Tuesday, January 19, 2010


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.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Casablanca. A city made legendary by a movie. The name conjures up images of intrigue, danger and, most of all, romance in a distinctly unromantic time. Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco and a major port on the Atlantic coast. The city, like the country, is quite liberal and rather cosmopolitan, defying the stereotypes of today’s Arab world. In fact, the North African nation of originally Berber culture is a relative newcomer to the ranks of Arab nations having been conquered by the Arabs arriving there via Andalusia only in the 8th century. Spain is just a stone’s throw away, only 14 km from the north coast across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Morocco has changed rapidly in the past couple of decades, much of it to the better. I was in town attending an international conference on national evaluation capacity, which focused on monitoring and evaluation for public sector accountability. The idea is that if citizens follow and assess the performance of their government, the latter has an incentive to ensure results that benefit the people. Transparent systems that monitor the performance of authorities and evaluate in an independent and credible manner the actual results of policies and programs can be powerful tools for democratic governance. The conference was organized jointly by the UN Development Programme and the newly established National Human Development Observatory under the Moroccan Prime Minister’s Office, known as ONDH based on its French name (Obvervatoire National du Développement Humain).

On the evening before the start of the conference, I was sitting in a lovely traditional restaurant, La Fibule, serving wonderful Moroccan cuisine. The host was Rachid Benmokhtar Benabdellah, president of ONDH, an intelligent and gentle man with a warm glint in his eye. Benmokhtar had studied IT engineering in France and started his working life with IBM. He had made most of his career in the private sector until he had been appointed Minister of Education by the King. He told stories about him being the first minister in the country to visit schools in remote rural areas and how his staffers were horrified when the minister wanted to talk freely with the local people.

The meal started with an amazing selection of mezze, small plates of North African starters ranging from hummus, babaganoush, tomato and beet salads to tasty pastries with meat and vegetable fillings. There were fantastic ornaments in the ceiling and the walls carved so delicately that one could only stare in awe at the craftsmanship. We were sipping good locally produced Cabernet Sauvignon and discussing the situation in Morocco.

“We’ve had some bombings here,” said Benmokhtar, “but always when there’s trouble here there’s some link to Europe, usually Belgium or France, from where the radicalized Islamists come from.” The soft spoken engineer continued: “Moroccans are not strict Muslims. It’s all mixed up with other traditions here.” This was confirmed by, Salima Aissaoua, a young woman who had only recently returned from France to join ONDH. Many Moroccans, like her own family, are not even believers but enjoy all celebrations, whether of Muslim, Christian or Berber origin. I noted that I had seen very few headscarves during my brief stay in Casablanca. Salima said that there was absolutely no pressure to wear a headscarf and that in the countryside it was even freer. This sounded counterintuitive, but on second thought may be understandable, as the Berber culture remains strong in the rural areas.

Another ONDH colleague, Mohammed Bijaad, was a Berber from Agadir. He had never learned English, so our discussion relied on my halting French. Bijaad originally went to a French school in Agadir. Then in 1960 a major earthquake struck his hometown and little Mohammed had to be evacuated with his family. Just when it would have been time for him to start learning English, his new school in the interior introduced Arabic instead.

As we continued with the main course, a delicious pot of chicken, rice and vegetables baked in a clay pot, Tajine, we were entertained by a highly skilful musician playing Oud, a traditional lute, and singing joyous songs whose lyrics mixed love and longing with religious themes. Some Moroccan colleagues joined in the songs and enthusiastically clapped their hands to the complex rhythms. It was a spontaneous and relaxing evening with excellent food and wine and delightful entertainment.

The conference started the following morning with more than sixty participants from twenty-two governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as select representatives from international organizations. One of the key discussions from the beginning focused around who has the right to evaluate government policy. The room became divided. On the one side were those, like Angela Bester, a former government official from South Africa now with the private firm Deloitte-Touche, who in her opening salvo questioned the assumption that policy was always right and the tendency to blame everything on poor implementation. On the other side were some government officials, vocally led by a gentleman from Ghana, who argued that only the government itself could assess policy and, ultimately in a democracy, the voters would decide whether it worked. The role of independent evaluation was only to focus on programs and projects. This debate would be a recurrent theme over the coming three days.

