The Irresponsible Traveller

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Benghazi – the day after…

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Right now it seems there’s so much bad news from Libya that the networks are tired of carrying it.  Even my most optimistic contacts in Benghazi report that security has deteriorated.  However, against the chaos of kidnappings and assassinations it’s easy to forget that Libya under Gaddafi wasn’t exactly a bed of roses either.  The piece below was published last summer in The Middle East magazine, and was based on trip I made in March 2013.  

Benghazi – the day after…

At Benghazi’s Café Tikka bearded baristas serve a steady stream of clients, eager for their morning dose of industrial strength Turkish coffee. On the nicotine-stained walls a gallery of black and white photographs re – cord an unfamiliar city of well-kept squares, neatly trimmed hedges and ordered streets sparsely filled by traffic of curvy 1950s saloons.

Cafe Tikka, Benghazi

Cafe Tikka, Benghazi

Idris, first and last king of Libya, deposed by the ‘Free Officers’ of Gaddafi’s 1969 coup, has equal billing with a stylised image of elderly anti-colonialist fighter Omar Mukhtar, from whom the well-worn Italianate boulevard outside takes its name.  I order a coffee ‘ mazboot ’ – medium sugar, it’s pointless asking for decaf here, grab a small bottle of water and take a seat.

Compared with the heady days of the 2011 revolution the café’s atmosphere carries an understandably lower charge, people no longer sustained by nervous energy, overcome by an almost clinical predisposition to unload, but they are still happy to talk. “At the BBC , I used to listen on summer evenings.  It was very clear.  Here Gaddafi controlled information, and everything else.  The daily news was maybe two hours, just about him, who he was meeting, what he was doing, telling us nothing.” Fwouzi Ariby worked for Libyan Arab Airlines as a dispatcher and was not sorry to see the back of the old regime.  “Before, security was everywhere, pictures of Gaddafi everywhere.  It was oppressive.  I was locked up for four months just because I supported Benghazi’s Al Ahly football team,” Fwouzi sits back in his chair incredulous at his own recollection.

There is a tap on my shoulder and someone offers me a cigarette, despite having given up years ago, for a moment I consider taking it – already there’s so much smoke in Café Tikka it would make little difference. “This man,” says Fwouzi indicating his neighbour, “has a boat and used to take guns to Misrata when it was under siege.  Everybody in this café has a story.” Fwouzi picks up a small bottle of water, “42 years like this,” he says, shaking the bottle and pointing to the top, “and now like this,” taking the top off and pouring the contents into his glass. “It’s not perfect. The French Revolution took more than 10 years.  Look at the traffic, it’s crazy.  Some people who drive they cross a red signal saying ‘Libya is free’… but we will get there, step by step.”

I ask about the continued presence of militias, and Omar, a professor from the city’s university, leans over to join the conversation. “The government is very weak.  To move from Benghazi to Tripoli, it was really stupid.  It was the lure of the capital,” he rolls his eyes, “They were building strong relationships here and then they cut them.  They have forces to deal with these militias but don’t use them.  They need to demonstrate their authority and earn the respect of the people.  Before the people knew only fear of authority not respect.”

I mention that I’d travelled some 200km from Benghazi to the extensive Greco-Roman site at Cyrene, only a small part of Libya’s remarkable archaeological wealth.  However, further east towards Derna, check-points manned by hard-line Ansar Al Sharia militia had made continued progress unwise. “Yes, I have friends in Derna,” says Omar.  “They tell me militia graffiti says ‘Mali – we are coming’.  If that’s the case we are

Cyrene - beat the crowds...

Cyrene – beat the crowds…

happy.  We will pay for their tickets.  These extremists are illiterate but well armed and well trained.  They suffered a lot under Gaddafi, the Internal Security used to tie them to chairs and set their beards alight.  You can understand why they don’t want central authority – police, army or government, just militia commanders as in Kandahar.  But I don’t think they will succeed, we’re all Sunni here, no divisions like Syria or Iraq, and whatever happens next it can’t be worse than Gaddafi.”

It’s time to take some fresh air.  Together with a headache, the accumulated assault of caffeine and second-hand smoke has destroyed my ability to string a sentence together.  I make my apologies to Fwouzi and Omar and leave without being able to pay my bill – Libyan hospitality is genuine and second to none.

Outside I wave my right hand as though bouncing a basketball, the recognised signal to the variously beaten up vehicles characterising Benghazi traffic, that I intend crossing the road.  At a kiosk set amidst a grassy, litter-strewn square I sit down on a dubious white plastic chair in the shade of an insubstantial wooden gazebo and order a shawarma, Benghazi’s ubiquitous street food.  Leaning back and looking around, I can see upper storey windows still scorched by fire.  High up in one building curtains billow from glassless windows and gusts of wind slam doors at irregular intervals.  Across the street, once bedecked by giant banners, the NTC’s former media centre where I’d been part of an international press pack mingling with techno-savvy revolutionary Libyan youth, is locked and silent.  It seems like the party is over.  Despite the fumes of sclerotic traffic, fresh air rolling in from the nearby Mediterranean soon clears my head.

