Last month I flew to Tunis and spent a week exploring Roman, pre-Roman and pre-historic sites across Tunisia.
I’ve been ‘back to Tunisia’ before, after the Jasmine Revolution, the first and most effective popular revolt of the Arab Spring. This time it was the murder in 2015 of 30 British tourists and eight others on the beach in Sousse that defined ‘back.’
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice has been revised. Coastal regions and much of the country’s north are now ‘green.’ Further south, about 50% of Tunisia falls into ‘all but essential travel’ in FCO terms, while mountainous areas to the west near Algeria and southern areas abutting Libya remain ‘red’ zones. Despite this relaxation, while legal action continues in UK courts, tour operators have been understandably slow to act.
Tunisia’s tourism eggs were mostly collected in one fragile basket i.e. beach holidays. An emphasis on all-inclusives was another characteristic. When all is said and done cheap holidays featuring sea, sand and all-you-can-eat buffets are not a unique selling point. The world is full of sand.
Tunisia is not mineral rich. Educational standards are good but unemployment is high. While agriculture, high-tech manufacturing and textile production provide some economic foundation, the effect of the tourism downturn has been profound.
Tunisia’s remarkable sites of antiquity may draw some visitors back. Carthage is best known, but oversold and underwhelming – a jumble of middling ruins. It’s the context of the Punic Wars that’s engaging. Far more impressive ancient headliners include El Djem’s magnificent 35,000-seater amphitheatre – second only to Rome’s Colosseum, the atypical Romanised hilltop town of Thugga, the still-being-excavated city of Bulla Regia, the Genoese fort at Tabarka and the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Elsewhere, the mosaics at Sousse’s Archaeological Museum and Tunis’s superlative Bardo Museum are unmissable, almost worthy of a trip to the country in their own right.
Tunisia’s ancient world will never bring the numbers required by mass tourism – an indictment of the industry perhaps? The coast’s cavernous resorts are currently consumed by a race to the bottom, pitching discounted all-inclusive packages to the Russian market for ever reducing returns.
Tunisia has a genuine wealth of appeal; striking landscapes – over and above its coastlines, a rich ancient and contemporary history, engaging Arab and French culture, excellent cuisine and fine wines, mountain hiking, (FCO permitting) desert trekking, and a diverse natural history.
Some holiday flights look set to operate from May 2018. What’s the plan? More of the same? Tunisia’s many unique attributes are unlikely to be embraced by large tour operators. They’re simply too irregular for businesses built on sand.
I’ve separated this post from the last one. The story is the kind thing that doesn’t make it into travel copy – ‘Social commentary, we don’t have the word count…etc…’
As I described, for visitors Dahab is a funky beach stay – excellent dives sites (the Blue Hole and others) and, even for those packing British Pounds, it’s relatively inexpensive. However, dig down and there’s another narrative.
Dahab is a Bedouin town. Egyptians and Bedouins are, to quote local sources, ‘completely different.’ Egyptians don’t understand Bedouin language, and their brasher, noisier lives are at odds with local custom. These differences have reinforced mistrust and resentment. Ongoing violent incidents, mostly in the north of Sinai, are in part both a symptom and a cause of this mistrust.
Across Sinai access to tribal lands is being restricted. The authorities have banned private 4×4 vehicles. Check points and physical barriers have been erected to close off wadis. For an historically nomadic people these attempts to control movement are an affront. The police would say their actions are designed to inhibit smuggling and improve security.
In Dahab houses built on land where title is disputed have been bulldozed, sometimes before the contents have been removed. Such properties are generally inhabited by poor people. The Egyptian legal system, in common with others, does not favour those of limited means. Cleared sites await redevelopment by whom? Elsewhere, blatantly illegal beachfront development, mostly Egyptian-owned bars and cafes, is tolerated. You have to ask why?
Foreign-owned businesses describe incidents where jealous neighbours have instigated malicious prosecutions. Reports of systematic police harassment resulting in imprisonment and even deportation are commonplace. Shopkeepers in Dahab are being obliged to install CCTV – for many a considerable expense, and to what end?
On a street corner I asked a young Egyptian man about the revolution. ‘The revolution is finished, over,’ he replied. ‘What’s changed?’ I asked.
‘Nothing changed. Nothing good for Egyptian people,’ he said.
In Dahab overweight plain clothes policemen lounge in cafes, watching people, and eating free food. Their jackets fall open to reveal holstered weapons. ‘It’s a police state,’ say many residents. The 2011 revolution and the 2013 military coup have been removed from Egypt’s secondary school history curriculum. What’s unsaid speaks volumes.
