From the very beginning of our project planning Libya was perceived as a big red and orange blob, a vast and dangerous territory to be survived or bypassed. Everything we’d heard about it related to guns, kidnappings, executions, extremists, checkpoints and bombed out buildings…and a sprinkling of ancient ruins.
Even getting permission to enter the country had been difficult. Before we were granted our visas we’d had to arrange and pay for an itinerary with upmarket hotels, a guide and the tourist police, and we’d been rejected by more than one Libyan tour operator who had simply refused to work with us. We knew that our time here would be to a great extent in the hands of others and that we wouldn’t be able to explore with the freedom we’d experienced in previous countries. We didn’t even know if we’d be able to drive across at all or if we’d have to put Landy on a truck and fly over the top.
The financial cost of our planned 12 days in Libya (before we’d even left England) was a terrifying 25% of our total trip budget, and with everyone’s warnings in mind it was easy to imagine that there was going to be someone hiding behind every rock just waiting to harm us.
To put it mildly, we were a bit nervous about Libya.
The Tunisia/Libya border
Having spent our very last dinar on the final night’s accommodation in Tunisia – and been disturbed by the police in the middle of the night to warn us against crossing into Libya – we are hungry, exhausted and gasping for coffee when we arrive at the border. Reaching the Libyan side our English and French become useless. We’re left with basic Arabic and the universal language of waving hands and smiling, and discover that – as always – this works better than anything else and we are soon making friends and getting things sorted.
We are greeted by our welcoming guide, Abdul from Ghadamis, who (after renaming Landy ‘Pegasus’) immediately sets us at ease – and deals with all our paperwork which is a nice holiday from the usual bureaucracy. All we have to do is fit Landy’s smart new Libyan number plate and check out the wide hotchpotch range of military regalia being modeled by the various border guards.
Driving to Sabratha the sun is shining and on turning a corner the sparkling turquoise Mediterranean and its pristine coastline is revealed to us with the stunning Roman ruins in the foreground – as well as the best macchiato outside of Rome and a much needed kebab.
Suddenly Libya seems like paradise.
In our euphoric state we forget to isolate our newly installed stereo, returning from a few hours in Sabratha to find Landy with a flat battery…oops.
There is no way that Anne-Laure and Abdul can push Landy across the car park by themselves with enough speed to bump start her but it doesn’t matter: help appears within 30 seconds in the form of a carload of Sabrathan lads who enthusiastically pitch in, returning with cold refreshing rosewater once Landy has restarted. As previously experienced in other countries help is at hand when needed (as well as fairly often when not needed) and everyone enjoys the interaction.
Driving – Libyan style
Our drive to Tripoli is the craziest yet with overtaking, undertaking, skipping red lights, stopping at random and driving the wrong way up the motorway being absolutely the norm, all accompanied by hooting and shouting. It’s quite a challenge to make headway – especially as we have to concentrate on not stalling in traffic (one of Landy’s favourite new tricks owing to a not fully engaging clutch) and the hundreds of cars burnt out on the side of the road don’t fill us with confidence. We’re excited to discover that diesel in Libya costs 7.5p/litre (even better than Algeria) and that there are never any queues for the diesel pump because nearly all other vehicles take petrol.
Tripoli has a warm friendly feel to it with Italian architecture, cosmopolitan cafés serving sensational lattes, fabulous fish couscous and more children’s playgrounds than we’ve ever seen in any other city. The days are hot and the evenings balmy, and the city gives off a relaxed unthreatening ambience, people happily sitting in cafés with their laptops and tablets out.
Unlike the other countries we’ve visited nobody at any point tells us to watch our cameras or carry our bags in front of us – it seems that petty crime is a fairly alien concept. There are also more gold shops than we’ve ever seen and people wander about with heavy looking suitcases that we later discover are full of cash.
We see many nice cars, phones, designer clothes and shoes and lots of extravagant wedding dress shops – we’re told that the average wedding lasts between 3 and 7 days which helps explain why so many outfits are required. Money is clearly available and people are always paying for us, not put off (as we are) by the London prices. Treating guests is clearly the norm and it eventually gets to the point where in order not to offend people we stop even offering to pay for things.