Beyond the square’s dry and dusty fountains, a former government building seems surprisingly open.  I’m curious and walk over, poking my head uninvited through a door and interrupting a meeting of 20 or so men of differing ages seated around a long table. Anwar Abdul Salam, Director of the Libyan Political Prisoners Society kindly invites me in, taking me to a side room where we chat without disturbing the others. “I wasn’t even in an anti-government organisation, I only knew some people involved. A friend told me about a dream where he’d seen Gaddafi dead, and that was enough to put me in Abu Salim jail for 12 years.”  Gaddafi’s notorious prison witnessed a massacre of an estimated 1,270 inmates over two days in 1996, precise details are still being established.  “We heard the gun shots and asked the guards what had happened. They said ‘Shut up and keep quiet!’  We heard whispers… but what could we do?  I still don’t know why we survived.  Our families knew we were there, perhaps this is why. And, Al Hamdulillah, we lived to the revolution and we saw Gadaffi killed.”  How many people do you represent I ask? “Oh, around 1,600 here in Benghazi, men, women even children – Gaddafi didn’t differentiate, and maybe 3,000 across Libya. We had two or three meetings with the Transitional Council and they said they wanted to help, but since they transferred to Tripoli it’s more difficult.  These prisoners, they faced Gaddafi, they dared to say ‘No’ and the Libyan people know what it meant to say ‘No’. It’s a must for us now to help them.” What about the future I ask?  He looks thoughtful, “Some bad things happen now.  42 years will not change just like that,” he clicks his fingers, finally defining Libya’s revolution and others past and present:  “But at least now we have freedom. We can talk.  In the end we won our country back.  It was lost.”

First published in The Middle East, June 2013.

 

 

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Written by Nick Redmayne

April 14, 2014 at 10:52 am

Posted in Travel

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Not in Our Name – Innocence Lost in Arabia

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I must admit to feeling thoroughly depressed at the violence accompanying protests across Libya, Egypt and Yemen.  Watching video previously posted by murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens describing his enduring relationship with the Arab world only serves to emphasise the nihilistic aspect of his death.

Libya

Not in Our Name

Certainly the US lacks the moral high ground in the Middle East, a fact that many in the West need to be reminded of, but a reality of common currency amongst the region’s populous for decades.  To be clear, from an Arab perspective US foreign policy is synonymous with perpetuating despots and arming a belligerent Israel, either in the cause of economic self-interest, strategic advantage or domestic political expediency.

Comments posted following editorial on the protests don’t bode well.  The usual zealots splutter, up to their necks in a rising tide of bile, yelling from opposing shores of a sea of ignorance.  Then, perhaps more worryingly, there are the ideologues, trenchant, calm and annoyingly confident.  Why?  Because God is on their side you silly…  And finally, liberal voices from Christian and Muslim intelligentsia, preaching understanding, trying to build bridges across the religious divide – though it’s impossible not to ask yourself who is responsible for the divide in the first place?

Certainly the provenance of the straight-to-video film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, cited as a catalyst for the embassy protests is far from clear.  The ‘producer’, one ‘Sam Bacile’ (too close to ‘imbecile’ to be true) doesn’t exist.  ‘Jimmy Israel’ and ‘Steve Klein’ are also quoted as being involved, at this rate it won’t be long before ‘Donald Duck’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ are credited as Associate Directors.  In common with most of those involved in the protests, I haven’t seen the trailer or the film, if it even exists – the actual insults it contains, whether scripted or dubbed have transcended news to become unassailable articles of faith.

The angry reaction by the young men of the Arab Street is as frightening and tedious as it is predictable, but mobs are never pretty.  ‘Death to Obama!’ – really guys, given the Republican alternative, be careful what you wish for.

Who benefits from this polarisation?  Revolutionary change in North Africa came not as the result of radical Islamic epiphany.  Though the incomplete nature of some ‘revolutions’ is rightly questioned, in the first instance it was Arab youth, energised by information and secular idealism that kicked out long-entrenched bogey men.  However, years of repression have stifled the growth of democratic political structures, and post-revolution the mosque and the military are left as the only functional national organisations, the latter weakened by association with the ancien regime.  In 1979 the Iranian middle classes didn’t help oust their corrupt and dictatorial Shah in order to become subject to an equally corrupt and humourless religious cabal – but it happened, and too easily democracy can become theocracy.

