Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Arabian Whispers

When you can't speak the language or read the papers or mix with the locals or even walk the streets of the place you call home, it's difficult to find out what's going on around you.  In such a closed world, hearsay and gossip are often all that's available to keep you informed.  Bearing that in mind, I share an anecdote based on memories + fact + buzz + imagination.

Libya had many public holidays when I lived there (it still does, if recent calendars are anything to go by) and these fell into two categories: religious and political.  The Muslim festivals were timed according to local sightings of various phases of the moon, and dates were not definite until quite close to the occasion, slightly annoying when one was trying to plan an event.  During the lunar month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day and eat at night.  It always seems to me that life during Ramadan, which ends in the Eid al Fitr holiday, is basically "life up-side-down," i.e. relax, rest and sleep in the daytime; eat, socialize, and celebrate at nighttime.  I'm not sure what was supposed to happen at AGIP regarding office hours during the holy month; our local staff were conspicuously absent on Ramadan work days! 

At times of fasting, every-day business routines are often affected.  In Tripoli, this meant, from an expatriate perspective, that all the super-souks, local shops and bakeries were shut throughout the day.  As the secretaries had no transport, and our only chance for food hunting was during our lunch-hour, Ramadan routines reduced our "grocery shopping" opportunities to nil.

The non-religious holidays were celebrations of events connected with Gaddafi's reign as Leader.  March 28 was British Evacuation Day; June 11 was American Evacuation Day; and October 7, Italian Evacuation Day.  Another date that was always acknowledged was 1st September, a date so important that "1st September Street," a main road leading to Green Square, was named for it. 

With thanks to various on-line sources, especially the BBC, here's a little history lesson:

On 1st September 1969, a group of military officers (among them, a 27 year-old Muammar Gaddafi) deposed King Idris of Libya in "a bloodless coup."  They seized power and declared the country a republic.  While the king, who was in Turkey at the time, dismissed the coup as "unimportant", troops and tanks converged on Tripoli in the early hours of that morning.  Within two hours, they'd taken key positions and the royal palace, military and security headquarters were taken.  All communications with the outside world were cut and a curfew was imposed.

The military junta renamed the new regime the Libyan Arab Republic.  The coup was sudden and came as a surprise to the rest of the world.  At the time, the US had a large airbase in Libya; Britain was involved in important engineering projects there and was also the country's biggest supplier of arms. The new Libyan officials assured Britain that no harm would come to their good relationship.  The Revolutionary Command Council which took over running the country, issued a statement declaring the aim of the revolution was "unity, freedom and socialism".  However, it also warned that all and any attempts to overthrow the revolutionaries would be "crushed ruthlessly and decisively".  

Apparently, the coup passed off with only a handful of shots being fired (hence "bloodless") and was welcomed initially as a reaction to what were seen as the pro-Western policies and corruption of the monarchy.  Thousands took to the streets to demonstrate their support.  When the new cabinet was announced, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was named commander in chief of the armed forces.  He took the title of prime minister in January 1970, and his power grew incrementally from then on.

Saturday 1st September 1984 was therefore the fifteenth anniversary of the Coup D'Etat which put Colonel Gaddafi in power.  Although I have no diary entries or letters to back up this story, I'll share what I remember of the rather dramatic official festivities that year!

In the weeks preceding the 1st September public holiday, our minibus driver, Musbah, veered off our usual route from the expatriate camp -- or Stalag 99, as we called it -- to the AGIP offices in downtown Tripoli and took us on a different one.  Instead of taking the main road -- Gurgi Road, if my memory serves -- he went along a newly-opened section of the municipal beach road.  Although he couldn't speak English, it was plain from his gesticulations and general manner that he was proud of what was happening on this brand spanking new stretch of road.  The high banks alongside it were being packed with flowering plants.  Hundreds of workers were digging and raking with gardening tools, or on their haunches planting these gorgeous flowers.  The workers appeared to be non-Arab contract labor as far as I could see from our speeding bus -- Indian, Filipino, Sudanese -- but I don't know enough about Libya's labor force at that time to tell you if that is correct; it's simply my observation.  What was clear is that much work had already been done to create this wide seafront boulevard and all that was left to do, the final phase, was to tarmac the surface.  Evidently, huge amounts of time, money and effort had been given to get this thoroughfare looking its best.

When we asked our Italian colleagues and English friends what this was all about, they passed along what they'd heard: that the new beach highway was to be incorporated in a vast presentation of Libya's armed forces, a demonstration to flaunt its war power.  This exhibition would take place during the day on 1st September 1984, to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the coup.

