Libya does not have a great reputation amongst Westerners. That’s too bad, because the country actually has a lot to offer for a visitor: it has unique historic sites—including what is said to be the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy in Sabratha and Leptis Magna—decent food and a beautiful Mediterranean coastline. Yet, the US State Department keeps Libya on its watch list and even the Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler included Libya in his travel book Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil.
Libya’s bad rap of course has its roots in the unorthodox rule by the country’s long-time dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose larger-than-life pictures adorn all public spaces in Tripoli. There are so many of them and most of them different from each other: some depict the leader scanning the horizon for new challenges with a far-sighted look in his glinting eyes, while others show him smiling at his subjects in a fatherly and encouraging manner. Some are clearly from his younger days; others show a more mature Gaddafi sporting a moustache and a goatee. There are even posters of him praying on his knees at a mosque. The pious colonel is personally well-known for travelling with a troupe of gorgeous but lethal female bodyguards.
In 2009, the nation celebrated 40 years of Gaddafi’s rule. Libya has been accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism, and most likely for a good reason. Already in 1986 during the Reagan administration, the United States bombed Tripoli and the Benghazi region accusing Libya of terrorism. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya in 1992. These were suspended in 1999 and finally lifted in 2003 when Gaddafi agreed not to pursue weapons of mass destruction and voluntarily gave up his nuclear program. The relations with the West took a new hit in August 2009 when the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi was freed from a Scottish prison due to his terminal cancer. Unwisely, Gaddafi gave the convicted terrorist a hero’s welcome back home.
Personality cult aside, Gaddafi has done many good things for his country. He has posited himself as the self-proclaimed champion of Pan-Africanism, but his is probably the only country on the continent where abject poverty really does not exist. Women’s position is also quite equal compared with most other Arab countries. Women still wear headscarves and dress modestly in Islamic garb, but in all offices that I visited there were many highly professional and outspoken women in senior professional positions. Women’s literacy rate at 78.4 percent is almost as high as that of men—and exceptional in the Arab region. Today, the UN ranks Libyan Arab Jamahiriya—as it is officially called—as a country of ‘high human development.’ Its GDP per capita has doubled from $7,250 in 1990 to $14,364 in 2007 and life expectancy of the Libyans has risen from 62 to 71.6 years (and for women it is now 76.8 years, at par with many industrialized nations!).
One obviously unintended consequence of the international sanctions was that over the decades when the country was isolated ordinary Libyans suffered from deficiencies in education. Due to the isolation, the generation that today occupies important positions is largely monolingual Arabic speakers. Some people speak English, but the language skills of even well-placed government officials tend to be meagre.
The capital, Tripoli where I spent several days in December, is a historical city, dating back to 7th century BCE when it was apparently founded by the Phoenicians. Today it is a clean, white city, despite being Libya’s main port and commercial centre. Coming from anywhere in the neighbouring countries east or west—or north across the sea, for that matter—it gives a neat and organized impression. The architecture is quite attractive and most of the buildings are white, irrespective of whether they are of colonial or Arabic origin. Many have been renovated or are now being renovated. There is no litter on the streets and the traffic is more orderly than in other cities of comparable size.
My travel companions, Ragaa Makharita and my colleague Mike, and I had to visit a number of government offices, many of which were located in the suburbs outside of the city centre. Driving in the daylight confirmed what I had already observed during my first drive into town from the airport at night time. The suburbs were generally neat and orderly. Plenty of new housing seemed to be available and most of the complexes looked rather attractive. I asked Ragaa, an old Libya hand, whether there were any slums in Tripoli. He said no. All the slums that used to be there were or are being cleared and new housing is being created for the inhabitants. There are apparently many new projects that are being constructed by Korean firms. It was striking to see large groups of African day labourers gathered at virtually all major junctions outside of the centre waiting to be picked up for the various construction sites. This entire arrangement thus bypasses the traditional 'development partners' in Europe and North America.
One of the institutes we visited was the Libyan National Meteorological Centre on its new and impressive premises outside of the city. The UN has supported the centre in upgrading its operations and facilities with technical assistance from the World Meteorological Organization and the French Meteorological Services. The spic-and-span facilities now contain state-of-the-art computer systems capable of receiving satellite information and translating it into accurate real-time weather reports. This has been one of the most successful international collaborations in the country in recent years and a flagship project for the UN. What characterized the project and also lay behind its success was that weather services are largely technical and their political dimensions do not seriously challenge any mode of cooperation. The UN Development Programme that was managing the international effort was able to procure equipment and expertise where it was available without getting into the ill-defined issues of governance and democracy.