Abu Faris talks, I listen. Benghazi May 2011

Abu Farris talks, I listen. Benghazi May 2011

I’m reminded of an encounter I had in May 2011, in a suburb of Benghazi known as Ras Abaydah.  Sipping coffee in a ‘neighbourhood watch’ tent I spoke to local teacher Abu Farris.  ‘None of the Arab leaders know the meaning of freedom,’ he declared, ‘None of the Arab leaders know what ‘people’ mean.  None of the Arab leaders know what a President is, they just read it, they have no respect at all for this word “freedom”, everybody feel it.’  Though his delivery already verged on the polemic he was just getting started…  My cup was topped up, Abu Farris left his untouched, ‘You know, I believe that the West planted this… this creature (Gaddafi) in Libya in 1969.  All Arabs believe that these leaders were planted by the West.  This is why Al Qaida, Bin Laden or somebody the same makes a lot of trouble.  Not because we hate the West, but because we know that the West planted these leaders.  It is now their duty to throw these leaders away.  Just let us get rid of them, once we get rid of them, then the West will be forgiven by the Arabs.’

I hope he was right.

Written by Nick Redmayne

September 14, 2012 at 11:01 am

Benghazi by Bus

Power to the people...

Power to the people - on the road to Benghazi - May - 2011

Last month I travelled to Benghazi, the de facto capital of ‘Free Libya’, in a manner that would make Simon Calder proud. Over two days, a succession of coaches, buses, minibuses, share taxis and otherwise incentivised hotel porters helped me cover the 791 miles (according to the RAC’s trip planner…) from Cairo to Benghazi. En route, even by the high standards of Arab hospitality, I met some of the kindest, most generous and most helpful people I’ve come across for some time. An experience that made me think such a journey should be a mandatory refresher for politicians, lawyers and policemen the world over, highlighting the essential goodness of humanity.

Pasted below are a couple of short reportage pieces I wrote in Benghazi and filed by satellite link on the dates indicated. Both were then silently sat upon by the commissioning paper until well past their sell-by-dates. Some tosh regarding Ryan Giggs apparently took presidence.

Though Libya’s situation has certainly evolved I thought there may remain some vestigial non-monetary value in posting the copy here. I suppose that’s for you to judge…

Benghazi 12th May

Benghazi - May - 2011
Benghazi – May – 2011

‘Here in Benghazi people are dying every day but this news is not given out. I hear it on the street, from the families, but I do not hear it on the radio.’ Mohammed’s father had given me a bed for my first night in an outer suburb of the city. Last night he’d told a story of fear, for the present and for the future – one that we in the West probably don’t want to hear. ‘Even in one house, half with Gaddafi, half with the revolution. Not just the old against the young – it’s a mix, both, you can’t say. When Gaddafi forces entered Benghazi everyone waved the green flag. Now if you ask on the street everyone is with the revolution. People are not free to express their opinions – there is fear. I see Libya as a new Iraq.’

On the Benghazi corniche Mohammed’s bleak outlook is at odds with the new day. Looking out over the Mediterranean, blue sky melds seamlessly with the sea, waves roll in, and canvas tents are driven to wild flapping by the freshening sea breeze. Between the tents two well-used tanks are parked – one careful owner, M Gaddafi. For them the war is over. Children clamber over turrets and gun barrels. Elsewhere, parts of missiles, aircraft, heavy machine guns and RPGs are corralled into an enclosure – weapons used by Gaddafi’s forces to kill Libyans, I’m told. Covering the walls of the buildings opposite, and studied by a reflective crowd, are hundreds of photographs. For the most part young men without fatigues or weapons whose expressions do not foretell death as sombre hand-coloured images of WW1 seemed to – but annotated dates reveal the brutal truth.

Benghazi corniche - May - 2011
Corniche – Benghazi – May – 2011

Following a trail of heady odours through the covered souk I make my way to the bright sunshine and fresh air of the corniche, and Benghazi’s revolutionary encampment – if you’ve seen Al Jazeera’s shots you’d recognise the scene. Beyond moneychangers, glittering jewellery shops and stalls of revolutionary flags, banners and badges a scene of semi-normality is fractured by the uncompromising crack of a nearby gunshot – its reverberations sending shopkeepers and customers into a crouch. Three youths loiter at the end of an alley, one in the process of shouldering an assault rifle – the smell or cordite wafts towards me.

‘How are you?’ Bashir, a former flight engineer with Libyan Arab Airlines, smiles across the crowd. ’42 years, can you believe it? Look at this place, the broken streets, the rubbish. You are asking us to be in good shape after just three months – it’s too much.’ I ask whether enough is being done to assist the Libyan people. Bashir is quick to respond, ‘Some people here they think we don’t like the foreigners, they’ll invade our country. They’re thinking like this because Colonel Gaddafi is saying it to them. We need advice on how to run this country, and the British they are already doing it – it’s not a shame to ask. I have no problem at all to ask British or Americans “Can you help me?” because one day, God knows, maybe we will help them – this is life.’ Bashir continues in a hopeful vein: ‘Now people are free to say what they like – this is freedom. I remember one American guy, I never forget it, he said if you want to say you are Libyan and live in a free country you must have the courage to shout: “Fuck you Colonel Gaddafi! Only then you are right.” Now we are achieving this.’


