Tripoli, Libya—Perhaps I overestimated the bien-pensant British understanding of “modernity.” When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and (this is the ultra bit) a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods and noise-canceling headphones.
Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover. Sinister men in baggy uniforms, all puffing Marlboros, shout at each other and disappear with my passport. I later find out this bit of theater was required because I possess a passport stamp from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After some discussion, my personal government apparatchik informs the entire staff of Libyan customs that, on orders from high, this particular learned elder of Zion can be allowed through.
It’s not entirely clear why I am in Libya, although it would have been rude to refuse a trip funded by the generous and, according to their hired help, deeply misunderstood comrades of the Qaddafi Foundation. At the behest of Saif al-Qaddafi—Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s slick, London-educated son and dauphin—our group of journalists is being shuttled to the country in an effort to demonstrate a new Libyan openness and, it is implied, a future rather different from the past. Personally, I’m more interested in sneaking a glimpse at the world’s only Islamo-socialist personality cult.
The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
It doubtless keeps Qaddafi pere awake at night that had he tamped down the rhetorical goofiness and sartorial excess (and maybe a terrorist bombing or two) his country could have been like Castro’s Cuba or Sandinista Nicaragua in the eyes of the West. In the 1970s, Libya promoted itself to European revolutionary tourists and gringo sugarcane harvesters in Havana as a socialist alternative with a moderate religious component. The regime took part in all sorts of radical-chic nastiness too: bombing a German disco full of American soldiers, talking nonsense about collectivizing the Sahara, and providing the Provisional IRA with the weapons needed to kill wayward Catholics.
After the Qaddafi coup of 1969, The Nation head-faked in Libya’s direction, telling its readers in 1970 that “it is indeed apparent to even the most casual visitor that no form of racism exists in Libya,” including anti-Semitism. How a casual visitor determines the total eradication of racism in a foreign country was left unsaid. In 1981 another Nation writer stressed that “most of the country’s 3 million people…have enjoyed a rising standard of living since Qaddafi came to power and continue to support the government.” How an outsider determines a dictatorship’s level of popular support was, again, left to the imagination.
But even to those governed by the elastic moral standards of that era, Qaddafi and his aviator sunglasses never managed to become an icon. Forty years after the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was established, you’re not likely to find college students underlining passages in the Green Book, Qaddafi’s famously nutty exegesis on something called “third international theory.” Sure, there were brief flirtations with both the extreme right and the extreme left in England, with the neo-fascist National Front attempting to enlist Libya’s financial support (and getting a pallet of Green Books for its trouble) and the pro-Soviet miners union leader Arthur Scargill actually succeeding in securing both moral and financial support from the Qaddafi regime. But all in all, Libya chic never caught on.
At an empty gift shop in Tripoli (which, oddly, displays a Norwegian flag behind the seldom-used cash register), I pick up an English-language copy of Qaddafi’s book, hoping to gain some insight into the ideology that for 40 years has suspended this country in time. The Green Book is Hitlerian in both its breadth of subject and its impenetrable prose style. Qaddafi expounds on whatever pops into his mind, from the evils of private property to the art of wrestling, from abolishing the wage system to the universal right to own a Soviet car. Passages like this one, anatomizing black African culture, may have alienated potential Western adherents: “Their backward social traditions are responsible for the absence of restrictions in marriage leading to an unchecked and high birth rate. This is at a time when other races are diminishing in number as a result of the practice of birth control and other restrictions in the laws of marriage, as well as a preoccupation with work; this is in contrast to the black people whose lassitude is due to living in constantly hot climate [sic].”
The Colonel’s Private Junkyard
Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage. Among the few benefits of living in a dictatorship, I had presumed, were that the trains run on time, crime is low, and armies of revolutionary trash collectors ensure that tourists tell their friends the country might not have elections but is at least exceptionally clean.
Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product (aside from the ubiquitous face of Qaddafi staring down from countless billboards) is, inexplicably, corn oil. After decades of crippling trade sanctions under an aging and increasingly batty dictator, and with no tourism industry to speak of, Libya’s economy is a shambles. In their latest Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank the country 171st out of 179, only slightly edging out the Union of the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Besides sucking the economic life out of Tripoli, Qaddafi determined that the capital city, once a playground for Italian and British colonizers, must also be denuded of fun. Alcohol, which for years helped people forget they lived in Libya, is prohibited. Nonalcoholic beer is available in our hotel (a five-star, though it appears to have been graded on a curve), but only to placate (or taunt) the few Western visitors who pass through. The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.
No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences. The tighter the controls, the more pedestrian the content that sneaks through. Libyan teenagers have scrawled “50 Cent” and “Tupac” throughout Tripoli’s largest souk. On a crumbling yellow wall outside a bootleg DVD shop, someone was inspired—doubtless by a contraband hip-hop CD—to scribble “fuck yo” in defiance of nothing much at all. Inside the DVD shop, the Hollywood film Fat Albert is available for a few dollars—popular, presumably, because the title character, like most Libyans, lives in a junk yard.
But we are not here to investigate how Libyans entertain themselves or to talk to the hoi polloi about Islamic socialism. Soon after arriving, along with three other journalists and one academic, we are racing in a convoy of black Mercedes Benzes, hazard lights on, horns blasting (and never met with a counter-honk), to meet the first group of terrorists recently released from Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. All are former members of the Al Qaeda farm team known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).