Armed convoys, checkpoints and sporadic exchanges of gunfire are still common in the Libyan capital, but residents are flocking back to the streets and surprisingly hopeful of a brighter future.
Sitting in a newly opened cafe overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean, Mohammed, a 19-year-old student, said that while fear remains, Tripoli’s residents are trying to get on with life.
“Tripoli is a city that loves life and wants peace and peace must find her,” he said.
Since the ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi almost four years ago, rival militias and administrations have battled for power in the oil-rich North African country.
The city was seized in August by the Islamist-backed General National Congress after weeks of bloody fighting with forces backing the internationally recognised government.
That triggered an exodus of foreign residents and prompted most diplomatic missions to close.
The rise of the Islamic State group, which has claimed several attacks in the country, has also raised fears but the city’s residents are adapting as best they can.
Some even sense a changing tide.
In the coastal neighbourhood of Gargaresh, shops, designer boutiques and restaurants stretch for some three kilometres along the seafront.
The streets are crowded with pedestrians and traffic.
Women in colourful scarves, men and children are busy socialising and shopping.
Almost nothing is missing from stores that continue to import goods through Tripoli’s port.
Petrol is still cheap and the Libyan dinar is stable at 1.36 to the dollar. Power cuts are becoming rare and electronic goods are becoming cheaper as imports from China rise.
“There has been some unrest, people momentarily deserted the area, but now they are coming back,” said Anas, who works in a restaurant in the neighbourhood.
He said the shops and restaurants were abandoned during the deadly summer clashes but life is returning to normal.
“That’s not to say that people are totally reassured. They fear for the future, they are afraid of explosions and fighting that could happen any time,” he said.
Peace ‘desperately needed’
Armed convoys patrol Tripoli’s roads daily, often erecting checkpoints. This is reassuring for residents, but few venture out after dark.
“Some people go out at night, but most stay at home because we can’t identify who is on the checkpoints,” said Anas. “It is difficult to know who we are dealing with these days.”
On the short drive to the city centre from Gargaresh, pictures of killed militia fighters adorn the big metal billboards that once displayed commercial advertising.
The facades of the old town display revolutionary graffiti and slogans of the Nato-backed uprising that drove Gaddafi from power in 2011, such as “Free Libya” and “Tripoli: Citadel of Free Men”.
But new slogans are encroaching.
“Yes for Libya Dawn, No to the Murderer Haftar,” reads one aimed at controversial army chief Khalifa Haftar, who was recently appointed by the internationally recognised government and has vowed to take on Islamists.
Anas el-Gomati, an analyst with the Libya-based Sadeq Institute think tank, said that although Libyans differ on politics, they still want a political solution.
“It would be near impossible to generalise as to what Libyans want. What they certainly don’t want is more war. Any peaceful solution to the current civil war is desperately needed,” he said.
At Mitiga airport to the east of the capital, Raja, an affluent businessman, is returning to live and work in the city.
He fled Tripoli a couple of years ago following an altercation with gunmen in a grocery store.
“They came into the store and kidnapped the owner as they beat me and threatened to kill me. After that I left the country immediately,” he said.
“I left then because of fear, but now I have decided to return because I love my city and I believe that peace will prevail soon. But I will never go to a grocery store ever again.”
The fine stone carving shows a wide-hipped Nubian queen triumphant over Romans and other foreign pretenders to her throne. Beyond the chapel are the remains of the pyramid that was her royal tomb. In immaculate silence, dozens more ancient pyramids dot the landscape where, as Shelley put it, “the lone and level sands stretch far away”.
This is Meroë in Sudan, a country that boasts more pyramids than Egypt. The road to Meroë was built by an unlikely entrepreneur – Osama bin Laden, who later relocated to Afghanistan. This is just one example of the weird and wonderful experience of being a tourist in Sudan. That so few make the trip is, critics say, an indictment of the government’s failure to exploit its fabulous potential as a destination.
“Announcing that this year you’re holidaying in the Sudan has an effect on bystanders akin to expressing a liking for punting on the Styx or arm wrestling with alligators,” notes the Bradt travel guide to one of Africa’s most enigmatic lands.
