Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Visit to Free Libya January 2012

My journey from the UK to Libya started with awkwardness. The interior of Tripoli airport was as dusty as if it was in disuse and the scruffy immigration officers began to complain about the hung-up computers. You only need to reset your computer pal! But No. Apparently, another officer with a captain rank began to stamp everyone’s passports and to hell with those modern abacuses! This meant that if you were blacklisted in Libya, you could still get in to the country with no hindrance. It seems that Libya became libertarian rather than liberated.

The brand-new baggage carousels started to push bags and cases As I and my mate waited near the Cairo carousel (from where we traveled), we were surprised to find our cases appearing on the Tunis carousel, behind us! Luckily, there were only two carousels there, and whether from Cairo or Tunis, our baggage finally made its way.

Since the fall of the Gaddafi’s regime, I saw and heard a lot about the chaos in Libya. Militants who contributed to the takeover of the capital were everywhere with their anti-aircraft guns and ad-hoc checkpoints that challenged the local police and their firing in the air as if “they were at war with the sky”, as Charlie Brooker described it. For few Libyans, an iron-fist rule was still in need.

Soon enough I would be challenged as we made our way to the taxi and our driver set off. There were the usual scenes of traffic mayhem; cars that just move and switch lanes aggressively, I was taken by feeling that we would sooner or later crash into another car.

As we drove toward the city, I saw no militias and no militants. The road from the airport was in an excellent condition, and within 15 minutes we started to get to the scenes of the real Tripoli.

I expected the colour green – Gaddafi’s trademark – everywhere on buildings and streets, but again it was not there. Modern yellow housing complexes sprawled the road from the airport to the city, as new rising towers slowly headed towards us - or us towards them - in the horizon.

I could see that some aspects of life in Tripoli were still in limbo. The new Libyan tri-colour flag hovered on top of many places and from uncountable balconies. The three colours of the flag with the white crescent and star also covered what seemed to have few months earlier been billboards and pictures of defiant Gaddafi. However, most of the cars – and my visa – still had the name of Gaddafi’s “state of the masses” - or Jamahiriya - on them.

This transition – or contradiction – seems to be the headline of the moment. The graffiti written here and there and the nice billboards told the current story of Libya: a wish to restore law and order and move on versus the energetic armed militants who refuse to lay down their arms. .

One spraying apparently by the Misrata militants, who captured and killed Gaddafi, said: “Libya is everyone’s capital; Misrata is the capital of martyrs”. “Al-Zintan revolutionaries were here,” declared another statement on another wall.

Rebels from Misrata (200 km east of Tripoli) and Al-Zintan (75 km south of Tripoli) became a strong force in the toothless capital when Gaddafi’s supporters made their way in their last trip to Sirte, few hundred kilometres to the east. Stories in Libya about the strange actions of these militants are many. Mohamed told me that few militants from Al-Zintan apparently took the elephant in Tripoli’s Zoo back to their city. A local paper reported that rebels towed Gaddafi’s Scud missiles from Sirte to Misrata!!

However, in every Tripoli street I passed through, billboards showed a clear anti-militant sentiment. “A martyr’s will: Tripoli is everyone’s capital but without arms”. “Let us be enlightened, tolerant and let’s co-exist”. “Yes to police, to national army, no to arms”.

This may explain why the militants vanished from the streets and their fight with the sky came to an abrupt end.

Against this backdrop of cultural battle lied a city that seemed to be waking up from a year-long slumber, if not a 42-year coma, which is how long Gaddafi remained in power.

During my first day, I came face to face with my preconception of the Libyan revolt and alleged Islamist impact that was propagated in the West. I saw many women without headscarves, and more of them were driving, likely on their way to have an espresso or to an aerobics session somewhere. Chic teenagers seemed to care more about their hair style and Western clothes than the application of Shariah law.

We drove by a café called Pentapolis, and outside, Libyan men sipped their espressos and macchiatos. While I couldn’t hear what they were saying from inside the car, I was able to see the vivacity of a life finally free of oppression and awoken to a new dawn.

I arrived at my hotel room with its stunning of Tripoli’s harbour on the Mediterranean. The clear blue sky and warm weather filled me with a feel-good sensation as I am about to spend an amazing time in Libya.

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