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Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part 2



Knowing I would shortly be leaving for Libya I decided I’d better find something out about the place. Most useful was a Penguin book called simply Libya by the South African anti-apartheid activist Ruth First. I took seriously her advice that, as private commerce had been outlawed under the Gaddafi regime and there were virtually no shops, to take plenty of toilet paper, sun blocker, and other life essentials. When I arrived at Benghazi airport it was after dark and there was no-one to meet me. Almost all my luggage was due to follow me a few days later, so I was travelling light; I found a bus to the town centre, and, as I had no idea where I was supposed to stay, I made my way on foot along the promenade (Benghazi is on the Mediterranean) to a nice-looking hotel. I booked myself into this, hoping for a refund from the university when they eventually found me. I’d been surprised, from about twenty minutes after I got off the bus, to see no other pedestrians and no traffic, and learnt from the hotel receptionist that in walking along the promenade at that time of night I’d been committing a crime, as the city was under curfew. Next morning and the very helpful receptionist phoned the university to tell them I was there. This was welcome, as was the discovery that the phones worked, which had certainly not been the case in northern Nigeria (whenever I wanted to phone my parents while living there I had to drive across the border into neighbouring Niger). Younger readers of thepost have no idea how fortunate they are to have been born after the invention of the mobile phone. Someone from the Appointments office at the university turned up, paid my bill and took me off to the much cheaper hotel where I’d be staying until my accommodation was sorted out. To the university—very attractive modern buildings—to fill in the necessary paperwork and to meet my HOD, a reserved but charming Libyan who was to become a staunch friend, and back to my hotel. This was called the Funduk Mumtaz and deserves a whole book to itself. Funduk is the Arabic for hotel and Mumtaz means excellent. It was barely the first and certainly not the second. In my room, which would have been disgraced by the average shoebox, I peered out of the window at the deserted street below and the long-shuttered shops (remember, private commerce had been outlawed) and saw on the pavement a dead rat. This was perturbing, as I was currently reading Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, about an outbreak of the Black Death in another north African coastal city, Oran, in Algeria. I retreated to the coffee lounge, where I made friends with the barista, an elderly Egyptian. He explained that outside the hotels almost all the coffee bars had been closed by the regime and those that remained had, as permanent customers, members of the secret police (or it may have been the morality police), as in the Arab world coffee bars are traditionally places where men gather to play board games and to discuss all sorts of things, including (heaven forfend!) politics. The police sat in the corner with their ears wide open. The barista gave me directions to one of the few of these places still open, Turkish-run and serving excellent coffee and lovely pastries such as baklava (filo pastry, whipped cream, honey and nuts). Wherever I went, he added, I must carry with me at all times my pataka or identity card, not to do so being a heinous delict (two fancy new words for my younger readers to acquire). My first night at the Funduk Mumtaz, or (ho ho) Excellent Hotel, I was woken by the sound of dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles driving through the town, plus the sort of excited shouting you get at a football match. The convoy was, it turned out, on its way to fight in the border dispute Libya was conducting with its southern neighbour, Chad (a war that was eventually settled under international jurisdiction in Chad’s favour). The next day my door jammed. I reported this at the desk. When I returned from campus I found the door had not been repaired but had been removed—so my room was doorless—and a cotton sheet pinned up as a temporary replacement. I fled to the coffee lounge to cheer myself up by chatting to the friendly Egyptian barista. To be continued Chris Dunton

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