Benghazi 13th May

Najib - Benghazi - May - 2011
Najib – Benghazi – May – 2011

The volley of shots ended, traders relaxed into a relieved collective chuckle. A prospective customer was trying before buying, letting fly a few rounds over waste ground in front of the burned out Internal Security headquarters – he seemed satisfied. ‘Hey’ it’s like Harlem. You can buy anything here’, offered a smiling young man. Certainly automatic pistols, revolvers, AK47s and M16s, bayonets and bullets were on display, juxtaposed with mobile phones and copy CDs. He was surprised when I suggested that Harlem had changed a little in recent times.

Ears still ringing, I needed a coffee and fortunately in Benghazi’s old city, crumbling though it may be, echoes of Italy are never far away. Espresso, macchiato and brioche start the day, along with that inseparable Libyan male appendage – a cigarette. ‘ “mangeria”, “cucina”, “via” we use all these words from Italian’ says Najib, a 58 year old former soldier, ‘and if someone talks too much we say “musica maestro”’ His friend Fatti, joins in the conversation outside the Bou Ashreen (Father of Twenty!) café. ‘You know I wasn’t surprised that Italy wasn’t the first to help us because they have good relations with Gaddafi, many economic links. What has surprised me is how quickly they changed to the opposite side.’

Fatti continues, ‘But it was the UN Mandate and the British after the war that shaped Libya and we were very grateful for this – it was amazing, I remember it. The UN wanted to make a showcase of Libya. People came from all over the Arab world, everybody expressed themselves, it was free.’ I ask why, if it was so good did Gaddafi’s revolution succeed? ‘That’s a good question’ says Fatti. ‘Many reasons. King Idris was a very old man and the prince was not qualified to take over. There were other factors, other families trying to exert influence and there was the charisma of Nasser in Egypt. I think Gaddafi took advantage of these others forces and the atmosphere using them for his own purposes – he was the wrong man at the right time.’

‘Gadaffi ruined my life’ complains Najib. ‘I was conscripted into the army, at first he said for three years – I was there for 25 years. Can you believe it? Three times I ran away, once staying in a house in Chad for two years, but there were many Chadians in the Libyan army and most of them were spies, so I was caught.’ Najib takes a sip of his machiato and a draw on his cigarette. ‘I wish Israelis and Palestinians would stop fighting, you live here you live here, it would solve so many problems. You see this area, it was Jewish, there was the synagogue – no problem. Then after the Israel Egypt war the Jewish they go out. Now it’s Egyptian Christian church – I know the priest, a friend, very nice man.’

What about the future I ask? Fatti responds quickly, ‘It’s true there are still “Taboor Hamsa” Fifth Columnists in the city, so we must be careful but Gaddafi cannot come back, he is finished here. Today this is, how the Americans call it… our Independence Day.’

Written by Nick Redmayne

June 20, 2011 at 10:48 am

Arab Spring

At the risk of appearing … er … irresponsible, and being shot down by those with greater knowledge I’m minded to vent my spleen.  Right now I’m feeling guilty.  If I were  Libyan I’d feel betrayed.  Downwind of continuing debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dazzled by the speed of events, the international community is transfixed by the headlights of an oncoming disaster.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor Barack Obama hides behind righteous UN prevarication, too afraid his legacy may be tarnished by hypocrisy to be decisive.  Along with the usual suspects, despots and dimwits to a man, China and Russia, co-authors of ‘Corrupt and Antidemocratic Regimes for Dummies’, are playing their usual mannered game of passive self-interest.  And taking advantage of this moral vacuum Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich mediaevalist monarchy, has invaded its neighbour to facilitate the crushing of a popular movement for peaceful political modernisation and liberalisation – not in our backyard…

In the UK, political capital is made by opportunist opposition politicians rubbishing failed attempts by William Hague to do more than just talk to a revolutionary Libyan leadership – I’d call that a cheap shot.  The Arabs were betrayed by the French and the British once before, and the Middle East has been paying the price ever since.  On this occasion France and Britain, though impotent, appear at least unafraid to promote justice.

The 2011 Arab Spring may have sprung too soon, nipped in the bud by a late frost of violent repression.  While the world’s good men do nothing Libya’s stage is being set for an inevitable future conflict – echoes of Iraq and the betrayed uprising following Gulf War 1 are unavoidable.

Written by Nick Redmayne

March 16, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Travel

Tagged with , , ,

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