30 December 2005

A Trip to Tripoli

When you visit another country, it’s hard to get a feel for what it’s actually like until you leave your hotel room, go for a walk, take a look around, and hang out while soaking it in. Not so in Libya. All you have to do there is show up. It will impose itself on you at once.

Michael Totten, who blogs on things related to (and I believe lives in) the Middle East, visited Libya shortly after the American government removed the ban on travel there for U.S. citizens, and wrote a piece describing his experiences there. It was recently published online, by LA Weekly. The article makes for a very interesting look into a country that, AFAIK, very few people here in the States know much about. (Warning: the article contains occasional profanity, which is censored below ’cause I’m like that.)

At one point, he addresses what would probably be my first reaction if anyone told me they were going to visit Libya:

Almost everybody I know thought I was crazy to travel to Libya. The unspoken fear was that someone might kill me.

Well, no. Nobody killed me. Nobody even looked at me funny. I knew that’s how it would be before I set out. Still, it’s nice to have the old adage “people are people” proven through experience.

Libyans are fed a steady diet of anti-Americanism, but it comes from a man who has kicked them in the stomach and stomped on their face for more than a third of a century. If they bought it, they sure didn’t act like it.

Another section (among others) highlights inevitable problems that I think would tend to arise in the context of any totalitarian government:

Most apartment buildings were more or less equally dreary, but one did stand out. Architecturally it was just another modernist horror. But a 6-by-8-foot portrait of Qaddafi was bolted to the façade three stories up. It partially blocked the view from two of the balconies. The b****** couldn’t even leave people alone when they were home.

The posters weren’t funny anymore. There were too d*** many of them, for one thing. And, besides, Qaddafi is ugly. He may earn a few charisma points for traveling to Brussels and pitching his Bedouin tent on the Parliament lawn, but he’s no Che Guevara in the guapo department.

I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty wore off in less than a day, and he’s been in power longer than I’ve been alive.

He was an abstraction when I first got there. But after walking around his outdoor laboratory and everywhere seeing his beady eyes and that arrogant jut of his mouth, it suddenly hit me. He isn’t merely Libya’s tyrant. He is a man who would be god.

His Mukhabarat, the secret police, are omniscient. His visage is omnipresent. His power is omnipotent.

And he is deranged. He says he’s the sun of Africa. He threatens to ban money and schools. He vanquished beauty and art. He liquidates those who oppose him. He says he can’t help it if the people of Libya love him so much they plaster his portrait up everywhere. F*** him. I wanted to rip his face from the walls.

But what really struck me was this:

I heard footsteps behind me, turned around, and faced two Arab men wearing coats and ties and carrying briefcases. One wore glasses. The other was bald.

“It has been a long time since I heard that accent,” said the man with the glasses.

I smiled. “It’s been a long time since this accent was here,” I said. Until just a few months ago, any American standing on Libyan soil was committing a felony.

“We went to college together,” he said, and jerked his thumb toward his friend. “In Lawrence, Kansas, during the ’70s.”

“Yes,” his friend said as he rubbed the bald spot on his head. The two were all smiles now as they remembered. “We took a long road trip up to Seattle.”

“We stayed there for two weeks!” said the first. He sighed like a man recalling his first long-lost love. I watched both their faces soften as they recalled the memories of their youth and adventures abroad in America.

“What a wonderful time we had there,” said the second.

They invited me out to dinner, but I was getting ready to leave. I didn’t want to say no. They looked like they wanted to hug me.

We shook hands as we departed. And as I stepped into the elevator, the first man put his hand on his heart. “Give two big kisses to Americans when you get home,” he said. “From two people in Libya who miss you so much.”

The piece is on the long side, but is definitely worth the read. Highly recommend.

(H/T: Scott @ Power Line)

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