With armfuls of snacks bought from a duty-free stand, a rusty white Peugeot 404 awaited us outside the terminal. Its tired interior reeked of stale cologne and tobacco. Tardu’s turning of the ignition had the vehicle sputtering to a start before finally getting on our way down the Airport Highway. We travelled north, with the cheerful sparkling Mediterranean outstretched before us, so we could get a quick glimpse of Tripoli before heading east.
The Mediterranean capital was exactly as I remembered it: a flirtation between Classical and Middle Eastern sensibilities. Papa called it a jewel of antiquity, a crossroads between European, African, and Arab worlds. I remembered gawking in awe at ancient minarets and domes, at rows of white stucco residences, struck by preserved Roman ruins, and mesmerized by wide Italian promenades lined with swaying palm fronds. My little imagination reveled in the capital’s romance and promises of adventure.
But as potent as my memories remained, something seemed amiss now. Libya was my home, but why did it seem so foreign all the sudden? Open-air bazaars in the historic old town, once a barrage of life and color, stood empty. Colonial era facades stood derelict, as if they had been allowed to decay on purpose. The sea, the pristine beaches Mother and I once sunbathed on, had been pushed back to make room for progress. Symbols of oil wealth dotted the skyline; cranes, half-built concrete apartment towers, and sterile corporate skyscrapers threatened to smother the Tripoli I loved.
I was never a big fan of the color green; this color seemed to bleed into my precious memories. Green flags! Green cars! Hell, even building doors were painted green. Green script on billboards shouted praise for Libya’s Al Fateh revolution, of how Colonel Gaddafi was the Brotherly Leader and Guide, of how the Green Book was the absolute universal truth.
Gaddafi on posters. Gaddafi on banners. Gaddafi on murals. Gaddafi fucking everywhere. He hung over Tripoli like the evil eye Mother warned me about in her stories. Even as I averted my gaze to focus on something else, a street vendor, a mosque, or a tea room, Gaddafi found me and seemed to mock me with a facetious grin. It was like he waved the city in front of my nose, daring me to take it back from him –
“Aisha! Did you bring your map?” Tardu called.
In my bewilderment, I failed to give Tardu much-needed directions. Included in my arsenal was an old map bearing the seal of King Idris. When Papa saw how much I enjoyed riding in the car with him, he gave me a double-sided map of Tripoli and Libya’s highways so we could trace family journeys together. I unfolded it on the dashboard and pointed to the correct street. I looked up for street signs and all the names were blacked out. No arrows. No exits. Nothing.
“My map is useless. I bet the government blacked out all the signs,” I replied.
“Are you serious?” he said.
I recalled how a documentary noted that all signs were blacked out in order to confuse enemies. Apparently, I was an enemy now. Italy considered me an enemy for being Libyan. Libya considered me an enemy for being Italian! Was there no end to it? For the first time since landing, I felt my elation give way to a sinking feeling.
I brushed it aside quickly and remarked, “You’re lucky! Now you don’t have to worry about trying to read them.”
“You’re so cruel! But you lived in Tripoli before the revolution. Don’t you remember it?”
“I can hardly make it out from all the green everywhere.”
“It’s changed that much? Certainly something has to look familiar to you.”
I pointed to the sun overhead. “Use the sun instead. We have to go east so keep it behind you.”
“Got it. Hold on tight,” he quipped. “Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.”
We stopped laughing when he slammed on the clutch to keep the Peugeot from stalling.
To distract from the navigation problem, I focused on people. Tripolians were a proud and cosmopolitan group, albeit without the pretension of Romans. They took the contemporary, the traditional, and mixed them together out of awareness of Tripoli’s place at a historical intersection. This identity expressed itself in skins of every hue, well-dressed in a variety of rich patterns, and most importantly, all on people who looked and spoke like me. A sense of long-forgotten inclusion seemed to soothe the initial shock from before.
It was too easy to be deceived by memory once more. The fierce spirit of Tripoli’s inhabitants was hardly noticeable now. At a poorly heeded traffic light, I watched the body language of the passersby; hurried and avoidant, extreme even by city standards. All those bold fashionable choices had been replaced by conservative pieces, as if no one wanted to draw attention to themselves. No one seemed to speak on the streets, let alone stop to offer salutations to one another. I mentally searched for the right word to describe it. Fearful. Everyone seemed like they were hiding something –
“Aisha?” Tardu asked as he adjusted the rear-view mirror to accommodate his height. “Look. Is that car following us? They’ve been on our tail for several blocks now. You don’t suppose they followed us from the airport, do you?”
I hoped that Tardu’s anxiety would at least wait until we started running out of gas. But to make him feel better, I looked in the side view mirror. A man leaned out the window of a black BMW, camera in hand. I figured that car in particular stood out to Tardu since it was the only luxury car on the streets. Perhaps it was the vehicle of an important Libyan official. Maybe it was an oil contractor. Or it was just impatient rich tourists from the Gulf States.