Crazy kids roar about the main square on motorbikes and quads but everyone stops to let us cross the road and – in complete contrast to what we’d been told to expect – we get hardly any hassle from the local men. We soon begin to make friends.
One of our first friends is Saladin, who seems to spend all his time in the nearest café to our hotel and who speaks perfect English having lived in West Kensington for a few years. We tell him about our trip and he’s very concerned at the idea of two women travelling alone: ‘You must be very very careful…’ he warns (here we go again, we think, more Libya scaremongering)… ‘Egypt is very dangerous!’. It’s hard to keep a straight face.
We meet Rooney through our CouchSurfing network, an active, dynamic Amazigh (Berber) who had fought in the revolution and is now working to encourage the re-emergence of Libyan and Amazigh culture that had been suppressed under Gaddafi. Rooney introduces us to other Tripoli CouchSurfers – our first all male group – and we have a fascinating evening discovering what they are all up to and hearing about their goals and aspirations. Like the other CouchSurfing groups we’ve come across so far these are openminded and inspiring individuals.
It wasn’t just the Amazigh language that Gaddafi had banned: we hear how he had forbidden learning all foreign languages, closed down cinemas and cultural centres, burned guitars and books, vetoed music, leisure activities and organised sport, and a lot of these had been prohibited throughout long periods of his 42 years in power.
It is a huge cultural void often spanning the whole of their lifetimes that our new friends are battling against and it’s amazing to see them juggling many different jobs and projects in the interest of reinstating Libyan culture as a national priority. Our friend Mohamed, for example, has organised a book fair selling cheap second hand books to encourage an interest in reading – books usually being expensive and difficult to obtain in Libya.
We suddenly realise we have been in Libya for five days and not met a single Libyan woman. It feels strange. With impeccable timing, we receive a Facebook message from Hajer, a law student who also works for women’s rights in Libya, asking if we’d meet up with her. We jump at the chance and arrange to meet for breakfast. Hajer and her friend Inas are fantastic and we immediately feel like best friends. Sparky, young, energetic and intelligent, they are able to enlighten us on many aspects of Libyan society that have so far passed us by.
We’re having such a great time that we decide to hang out later that evening at Hajer’s family home a few kilometres outside the centre to try on traditional Libyan wedding costume and carry on our fascinating conversation. At this point we come up against a massive logistical stumbling block that comes as a complete surprise to us but is completely normal for them: how can we get there and – more importantly – how can we get home again? Both driving ourselves and taking taxis are deemed unusual ways for women to travel after dark and potentially unsafe. Our evening plans are completely reliant upon finding a beneficent male who can be trusted to deliver us there and back again in one piece, and eventually we have to ask Abdul – who kindly acquiesces.
And it’s worth it – we have a wonderful evening letting our hair down with Hajer, Inas, Marwa and Susy. It’s fun to have some female company.
We also meet Duaa, an enterprising young photographer making her name covering extreme sports as well as the emerging hip hop and breakdancing scene. It was Duaa behind the brilliant Tripoli ”Happy” video, applying the Pharell Williams concept to her own home town – and as big fans of this video we’re thrilled to meet her.
It’s great to see that most of the societal and cultural initiatives we come across are being started by the Libyan men and women themselves. They aren’t waiting around for their government or people from outside to generate action but are seizing their opportunities with energy and a real thirst for change that spreads rapidly across social media.
Somewhere along the way we have lost the curtains we brought from England (lovingly made by Mark but never installed) and the sheer variety of fabric available in Tripoli offers the perfect opportunity to rectify this, especially now it’s getting hotter and we’re waking up sweltering at sunrise whenever we sleep in the car. Fabric shopping is lots of fun and gives us an excuse to poke around the souk, eventually purchasing some fabulous black and gold material from Mokhtar’s shop of treasures – which comes with free water and chocolate when we explain what it’s for.
The following day we manage to track down Moussa, a Ghanaian living in Tripoli, who glances at Landy (completely ignoring Anne-Laure’s carefully dimensioned plans) and then knocks up 13 curtains on his sewing machine – fully lined and with additional gold trim – within a couple of hours. It’s awesome.
