could wash it. Once half naked and with precious little sunlight left, the cold became much more apparent and there was an awkward silence and a hesitant laugh before we bit the bullet and rushed into the sea, racing to see who could submerge themselves first. The water was refreshingly warm beneath the bitter gusts pushing the waves to the shore with unrelenting strength. We swam like fools for as long as we could bracing against each mass of water that ebbed away more of our energy with each crushing blow. My ears felt almost blistered by the constant friction between water and air and the wind did me no services. It wasn’t long before I could no longer feel the bottom, even during the short dives to evade the waves. We’d been swept down the beach some so that the cars and tents were a ways from our swimming spot. I stayed out just a little longer tasting the salt of the water on my lips, nose and in the irritation of my eyes and started the long swim back as the sun dove into the ocean. Giant patches of floating organic material stood in the way of our return. “Look out for the forest!” my cousin called. It didn’t really seem like seaweed, more like deteriorated driftwood broken from ancient Greek triremes resting at the sea’s bottom and finally washed ashore, or something far less cool.

Back at the beach we took refuge from the cold in our towels behind the tent walls, comfortable and illuminated by a gas lantern, my ears and eyes red and my hair conditioned with salt and jutting out at strange angles. The Watermelon had drifting in the current as well and was a short walk to retrieve it from further down the beach. We sat down to eat it with some cookies and juice we also brought but didn’t have a knife to cut it with. My cousin handed it to me with the honor of the first strike. Finding a hollow sounding spot, I chopped at the watermelon and was rewarded with only a dull thud, before passing it on to the next person to repeat the process. With each punch the watermelon’s thuds became more pronounced, the dying gasp of a fruit that had floated in the sea in its short but glorious life from the market. When it became my turn again, one hit more was enough to crack the surface, to smiling cheers from the others. A couple hits more and it was broken, spilling its pink insides and ripped to shreds to feed our appetites. The meal was sweet and satisfying, if a little bit warm and salty, and the sticky juices ran freely from our mouths into the sand.

We chatted for a few more hours in more broken English as my cousin was too distracted to translate. They asked again about the girls and if I could bring some back with me the next time I came. I told them I wouldn’t need to if the country was made safe, clean and comfortable, that tourist industries would be lining up to send people here, not just girls but businesses, jobs and money if Libya could get back on its feet. They seemed skeptical. The impression I’ve been getting from talking to them is a sense of having already given up, committed to elsewhere. Libya is called a shithole (perhaps deservedly at times) often and places like America are held up on a pedestal places to strive for where the girls are beautiful and money is everywhere. But there is a sense of stagnation among the youth from what I can see, a lack of motivation to make things right or better. There has been one election already but the reports of corruption are already rampant and to many the country seems worse than it did before. The freedoms are good, and that situation is clearly better than it was before but it came with a cost that only time and commitment can pay back. I tried to make this point which may have been wholly outside my right to do so me being only a visitor to many of them, but its how we talked and everyone was amazingly polite while we shared more cookies, juice and cigarettes in the tent as the night grew old.

When it was time to leave we packed the garbage up meticulously, it seems like such a thing is much more important when its private or rented property than it is for public space. We loaded up and drove off, this time I was riding with my cousin. It was dark and the water was an eerie black and navigating back to the road seemed to be a chore. Halfway back to Tripoli and our car made a short detour through Zawiya, a city full of billboards of dead men and NATO bombed buildings. Zawiya was an important strategic spot during the war and was fought over endlessly. Many of the Libyans I’ve met from the close city often command respect among their peers, the same can be said of Misrata. At night the city looks devastated. Far from being abandoned, it gives an almost haunted feel in the middle of the night where the crushed structures can resemble hellscapes and you can feel the faces of the martyrs judging you from beyond. There was a temporary break in the somber atmosphere to gawk at an idiot drifting past us in a truck before slamming into a parked car and racing off before wasting much time.

Once back home, bruised exhausted from the brutal fight with the waves I went straight to sleep left with final waking thoughts and conflicting impressions of Libyan youth.

A visual companion to “Tour” and the burdens of a weak internet connection

Finally…

Due to the weak, inconsistent and unreliable nature of the internet connection here and the ever-changing policies of youtube and their tendency to make what used to be a simple process more complicated than it has to be, It has taken me nearly two days of nearly non-stop uploading to get a 10 minute video onto youtube, with periodic breaks for power outages and disconnection.