A rare privilege In the mid-6th century BC, Meroë became the central city of the Nubian Kushite dynasty, the “Black Pharaohs” who ruled from Aswan in southern Egypt to present-day Khartoum. The Nubians were variously both rivals and allies of the ancient Egyptians and adopted many of their rituals, including burying kings, queens and nobles in pyramid tombs.
More than 200 pyramids have been discovered in and around Meroë. Several were decapitated by the 19th century Italian explorer and zealous treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini. Finally, in 2011, they gained world heritage site status from Unesco. Darker in hue than those 800 miles to the north in Giza, Egypt, because of the iron-rich rocks here, Meroë later became a centre of iron production and has been dubbed “the Birmingham of Africa” – not necessarily a slogan that will bring British holidaymakers flocking.
Untouched by commercialism, the pyramids are also smaller, drastically less crowded and free of the touts and hustling “guides” who pester patrons of Giza. A ticket seller at the site in Meroë said it usually receives around 10 visitors a day, meaning there are good odds of exploring them entirely alone – a rare privilege at any historical monument in the 21st century.
David Belgrove, deputy head of mission and consul-general at the British embassy in Sudan, likes to go camping there and has run into a few German and Japanese tourists, but no Britons. “I remember vividly the first time I saw it,” he said. “We arrived at night so the first I saw was the sun rising on the pyramids. I felt immensely privileged to have the site all to myself. Nothing beats it.”
He added: “A lot of the sites in Sudan are great tourist secrets. The beauty is that you just can pitch up and there are often archaeological teams who will explain to you what they’re doing. The history of civilisations here goes back millennia, but many Sudanese themselves are not aware of it.”
The Islamic government’s lacklustre efforts to promote this heritage could be partly due to distractions that include waging domestic wars on various fronts, the breakaway of the south in 2011 and an economic crisis. But some believe there is also an ideological reason. A Meroë expert, not named here to protect his safety, commented: “Politicians are foolish. They want only Islam. If we talk about the ancient god Amun, they think we believe in it. They say there can only be one religion.
“Also, they are paranoid that all foreigners are spies. They should be open minded but they are closed.”
Sudan has fitfully applied hardline Islamic laws and president Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in a coup 25 years ago, has vowed that the next constitution will be “100% Islamic”. Apparently this includes sightseeing.
One Khartoum-based analyst said: “When the government have occasionally talked about tourism, they talk about Islamic tourism. You don’t get the impression they celebrate the history and things they’ve got on their doorstep. I think there’s a reluctance to embrace what they would regard as heathen worship.”
Gaddafi’s Corinthia Hotel
Nor could Sudan’s government ever be accused of making this a user-friendly destination. For those undeterred by the ongoing conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere, or by last year’s violent protests in Khartoum, a visa is required in advance and can be bureaucratic even by African standards. Travellers to Meroë are also obliged to hand over photocopies of their visitor permit at checkpoints along the way.
On arrival in the country, iPhone users who link to gmail may be disconcerted to find their contacts and emails wiped from their handset. Further investigation elicits the message: “Unable to sign in from this country. You appear to be signing in from a country where Google Apps accounts are not supported.”
This is not the only way in which international sanctions make themselves felt. Credit cards are useless in Sudan and only cash will do. Barclays bank used to be here but not any more. Familiar US fast food chains such as Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s are nowhere to be seen, something that many independent travellers may welcome. Instead of Starbucks, there is Starbox Coffee & Restaurant.
But Sudan did have a friend in the slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, manifest in the five-star Corinthia Hotel, built in the 1990s on what used to be the city zoo and resembling a giant glass and steel Easter egg by the Nile. One recent evening, an oil company was hosting a send-off there for one of its executives, while Chinese guests shopped for art and craft souvenirs and glass elevators shot up 18 floors to the Asian-themed Rickshaw restaurant. A receptionist in the gaudy lobby explained that rooms cost $295 a night, while a sign on the desk warned: “Credit cards are not accepted in Sudan.” Outside, a giant photo of The Muppets advertised a children’s cinema.
