Loving Libya

Planning a business trip

Getting into Libya isn’t easy, the government stopped issuing tourist visas many years ago, so the only way in is on official business. If you know who to ask, you can sort yourselves out an official business invitation, and if you pay an extra fee or two (what might be referred to in common parlance as a bribe), you can eventually procure a business visa from the Libyan embassy in London. At €650, including invitation letter, it was the most expensive visa of the 197.

The visa sorted, I then had to arrange flights. I managed to get to Tunis via Paris without too much drama. There are multiple flights a day from Tunis to Tripoli, but you are only allowed to book a flight to Libya if you have a resident’s permit. Hmmmmmm. It turns out there is a way around this also, which involved meeting a man at Tunis airport and handing him a wodge of cold hard euros. After that furtive cash exchange in the corner of the airport, I waited for my friend Evelthon to arrive. Side note: Evelthon and I have known each other for many years, and a few years ago we realised we were both trying to visit every country, and have been trying to visit a country together ever since. He is at 184 and I am at 195 (from 197), and we finally got our act together to come to Libya together

An amusing detour to Sidi Bou Said

We had a few hours to kill before our flight to Tripoli, so we tossed a coin to decide between the souq and the lovely Sidi Bou Said (its like the Aegean in Tunisia). Sidi won, so we went for a stroll and a cup of ultra sweet mint tea and almonds, and admired the views of the sea and the blue doors and windows.

Safety first on the wings of Libya

Back to the airport, Evelthon helpfully reminded me that I had forgotten to declare my currency coming into the country, so I had to stash the cash down my bra to avoid it being confiscated…..happily I managed to pass through immigration without any questions and with my cash intact.

At this point in my travel career, having been to many of the worlds ‘dodgiest’ countries, I can tell a lot about the state of a destination by the passengers waiting in the boarding lounge. It is bad news when it is only men, worse news when they are all in military fatigues. Fellow passengers on todays flight gave off surprisingly good vibes – while still mostly men, there were lots of families and smiling faces. A few people asked us why we were going to Libya (business of course), our neighbours tried to make us board before them, and everyone seemed delightful.

The plane looked fine, though Evelthon had also reminded me that morning that Libyan Wings were banned from flying in the EU. I consoled him by pointing out the natty hats on the stewardesses – style has to be worth something as a trade off for safety.

Time to look like a business person

I put on a headscarf before leaving the plane, and all the women in the bus to the terminal pointed at me and told me in broken English that Libya was modern, and they were not like the Saudis, and I didn’t need to wear the headscarf if I didn’t want – I do love finding feminists wherever I go.

We queued behind four people in the foreigners line for about 30 minutes while the entire Libyan contingent from the plane cleared immigration. We eventually got to the front, he took our passports, eyebrows were raised, managers were called, and eventually they stamped us in. But 10 metres later an angry man took our passports again and we had another 30 minute wait – not helped by the fact that our driver was late – if you are foreign, your local contact has to come and collect you from immigration. Assas eventually made it, but we had been struggling to come up with sensible answers to ‘who are you meeting?’ We were still mostly zen, the worse that can happen is they send you home…. and Assas eventually sorted it out with vehement assurances of our authenticity and we finally got out of the airport.

Dinner and bed

We drove into town to the Victoria hotel, which was better than expected. Our guides Salem and Youssef were there to meet us and they took us out for an astoundingly good Turkish dinner. We rolled home after the kebabs and passed out after our early start.

A sad wake up

As I was eating breakfast and listening to the prayers from Mecca at max volume on the tele, the news popped up on my phone that a terrorist fanatic had killed 49 people in two mosques in Nz. We pride ourselves on being a multicultural diverse nation. As a Maori, our commitment to manuhiritanga is at the foundation of who we are, noone on our soil should ever not be safe. Sitting in Libya this morning, one of many Islamic nations I have visited where I have pretty much always been made to feel welcome (in line with the very strict Islamic code of hospitality) I am ashamed that such a thing could happen on our soil. Our guides arrived to pick us up and I found myself with tears in my eyes and my voice breaking as I explained that we hadn’t done a good job of looking after their fellow Muslims in Nz. Moe mai ra. Heartbreaking! I hope this moves us to rise above and be better human beings.