The following link is a video companion to the previous “Tour” post for those interested in visualizing what I have described. ¬†Couple things of note: It is Ramadan currently and we went at a certain time of day when there is much less traffic than there otherwise would have been and for that same reason there has also been a¬†noticeable effort to keep the streets at least a little bit cleaner since the holy month began so thankfully there is less trash strewn about the roads and on street corners. (unfortunately the same cannot be said about the power outages) The tour begins at the Baubliazzia, or the what’s left of the former Gadaffi compound and goes along the beach and throughout the city including around the old city and recently renamed “Martyr’s Square” (formerly the Green Square). There is perhaps less content than I would have preferred but I had to keep the video under 10 minutes in order to share on youtube and prevent me from waiting a week for its upload. ¬†I’ll also likely not be uploading any more videos for the duration of my time here but will continue to take them, so expect more photo albums in the future.

And so without further adieu,,,

Also i have a twitter now for those interested in that kind of thing: @Al_ezdehar

A Tour

Note: Sorry about the lack of images. I have a ton of video that I’ve been taking in lieu of taking pictures which take a lot longer to sift through and edit. I will have some more concrete visually representations of what things are like soon.

Needless to say the scenery of the city has changed over the last few years. I’ve seen enough of it now from the passenger seat between the traffic jams and night trips to coffee shops. ¬†I’ve had plenty of opportunities to go on tours with family members as well. Gasoline is criminally cheap here, something like $5 to fill a whole tank, and even though there are occasional shortages and long lines at the pump, cruising around remains a favorite pastime for many. There is something like one car for every two people in Tripoli, and this is extremely evident during rush hour as cars and trucks pile three vehicles into two lanes and the most aggressive driver is the winner. This is helped in no small part by the lack of organized transportation infrastructure as the roads remain too small to support the number of vehicles and there is a distinct absence of convenient places to park forcing people to improvise by parking anywhere from the sidewalk to the median, even blocking the passage of other cars as I learned on my arrival to the country, and there is no viable alternative transportation besides an inconsistent micro-bus system. At night the crowded roads are populated by motorcycles, dirt-bikes and 4 wheelers all showing off riding on their back tires between traffic seemingly begging to recreate their favorite scenes from Fast and Furious.

The thing that stands out on a leisurely drive, besides the trash being burned in the street or the perilous behavior of other vehicles, are the huge number and variety of expressions of national pride. ¬†Nearly every home and shop has the black green and red banner that predates the Gaddaffi regime decorating it somehow. Every wall is covered with revolutionary slogans like “Game Over Gaddaffi,” “Libya is Free,” and the occasional “Allahu Akbar” in mixed English and Arabic. The street art across the city is very prominent and all shares the common theme of the revolution. ¬†Whatever shape the Libyan flag can conceivably have it does, whether its a swooping hawk, a tree growing in the sand, or Libya itself producing a fist with which to KO a depiction of the former despot. The crumbling walls of the former compound sport dozens of murals depicting the revolution, reminiscent of what’s left of the wall in Berlin where a variety of artists left peaceful messages in the wake of its destruction. Images of Omar Mukhtar, a famous Libyan patriot whose fight against Mussolini and the fascist occupiers of Libya has become the stuff of legends, gaze wisely from beneath a shawl made of the Revolutionary flag. Beautiful birds burst from the concrete in magnificent color. Caricatures of Gaddaffi and his family are everywhere, depicting him as the fool king that he was, often on the receiving end of a swift kick in the ass or standing beneath the shadow of a noose. ¬†Some of the less friendly graphics imply a penchant for intimate relations with farm animals.

NATO didn’t leave much of his former palace behind. Structures half turned to rubble still stand stubbornly like a mountain jaggedly piercing the surface of a sea of garbage and sand. The people have turned the symbol of his regime into what its always really been: ¬†a dump. ¬†Bottles, boxes, plastic bags, discarded appliances, cans, the rusted frames of cars and torn rags litter the grounds and stand in piles outside the less aesthetic sections of its walls. Where ominous towers once stood manned by armed guards in white uniforms there is only sky now. The guards are instead now concentrated along the road between the Rixos hotel and Congressional building lounging on useless but intimidating antiaircraft guns fixed to the back of trucks, petting their cruel black rifles as if they would lash out if not kept in check by their bored young masters. In a country with with high unemployment and safety concerns, security is a lucrative career choice for the disenfranchised amateur veterans of civil war. Surrounding the wreckage and truthfully throughout the city, buildings display evidence of the revolution. A demolished guard headquarters stands a midst the bustling shops. Some of the piles of rock were clearly pinpointed by NATO rockets and hellfire. The broken concrete slowly turning to dust with age on the sidewalk still has its metal frame uncoiling from between the cracks like an iron blood vessel. Others sport dozens of bullet holes like eerie scars. Some homes are left empty, abandoned by loyalists, immigrants, or those just afraid for their lives.