At the showcase agricultural community of Las Terrazas in Cuba’s Sierra del Rosario, I sip a café con leche at the state-owned Café de Maria and try to tune my Short Wave radio to the BBC.
For Cubans, conduits to world news remain constricted. Internet at six Convertible Pesos (CUC) an hour is out of reach for most – a Cuban doctor earns just twenty CUCs a month; satellite TV is available only at international hotels.
Beneath the café’s veranda hens and chicks scratch in the undergrowth, wary of overflights by ever-watchful turkey vultures. Concentrating to distinguish the calm tones of Bush House there’s determined local interference. Cocks, loudly complaining sets of feathery bellows, crow almost constantly, dogs bark, babies cry, women shout in delight or desperation, live music plays and motorised wheelbarrows… well you get the picture. I turn off the radio.
Later, in Trinidad narrow cobbled streets and pastel–coloured buildings are distinctly un-socialist. Formerly a centre for Cuba’s highly profitable sugar industry the once brash opulence of its ornate architecture is now described in official UNESCO terms as shabby chic.
At the Museo de Historia Municipal, a 19th century plantation owner’s house, miserable earthenware and bone shards of Cuba’s pre-colonial civilisation are lost in a display cabinet. A brace of British naval canon stand to attention in the courtyard, still saluting a dark 18th century deal with Spain that saw Britain swap Cuba for Florida, ending the Seven Years War. In a side gallery a case contains one of the country’s few star-spangled banners, a flag that flew over Trinidad in December 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Nearby, a typewriter used by El Comandante Che occupies the same cabinet as photographs of Fidel Castro canvassing voters before the 1952 election – an event negated by Uncle Sam’s man, Fulgencio Batista, who led a coup d’etat before votes were even cast.
At its height supplying almost a third of the world’s sugar, Cuba’s 19th century struggles for independence disrupted exports. US military intervention to ‘free’ the country from Spanish rule introduced new refining methods and saw the industry’s focus shift from Trinidad. More fundamentally, sugar profits were effectively siphoned off-shore by a swathe of centralised, US-owned sugar mills. After Castro’s revolution production was nationalised and Cuba’s addiction to a sugar continued, fed by a ready market in the USSR, a sweet tooth that ceased overnight in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet superstate.
Back in Havana I loll over a pleasantly cold beer in Hotel Sevilla’s open and airy lobby bar. The walls are hung with black and white photographs of another age, Hollywood stars of the silver screen, indolent socialites, gamblers, and ne’er-do-well mobsters such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. Graham Greene too stayed here while penning absurdist tales of Cuban beauties, Catholic guilt and vacuum cleaners in Our Man in Havana.
How times changed. The US embargo on Cuba endures, now in its 54th year, despite no such qualms regarding trade with many more unsavoury regimes. Indeed in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse restrictions were tightened, some in Congress perhaps swayed by domestic political interests sensing an opportunity. In the face of what was interpreted as vindictive bullying, Cubans’ spirit of national unity was strengthened. Combined with innovative programmes of austerity and a lifeline of Venezuelan oil cast by the late Hugo Chavez, Havana’s lights stayed defiantly on. Degrees of economic liberalisation have followed, and as the generation of the revolution dwindles and the Castros themselves bow out, Cuba is set to become a very different place, but not quite yet…
Today, streets nearby Hotel Sevilla are still populated by ill lit over staffed shops, arrays of pointless wares spread thinly under glass. Global brands are conspicuous by their absence. At a corner grocery store livelier than most I peer inside. It sells mostly biscuits and rum. I need neither but enter anyway.
‘My friend, what are you looking for, what do you want?’ asks one of several loitering youths. ‘I’m not sure,’ I reply honestly, unnerved by his zeal. ‘Look, here.’ He points at shelves filled by bottles of Havana Club. ‘Very typical. Very, very typical but, ha, not very good.’ ‘Is this your shop?’ I enquire. ‘No my friend… this is the shop of Fidel.’
European colonial occupation, domination by the US and uneasy existence as a Soviet client state, Cuba’s Fidelist regime has outlasted all its erstwhile Socialist allies. It’s not a free country but by some measures Cuba is now more independent than ever.
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.
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
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.”
It’s said that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, and collective memory can be surprisingly short. Last week former Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi slipped into something more comfortable than his usual freshly pressed military dress uniform, determined to look his best civilian self for next month’s Presidential elections.
