Books can change the world.
My papa told me this on a cool evening while he edited a manuscript on his desk. He was Italian; a respected anthropologist who devoted his life to researching North Africa’s culture and tribes. Of all those he encountered in his travels across the Sahara, the Tuareg people of southwest Libya captivated him the most. Such a love brought him to meet my mother, a beautiful and vivacious woman with a fiery spirit. They married in the late fifties and I was born shortly thereafter.
All it took was one night.
Papa sighed on September 1st, 1969 when we listened to the news in our Tripoli apartment. A bloodless coup d’état heralded by a handsome Bedouin filled him with remorse. The word “coup” amused my juvenile ears, but it was no coincidence when my family had to forfeit our home and board a ferry to Italy a year later. We often encounter things we don’t understand; I was too young to comprehend why we were expelled from Libya and too young to grasp that we could never return. And as I came of age in Italy, I understood that I was a child of the “politically sick”; expelled “enemies” of Libya on the Day of Revenge in 1970.
I can change the world.
I believed in this when I boarded a flight bound for Tripoli in 1986.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign. As we make our descent to Tripoli International Airport, please put all seatbacks and tray tables in their upright positions,” chimed a stewardess onboard Libyan Arab Airlines. The rickety aircraft fuselage rattled and bounced from heat pockets and puffy clouds. There she was beneath the wing, Libya, the most beautiful country in the world, and my true home.
My name is Aisha Larosa and I dared to do the unthinkable. While my time spent in exile in Rome may have been a coveted experience for some, no place on earth touched my soul like Libya. I ached to return. Return, I did.
Libya is more than Gaddafi.
This was my motto. It was the 1980s and Colonel Gaddafi had transformed Libya into an international pariah state. In the back of my mind, I resented the Colonel for prancing on the world stage with my precious home, reaping havoc and losing friends wherever he travelled.
But in truth, my disdain turned to Europe. Even though I was of Italian heritage, my ethnic looks, brought on by Tuareg roots, meant I would never be seen as European. I became an “other”, adrift in national limbo, cursed by a dual-identity no one would accept. And as Colonel Gaddafi’s visibility grew throughout the eighties, I became an easy target in my European host-country. Suddenly I was a potential terrorist, a proponent for political Islam, and a threat to Western hegemony, simply by virtue of being Libyan.
My return was underscored by an agenda. As I entered adulthood in Italy, my head filled with ideas. An idea was such; to go back home and compose a travel book on the true Libya. I’d reveal Libya as home to ethnic and cultural diversity, as captivating, mysterious, and beautiful as she was dangerous and foreboding. I would change the world with my book, all in the name of restoring honor to the place that nurtured me.
To hatch my ingenious idea, I needed a front. No one holds grudges like a dictator; Gaddafi was still sour about the cruel former Italian colonialists. To prevent unpleasant encounters with the Mukhabarat el-Jamahiriya, his dreaded security apparatus, I arrived under the guise of a tourist from an allied country. I came armed with a counterfeit Algerian passport acquired from an underground source, while my traditional dark indigo headscarf and decidedly modest clothing would allow me to blend in completely. And of course, I brought an empty journal with me. I assured myself that my plan was perfect. It was foolproof!
Murmurs of prayer yielded to uproarious applause when the plane’s wheels bounced on the white asphalt tarmac. To hear the pilot announce a successful touchdown in Tripoli had tears welling in my eyes. Finally, I had arrived. I hoped Libya would welcome her estranged child.
“I can’t believe we made it,” said the gentleman on my right. “Your parents are totally going to kill you.”
How could I forget my best friend, Tardu Sadik? Travelling alone as a woman on Libyan soil was foolish; Tardu served as my patriarch and pseudo husband. With olive skin and aquiline features, albeit marred by prematurely receding hair, he passed as a Turkish descendant from Ottoman rule in Libya.
Tardu hailed from a well-off family who fled Istanbul to escape the repressions wrought by Turkey’s own coup d’état in 1971. We found bittersweet consolidation in being exiled at around the same time, a fact that helped foster our friendship after we met in secondary school. Italian served as our shared language, but I taught him simple Arabic phrases as an extra cover-up.