I had an interesting discussion with two senior officials at the centre, Muftaf Khdashi and Hisham Ganedi, Director of Forecasting and Director of Technical Directorate, respectively, about cloud seeding. Libya, located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara desert, is dry, its natural climate characterized by sparse and erratic rainfall. The country's leader has for long attempted to overcome such challenges to boosting agricultural and industrial development through various schemes, many of them quite bold to say the least. One of the more ‘visionary’ (read: ‘dangerous’) schemes has been the Great Manmade River, which aims to transport huge amounts of water from the Nubian Aquifer to Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities. While Gaddafi has called it the 'Eighth Wonder of the World,' it has been widely criticized for its unknown and potentially disastrous ecological impacts, including exhausting the huge fossil aquifer it draws upon in possibly just a century. But the project has proceeded since 1983 when the Colonel passed it through the General People’s Congress.
Another scheme, implemented by the Libyan National Meteorological Centre where I found myself on that particular sunny but extremely dry morning, pertains to cloud seeding. The aim is to distribute silver iodide into the clouds so that moisture in them will condense around these artificial particles and fall onto the ground as rain. Such technocratic solutions to natural problems are embraced also by other hubristic countries, notably China, with little consideration for their potential unforeseen negative impacts. How is the work going?, I interrogated my hosts as we strolled along the long corridors inside the centre’s headquarters. Not very well, was the answer. While cloud seeding appears to increase rainfall, it is very difficult to manage. Of course, it can only be applied from November to April when in the first place there are some clouds and rains might also appear naturally, so it’s actually hard to verify the actual increment caused by the seeding. More importantly, it’s impossible to accurately direct the rains. The Mediterranean weather patterns are unpredictable and orographic rains fall as moist air cools down while climbing the slopes behind the coastline. Sometimes, the rains become torrential and destroy the very crops they were intended to sooth.
Our visit to the meteorological centre took place on the day following the end of the 2009 climate summit, which had in the last minute produced only a watered down version of the Copenhagen Accords disappointing many activists. One of the many frontlines in the climate change debates is between those who urge serious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and those who believe in technological solutions. On a small scale, the Libyan cloud seeding experiments demonstrate the practical difficulties in managing weather. Influencing global climate through technological means—many of which are now being cooked up in the wild dreams of mad scientists—would be infinitely more difficult and wrought with unimagined and possibly catastrophic consequences.
Clearly, one area where improvements are still needed if Libya is to attract more visitors is service. Ragaa, Mike and I stayed at what used to be one of the better large hotels in the centre of Tripoli. The building had all the necessary attributes to be fine—a solid construction, an elegant old-fashioned lobby, spacious rooms—but it wasn’t. The guest rooms had absolutely awful, narrow beds with only shallow flat mattresses and shabby linen thrown on them. The bathroom had hordes of uninvited non-paying occupants who would scurry to their hiding places brown antennae wagging always when I unexpectedly turned on the lights. After a couple of times, I learned to wait a few seconds before entering the bare room.
Most bizarrely, the hotel would want to receive payment for the room every evening in advance, although I had a reservation with them for the entire period I would stay in the country. Needless to say, this was a cash economy and no credit cards would be accepted. Like in cheap New York eateries that don’t either accept credit cards, there was an ATM in the lobby. So, one had to withdraw the funds and provide the lazy cashier a thick pile of well-worn dinars in order for him to agree to open the room door for you. On my last night, I had carefully miscalculated my supply of dinars, so that I wouldn’t have any left over upon leaving, and fell short by four (amounting to very little in any convertible currency). The man who knew me by then did let me into my room while I tried to contact Mike to lend me the missing notes. Unfortunately, he had gone out and couldn’t help at that very moment. Later, the cashier made a big joke about this to the both of us, repeatedly telling in halting English that I wouldn’t be able to leave in the morning without doling out the money.
On the last evening, our small group headed to the Alsaht Street fish market along the Mediterranean coast. Ragaa was our eager guide, as during his last visit to Tripoli he had been very disappointed to find the entire market closed. The evening was already dark when we arrived at the open door market but the numerous stalls were filled with fresh fish and other sea creatures. The vendors were all calling to us to inspect their catch. We approached one friendly fisherman and each selected a silver sided medium sized Dorato and instructed the delighted man to simply grill it to perfection. As a next step, we selected the restaurant where we would enjoy our meal. This was easy, as Ragaa led us directly to his favourite establishment, Astakosa, a spacious but warm restaurant spread over two floors. The system was interesting. The fishermen and the restaurants were independent of each other and one could order the former to bring the prepared fish to any one of the restaurants established adjacent to the fishing port. The restaurants made their money by selling the accompanying rice, cous-cous and vegetables. We started our meal with a wonderful assortment of olives, fresh salads and various mezze, as well as delicious seafood soup. When the fish came, it was grilled to perfection and tasted heavenly with ample lemon squeezed on it.
The enjoyable dinner helped me to endure the innate jokes of the lethargic cashier at the hotel and my full stomach provided a needed extra cushion against the hard cardboard bed before leaving Tripoli in the wee hours of the morning.