We’d hoped to spend a night in a family home but – unlike in Algeria for example – this is really quite hard to organise so we’re excited when Mohamed invites us to stay with his family and sample his mother’s cooking. He bigs it up as being good so expectations are high but it’s absolutely sensational. We have a lovely evening with Mohamed, his mother, brothers, sister, brother in law and their two small daughters and are fed with mountains of delicious local delicacies until we’re uncomfortably full – and still have to fend of Mohamed’s mother who insists we just have one more piece of cake.
By the end of our time in Tripoli we have so many mates to hang out with and so many press interviews that we practically need to hire somebody to manage our diaries. And Landy finds herself with quite a following, the beautiful old car appealing hugely to a society of petrol heads. We discover that there is even a Libyan song dedicated to the Land Rover.
One evening we are exploring the souk on the edge of the medina, having a great time shopping and chatting to the friendly shopkeepers when a stranger from Tunisia approaches us and tells us that we have to leave immediately as it’s far too dangerous…he won’t even let us leave by ourselves, insisting on escorting us to the nearest main road. We don’t know what to think.
Meeting other friends later that night the topic turns to the use of drugs in the capital and to security throughout the rest of Libya, and on walking home afterwards we see a music stand where we’d earlier bought some CDs is on fire. With the echo of Gaddafi’s ban on music reverberating in our heads we make the immediate assumption of arson and fear begins to creep back into our consciousness. We later discover that the fire is caused by a faulty generator but our preconceptions are difficult to shift. We decide it’s time to pay a bit more attention to our own security as we anticipate our forthcoming drive across Libya.
Libya is extremely regional with many people from Tripoli terrified of Benghazi and even of Misurata, and vice versa, so trying to work out the actual security situation is really very difficult as we are always coming up against other people’s fears and prejudices. It’s almost impossible to get a clear picture of what’s happening in the different areas of the country, not helped by the fact that it seems to change on an almost daily basis – we begin to see why the FCO has put blanket swathes of red and orange across the whole country.
The safety information we are given varied from strikes, drones and outright war to ‘you will be fine – I am praying every morning for your safe crossing of Libya’ from Abdul. We decide it is time to take our security arrangements into our own hands.
Through our friend Mirco we meet a young fixer and filmmaker from Benghazi who works with people crossing the country all the time and who seems to know influential people in every area of Libya including the heads of most of the regional militias. Mature and serious but beaming broadly he introduces himself: ‘Hi, I’m Osama. I have the worst name! Whenever I’m in the States I get stopped and searched everywhere I go’. We pore over a map of Libya together late into the night discussing every possible step with military precision, and by the end of the discussion have come up with a plan that we are all happy with.
After the jollity of hanging out with friends in Tripoli it is quite a sobering conversation but we finally feel properly in the picture. The most sensible conclusion has been reached and is swiftly followed up by action: the exchange of many phone numbers, discussing details with Rafa, who offers to guide us into Benghazi. We involve Abdul and our tour operator in the process, accepting their suggestion of one additional security measure. We discover that we have more control over our itinerary than we’d initially thought and extend our stay in Libya by two nights to accommodate our new plans. Everyone is also relieved that (despite charging for their time) the tourist police haven’t shown up to create additional complications.
Libya’s Mediterranean coastline is – for the most part – stunning and unspoilt, and one afternoon in Tripoli Abdul organises a short sail for us on a friend’s catamaran. It’s lovely to be out on the water. Gaddafi had banned almost all recreational activity (with a few people excepted from this rule it seems – we launch from the previously private beach of one of his sons) and we find it fascinating to note that apart from a few fishing vessels and oil tankers we’re now out on one of the only boats on this huge stretch of water. Practically no one uses the sea for leisure and the whole time we’re in Libya we don’t see another sailing boat, nor even people swimming until our last day by the Egyptian border. This lack of connection with the sea astounds us given the history of the area – Romans, Phoenicians, Greeks – and is incredible when compared with the coastlines of the northern Mediterranean countries.
