Letter from Libya IV – Looking Back

Sent on 10th July 2012, in this letter our correspondent mentions previous trips to the country, meeting some well-known (but now deceased) individuals and more about the job and life in Tripoli.

A request has been received from a reader of this infrequent publication to start this contribution to world education with an explanation of a term I used in the last episode. “Murally dyslexic” is derived from mural, a wall painting, and dyslexic, a reading disorder, and basically means unable to read the writing on the wall, in other words didn’t see something obvious on the way. Ok with that out of the way on with the story.

This might be a good time to reflect on previous visits to Libya when himself was still in charge. I have been here on two assignments before. On the first one back at the end of the last century I saw hardly any of the country except the airport, for far longer than I would have liked to, and desert. The project, of which I had a very small part, was to build a temporary theatre so that the Colonel could entertain the leaders of other African nations attending a summit with the story of the Great Man Made River (GMMR) Project. This was to be a rather cheesy audio-visual presentation depicting this son of the desert standing up in an open top Land Rover charging across the desert leading a horde of mounted warriors in flowing robes. The purpose of this was to portray the aforementioned Leader as the saviour of Libya who discovered an immense wealth of pure water in aquifers under the Southern Sahara. I believe the truth is a bit more mundane in that companies drilling test boreholes looking for black gold instead found water, and lots of it. Now water is pretty much near the top of the must have list along with oxygen and a decent Merlot, or maybe a Pinotage to show some solidarity with my South African readers, but was to these guys a very big disappointment so up came the drill bit and the hole was capped. Several years later somebody had the bright idea that maybe this water could be useful in improving the lives of the Libyan people.

Now the project itself was the sort of thing that generates statistics beloved of statistics nerds. You know the sort of thing, trucks travelled so many times the distance to the nearest star, how many millions of standard elephants were equivalent to the weight of concrete used and a whole host of equally useless facts. The GMMR is in itself an amazing feat of civil engineering and does deliver pure clean drinking water to virtually every Libyan household but there has to be a downside. Is the water coming out of the aquifer system faster than it went in. There seems to be the same sort of profligate use of this precious resource that the UK succumbed to when, unlike the Norwegians, oil was being pumped ashore and sold as fast as possible. There’s nothing particularly wrong with using intelligent watering systems to keep well-tended public spaces green but does it make sense to water patches of ground which may have been parks before but are now just ad hoc rubbish dumps.

As a footnote to this I have to say that after all the work setting up a huge temporary structure and all the associated technology in the middle of one of the biggest sand traps in the world the guest of honour never turned up, In fact the only people not associated with the project to witness the spectacle were a bunch of unfortunate locals roused out of their beds to act as an audience for Libyan TV to film the event.

Visit number two was some eight years ago to provide some technical support for a webcast of a panel session between Gadhafi and two economic academics with Sir David Frost acting as moderator. The recording took place in Sebah which is in the south of the country and the team flew from Tripoli on a scheduled internal flight to be met at the airport by a fleet of brand new white Mercedes. Having set everything up and rehearsed to death the arrival of the head man was preceded not with a fanfare but with the jamming of the mobile phone network lest his movements were reported or some enterprising soul dialled a number connected to that well-known Czech product, Semtex. The session went well enough and I have to say that meeting Sir David was a real pleasure, an absolute gentleman albeit very frail.

Bizarrely I was asked to meet the Colonel afterwards, I presume it was so the local press could feature a downtrodden citizen of the Great Satan’s poodle receiving words of wisdom from the author of that best seller, The Little Green Book. I can’t even remember what he said, instead I was struck by his posture, that world-famous far away stare, never looking directly at anyone. For all his psychotic reputation I couldn’t help thinking that he looked like a camel with bad indigestion.

After the show he put a private 727 at our disposal for the flight back to Tripoli. The plane was fitted out like DFS showroom, (a cheap and tacky soft furnishings company in the UK) but without the taste and refinement, big chairs, marble coffee tables and gold-plated seat belt buckles. Plus side of the entire trip, getting to see Leptis Magna, the Roman city 120km east of Tripoli. Three of us spent the best part of a day there just walking around at our own pace without a guide or minder. So, surrounded by all this history what do audio-visual technicians head for, the amphitheatre, to be duly impressed by the acoustics where the occupant of every seat could hear an actor projecting his voice from the stage. I hope to go back but probably not during this assignment.