In the evening I wanted to escape the hotel where the conference was held and where all the participants stayed. I went for a walk in the city centre—Centre Ville—where we were located. French is more commonly spoken in Morocco, at least in the big cities, than Arabic and I had noted that amongst all the government officials and academics I had met French was the language in which they would communicate with each other. I crossed l’Avenue de l’Armée Royale and entered into lively quarters with narrow streets and shops. I passed a bar from where an animated cacophony of discussion was flowing to the street. Its name was Chatan. With only a second’s hesitation, I entered the premises and ordered a Stork (bière de luxe première). The place was a far cry from what one could expect in an Islamic country. It was far from sophisticated (an understatement). Everyone—every single one of the patrons—was smoking and the air was thick with blue cigarette smoke. The age bracket was wide, I would say from people in their twenties into their sixties, which suited me just fine. I would melt in, I gathered. The present king and his father, King Hassan V and VI, stared from the wall above the bar counter. The old Italian hit Volare turned into Michael Jackson, while Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones were silently robbing a vault on the small old TV screen. A large elderly woman in a pink kaftan was gesticulating agitatedly to her companions. A guy leaning on the counter already had five empty beer bottles in front of him—and it was only 7 pm on a week night. In one corner, a young woman dressed in jeans and a sweater stood alone smoking and drinking beer. At a nearby table, a shabby looking man was pouring beer into the mouth of a woman wearing a baseball cap.

While I was taking in the scene, I felt a bump and thought the man with a moustache and dirty red jacket had accidentally crashed into me. To my surprise, he handed me another bottle of Stork and said in gruff English that it was for me. We went through an elaborate handshake, shifting grips and ending in a rough bear hug, as I was profusely thanking him. The man returned to his table and his red wine. In Casa, the lingua franca is French, yet the man had spoken to me in English. Apparently, I hadn’t quite melted in and passed for a local. Maybe he was a seaman who had sailed the seven seas and visited bars like this in innumerable ports? Or was I just romanticizing things?

The port remains an important part of this city of some 3.5 million inhabitants. The architecture is today mostly modern. Wide thoroughfares cross the centre. The old town, Medina, still stands and is surrounded by the tall wall since time immemorial. Inside it is bustling with endless alleys, small shops and a bazaar. There are also cafés and small hotels. It is a place where one had better keep track of the wallet, both for pickpockets in the crowded and winding alleys, as well as the shopkeepers determined to part you from your money. Bargaining was never a sport I mastered, so I mostly focused on enjoying the colourful scene in which locals and visitors mingled. Casablanca is not a touristic city. Its raison d’être is purely commercial.

Morocco’s economy is doing relatively well. On my first day while driving from the capital of Rabat to Casablanca by the fine houses lining the churning ocean front, I asked the driver, Habibi, about the economy. His initial comment: “Ça va.” But the business was still good, he elaborated, and generally things were looking up.

The United Nations ranks Morocco as a ‘medium human development’ country. The country has made strides in the recent past. Its GDP per capita has more than doubled from $1,700 to more than $4,000 in just two decades. Social indicators show similar improvements: life expectancy has risen from 62 to 71 years and adult literacy from 34 to 52 percent. Especially female literacy levels have improved rapidly. While in 1987, only 22 percent of the women could read, this figure is now 43 percent. In particular, during the rule of the present youthful King Hassan VI, the human rights situation in Morocco has improved significantly. Still, big differences do exist between urban and rural dwellers. Some 14 percent of Moroccans still subsist on less than $2 per day.

On the day after the conference, I walked to the Mosque Hassan II, which took me about 45 minutes along a main street. It passed between the wall of the old Medina and the harbour; then onwards past the fashionable restaurants of La Sqala and Rick’s Café, which successfully capitalizes on its imitation of the scene where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman meet. There was a segment that was quite slum-like, although nothing compared with the shanties in other African countries further south. Women there wore their traditional djellabas. Like everywhere, poverty and tradition went hand in hand here.

The mosque, while not a historical building, is impressive nevertheless. It was commissioned by its namesake King Hassan II in 1980 and was completed only in 1993. The construction is said to have cost $800 million. It is located in a gorgeous spot right on the shore of the open Atlantic Ocean. The huge yard with the smaller buildings surrounding it reminded me of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The mosque has a capacity to accommodate 25,000 worshippers and its minarets rise to the height of 210 metres.

While I was admiring the considerable waves breaking to the shore by the Corniche, Casablanca’s seaside entertainment district, I met Mohammed Sharif, a man of my own age or perhaps a few years older. He introduced himself as a tour guide and after some chitchat offered his services to me. I told him that I unfortunately didn’t have time for sightseeing. This was partially true, as I had reserved the afternoon and evening for myself, having spent several days in the company of many people. We nevertheless talked for a while. Today was Hijra, the Muslim new year, marking the Prophet’s and his followers’ move from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 CE. This was a big holiday and a long weekend all over the Islamic world. Here in relatively secular Morocco people enjoyed the long weekend. Like Mohammed said: ”In Morocco religion is not that important. We welcome everyone here, Christians, Jews, Muslims.”

