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.

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