The Weird, Wired World of Colonel Ghaddafi

  • Share
  • Read Later

Getting by in Ghaddafi-land

Arriving in Tripoli feels like stepping into an Arab capital of the nationalist 1960s. Most of the buildings are that old, and slogans of Arab unity and portraits of the leader stare down from every wall, every square, every corner. Still, at least my cell phone worked. And while it's hard to escape from Colonel Ghaddafi's image or his words — his every statement is read word-for-word on the evening news — every building appears to sport a satellite dish, and the city is dotted with Internet café s where Libyans try to keep up with the modern world from which they've been shut out by U.N. sanctions. Well shut out, up to a point — the Colonel's routine denunciation of the wicked West didn't appear to have deterred the cinema nearest my hotel from showing "Wild Wild West."

Once hailed by visitors as the "Bride of the Mediterranean," Tripoli has seen better days. The city is in desperate need of a paint job, if not a face-lift. Still, underneath the neglect spawned by three decades of socialism and eight years of sanctions, there's still plenty of evidence of an unmistakably beautiful city.

Green days

The lobby of our hotel, the Al Kabir, is a case in point: The immense crystal chandelier and a blue-tiled fountain are reminders of the more prosperous times, when it was known as the Grand Hotel. But its name was changed in 1970 after the revolution that brought Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi to power, and his image still dominates the lobby, a portrait flanked by stickers bearing the cover of the "Green Book" in which he outlined his ideology. The book itself is displayed in a glass cabinet at reception, on the shelves of the hotel's business center and in the bookstores outside. Excerpts are printed in green — easily the most popular color in Tripoli — alongside the leader's picture. "Arab Unity is a social must," reads one.

But with Libya feeling increasingly abandoned by its Arab allies, Ghaddafi has changed his emphasis. Now he proclaims a "United States of Africa," and slogans such as "We Are Africans" are everywhere.

What's the hurry?

Despite the urgency of the slogans, Libyans are uniformly laid-back — something that took some getting used to for a native of crazy Cairo. I heard the words "Shwaya, shwaya" ("Slowly, slowly") at least 30 times on my first day, eventually convincing me that I had to be more patient to avoid offending them.

Not that they're easily offended — the Libyans are kind people who smile easily, and they respond with curiosity to outsiders. Probe a little deeper, though, and their feelings are very mixed. On the one hand, their satellite dishes and cell phones and Internet café s signal that they want to be part of the modern world from which they're isolated by sanctions — and from which Libya's rigidly organized social life discourages them from partaking. On the other hand, they feel unjustly victimized by the West, and many are ready to spring, unprompted, to Ghaddafi's defense in the face of any foreign criticism.

The stores are full of Italian clothes — even lingerie — but the storekeepers ruminate that they're far behind current Italian fashions, and tell stories of the suffering caused by sanctions.

Wired in a weird city

Many young Libyans prefer to get their news from the Internet rather than the turgid evening news programs filled with slogans and clichés. And yet their conclusions may not be that different from those on the nightly news. In an Internet café where Epson printers are for sale in a glass case, former Libyan Airways employee Mohammed Hussein, who completed an M.A. in the U.S., offers a typical view of the Lockerbie trial. "There was no solid evidence against the two in this case," he says. "It is a verdict that does not make sense. America and Britain have wielded their political influence to save face. They will continue to exploit this part of the world. They do not want stability in this region."

Despite the sanctions, life goes on in tranquil Tripoli. There are a few restaurants, but they are extremely modest. The hotel waiter offered me whale for dinner. He meant fish, which is a staple given Libya's 800 mile coastline. Camel meat cooked in red tomato sauce is popular here, accompanied by white rice and potatoes. In a happy coincidence with the leader's chosen color, the Libyans drink green tea. But one of their great inheritances from the Italians is capuccino.

Dreaming of elsewhere

The streets are wide and people drive fast, many of them in late-model Japanese and Korean cars blasting a mix of Western and Arab pop music. Besides a few leftover buildings from the Italian era and a collection of high-rises overlooking the sea, Tripoli's architecture consists mostly of the dull and functional. But the corniche is wide, well paved and clean, with cafés and colored parasols and some children's toboggans, jungle gyms and a merry-go-round. With an epic leap of the imagination, one can almost be reminded of the French Riviera — except that the promenade looks out only onto Tripoli's sleepy harbor.

The boulevards are wide, and lined with palm trees and shrubs. But they overlook a big, ugly sandy patch dominated by a concrete structure overlooking the "Square of Martyrs." It had been intended as a fountain cascading the waters of Ghaddafi's unfinished "Great Man-Made River Project"; instead it serves as a dusty soccer pitch for young boys who play late into the night.

Tripoli looks her best at night, glittering out over the Meditteranean. There are no power cuts. Water pressure is strong. Mobile phones are working fine. Still, as the capital of an oil-rich country, it ought to be a lot more polished and prosperous. Which is why the man and woman on the street has so much hope riding on an end to sanctions.