It’s perhaps worth reprising the last days of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first ever freely elected head of state. In March 2013 amidst increasingly erratic policy changes, amateurish gerrymandering, a perceived conservative Islamic agenda and political naivety, for Morsi the writings were not only on the city’s walls, but typed on glowing screens and sprayed on white bed sheets, once more held aloft in the protest camps of Tahrir Square. The tenure of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was coming to an end. It was no longer a matter of ‘if’, only when and how. Both these questions were addressed by the July military coup, the deaths of an estimated 1,000 Egyptians and detention of almost 16,000 others.
Returning from Libya, I spent a few days in downtown Cairo collecting the thoughts of those I encountered. The piece I wrote was overtaken by July’s events, but at this juncture it might have regained some retrospective value. Churchill once said, ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ What happens in May determines the political course of the Arab world’s most populous state for four years… However, the staying power of previous former military men suggests Egyptians may have rather longer than four years to privately ponder on the wisdom of Churchill’s words.
Cafe Critics – Cairo – March 2013.
Five minutes from Tahrir Square, amongst grand 19th century French facades, Café Riche has seen revolutions come and go. In 1919 an assassin hurled two bombs from its doorway, attempting to kill British-backed Prime Minister Youssef Wahba Pasha – he failed. In 1952, nationalist hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser shared tables with the ‘Free Officers’ whilst plotting the demise of another Riche regular, the widely reviled King Farouk.
More recently novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, to date the Arab world’s only literary Nobel Laureate, critic of ruling regimes from Nassar to Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, based his book, Karnak Café, on the microcosm of Café Riche. Today the café’s basement bar still has a hidden door leading to a secret escape tunnel, a succinct exit for those whose outspoken views attracted uninvited attention. In 2011 revolution was again on the menu at Café Riche, activists seeking the council of café elders who’d lived through previous struggles, wooden tables and bespoke chairs cleared away, its floor space ready to treat those injured in Tahrir Square.
Historically Café Riche’s vantage point at the heart of Cairo has offered a clear view as high-minded ideals deferred to realpolitik or were ignored by those who never held them anyway. ‘I’ve been coming here for half a century but now the atmosphere is not the same because the income of the people is not the same. The intellectuals, the creatives, the artists, they’re still all here,’ And so it appears are Cairo’s grumpy old men many of whom have little time for Egypt’s current leaders. ‘Which government? Here we have a government? It’s something new for me.’ My elderly interviewee’s sagging features transcend idealism. To him the suggestion that governments might improve the Egyptian people’s lot seems farcical, his dismissive expression lacking even the merest hint of a smile confers impermanence on the current incumbents. ‘Look, no names. I don’t make speeches,’ he says, wearily but definitely. ‘I tell you the truth not dreams,’ this last word appearing to carry a bitter taste, ‘This is a country with no programme. You don’t know what is to be done day-to-day, you don’t even know what is to be done for the rest of the day. A very strange country.’
Egypt’s new democracy seems at odds with Café Riche, which may account for the attitude of its clientele. The Muslim Brotherhood’s finest minds are unlikely to be found huddled around a Riche table, sinking a cold bottle of Stella or savouring a glass of Omar Khayyam over a plate of deep-fried calamari any time soon… The serious old men in suits occupy their regular seats and talk for hours, sharing their private jokes,but the politics of Egypt has spilled out into the open air.
Down an unpromising alley just along the street the plastic chairs and rickety tables of the Al Bustan describe another café society. ‘Café Riche? It’s for the rich,’ says Ahmed drawing on his cigarette, ‘The revolution is here, all these people. That man there,’ he points, ‘His son died. I myself saw blood in Tahrir Square. I don’t forget this.’ However, despite the change in venue political perspectives appear remarkably coincident. ‘Morsi was in Tahrir for one hour. I was there for four days. There are 95 million people in Egypt, Morsi’s support comes from just a section of five million. Where are the people of the revolution? Not in the government.’ I ask why more did not vote for the other presidential candidate, former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik? ‘When the election came it was a choice between the fire and the frying pan, and the people did not want another Mubarak.’ Ahmed lights another cigarette, ‘Morsi has no programme. Many of his people were in gaol during the Mubarak time. They were all chained up and in the dark. They need psychological counselling not to be put in power. Morsi’s president now, maybe for tomorrow, maybe for two more years, maybe four but not more. The people will not choose another from the Muslim Brotherhood.’