The Corinthia is part of the jumbled patchwork of architectural styles in dusty, diffuse, sprawling Khartoum, where public spaces are few and far between. The intrepid who come here can view stupendous ancient temples and early Christian paintings at the National Museum, stroll through the colourful Omdurman Souq, find echoes of British colonialism in an old Anglican church, visit the tomb of the Mahdi who famously defeated general Charles George Gordon, watch “whirling dervishes” at the Hamed al-Nil Tomb on Fridays, survey British war graves at a pristine cemetery and sip hibiscus tea on a grass bank by the Nile.
Bin Laden the construction worker One spot the government is definitely not promoting, however, is the former home of Osama bin Laden in the upmarket al-Riyadh suburb. The future al-Qaida leader moved here from Saudi Arabia in 1991 and invested heavily in agriculture and construction – hence the asphalt road that cut the journey from Khartoum to Meroë to about three and a half hours. But under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia, Sudan forced Bin Laden out in 1996 and seized some of his personal assets. He moved to Jalalabad in Afghanistan.
Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, a prominent politician who recently quit the government, met Bin Laden once, in 1993. He recalled: “He didn’t have al-Qaida around him then. He was a construction worker. The main thrust of our discussion was the economy. He talked a lot about the potential Sudan has and the restrictions on investors. We never discussed international politics.
“He was very charming, very charismatic and very softly spoken: you could hardly hear his voice.”
Atabani notes that Sudan lacks the hotels, transport and infrastructure for mass tourism and suggests such development would not entirely be positive. “I saw the pyramids in Egypt in the 60s and there were no tarmac roads,” he said. “When I went back, I was disgusted.”
Don’t believe everything you read, the old adage goes. In the case of post-revolution Libya, that cannot be truer. Dramatic headlines of civil war, chaos and a failed state are just that: dramatic. I know this to be the case because in a series of crazy and adventurous events, I left my comfortable western life to see how I could make a change in my ancestral homeland.
Since 2004 I’ve been coming to Libya for short summer visits. My father left the country in the late 70s in open and active opposition to the Gaddafi regime, so we weren’t raised with extended family. I enjoyed getting to know them during these trips.
But after two months of North African hospitality, I could not wait to get back to my convenient and consumerist lifestyle in the States. It was a novelty to pick fresh almonds, use tree branches to sweep the floor and milk goats, but I kept thinking about what I would do the moment I was home: get a pedicure and make a Taco Bell run.
Something changed in the summer of 2012. I came to post-revolution Libya and fell in love. It wasn’t with a handsome boy with a dashing smile. It wasn’t a summer fling. I fell in love with the revolution street art; with children making the peace sign as they hung out of car windows; with the protests of people unhappy with the government; with the billboards memorialising our fallen heroes. I fell in the love with the excitement, freedom, and carefree feeling in the air. I fell in love with Libya. And for the first time, I actually imagined moving here.
My decision shocked me and everyone who knew me. I am a Walmart-going, interstate-driving, ridiculously large-sized diet-Coke-drinking, Kentucky Basketball-supporting, rap music-listening, preamble-memorising American. I’m the product of the American Dream, of immigrant parents who fled their homeland to give their children freedom, education and a bright future, yet I grew up with a deep-rooted love for Libya. Of course, the promises of “going home” once Gaddafi died or was overthrown were repeated continuously in our home but I didn’t give it much thought. I was just a kid then. Later, I figured that this tyrant wasn’t going anywhere after 40 years and I wasn’t inclined to give up Netflix even if he did. So when I came to Libya last year, fell in love and found a job that would keep me here, it took a small push and a big leap of faith to say yes.
I’ve been in Tripoli for almost seven months now and, as with all situations, I’ve found the good, the bad and the ugly. The good: I no longer worry about gas prices. At a cool 15 Libyan cents per litre, I can fill up my car for the equivalent of 3.75 US dollars. The bad: Because fuel is so cheap, everyone is on the roads and there’s always traffic. The ugly: There are no traffic laws here so if someone hits you, odds are you’re not going to be compensated.
Living in Libya has made me more flexible. There are no one-stop shops with all my needs. I might not find brown sugar and people will cut in line at check-out, but gentlemen rush to help with heavy items or insist on loading my groceries. I’ve realised how much of superfluous stuff there was in my life – who needs a mini pocket iron? I have become Libya’s pioneer woman. If I want Mexican food, I hunt down avocados, I make sour cream, and I chop my tomatoes for salsa. It’s been in a lesson in humility and character-building.