“They won’t if they don’t find out,” I replied as Tardu helped me pull my bag from the overhead compartment.
We climbed down metal air-stairs and heat immediately hit us, heat only disrupted by a briny sea breeze from Tripoli’s Mediterranean coast. I had almost forgotten what the Libyan sun felt like, simultaneously welcoming and punishing. It came wrapped in humidity that caused us to saunter across the tarmac as if were made out of mud.
A large bustling single terminal housing both domestic and international flights awaited us, smoke-filled but clean. Stepping into the doorway had us immediately hit by an onslaught of curious stares. I turned my head to wipe away a tear with my headscarf while Tardu gawked at rows of duty-free shops selling Qurans, prayer rugs, and cigarette cartons. Beyond the airport windows, Tripoli seemed to wave “hello” through thick haze.
It didn’t take long to see that we were not in just any generic Arab country, but the one-and-only Libya that so terrified the West. An eerily cheerful greeting sign in the terminal proclaimed “Welcome to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya!” in green Arabic script. I couldn’t help but to smirk at it. What a mouthful.
Tardu squinted at a more subdued sign once we reached a fork in the terminal.
“I told you to practice your Arabic before we got here,” I teased. “Flight connections are to the right. Customs and passport control is to the left.”
“Cut me some slack. Remember when I tried to teach you Turkish?” he jibed back.
“Don’t remind me.”
“Consider it even, then. Please tell me the customs agents speak Italian.”
“Don’t speak Italian to them; it will blow our cover. Remember the Arabic words I taught you.”
“Yes, laa. No, na’am. Shokran, thank you. Just nod if they talk too fast.”
Getting past customs was the hardest part. In the back of my mind, I knew that one wrong move from either of us in border control would have us deported at best, publicly executed at worst. Well, at least that’s what the media led me to believe.
“And then what?” Tardu dug through his bag and idly thumbed through the empty pages of his new passport. Past a series of ropes and behind booths, border agents in ill-fitting green uniforms puffed away at cigarettes. I lead Tardu to stand behind a green line beneath a sign that read “Libyan Citizens”.
Tardu poked me in the shoulder. Everyone in our line held Jamahiriya passports.
I flicked away another loose tear and moved into the correct line: “Other Nationalities”. At least our Algerian passports meant that we didn’t have to travel with an escort past border control. That is if we managed to make it through without arousing suspicion.
“We sign the papers for our rental car, grab some snacks, and make our way across the Coastal Highway,” I said.
A border guard barked at Tardu to approach.
Tardu hesitated. I nudged him forward. “You’re my patriarch now, which means you must go first.”
The guard gave a suspicious glance at Tardu, who balled his fists to keep them from quivering. After rolling his eyes and muttering “tourists”, a fresh stamp came down on Tardu’s passport.
My turn. I slid my passport to the border guard, who immediately ordered me to pull off my headscarf. Doing so unveiled my shock of twisted dark hair, just like in my identification photo. The guard’s eyes narrowed. I assured myself that being cordial was not part of his job description.
“Is Libya your final destination?” he asked.
“Yes.” I answered.
“What is your business in Libya?”
“Where will you go in Libya?”
“To the coastal cities, Sirte and Benghazi.”
I choked from the cloud of smoke he blew in my face. Just stamp it, I thought as he took his sweet time surveying my documents. The longer I had to get interrogated, the more likely I’d get flagged and denied entry. Things were not looking good once he reached for a radio at his desk and muttered something into it. I resorted to rubbing my now sweaty hands against my shirt. The guard looked back to me and flashed a smile.
“Relax. Your photo was not taken in good lighting,” he advised. “You may want to fix that in the future.”
I puffed my cheeks out and sighed. Glancing towards Tardu had him giving me a reassuring look. And after what felt like an eternity, his tobacco-stained fingers finally reached for the stamp that rested on a green ink pad. Libya may have been the most beautiful place in the world, but the most beautiful sound in the world is the heavy ker-chunk! of a border guard’s entry stamp.