Letter from Libya III – A bit about work

Sent on 28th June 2012, in this letter our correspondent talks about finding somewhere to do the job he has been asked to do.

So far I haven’t said much about work, largely because it’s been a slow process, first of all to identify a suitable venue to hold press conferences and then to actually get anything done.

One of the places we were shown was the Welcome to Islam Centre, a massive complex in Tripoli with, we were assured, a perfect hall on campus which could be made available. An appointment was made to survey the proposed auditorium and on the due date and time we turned up at the Centre. The Welcome in the Centre’s title was clearly a sentiment that was not embraced by the on-site security team provided by one of the many militias in Tripoli. This bunch of children with guns had decided to make the Centre their turf, which they marked out in the traditional manner (No, not peeing up the lampposts). This was accomplished by parking pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft weapons mounted in the load bed, the vehicle of choice for the young “man about town”, by the once imposing arched entrance. On entering the administration building it fast became obvious that this was probably not going to work out. After being asked to sit down in the smoke-filled lobby and wait, we waited, and waited and waited until eventually a militia member deigned to escort us to the magnificent quarters that had been identified as suitable for our purpose.

One of the pre-requisites in the selection criteria for a media centre is that it should be in an area which promotes the country in a positive manner. Unfortunately while this area shows a fairly average view of Tripoli the pictures of burnt out cars, semi demolished buildings and rubbish filled streets do not really promote the sort of image that you want to go out of your way to show the world’s press. This theme is continued within the walls of the Centre and augmented by the militia children dressed in their desert camouflage trousers set of with designer T-shirts and the latest products, possibly genuine, from Adidas and Nike. Add to this a liberal selection of the latest toys from “Guns R Us” and you get an idea of how long it will be before Thomas Cook is featuring this place.

Our escort/guide proudly showed us what was obviously his pride and joy but was in effect a small town theatre without the plush. A small stage at the front with tiered seating for an audience of maybe three hundred was the limit of the facilities, no space for broadcast media to set up their tripods, no projection facilities, no air conditioning, no chance. Although the decision process took Nano seconds for the sake of politeness, an essential habit in a place awash with weaponry, we looked around, feigned interest, and asked seemingly pertinent questions. Then, with a round of handshakes, left as fast as decently possible.

Onward to the preferred choice, the Tripoli International Convention Centre, TICON. At this stage I could pad out this week’s offering with a whole host of facts and figures concerning tons of concrete and steel, square metres of glass and kilometres of wiring. Instead I will offer just one quite remarkable piece of information. This whole place was constructed in just two hundred and sixty days. To judge for yourselves just how impressive this feat was you will have to Google and read more there. [Or just follow the link, Ed.]

This imposing edifice is a cathedral of marble floors, immense one-off designer light fittings, over the top furniture and enough technology to refit Starfleet in its entirety not just the Enterprise. This must have been one of those projects where the client said “State of the Art” without saying how much or more importantly wondering how it was all going to be maintained once the various construction teams and specialists had gone back to their huge houses and by then even bigger bank accounts, in Turkey. The client was the previous regime which really just means himself or immediate family, all well-known for their grandiose ideas but not for thinking things through logically.

Things may well have worked out differently had it not been for the revolution of 2011. On two separate occasions that year a team from Istanbul turned up to carry out the required training for the audio-visual technicians that had been appointed to the centre. Only the first two weeks of what should have been a total of two months in-depth knowledge transfer was actually accomplished. I can only assume that the Turks were a bit nervous in the build-up to actual civil hostilities and not being murally dyslexic they decided to bug out.

At this point I will relate an interesting and very relevant little story. The natural tendency of a population rising up against the incumbent regime is to go on an orgy of looting and wholesale destruction particularly against facilities which represent those that they are in conflict with, for example the Gadhafi compound in Tripoli with its fortifications, grandiose accommodation and network of tunnels. This has been comprehensively trashed by the populace with not a little help from NATO aircraft. So TICON would have been a very tempting target both for those intent on liberating furnishings, lighting and plumbing fittings, carpets etc. and the by now heavily armed citizenry wanting to loose off the odd magazine or three from their recently acquired AK47’s.