Overlooking the new tented protests pitched across Tahrir Square, tea drinkers at Café Wadi Nil have their own views. ‘These people don’t represent Egypt,’ says Mohammed, casting a glance across the square, ‘They want to go backwards not forwards. Morsi is not a bad man but he’s not experienced in leading a country.’ I ask about Egypt’s chronic levels of youth unemployment. ‘There is work in Cairo,’ replies Mohammed, ‘But it’s not well paid. If people take a job and keep working they’ll earn more in the end but they don’t have the patience. Instead they stay at home or come here.’
Walking across the square a smiling small boy approaches, boldly telling me, ‘Fuck you!’, immediately taking a precautionary step back. I pretend not to understand. A young man follows behind, ‘So what about you? Why are you here? Are you with us?’ he demands. I tell him that the future of Egypt is best determined by Egyptians. He wanders off thoughtfully, satisfied or mystified, I’ll never know.
Sitting on the concrete surround of a Cairo metro ventilation shaft I’m offered tea by kindly, open-faced woman. A crowd of the curious and the bored gather to watch me drink. Two well dressed young women from Upper Egypt in turn ask to have their photograph taken with me – I smile. My tea drained, the small boy still lingers, racking his infant brain for more profanity but before finding the words he’s shooed away by a tall youth. ‘Hi, I’m Imed, Imed the Iraqi, everybody here knows me. Shall we walk around?’ Grateful to exit the limelight I join Imed. Beyond the tents the grass is brown, pavements scorched by fires, once shady trees chopped for firewood, the scorched windows and burnt out shell of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters looms large in the background. ‘There are real protesters here, but also many just looking to cause trouble,’ says Imed. ‘I’ve watched while children throw stones at police. They have nothing, so nothing to lose.’ Walking across Qasr Al-Nil bridge the view of Cairo is expansive as ever. We stand in the sunshine for a moment, looking down at a moored and empty flotilla of tourist cruisers, watching the powerful Nile current.
For many in Cairo the outcome of the Egyptian revolution remains uncertain. Freedom was a unifying goal. Blood was spilt and a dictator overthrown. Across the city’s cafes and squares there’s freedom to talk but the question now for many Cairenes is whether anyone is listening? (Cairo. March 2013)
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in discussion with a UK-based lawyer, a frequent business traveller to Cairo, who sought to make sense of Egypt’s incomplete 2011 revolution, and its recent rather more emphatic military coup. ‘There were people in Egypt, ordinary professional people, women, minorities – Copts and others. They went to work, got to their offices, locked themselves in and at the end of the day raced home and hoped that in the middle of the night no one was going to break down their door. They were frightened and still are.’ There was earnest conviction in her description of daily life for those she counted as friends and colleagues. The lawyer continued, ‘What was going to happen? Was the Brotherhood’s agenda just to be accommodated, their increasing control of institutions, their creeping conservatism, not to mention their economic incompetence?’ I suggested that democracy is messy and in the long run might it not have been better to allow the Egyptian people to judge Mohamed Morsi’s performance in free and fair elections rather than to rejoin the boom, bust cycle of political oppression followed by popular uprising? ‘What has happened, it’s not democracy,’ she said, ‘but the fact is that sometime, somewhere, someone has to say to these people ‘No!’’
It’s easy to understand the lawyer’s perspective and the real worries of those she described. However, it hardly needs to said that regimes established on oppressive dictatorial foundations in the end always come crashing down. And when this happens there’s little else in place to maintain the humdrum necessities of a healthy economy and semblance of civil society.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution has been likened unfavourably to the case of a dog that chased cars, finally caught one and then realised it couldn’t drive. The Muslim Brotherhood shrewdly played a long game, carefully standing back from the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. Following Hosni Mubarak’s departure, in the absence of any other established opposition, the Brotherhood was seen as the only national network with any kind of alternative identifiable political strategy – except of course for the army.
And perhaps the army played an even longer game, standing back even further. The grinding misery of fuel shortages miraculously ended with the army back in power, so too the greater national debt crises disappeared from the headlines – aided of course by the curtailment of a free press. Was this all a case of ‘give ‘em enough rope’, a strategic military manoeuvre using the overwhelming momentum of popular disaffection to once again propel the army, in the guise of General Sisi, from servant to master?
Where does Egypt go from here? Even the usually unifying October 6th commemorations of 1973’s Arab-Israeli War only served to stoke unrest, with estimates of over fifty dead in the capital alone. Most Egyptians want no more than to get on with their lives in peace. However, against the background of a stalled economy, the FT describing Egypt’s tourism as ‘having fallen off a cliff’, 16% adult urban jobless and shocking levels of youth unemployment, there’s little sign of calm returning to the streets – Egypt’s game may be very long indeed.
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
‘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.
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
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.’