After a week in Tripoli we drive to mountainous dusty Yafran, a collection of villages picturesquely strung across the mountainside and the home town of Inas and her brother Feras who come to show us around. We drive via Qasr Al Haj, a beautiful archaic granary – the ancient equivalent of a bank – set in a dramatic landscape slightly marred by myriad pylons and mountains of rubbish strewn around – apparently another hangover from Gaddafi’s time where no rubbish disposal system was ever established outside of the main cities. We stay in a beautifully decorated guesthouse converted from a disused Troglodyte dwelling by a friend of Abdul’s.
Inas and Feras – who had also fought Gaddafi in 2011 – first took us to Al Qalaa, a hillside graveyard where the victims of a massacre, including children, are buried beside a huge ancient tower to accord them respect. Tanks, guns and other weaponry have been collected here demonstrating the might Gaddafi had employed against his own population. We go with Inas to a strikingly simple shrine overlooking the mountains, and finally sit with her on the edge of a cliff to watch the setting sun where she tells us of her family’s personal experiences during the revolution. It’s harrowing stuff. We reconvene for a traditional supper at the town’s only hotel, perched atop a cliff.
Leaving the guys to their soda, the three of us stand on the terrace overlooking the twilit valley, the static stars high above and the moving car headlights far below with a band of multicolour from the recently set sun separating the two. It feels as though we are in space with an infinity of tranquil activity laid out before us reminding us of the greatness of the universe and how very small yet inextricably linked to it we are, and how absolutely connected to the landscape. It’s a magical moment.
The major percentage of Yafran’s people are Amazigh, and we could sense the strength of their history and culture. The Amazigh people we meet seem to be more aware of their heritage than the rest of Libya despite even the use of their language being banned by Gaddafi. They have clung onto it through all their adversities and continue to fight today for the language to take its place in the modern Libyan constitution.
It’s such a joy to be with people so passionate about showing us the beauty of their home – it really brings our whole experience here alive and we leave with an enormous respect for them and their contemporaries who have experienced and contributed so much.
Lucy’s birthday is spent driving via the magnificent Roman site of Leptis Magna to Misurata, culminating in a gorgeous grilled fish supper, and birthday cake on a roof top terrace courtesy of Omar at Jannat Tours and (non alcoholic) beer bought by Abdul who also sweetly gives us a pair of personally decorated mugs and a fantastic camel magnet and key ring for ‘Pegasus’.
More surprising gifts acquired from Abdul over the course of our time in Libya include the graffiti he left on the bonnet of the car and the mothballs secreted in the dashboard that we don’t find until our first day in Egypt – having worried for days what might have died in the engine…
Misurata is the most physically devastated city we see in Libya having experienced two months of incredibly heavy fighting during the recent revolution. Paradoxically it is also considered by many to be the safest city in Libya, and the one that seems to be progressing the fastest post revolution with a strong regional government.
Swallows inhabit the holes made by mortar shells, a poignant reminder of the destruction that has been necessary in order to allow new life and culture to flourish.
We meet Omar – our primary Libyan contact prior to arrival – who is keen to show us around the Misurata War Museum. Having heard many first hand accounts of the revolution over the past few days we don’t think the museum will teach us much – but how mistaken we are. It’s painful to see the huge foreign tanks Gaddafi had used against his people alongside the small guns mounted on wheelbarrows that had been used by the people to fight back. Inside are walls and walls of photographs of men, women and children, all victims of the revolution. Even in death most women’s physical identities are protected with their faces pixelated beneath generic khaki headscarves and just their names beside.
Omar understands exactly what’s required at this point and kindly gives us the run of his office for the rest of the day – a bolt hole with good wifi, water, lunch and some much needed peace and quiet to catch up on admin. A relatively mundane afternoon perhaps but important for our project – as well as for our sanity after the whirlwind of Tripoli and Yafran.
Mohammad Bin Lamin
A highlight of our time in Misurata is visiting the studio of Mohammad Bin Lamin who talks of the challenges of life as an artist under Gaddafi and the creative scene in Libya today.
As known opponents of Gaddafi, Mohammad and his brother were arrested the night before the revolution began and taken to the notorious Abu Salim prison where they were to stay until the liberation of Tripoli over six months later, sharing a two man cell with sometimes up to 10 people, and hearing the fighting erupting around them yet receiving practically no news from outside. To make his cell seem bigger Mohammad drew on the walls, and keeping his foil food containers made small portraits of his cellmates. He even found enough material to make a tiny new Libyan flag – a symbol of hope for the prisoners during the months of not knowing what was happening to their families or their country.
