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Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine)­ — Part 4



I mentioned earlier that under the Gaddafi regime private commerce had been almost entirely banned. There were large government-run stores (along the Soviet model), selling very little apart from Turkish olive oil and unattractive men’s jackets (I mean it was the jackets that were unattractive). Near the Funduk Mumtaz I located two shall shops, each selling a single product: toilet rolls and wedding gowns, respectively. I found the first of these shops the more useful of the two. Money was a bit of a problem (when isn’t it?). I had a good fat salary, but the Libyan dinar was one of the heaviest currencies in the world—one dinar was pegged at several pounds sterling, and small denomination notes were hard to come by. Most of my purchases were very small ones (a street-side snack and a soft drink, or a taxi fare) and more often than not the vendor or driver would glance at my banknote and—for convenience, and also because the great majority of Libyans are very good-natured—would tell me the snack or the taxi ride was a gift. At some point it seemed that money would no longer exist. From time to time Gaddafi, or the Great Brother Leader as he was styled, would appear on television or radio and issue a proclamation. These would be greeted with a mixture of cheers, applause, and semi-hysterical laughter. On one occasion he announced that Libya was about to become a money-free economy and that from now on all transactions would be through barter. I could see the possibilities for a poultry keeper trading a dozen eggs for a haircut, but what was I supposed to do—offer a short lecture on Wole Soyinka’s poetry in return for getting my hair snipped? The announcement must have been greeted with consternation by Gaddafi’s ministers and civil servants, because the following evening one of them popped up on television to explain that the GBL (Great Brother Leader) might have been misunderstood; the money-free economy was a vision for the distant future, not for now. Another pronouncement was welcomed by me, because it clarified the official position on alcohol. The GBL explained that Libyan citizens were not allowed to drink, but as for foreign residents it was a matter between them and their God. Foreigners were not allowed to import alcohol or sell it, or to drink or behave drunkenly in public places, but they could make their own booze and drink it in their own homes. He added with a grimace: “they can make it in their bath-tubs if they wish.” Ingredients for alcohol were obtainable if you hunted around: grapes, dates (for Egyptian arak), barley, malt, yeast. Quite a few foreigners earned a substantial second income brewing and distilling and selling the stuff, and as you can imagine your columnist became one of their loyal customers. Many a time I bought a huge plastic bottle of arak or grappa and caught a taxi home, the cab-driver bidding farewell with a laconic “enjoy yourself, my friend.” I realise I haven’t said anything yet about books, and buying books, which are (scoff ye not) even more important to me than a nice drink. So I’ll begin that now, with more to come next week and also talk about the experience of helping translate a speech of Gaddafi’s (an experience the memory of which still induces nightmares). When I set out for Libya I packed a couple of trunks full of books, which followed me as unaccompanied baggage. Alerted by the airport to the fact these had arrived, I asked the university to organise a truck to take me out there to collect them. On arrival, I was told there were severe restrictions on the books that could be brought into the country (censorship, in other words) and I’d have to unpack them and list them and the list would be checked for banned items. Into an office with an official who sat staring at me as I unpacked and listed the books (about two hundred of them, but I was offered a coffee to ease the strain). At a point the official shuffled over and picked up a book and started to read it. This was the collected stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, a masterpiece that travels with me wherever I go. I was happy that he was distracted, but still nervous that the list I was making would be cross-checked against the actual books. A day or two before, chatting to the friendly Egyptian barista at the Not-at-all Excellent Hotel, I’d learnt that no books by the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz were allowed into the country, on account of his highly controversial (some would say blasphemous) novel Children of Gebelawi. I had brought along a copy of this, plus three or four of his other novels, which I skipped (woops, how careless) as I made out the list. The official took the completed list and asked if he could borrow the collected Winnie-the-Pooh. I agreed and was allowed to take the books, without any cross-checking. Over the next few months Children of Gebelawi became the most-borrowed book I have ever owned. What one gets up to in the service of literature. To be continued Chris Dunton

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