Feminism and Islam

We headed out of Tripoli to Leptis Magna. The road was lined with bombed out buildings, or half constructed buildings from the gadaffi era. The police were out in force with check points eyeballing us as we drove by (youssef calls them staring points as they stare more than check). It’s Friday so things are pretty quiet.

We had a lively debate in the car about religion and feminism, and Islamic factions in Libya. My favourite comment from Youssef (of the many amusing and unrepeatable comments from the car) was that women do all the work and men just show up, get paid and are actually disguised unemployment. The rest of our lively debate I am not going to publish, but suffice to say our guides are probably not typical Libyans. Salem’s nickname for Youssef is ‘many talk’, which is apt, he was hilarious!

Leptis Magna

First up Leptis Magna, once the largest and greatest Roman city in Africa – dating from 7th century BC. I won’t bore you with the history, as I wasn’t really paying attention to the detail, but the ruins are amazingly well preserved. The site is pretty big and was populated with Libyan families picnicking.

The locals are super friendly, and lots of people said hi and welcome to Libya! It reminds me a bit of Iran where people were surprised and happy to see foreigners. It was an amazing few hours. The theatre was my favourite and I couldn’t resist doing my ‘rocky impression’ running up the stairs (‘we’re the best around’) much to the amusement of some of the kids watching.

We then drove over to my favourite part of Leptis – the amphitheater – both Evelthon and I went to the bottom separately and roared like lions eating infidels. The acoustics were unbelievable. Salem and Youssef has bought a thermos of Arabic coffee so we had a coffee in the sun, enjoying the view and had the entire place to ourselves.

More food

We stopped for a ‘light lunch’ of soup, salad, bread, Lamp chops, Fries, Sauté vegetables, Tagine couscous, chickpeas and onions, and tea and fruit and Halva to finish. It was amazing but we could barely move afterwards. The young waiter was desperately looking for a way out of the country, our guide suggested I could take him as a second husband – am sure husband no. 1 would be delighted.

Villa sileen

After that we went to see Villa Sileen – the remains of a complex of villas for the elite from 1st century AD. It is quite stunning and on the sea, but the restoration activities are probably a good example of what not to do with mosaics.

We then popped into gaddafi’s old rest house for a cup of tea before heading back to tripoli.

More food and some negotiation

Apparently there aren’t many restaurant choices in Tripoli. We weren’t excited by trying the Indian so we went back to the Turkish for more excellent kebabs. We ended up having an advanced negotiation over dinner about our itinerary – Salem was very reluctant to take us to Sabratha (we found out later he doesn’t like the hassle he gets from the people who work there). Youssef won an award for being the UN negotiator, and we agreed the solution as I was finishing my baklava….. we were going to Sabratha in the morning.

It was a lively night in tripoli with horns honking all night, and then the muezzin woke me up around 5…. and I eventually managed to get motivated to eat breakfast at 8 and we were off to Sabratha by 9

Sabratha – the largest Roman theatre in Africa

It took just over an hour to get to the town around sabratha … most of the buildings still show significant scars from the tribal wars in 2014. The site, however, was remarkable! Sabratha is home to the largest Roman temple in Africa, and while some of the renovations are clumsy it is still stunningly beautiful with the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean in the background. If you squint a bit you can also block out all the trash the locals leave behind when they come for picnics.

The Punic temple was also quite lovely with incredible lions. The most amusing part of the visit was watching Salem and Youssef argue like an old married couple…., Salem likes to go fisa fisa (quickly), and Youssef likes to take his time and take a lot of photos. The more Salem tried to hurry him, the slower Youssef went – to the extent of stopping us to give us riddles about the location, including a particularly long interlude about the testicles of Hercules. It was worth the negotiation to get to visit!

Janzour museum – 2000 year old painted tomb

On our way back to Tripoli, we stopped by an unassuming house with no sign, which was the janzour museum, where a farmer found a series of tombs in the 50s. The highlight was a beautifully painted tomb. It was worth the stop

Shop till you drop

I couldn’t resist a visit to the high end shopping street. I work for a leading UK retailer and we have a number of international franchise operations. We have two stores in Libya, which no one has visited since 2011 at the earliest. I couldn’t resist swinging by to check it out. The stock in our store I imagine hasn’t been on sale in the UK for a while. The prices were 2-3 times higher for the same product assuming you had bought cash on the black market – at the official rate the product was ten times uk pricing. Apparently people still buy stuff, but it must be cheaper to fly to London to go shopping (assuming you can get a visa)! There was even a BHS shop on the street – but BHS went out of business many years ago.