“Don’t even start. It’s nothing. They’re just tourists like us.”
The car switched lanes and sped past us. Just as it did, the passenger with the camera rolled up the tinted window before I could catch a good look at him.
“See? Told you. You’re driving too slow. They just wanted to pass us,” I said and felt smug in my seat.
“But I’m already going over the speed limit…”
Tardu may have been unable to understand Arabic, but his driving certainly made up for it. At least one memory remained the same, Tripoli’s horrible drivers. They were world renowned for being subpar and Tardu excelled at blending in with the worst of them. Even as an adult, I was sure to keep my seatbelt fastened. Even as metallic car horn bleats met us around every corner, we zigzagged through traffic-clogged avenues while tired suburban neighborhoods and their cramped dilapidated apartments blurred past us in the window.
Having Tardu keep the sun behind us proved to be successful; it was a relief to watch Tripoli’s buildings shrink into low shrubs and sand. As disenchanting as it was to see how much Tripoli had changed, I assured myself that Libya was not confined to one city. There would be other locales to see that were perhaps less touched by Gaddafi’s hold on the country. Once I put myself at ease from images of the good future my trip would surely have, I released my fists from around the bursting seams of my leather seat.
“You owe me big-time after that,” Tardu wiped away his sweat with one hand. “How long until we reach Sirte?”
“If you have to ask, then you already know we’re not even close,” I guffawed.
My goal involved traversing Libya’s coast until we reached Benghazi, where we would then head south into Cyrenaica’s deserts before looping back to Tripoli for the return flight. Historical Berber trading towns, crystal blue oases, and endless pristine dunes awaited us. Libya was a huge country and to conserve energy, we agreed prior to arrival that Sirte would be our first waypoint. As much as I wanted to make it to my birthplace of Ghat in the Fezzan, we simply didn’t have the funds to traverse that deep into the Sahara.
Poor Tardu was tasked with braving the nearly six hour trek in the searing heat of a Libyan afternoon. To Colonel Gaddafi’s credit, his interpretation of Islamic shariah law was flexible; women were allowed to drive and I would make the second leg to Benghazi. To reach Sirte by sundown was crucial; Libya’s rural highways became treacherous crossings for camels after nightfall.
Besides Sirte being hours away, hundreds of kilometers of emptiness lay between us, with the most taxing stretch of road dipping into wasteland before reaching our final destination. I had briefed Tardu on this truth prior to arrival. Both of us knew that should anything bad happen in the barren districts of Sawfajjin or Sirte in particular, we’d be—for lack of a better term—fucked.
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Tardu finally said after a pause. “And I’m guessing the view will look like this the whole way too.”
“C’mon, Tardu. I think it’s beautiful.”
Tardu did not share the same sentiment. He slouched behind the wheel.
Perhaps the neutral color palate against a wide sky was an acquired taste. Only a tiny sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast enjoyed humid summers and green pastures; infinite plains of sand interrupted only by rock formations constituted the majority of Libya’s topography. Something about its emptiness filled me with a cathartic feeling, from the way land and sky merged together, to how the desert made me think of a mystifying primordial age.
“I promise it will get easier from here on out. My turn to drive is tomorrow so you can relax then,” I answered in an attempt to raise his spirits.
“At least tell me this car has a radio.”
A quick adjustment of the radio knob revealed static before finding a channel. In the past it was possible to pick up Italian broadcasts and Egyptian pop music. An unmistakable baritone voice spoke from the other side instead. Colonel Gaddafi did what he did best: talking shit. Livid declamations against American aggression and Ronald “the second-rate actor” Reagan, with calls for Arab unity added in for spice, greeted our ears. Well, mine anyway.
“Not talk radio! Quick, find something else!” Tardu groaned again.
“Sorry, Tardu,” I tried to find a more suitable channel to his liking, but every single setting had the same thing. “This is the best I can do.”
Even at its most politically charged, Arabic was a beautiful language; I sat mesmerized by the rhythms of spoken Arabic that spilled from his mouth. Radio static distorted his voice, but did little to dilute how every word of his dripped with charisma and self-assurance. I had to give credit where credit was due; wicked men are never self-aware, and only someone like Gaddafi could make being bad sound like it was so much fun.
When Gaddafi spoke, people listened. I could see why the media flocked to him. Part of his allure lied in how he took on the form of whatever his beholder believed him to be: from revolutionary for oppressed peoples, to godfather of international terrorism, to a flamboyant cartoonish villain.
As for what he was to me, it was personal and complicated. I certainly felt excluded from belonging in the Europe he hated, so in theory his political platform should have appealed to me. But how could I ever fall under the spell of someone who celebrated my expulsion?