This building is completely empty and still fenced off by the construction company

This building is completely empty and still fenced off by the construction company

Closer to the city’s center familiar monoliths pollute the skyline. Unfinished skyscrapers stand hollow, made to look old before they are even new. A country at war does not make for a good investment and so they have been largely untouched since the last time i saw them. What were previously projects to boast about are now nothing more than eyesores, the former pipe dreams of an old and pitiful man and paid for with special favors and the black blood of the earth. Billboards making empty promises still stand erect outside the abandoned frame of a six star hotel, made a ghost before it was born, an unfinished ruin in the city’s center. Surrounding the phantoms of Gaddaffi’s vision for the future are the hordes of cranes left to sway in the wind as they tower over the tourist attractions they were supposed to build. Now the cranes are left erected all over the city, like Wellsian behemoths that face the slow death of rust and disuse rather than alien disease, becoming as much a part of the landscape over the years as the other symbols of the regime they replaced, only waiting for some masters and their money to return. They may be up there for awhile.

What is absurd to me barely seems to register with my cousins, uncles or aunts or whoever is driving me at the time (I’m far too nervous to brave the traffic myself). A personal vehicle is the primary mode of transportation, and people pass these reminders daily. Among the sites condemned by bombs or the vacant constructs, the bored soldiers and reproducing heaps of trash, those reminders of what they have, are the proud flags waving diligently in the wind from every conceivable post and the graphic celebrations of vivid paint filling the empty places with fresh life coupled with doodled phrases both crude and inspiring, expressions from the heart left as reminders of what was earned.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The flights had been long, as they always tend to be.  The leg space was crushing, the food was bland, the children were loud, the movies sucked and there was only so much i could read from a single book in 17 hours but none of that is anything to write home about.  My one small blessing to accompany the searing headache provided by the continuous changes in air pressure was the row of seats I had to myself in the back of the plane on the final trek to Libya.  Even that was short lived however as it only provided more playing space for the gang of children I had the joy of sharing the flight with.  For those that know me, I tend to not mind the company of kids but flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet in a tin box is a wholly different circumstance and having five young boys leaping over chairs as soon as the seat-belt light was turned off to scream at one another (and me) in mixed Arabic and English and spit for fun for four hours was less than a pleasant experience.  If anything the whole ordeal should have been a reminder for how unhinged other Libyans could be even before the revolution but soon enough my excitement to return to Libya won out over my discomfort.

The scene outside my window turned from the dark blue and foam white shuffle of sea water to the dusty brown and dense green of the Libyan countryside.  As the plane slowly made its descent to the Tripoli airport, one recurring theme dominated all others; the garbage.  From the air the multitude of discarded waste was clearly visible for miles, all left to rot beneath a merciless tropical sun.  This was the first impression for many of post-revolution Libya, the sight of overturned dumpsters on every street corner sans the actual dumpster part.  I knew to expect this, my dad had warned me when he returned from his own trip a few months earlier.  The prior knowledge did little to dampen the blow and the acknowledgement that the government was still new and largely toothless having only three years prior emerged from a brutal revolution deposing of 42 year despot and monster Moammer Gaddaffi did even less to ease my initial disappointment.

The landing itself was smooth.  The strip ran parallel to two large buildings.  One was the hollow hulk of the half completed new airport on which construction began before the revolution.  Tall cranes overshadowed the dusty unfinished terminal, left to rust unfunded when the foreign investors had fled and now largely forgotten in the wake of greater concerns.  The other building is the old and current airport terminal and honestly not entirely discernible from its counterpart left to rot in its womb beside it.

The heavy air conditioning in the plane made the suffocating heat of the jet bridge all the more unbearable as I navigated its narrow passages, the kids still hopping and screaming along with seemingly no one willing to admit to being the parents, the dim lights leaving eeire reflections on the pasty green walls. ¬†At the end of the corridor waited my uncle and my cousin. ¬†I hadn’t seen either in three years, and enough had happened in that time to fill decades. ¬†Big hugs and customary cheek kisses were cut short to pick up my luggage. ¬†Walking through the airport we exchanged greetings and made inquiries about the family in a broken and haphazard pidgin of Arabic and English. ¬†“Yes, my mother and father were doing well. ¬†They wished they could be here. My brother as well, he’s working for the summer. ¬†How is dada? Really? ¬†I’m glad to hear it.” My cousin actually speaks English very well and my uncle has enough of a base knowledge to communicate with but I needed the practice and the new environment provided me with the syllabus for a crash course.