They were so starved of news that on the point of his release and return to Misurata he found his wife to be heavily pregnant with twin girls, a huge source of happiness after months of hardship. His brother is now the Minister of Culture.
Hope in the wake of the revolution is clearly apparent in Mohammad’s latest sculptures depicting dancing figures full of life and love made from used cartridges and shrapnel left over from the fighting.
His drive for the positive rebuilding of his country is infectious, and he is currently organising a street art workshop for young artists from Misurata to work alongside recognised Italian graffiti artists to inspire them to find a contemporary creative output.
We’re due to leave Misurata at 5.00am to drive over 800km to Benghazi, our longest distance to be covered in one day, passing through some potentially hardcore checkpoints – most notably Sirt as we’ll have Rafa with us to bypass the Benghazi checkpoint. At about 9.00pm we receive news from Omar of a possible strike hitting Benghazi so we have to rethink our options. He generously offers to fund an additional night in Misurata should we choose to stay. His news is corroborated by Rafa so we change our plans and spend another night in Misurata. By breakfast time we hear that it’s all blown over but it’s too late to begin our long journey so we have to reschedule for the following morning, passing a slightly restless day itching to get on the road.
The sands really are shifting here, there is a huge amount of advice being thrown at us – a lot of it rubbish – and we have to research and assess the situation and make decisions based on sifting through the information we receive. In hindsight going to Benghazi that night would have almost certainly been fine, but with the information available at the time it would have been irresponsible.
It also gives us time to meet Mohammad again and he takes us to see one of his latest works, a large see-through sculpture at Misurata airport forming the word ‘NO’ filled with toy weapons collected from local children in exchange for Lego – a symbolic initiative set up by a Danish NGO to symbolise the rebuilding of a nation and the voluntary laying down of weapons.
Having heard only horror stories of Benghazi, we’re surprised and excited by this beautiful sea side city and by the beachside neighbourhood of our Tunisian friend Youssef. We find ourselves right on the water with central Benghazi stretching out along the coast to the north where cargo ships sit on the horizon waiting for their turn to enter port and a lone rider canters along the sand against the backdrop of the setting sun. A calm and relaxed vibe prevails.
Youssef takes us for an evening drive to the centre of town, showing us the famous lighthouse, the old quarter, and the newly named Tahrir square, where the Libyan revolution had begun. Stopping to eat in a restaurant by the waterfront we go next door to the local fishmonger to choose a selection of freshly caught fish, which soon appears grilled and garnished and accompanied by a vast selection of salads.
We pay a surprise visit to the studios of ‘Libya Alwatan Sound’ to meet Youssef’s friend Adel, director of the radio station who asks us to say a small piece about our experience of Libya for a forthcoming programme and also to record a jingle for them – as neither of us have even entered a recording studio before it’s quite an experience.
Cyrene, the green mountains, Apollonia
Waking to a gloriously sunny day the sparkling ocean beckons but our additional day in Misurata means we have to bid farewell to Youssef and Benghazi and get back on the road east towards the ancient Greek sites of Cyrene and Apollonia. With the city well behind us and the sun over our heads the green mountains begin to rise from the horizon on our right while the dazzling turquoise sea keeps us company on the left. The land changes colour from sandy white to an almost dark red.
As with all the ruins we visit here we have Cyrene pretty much to ourselves – in this case shared only with wild ponies and a local running club – and it is by far the most atmospheric of the ancient sites we see, set in the beautiful green mountains with the view down to the Mediterranean in the distance.
We meet Adel Hassi, another friend of Osama’s, who was to drive with us to bypass the potential hotspot of Dernah the following day and he invites us to an impromptu barbecue at a nearby beauty spot. In the meantime Landy’s having so much fun at the impressive temple of Zeus that she initiates a new habit of refusing to start until she’s had fuel manually pumped around her for a good 20 minutes…resulting in the two of us arriving for Adel’s party stinking of diesel. The quality of diesel in Libya may explain why all other cars are using petrol…
Adel has possibly the most incredible story of all: he was the among the first people to start the revolution in Benghazi, going out by himself to the square with a placard shouting ‘Down with Gaddafi!’. Nobody joined him. When the secret police came to take him away a woman called Mariam leapt out to prevent them, saying that she’d waited over 40 years for someone to take this stance and that if they wanted Adel they would have to take her too. This moved others to join them and the uprising went from strength to strength.