I admit that part of me was drawn to him. It was easy to let him grow on me like a disease. His eccentricities intrigued me. He was the only world leader who exuded an undeniable form of sex appeal. But he was also a brutal tyrant who had no business ruling Libya. Love and hate are related emotions so I settled for something in-between – I loved to hate him.
“That’s Muammar Gaddafi, isn’t it?” Tardu asked.
“What’s he talking about?”
I shrugged, “The usual things.”
“Forgive me for asking, but do you like him? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“You ask that like I’ve got a crush on him or something.”
“I won’t judge if you do.”
I playfully slapped his thigh. “Ha! Cute. It’s a complicated feeling.”
“I imagine it’s sort of like Kemalism. Right?”
“I appreciate the parallel, but it’s not quite the same. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the father of modern Turkey; he modernized his country and helped orient it towards Europe. What has Gaddafi accomplished besides staying in power for seventeen years?”
“You neglect to mention how Libya’s oil wealth, spurred by Gaddafi, has improved the lives of Libyans,” he freed his hands from the wheel to gesticulate. “Life expectancy has skyrocketed here, so has the population and median income. Gaddafi has made Libya into more than just a heap of sand. You came from what was once the poorest country in the world, Aisha. Don’t forget that.”
“Don’t defend him. And don’t call my country a heap of sand! That’s what people always love to point out. If you want to discuss oil wealth, then why don’t you praise the United Arab Emirates instead?”
He resumed steering, “You make a fair point. But even after Atatürk’s reforms, Turks continue to get a bad rep in Europe. You’ve seen it yourself; the glares, the workplace prejudice, the students who excluded us. And Turkey itself can’t seem to make up its mind in regards to Kemalism and its Ottoman past.”
I cranked down a window once Tripoli’s pleasant oceanic climate yielded to unforgiving heat inside the unairconditioned vehicle.
“But Tardu,” I said. “At least Atatürk didn’t blow shit up for attention. Gaddafism rejects all things Western. He has no intention of being accepted by Europe. Elaborate on how Gaddafi and Atatürk are the same.”
“I don’t think I can anymore.”
“Exactly,” I concluded and extended my arm out the open window to let hot breeze flow between my fingers. “I thought I told you how much I hate talking about this. Just because I’m Libyan does not mean I want to debate about Gaddafi!”
There was no way he could understand. With aquamarine waves on one side and tawny earth on the other, the Coastal Highway hugged Libya’s curves, where it disappeared into the dancing horizon before us.
A small sign drew near on the edge of the road. Like before, all information was blacked-out. Tardu neglected to signal and turned.
“Why’d you turn? Sirte is that way.”
“I just need to stop for a bit. This car is too small for my legs.”
A narrow uneven road twisted up towards the coast, where the landscape changed to rocky crags dotted with palm trees and thorny shrubs. To our shared surprise, the road stopped at another blacked-out sign overlooking crumbling ruins from the Romans.
“Oh, I thought the sign pointed to a village,” Tardu said.
I laughed. “The signs have succeeded in confusing us, the ‘enemies’.”
My obsolete map was good for something now; we lay about eighty kilometers east of Tripoli at the site of Leptis Magna, once a bustling port city that connected classical Mediterranean empires with Africa. An accidental discovery was exactly what I needed! This was the real Libya I wanted to show to the West. There was no Colonel Gaddafi here, just a forgotten city overlooking tranquil ultramarine seas. Notebook in hand, I climbed from the vehicle and bolted down a series of half-buried steps.
“Wait up!” Tardu shouted over the faint noise of waves lapping at the shore below.
Save for the ocean sounds, there was only stillness amongst the ruins. Headless nude statues of muses stood between half-collapsed Doric columns. Corners of buildings peeked from under undisturbed grains of sand. Intricately carved archways marked the city gates. Without a care for as to where I was headed, I let the overgrown stone path lead me down to an amphitheatre; a still-preserved oval structure gradually surrendering to the sands. I took a seat in the partial archway of a marble atrium and just stared at how the jewels of antiquity framed the sea in the distance.
Papa told me that all civilizations both modern and forgotten told stories that offered insight into the narratives of humanity. I always loved to consider how I was intertwined with the histories he spoke of. Libya had so much going for her: she gave birth to a wealth of culture and art. She was strategically important. Despite all of this, she was always considered second to the empires that annexed her.
Though evidence pointed to the contrary, the perception of Libya as an insignificant backwater followed her around like a stain. This stain set-in deeper over time. And yet, despite how she was always looked down upon by those across the sea, countless empires vied for control over her. He who could tame Libya would receive great fortune and influence over the realms of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. From Caesar to Sultan to Colonel, she was only a conquest, merely a prize to own and control.
My thoughts led me to open my notebook to a fresh page. I scribbled:
Imagine a Libya without Colonel Gaddafi.
I sighed and let my pen hover over the sentence. I took to staring out at the sea again.