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.