Adel went on to lead a brigade, was shot in the hand and finally, after the revolution had been won, handed his weapons over to the new Libyan government and now lives as a civilian. He and his friends can’t be nicer or more welcoming – and the barbecued lamb is sensational as well.
We drive down the mountain to Sousah in the dark, finding our smart hotel waiting for us next to the moonlit ruins of Apollonia, and sink gratefully into bed in anticipation of a short lie in in the morning.
But it is not to be.
Anne-Laure wakes up at 4.20am to see a group of men hanging around examining the Landy, and on closer inspection we find three broken windows and glass, dirt, squashed food and lots our stuff strewn all over the place, many items missing.
We’ve barely taken stock of the situation when Abdul – who’s been making phone calls – informs us that the culprits (two drugged up teenage boys) have already been caught and our possessions are in police custody. We begin the long cleaning up process, policemen with guns arrive to stand guard over Landy and Lucy (as Landy’s registered keeper) goes to the police station to give a statement – at which point one of Landy’s new guards grins at Anne-Laure, thrusts his Kashelnikov into her hands and gets his friend to snap a photo.
By 9.00am we have our stuff back, our clothes are being washed to remove the glass and Landy has been vacuumed.
Our Libyan friends are mortified and spring into action, sorting out everything immediately. The local auto glass repair shop is called and we head back up the hill to Shahhat where we all have a great time discussing how to fix the windows and where Adel and his uncle Hussein fight over which of them gets to pay for our repairs.
Our total loss is a few hours of our time, two hats that we never get back and one teaspoon for measuring Micropur. Seeing our friends so shocked and upset about it is far more awful than the event itself.
What we gain is a fun interaction with the window fixers and a personal insight into the generosity of the Libyan people, everyone being hugely apologetic and all doing what they can to help. We have longer to chat to Adel about his fascinating life and get further insight into the beginning of the revolution from one of its instigators.
We can’t help thinking that if this happened back home in London no one would bat an eyelid and we would never get our items back. Equally we would never feel comfortable enough to leave our stuff in the car in the first place.
We also gain an insight into the Libyan justice system. In catching the thieves and finding our possessions before we even discover the broken windows the police are amazingly efficient – we would never have imagined this and initially assumed that everything was lost for good.
But the situation becomes awkward when the father of one of the boys comes to our hotel to beg our forgiveness – i.e. to ask us to drop the charges against his son – making it obvious that he is willing to pay for that forgiveness.
This is complicated and we are completely out of our depth. The police have asked us to press charges, and whatever happened we aren’t going to take any money from the father, but it’s clear that we’re approaching the problem from a very different perspective to the others around us.
To us, the break in is the fault of the guys who have stolen from our car, yet even in Abdul’s mind it’s the father’s fault that his son has done this. We know that sorting out matters directly between the wronged party and the wrong-doer is standard practice and that to punish the father – by taking money for example – is viewed as an acceptable method of punishment with honour satisfied on all sides.
But – money aside – it simply doesn’t feel right to let criminals off scot free. We feel that dropping the charges will lay responsibility for future vandalism firmly at our door as a consequence of these two not being punished. We know we are far from home and perhaps we are too wrapped up in our Westernised way of thinking, but ultimately, knowing that Libya has a justice system means that we feel honour bound to respect it even if it contradicts local customs.
We still don’t know whether this is the right decision to have reached nor what our friends think about it.
Unlike in Tunisia, signs of the 2011 revolution are everywhere.
The more we hear about Gaddafi the more freakish and power crazy he seemed. We don’t meet a single person who says they’re sad he is gone or that he’s been killed. It’s interesting to note that – unlike many other ex-colonies – Libyans seem to bear no animosity towards their Italian colonists, if anything expressing a certain nostalgia for this period and openly stating that this is due to their worse experience under Gaddafi.