In normal revolutions the vast acreage of the convention centre’s glass frontage would have been an overwhelming temptation, a bit like a greenhouse or cold frame presents itself to a schoolboy with a catapult. However the damage has been minimal and no looting occurred at all thanks to the actions of a small band of young local guys who had been employed there. They formed themselves into a committee with the intention of preserving the building, its contents, and hopefully their jobs. During the course of an at times very violent and bloody revolution/civil war these guys persuaded the various armed groups and individuals that the centre was an asset that now belonged to the Libyan people and as such should be left intact for the benefit of the people. Amazingly enough they were listened to even when one lunatic turned a heavy calibre truck mounted weapon on a corner of the building and caused significant but localised damage. Some credit has to go to the designers and builders, the steel and mesh part of the decorative support on the outside of the building absorbed a fair bit of the punishment being handed out and the toughened/layered construction glass, while not being bullet proof, did not fall apart on receiving the first round.

So back to the main theme, the technology in this building is extremely complex and, apart from the audio-visual systems, there appears to have been no training on the building services. Large segments of the air conditioning don’t work, plumbing is being neglected and mere mention of the building data network and CAT5 structured cabling produces some of the blankest stares since British Members of Parliament had their expenses claim procedures and rules explained to them. However on the initial and several subsequent visits the staff were at great pains to point out that everything worked, especially the four vast video walls in the main circular auditorium. Most of the systems do work but only in a reduced capacity, the video walls have maybe fifty per cent of the LCD units working on a good day, a bad day is when someone has really been playing with the control software and then nothing works. Either way it’s not a good position to be in.

So I greeted the news that the original Turkish installation company is about to send a specialist team over, not only to correct the faults but also to train any newly employed would be audio-visual technicians with a goodly amount of joy tempered with a healthy sprinkling of pessimism. At the time of writing no definite date has been given for the arrival of the Turkish techies, I will wait and see.

I won’t be giving an inch by inch description of the centre as the sheer scale of the decoration and fittings would occupy an entire volume. Suffice to say there are designer light fittings, one-off pieces, in all spaces and rooms some of which are just huge and all cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even the restrooms get the treatment with solid bronze sinks and fittings and mirrors that would not be out of place in Versailles. Having said that, looking for loo paper in this place is a fruitless exercise and carrying your own roll is the only answer.

In due course I will talk more about some of the features of the complex but for now I shall move on to something else.

I had to go to the bank a few days ago to cash an expenses cheque. Now the bank is a monument to procedures and form filling. Not only is a form of identity required for cashing but they have to take a copy of your passport, the cheque has to be signed in red ink, a colour traditionally reserved for my bank account statements, and only hundred dollar notes are kept at the tills, other denomination involve the teller disappearing into the bowels of the building to reappear some time later clutching the smaller denominations.

However I digress, the real purpose of this segment is to describe a part of the route that we took to get there. We passed through an area which seemed to be composed of lots of little establishments best described as combination stock yard/abattoir/butchers shops. Pens of very worried sheep sit next to a slaughtering area. Therefore the animals in the pen are witness to one of their mates being picked out, hung upside down and having the full halal routine done on them. Eventually the carcases are moved into the shop proper but not before collecting a dose of traffic pollution and serving as a restaurant for assorted insect life. It’s almost enough to make one go veggie. Please note I only said ‘almost’ although chicken may be off the menu again when I get home. I’m already planning the five hour stop-over in Rome airport to include as many different pork products, salami, ham, whatever, as I can find and will certainly buy some carry out pig in one form or another for the Rome-London leg of the trip just in case the in-flight snack contains chicken.

With the happy thought that the time taken to write this has brought me a bit closer to going home I shall bid you all a fond farewell until the next time.

The correspondent has had the dubious pleasure of knowing MG for several years and she counts him as a close friend. During a lifetime of trying to earn as much as possible for the minimal amount of effort he has been taught to cook by the army, fooled lots of people into thinking that he knows what he is talking about when it comes to AV installations and toured the globe. Now firmly into middle-age, he can occasionally be found slumming it in various exotic locations courtesy of the UN.

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