A powerful wind blew from the sea raising dust into the air from the dry sidewalk. My eyeglasses were dimmed by the salt in the air spraying from the breaking waves. Mohammed knew that this northerly wind had brought first snow into the Atlas mountains.

I walked back to Centre Ville. Everything was dusty and my throat was dry. I bought a Fanta from a kiosk and found an old shoeshine man. He did a good job on my dusty shoes. There was a Moroccan man standing next to me having his shoes shined. I asked him how much I should pay; he told me 5 dirhams. When I gave the shiner his five dirham coin plus some change, he protested wildly. Expectations are that foreigners should add another zero at the end of the bill.

I had indeed decided to enjoy my last evening alone in Casablanca. I started it with a visit to a sauna to relax my sore muscles after my walk of several hours earlier in the day. Clean and equipped with an appropriate thirst, I then again crossed l’Avenue de l’Armée Royale and entered Saillant, a bar that I had already visited on earlier occasion. It is in the same neighbourhood as Chatan, but a notch above in style and clientele. It still is just a simple establishment with a long counter and a few wooden tables. Like on my earlier visits, I was the only foreigner. I ordered a Stork from the bar maid who reminded me of Herman Munster. When I took out a 100 dirham note to pay, she pleaded with me to find smaller change. The equivalent of $12 was far too large a denomination for this place. She only relented when I promised to have a second beer afterwards. Having served me, she returned to her own beer and cigarette while Egyptian style pop played on the background.

I continued my trip and followed a route that I had memorized from a map that I had studied prior to leaving my hotel this evening. The shop-lined pedestrian streets and plazas with fountains in the city centre were crowded with people and the lights from the various establishments provided a cosy atmosphere in the darkening night. After one junction, the street turned dark and quiet and I started to doubt my mental map. Just when I was about to turn around, I detected the sign to Al Mounia. A wooden door opened to a garden and I walked through it to the restaurant known for its authentic Moroccan cuisine. The two small rooms were decorated with elaborate carvings. A sofa circled the walls and small round copper tables were arranged in front of it. The place was not crowded yet. In a nearby table were three men discussing in Swedish. The waiters, all men, wore red fezzes on their heads, pasha pants, vests and pointed slippers. While thinking about what to eat, I started the meal with succulent olives and delicious bread, which I washed down with local Cuvée du President Cabernet. I decided to order brochettes kefta—Moroccan grilled meatballs—which came with six plates with different kinds of salads of tomato, onion, eggplant, zucchini, carrots and peppers. The food was exquisite both to the palate and the eye, and one could hardly eat a healthier yet fulfilling meal. By the time I left around 9:30 p.m., the place was starting to fill up. With the Swedes also gone, all customers were locals.

Not quite done yet, I headed to Cas-Bar, which I had heard was a hot nightspot in Casa. At 11 p.m. the place was still sedate but people were starting to arrive in groups. The majority appeared to be young women and all were Moroccan. The theme turned out to be karaoke, but what a feast it turned out to be. With the exception of a few English pop songs, all of the songs that evening were in Arabic. A bald headed DJ in the corner made sure that the right discs were turning. Without exception, the singers were good. They attacked with flair the polyrhythmic songs with meandering melodies. Two men sang a series of duets in complex harmonies. A particular young woman in a black miniskirt stood up to sing several songs with the panache of a professional karaoke star. The only place where the Islamic propriety was evident was the videos accompanying the songs: instead of people, they showed bees pollinating flowers. Their meaning would hardly elude the revellers.

On the last day of the conference Benmokhtar had once and for all settled the question of who could evaluate policy. In his final speech, he recalled how King Hassan VI was concerned with the lack of development in the country. While in purely economic terms Morocco was almost as wealthy as Portugal, it was lagging seriously behind in terms of human development. The King appointed a group headed by Benmokhtar to evaluate the policies of the past decades to find out what had gone wrong. The evaluation was highly critical and identified all the areas where the country’s policies were amiss: education, distribution of resources, gender, democratic governance, health inequities, and the differences between urban and rural areas. All findings of the evaluation were made public and decisions were taken to revise policies accordingly. Evaluating policy requires political will and courage, concluded Benmokhtar. As he said, the King did not have to worry about re-election. The point didn’t go unnoticed by many political appointees in the audience.