During the revolution the people of Libya worked together like never before in living memory to overthrow their common enemy and their success was crowned with a jubilant high. But the post revolution euphoria is wearing off and life today is more of a struggle – everyone with their own idea about how the country should be run, about what should be prioritised. From our perspective as outsiders this seems normal and natural but is obviously frustrating and worrying for the people living it who have fought so hard and are desperate for things to improve apace. There is no doubt that they have a challenging time ahead.
A new Libyan identity is being born with limited knowledge of its diverse heritage and extreme antiquity. Everywhere we go people are lamenting their 42 years of cultural void, however, from our brief experience we find cultural activism to be everywhere and a real focus and maturity in its proponents which leaves us hopeful for the country’s future.
Men and women
One thing we do find hard is the general lack of women on the streets and the often strict segregation between genders. We’re told that 70% of people barely know their spouse before they get married.
The women we meet are nearly all well educated and fascinating high flying professionals, but it sometimes seems that their personal lives tell a different story.
Some may wear hijab as a personal choice but this is not always the case – one woman we met likened it to being forced to wear only your least favourite colour every day for the rest of your life – and we are fascinated to discover that customs in Libya have changed so swiftly over the past generation that young women are being pressured to wear headscarves by mothers who in their youth had worn miniskirts. Traditional Libyan women’s dress is practical and beautiful: an all white, thick cotton garment held over the head by a hand and finishing mid calf. We are told that the more recent trend of covering from head to toe in black is the influence of Saudi Arabian television.
Not having the freedom to move far after dark has created an unofficial curfew – the women’s curfew being far earlier than the men’s. Even with their own cars and driving licences they are stuck at home after 7.00pm while their brothers cruise around at night hanging out with their mates.
The revolution to overthrow Gaddafi may well be over but – in our experience – the fight that takes place in the home and across society is a lot less visible and still has far to go.
We couldn’t travel through Libya quite in the way we normally do, but we came closer to it than expected. Certain things were a lot easier (we never got lost for example) but having so many other people involved in our day to day experience – and especially the politics of having a guide with us in the Landy – were complex and often exhausting to navigate, probably for all parties.
Libya is a beautiful country with huge potential apparent in its landscape, its heritage and most of all, its people. The country is built on incredibly strongly knit communities – Adel Hassi described his family as numbering 120,000 people. To travel safely outside of your community it is essential to be under the protection of the community you’re visiting, meaning crossing the country is all about the contacts you have and the friends you can make.
Different areas of the country are under the control of different militias and at times friction will erupt between them and be extremely dangerous for the people involved, but the impression we got is that the violence is mostly contained within these groups.
We can’t make pronouncements about the security situation for visitors to Libya – and it would be irresponsible to try – but we can state what we saw and felt.
It would be dishonest to say that our fears – and more often the fears of others – did not affect our trip, especially in Misurata in anticipation of our long drive to Benghazi. But the drive itself was fine, as was Benghazi, as was every other moment in the entire two weeks.
We were obviously visiting Libya just three years after a bloody revolution with the associated damaged buildings, militias and weaponry on clear display, but never saw anything more alarming than we’ve seen in other countries and – apart from the terrifying driving – nothing that dangerous was visible to us at any point. Our fears were almost certainly in our heads, but with such potentially serious consequences we owed it to ourselves to take them seriously.
On our first day in Tripoli Saladin had worried about the dangers we were to face in Egypt, and initially we had laughed – here we were, in what’s billed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, being warned against the next one, just as the Moroccans had warned us against Algeria and the Algerians had warned us against Libya. It really summed things up: everyone seems to fear the unknown and this is not just between countries but between genders, cities and regions as well.
And this conclusion has been glaring at us for months: the fear, distrust, dislike and suspicion that we have noticed everywhere we’ve been – starting at home when the idea for our project was first conceived in 2012 – is nearly all rubbish. It may sound obvious but it’s taken this long for us to fully recognise this: it is people’s fear of the unknown that underpins all prejudice, yet along the whole of our route so far it’s the warmth, generosity, interest and helpfulness we’ve encountered in the people we’ve met that demonstrate that really we’re all almost exactly the same.