I’ve also realised how very normal my life here is. I wake up in the morning, brew my coffee, sit in traffic yelling at the idiot in front of me, get to my office and rush in, pretending I’m not late. I help my customers, reply to email requests, laugh with coworkers at the water cooler, and come home exhausted. I eat dinner with my feet up on the couch and hit the sack – only to do it all again the next day. True, my social life isn’t what it used to be – there isn’t a cinema or big shopping malls. I spend Friday nights at local cafés with friends, enjoying great conversation, strong espresso and Tripoli’s latest craze: Cinnabon. I have beach days on the beautiful Mediterranean shore and I can tell you where the best Indian food in all of Libya is.
Yes, I may hear the occasional 14.5mm round go off, but it has become my Libyan white noise. Life in Libya is carrying on, it’s business as usual. Bakeries are filled with delicious soft bread, cafés buzz with their loyal caffeine- and nicotine-addicted patrons, vegetable stands are filled and shopkeepers are bringing in the latest styles (skinny jeans and flats are all the rage). There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t stand back and say: “I can’t believe this is Libya.”
Articles and analyses by “experts” portray Libya on a broken, dangerous, and dead-end path. But these writers are not here. They don’t see kids running happily to school with new books and uniforms. They don’t see the policemen who’ve just recently graduated guarding our neighborhoods. They don’t discuss the grassroots initiatives that clean up the streets.
Libya might make my OCD tendencies flare up and stores may not have my favorite balsamic dressing, but this country has given me an opportunity to grow personally and professionally. It’s the land of my father and the place I now call home.
Assia Amry is a Libyan-American and a graduate of political science and international relations. She currently lives in Tripoli. Follow her on Twitter.
I’m still trying to make sense of it. There are days when it doesn’t feel real, days when I can’t quite convince myself that it happened. It is on these days that I find refuge in the past, in the years of political asylum around which my entire life has been framed, the time when all we wished for was freedom. Be careful what you wish for, they warn. But of course, this has never stopped us from wishing.
I was born to a Libyan man and a Libyan woman who decided early on that as long as a madman ruled Libya with a bloody fist, we simply could not live under his thumb, and neither could we accept that fate for our aunts, uncles, cousins and countrymen. My father brought his young wife and my older sister to California in 1974 on a student visa to study soil science and agriculture in America’s big and bright universities. I was born in the same state. After a brief return to Libya, we moved back to America in 1981, and we would never return to Libya again. At least, not as a family. Not with Dad.
My father, a gregarious, witty, passionate Libyan from the mountains of Gharyan, joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), one of the first and largest of the dissident organisations against Muammar Gaddafi. When we thought he was on graduate school field trips to California, he was actually in Chad, recording sessions of a pirate radio program where he played the role of “The Patient Pilgrim” – clippings of erratic Gaddafi speeches interspersed with my father’s colloquially scathing commentary. My grandmother, unaware of his dangerous political activities, listened religiously to these programs – a rare voice of clarity in a country ruled by maniacs – oblivious to the fact that the outrageous firebrand reducing the “Brother Leader” to a political punch line was her errant son who could never give a good reason for why he hadn’t returned home for a visit. I witnessed many of these long-distance phone calls as a child – my mother wringing her hands, my father rubbing his forehead as my grandmother’s pleading voice came over the scratchy line. “Why haven’t you come home? How long do I have to live? I will take my last breath before I see you again.” “Soon, soon, Insha’Allah (God willing),” he would promise, again and again. He could not tell her why he couldn’t come home. And “soon” would turn out to be a broken promise.
We couldn’t go back even for a visit, of course. The Libyans who would join the NFSL would be branded “wild dogs” by Gaddafi, their members hunted down and assassinated, their families in Libya financially punished, imprisoned, hanged. Libyans living abroad avoided associating with active dissidents even though they were similarly politically aligned, knowing that to be tainted with that association would have very real repercussions back home from Gaddafi’s far-reaching spy network of informants.