We didn’t rush, but there was a standard pace to our trek though the halls past travelers. ¬†We past large empty rooms populated by stray cats only visible through the darkened glass of the windows. ¬†Security was a bit of a joke compared to American airports both before and after 9/11. ¬†After removing my backpack for the x-ray machine and i walked through the metal detector and set it off (likely my belt or a pen) before being handed my bag and waved on without a second glance. ¬†Customs made a quick check of my passports complete with a short double take at my failure to respond in Arabic before my uncle stepped in to explain. ¬†We waited at the conveyor belt for my bag watching the kids revolve around with the luggage giggling madly. ¬†This I couldn’t hold against them, remembering doing the same when I was their age, even considerably older, excited at the new playful freedom that was taboo anywhere else. ¬†No guards came to shuffle them away, no parent chastised them. ¬†The airport was their playground and as long as they weren’t spitting at me I didn’t care too much what they were doing. ¬†Bag in hand we made it outside, the heat more bearable now.

The airport parking lot displayed the same sense of order that the structure it served did, meaning; none. ¬†Cars and trucks were scattered with little respect for neighboring vehicles, helped in no part by the confusing system the lot itself adhered to with some driving paths and random garden islands and speed bumps making the whole thing feel very compacted. ¬†This was made worse by the sheer number of cars packed so tightly it could induce a sense of claustrophobia. ¬†All the cars were covered in dust and sand, many of them had little messages and doodles drawn on the windows. ¬†The car that had trapped my cousin in his parking spot had its owner’s cell number written in such a way in case he didn’t get back before it needed to move. ¬†After a few failed calls and waiting for about 20 minutes he finally picked up the phone and rushed outside to move his car taking his (deserved) berating from my family members while I watched the scene patiently. ¬†He might have moved the truck a lot faster if he wasn’t so busy fending them off.

After the man finally moved his truck we were zooming through the city, cutting through crowded traffic and violating non-existent traffic laws on our way to my grandfather’s house, blasting the AC and listening to Arabic radio. ¬†The number of beautiful Libyan flags hung from buildings, painted onto walls, stuck to cars and posted on signs was staggering and indicative of the rampant nationalism and pride of the people of Tripoli after the revolution. ¬†I was also happy to see plenty of Amazingh flags, a symbol of the indigenous people of North Africa and an ethnicity of which I am a member. ¬†Their presence would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

After hours of flying and riding and waiting I finally got to my grandfather’s house in the city. ¬†It’s really my aunt’s house now, considering he’s 102 years old and needs her to take care of him. ¬†He’s begun to really look his age since the last time I saw him. ¬†He doesn’t recognize or remember me perfectly but the look on his face when he realizes I’m my dad’s son is priceless, kissing my hands and reciting his name. ¬†I’m glad to see him, he’s one the biggest reasons I come to Libya, but far, far from the only. ¬†My aunt whipped up some delicious Libyan food for lunch, including my favorite soup. ¬†She stopped short of stuffing it down my face, insisting I eat more. ¬†After awhile my cousin and uncle left and it got dark and cool. ¬†I finally tucked into a corner spot of the spare room, happy to have a comfortable place to sleep, interrupted only by the periodic bang and crack of fireworks I was convinced was gunfire at first. ¬†Three long years away and I’m sleeping in Libya again and even with all the changes, for all the inconveniences and inefficient differences. for the moment it is home and I couldn’t have been happier to be there.

Tales from Tripoli: An introduction

I’ve been in Tripoli for almost a month now and this is my long delayed attempt at a blog to keep track of my experiences and share them. ¬†I’ll be updating every few days or so with observations, stories, and examples of culture until I catch up to where I’m at now. ¬†A lot has happened and is still happening, including a trip to the mountains, a job (sort of) and recently the holy month of Ramadan. ¬†I’ll be putting most of my posts into perspective of the revolution, its effect on the city and the mentality of the people from what I can see as well as sharing some personal family stories. I’ll likely be taking at least some creative license and I’ll be leaving out the names of my family members. I’ve also been taking a lot of video and pictures and will be sure to incorporate them into the page. ¬†If I can, i’ll also be putting together a video documenting some of the changes along with interviews in order to create a clearer picture. ¬†Enjoy.

Picture of Tripoli, Google Earth

Picture of Tripoli, Google Earth