I have to admit that Tripoli was a lot safer when I was here before, very few weapons were in circulation and walking round the Medina at night was a pleasant experience. Indeed it seemed that mere possession of a spent round was enough to earn the offender slightly more than a severe talking to. Even so I was rather surprised when one of the youngsters who have been providing security at the centre, before the recent arrival of large numbers of army, pulled a small semi-automatic pistol from the back of his jeans. Seeing my interest the conversation soon got round to the subject of what weapons the lads had managed to acquire and keep hold of during the revolution. It transpired that all of them had the obligatory Kalashnikov assault rifle but some had gone beyond that. Amongst the assorted weaponry were hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), machine guns and one chap proudly announced that at home he had a pick-up truck with an anti-aircraft cannon mounted in the load bed. There was even some talk of an enterprising youth who had secreted away a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS).

If I return to the country I have an invitation to go to a firearms range and have a boys toys away day with an assortment of instruments of war. The picture I want for the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association magazine, Pull, is of me in the driving seat of the anti-aircraft cannon and caption it “Extreme Skeet Shooting”.

As is usual when working in potential hot spots there has to be a series of plans to fall back on if the security situation deteriorates. These range from being aware of potential threats, to packing and carrying the Go bag, to actually leaving the country.

There are three options, first option is to head for Tripoli Airport and by air to Cairo, second by ferry to Valetta and third by road to Tunisia as the border is only two hours drive away. Some genius has decided that Cairo is a safe haven, I sometimes wonder if they are looking at my world or a parallel rose-tinted universe. I would not regard Cairo as a safer destination than Valetta and given the closeness of Malta and the wide choice of flights from Luqa to the UK then Valetta would be my preferred option. A further plus is that I have good friends there who I am sure would afford me a warm welcome, thrust a beer in my hand and then ask me what I was doing lowering the tone of their country.

Some time ago I used the phrase “Curly Colonel” to refer to the now interred former despot. When using that same wording in conversation with local colleagues I noticed that a few smiles were creeping into the conversation so eventually I decided to ask why. It turned out that the inner circle of hangers-on and grovelers decided to imitate their slightly off centre leader. In Iraq this took the form of immense moustaches in order to pay homage to Saddam, although it’s a reasonably safe guess to assume that anybody sporting a more luxuriant growth than The Moustache himself would earn a 9mm employment termination notice and a quick trip to the River Tigris, there to join the rest of the detritus flowing out of Bagdad. In Libya the worship took the form of curly hair styles similar to that favoured by the leader. Those indulging in this particular version sycophantic idolatry quickly became known as Curlies.

In a previous episode I described some of the features of this rather opulent conference facility. Today I will take you on a tour of a part of the building which was definitely not open to the public. Just off the VIP are with its grand furnishings is a small suite of rooms. Entered via an ante-room where an aide would greet visitors and security detail would wait to deal with any threat there is a small but expensively furnished hexagonal lounge about five metres across. Moving on brings you into a bedroom of a similar size with a huge bed and fitted wardrobes that definitely did not come from IKEA. Interestingly this bedroom was constructed with the only bullet prof window in the building. Finally on to the crowning glory of this pied-a-terre, the bathroom. This is approximately the size of a reasonable apartment boasting a basin that has the look and feel of a piece of Lalique glassware, huge walk in shower of the type with numerous jets from both sides and above, touch screen control in the shower itself for water temperature, pressure and sound system and, in slightly dubious taste, a light fitting around the shower head that changes colour. The toilet is furnished in a similar subtle style with bronze sink, soap dispensers, and a marvellously ornate mirror enabling anyone interfacing with the porcelain an opportunity to examine in detail their facial muscle control.

I suppose it’s fairly obvious who was intended to be the principal occupant of the suite and although we do not know if he was here during the revolution one of his sons certainly hid out here before popping up in the Rixos hotel next door much to the amazement of the journalists in the five-star siege conditions there. Rumours abound about secret tunnels ranging in size from barely big enough for an average man to underground railway networks. I haven’t found a tunnel here yet but I’m still looking, there is one locked steel that won’t open unless the correct finger is scanned. Now if this was you know who’s private exit the only way we might find out what lies beyond is to go and dig up a former dictator and remove a digit or ten, if don’t know which finger he favoured it doesn’t make sense to just take the one and have to go back if the first choice is wrong.

And finally, I was on the way to work last week when, as the car came to the top of a highway flyover and central Tripoli was spread out before me looking for all the world like a bumper bucket of Lego bricks thrown onto a garbage dump, I saw that a cloud had drifted in from the sea. The weather was quite clear but this particular cloud could only manage to get a third of the way up the 15 floor Radisson Blu hotel. Typical I though, even the bloody clouds round here can’t be bothered to get up in the morning.

As I am looking at a late finish on what is now election day I will say goodbye and lean back in the chair for a snooze.

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.


  1. Oswald Thake says:

    Thanks those last four, MS. I’d enjoyed them thoroughly.

  2. Furor Teutonicus says:

    XX I was struck by his posture, that world-famous far away stare, never looking directly at anyone. XX

    Aye it’s called “Pass the joint man….”

    Other than that, a great read. Thanks and well done.