But I didn’t know all of this, not in Oregon, swimming in a lazy creek, or swinging from the large oak tree that stood anchored by thick rolling roots in the centre of the graduate school housing where I spent my childhood. At the age of 14, my father moved us from our little collegiate haven to Kentucky, where we joined the larger group of NFSL families living in the heart of Bluegrass Country. It was here that I finally felt I was part of a community of peers. Libyans from Tripoli, Benghazi, Zawya, Misrata, Zintan, Derna – all these names now made familiar by endless news updates from the war – came together after years of displacement as Gaddafi made alliances with previously hospitable government hosts. America was the last refuge. We were corralled, far away from Libya’s immediate borders, just like Gaddafi wanted. The wild dogs were no longer nipping at his heels. But they continued to growl, even as infighting eroded our numbers and Western rapprochement left us without powerful sympathisers, if not allies. And through it all, my father represented all that was good about Libya: dignity, honour, faith and relentless optimism in the face of certain defeat; an optimism born of undying faith in a higher power.
We did not buy a house. Our cars entered our garage within months of their demise. Everything good would be saved for ‘home’. Boxes of plastic flowers, pretty dishes and colourful curtains sat collecting dust and going out of style while awaiting use in the life that was to be lived only in Libya. Existing in a perpetual state of asylum meant that we never really lived life to the fullest, but it also meant that we never lost an integral connection to a country and culture that most first-generation expat Libyans had, despite never having stepped foot in their homeland. Our social gatherings centered around our anti-Gaddafi activities. We signed petitions, drafted constitutions, printed magazines, demonstrated at embassies. In between these efforts, we struggled to deal with the pain of missing family weddings, family funerals, every holiday celebration. Brothers and sisters joined our growing family, even as my hopes for ever returning to a free Libya diminished.
In the end, it would not be Gaddafi that killed my father, but stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme. It was in the cold winter of 1994 that he was diagnosed with an aggressive terminal brain tumour. I was 18 years old, and I had never known anyone who had died. My father would be the first. That’s what happens when you are a political refugee – you miss out on the normal parts of life, the good and the bad, leaving you ill-prepared to deal with them when life happens to you. As the cancer spread, he could not walk unassisted and had to be fed, bathed and cared for around the clock by my stoic mother.
The jarring loss of life as I knew it came into clear focus when I brought up Libya one day, telling him about a demonstration or some such event. He didn’t let me finish. “I don’t care,” he said. I sat stunned, dismayed. This was the man who devoted his entire life to this cause – gave up his olive trees, the sage-covered mountains dotted with grazing sheep, the camaraderie of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews – and it was all dismissed with those three words I had never heard him utter before. “I am dying, Hend.” Death, the great equaliser, had already shifted his priorities. Gone was my anchor, my motherland, my ancestors, my past, my future – all wrapped up in the single symbol of my identity and raison d’être, my father. My world crashed around me, in a fog of doctors’ visits and physical therapy for a dying man. We buried him 13 months later, next to a small Japanese maple in a cemetery far away from where he was born.
I don’t resent cancer. Cancer kindly gave us over a year to get used to the idea of death. And as it turned out, he never really left. As I grew older and had my own daughter who started asking me “How can I be a Libyan, if I’ve never been to Libya?”, I heard my father’s voice in my answers. I’m sure he smiled when I looked into her eyes and said: “We can’t go back until we stop a bad man from hurting our country, from stealing from her people.”
He sat close to me when I followed the unfolding of events in Benghazi, Tripoli, all the cities where Libyan men and women freed from fear faced Gaddafi’s bullets so that those standing behind them could lead the second charge for freedom. He held me tight as I cried on October 23 2011, when independence was proclaimed in a newly freed Libya. And when I finally returned to Gharyan this summer, after decades of absence, he sat next to me on the rocks along the path to the well he would use to wash up before performing his daily prayers. I scanned the horizon, passing over homes, well-worn paths, twisting olive trees … it was all so familiar. It felt like I’d never left. And I knew, then, that my dad had brought me home.
Hend Amry is an artist and freelance writer, living in Doha, Qatar with her husband and two daughters. Follow her on Twitter.