More food

We had lunch at a fried chicken restaurant with an extensive menu – but they didn’t have any items on the menu available. After an extensive exchange in Arabic, we were given the choice of chicken or lamb, rice or couscous! Somehow we managed to over order again and got way too much food, I will likely need to be rolled onto the plane.

The old town

After rushing us around this morning, Salem let us have a pause for coffee…. and then we went for a wander around the old city. First up the Marcus Aurelius arch and then down a few alleys. Youssef was careful about which ones we went down as some quarters are controlled by militia. We saw the Massjed Gurgi, the Greek Orthodox prison and the Anglican Church of Christ the king. And then we wandered the alleys chatting to a lot of friendly locals, but most of them were not keen to have their photos taken (it’s haram). We ended up in moneychanging alley which was full of scary looking dudes with wodges of cash in their hands, and young runners with blue wheelbarrows full of bags of cash.

Staring in the souk

We wandered the souk, making friends with people, the stalls were hilarious and some of them were legitimately like Ali babas cave, and they were not souvenir shops as there are no tourists here. I was causing quite a stir as I kept smiling at people, and I started feeling sorry for Evelthon as we were pretty sure all the local men were wondering why he couldn’t control his wife and stop her smiling and laughing. (I asked Youssef about this and he said in Berber wisdom ‘A loose woman is not all bad!!!!’. He also reckoned that I could have definitely picked up a couple of extra husbands in the souk, as the gossip that day was about how foreign women were quite something – charming!!!)

We made it to martyrs square and then weren’t really allowed to take any more photos as there were too many police – it’s a recipe for trouble to point a camera in public (at best it leads to a lot of questions about why you are taking photographs and whether you have permission, and at worst you get to enjoy the police hospitality for an extended length of time). After that, a brief wander around the new town and then an awkward wait in a large outdoor shisha cafe for Salem where I was the only woman, and men were legit standing up to stare at me. In spite of the assurances of my feminist sisters on the plane, I would have felt quite out of place not wearing a headscarf here…. I didn’t see one woman with an uncovered head outside of the hotel in four days.

And more food….

We went to a fresh fish restaurant for dinner and ate too much again! Restaurants here are pretty utilitarian! Bright flicking fluorescent lights! Food comes out haphazardly and of course there is no alcohol so everyone is drinking Miranda. We had fun listening to Salem and Youssef in full riff moaning about Salem’s wife who is like Nato (and spies on him), about Youssef’s four wives who are exhausting him (as far as I can tell he has one wife), and them generally teasing each other. Honestly Youssef should have been a stand up comic!

airport bureaucrats and the lack of Id

Up early for the flight, and I hadn’t slept much as there were fireworks going off quite a lot of the evening. Exiting the airport was eventually ok, though I did have a 15 minute interrogation and a persistent demand to see company ID from a fairly aggressive young man. He shouted, I smiled. I was disappointed that the special effort I had made to be fully ‘abbayed’ and ‘hijabed’ hadn’t paid off. In most countries this type of interrogation is just an extended warm up for a bribe demand, but I had been warned here that the fundamentalists weren’t interested in bribes and genuinely thought most foreigners were spies. Eventually I got my driver on the phone (who had actually escorted me right through immigration, I got stopped just after he left). After a five minute heated phone conversation between the driver and the angry bearded man, I was sent on my way. I didn’t actually relax though until I got on the plane, as had read stories of other travellers being hauled back from the boarding gate for further questioning! I did my usual dramatic rip off of the headscarf and abbaya when I got on the plane, much to the amusement of the two women behind me 🙂 – and exhale! Adorably, I was seated in the middle of a group of Libyan red crescent workers (the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross), and a couple of them had never been on a plane before – so cute watching them work out how the tray table worked!

I had a great time in Libya and would highly recommend it. I am looking forward to coming back to visit Ghedames and the sights around Benghazi, inshallah, when things calm down some more. Hada mumtaz!

2 more to go….

Additional notes

  • Given the security concerns and our creative entry plan to Libya, feel free to send me a message on the contact page if you want to any details of how to visit
  • A headscarf is recommended but not required
  • I would advise against bringing a big camera if you don’t want extra hassle at the airport on the way out

Tripoli, March 17, 2019

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