We understood there was to be an air show with dramatic and daring flying displays; demonstrations of artillery, weaponry, armored cars and tanks; military parades with marching soldiers and brass bands.  It was to be an all-out display of military strength and firepower to show the Libyan people how strong they had become since Big G took control, and to prove to the world that Libya was a force to be reckoned with under the G-man's rule.

As we secretaries were on summer hours, we finished work at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday 30th August and on our drive back to the camp, we saw the now completed piece of road, resplendent with its gleaming black tarmac finish and its bright, sunny flowerbeds.  I could appreciate Musbah's pride.  It really was a remarkable achievement.

The AGIP girls, all English, were advised not to leave Stalag 99 on 1st September.  It would be best for us to stay at home and keep out of the way of Libyan locals who may be overwhelmed by the occasion and seize an opportunity to prove first-hand their might over representatives of their political adversaries, i.e. a bunch of British ladies.  According to my journal, it's obvious that we girls -- at least, this one -- decided to follow the safety recommendations.  I entertained a small group of friends for lunch at my tiny "beach apartment," and in the evening, we took a roundabout route to play tennis at the Australian camp.  We kept out of the downtown area altogether.

During the day-light hours, we heard the military planes and jets whooshing overhead and occasionally we stepped outside to see them pass.  We could hear gunfire in the distance.  On a conscious level, we didn't take much notice.  Subconsciously though, I tended to worry about military events of this kind; I always had a gnawing concern that something could go wrong for which we expats would get the blame and become the target of retribution.  However, I tried to maintain an air of nonchalance, albeit artificial.  One thing I had learned was that unpredictability was the name of the game, and there was no point in speculation or anxiety.  Worry was a completely wasted emotion.  It would be what it would be. 

My journal states that I went in to work on Sunday 2 September and Monday 3 September; I don't remember the exact circumstances but I often had to work extra long hours since becoming secretary to the head man, Mr. Cavanna, and Janice, who worked for Dr. Ageli, Mr. Cavanna's Libyan counterpart, was on vacation so I was looking after his office too. 

My two days work was followed by three more public holidays before the weekend. This means that a whole week of holidays was provided to the Libyan people to acknowledge Gaddafi's fifteen years in power.  Whether this was planned or whether it was as a result of the events of Saturday 1 September, I have no idea, but here's what I know.

When I was picked up for work on that Sunday, the day after the celebrations, Musbah did not take me along the new beach road.  We went via the Gurgi Road, our more usual route.  The next day, the same thing occurred.  I didn't immediately question this because Musbah could be as unpredictable as anyone else; perhaps he was bored with the new beach road.  But Musbah looked unhappy, disgruntled, as if things were not right in his world.  "Musbah," I asked, "why aren't we going along the new beach road?"  Of course he couldn't understand me so I tried to "gesture" the question, pointing in the direction of the sea, "Beach road, Musbah, beach road."  He dismissed me in that way of Arab men, turning his head away and ignoring me, as if I hadn't spoken; actually, like all men, really.  When I asked him a second time, he did a hand gesture, slapping his hands together three times, left-on-right, right-on-left, left-on right, that hand gesture which says, "It's over.  I don't want to talk about it."

After he dropped me at Stalag 99 at the end of that second day of work, I had three days holiday and a weekend day so I wasn't back on the minibus until the following Sunday by which time rumors of what had taken place on Saturday 1st September had begun to fly.

I understand that the beach road had been prepared especially for the display of military vehicles.  I can only imagine this next bit because I'm not very knowledgeable about military events and, let's face it, I wasn't there.  However, picture with me, if you will, armored cars, jeeps, motorcycles, trucks, and tanks, all lined up and ready to drive along the fabulous new road.  Since the giant, dangerous tanks were the pride and joy of both the fleet and the occasion, the plan was that they would be the first to set off, with all the other vehicles following behind, two by two, like the animals on parade, marching to the ark.  It was going to be a grand affair.

The problem was that the tarmac had only recently been laid on the carefully primed area, and it had not had time to "set."   Thus, the furnace that was the desert summer sun had broiled, baked, and melted it.  I suppose this might well have happened even if the tarmac had been given ample time to harden.  Either way, it was positively bubbling by the time the tanks began their majestic rolling march.  As a result, the weight of the tanks forced their thick metal tracks into the molten surface, digging, ripping, churning, until it was a roiling mass of black gravely tar.  This was the ground then, that every other piece of military hardware had to travel across and in no time at all, the tanks were stationary in front, glued to the road surface like beetles in treacle, with a traffic jam (forgive the pun) of unimaginable proportions right behind them. 

Naturally this wasn't announced in the newspapers but even it had been, it would've been written up in Arabic so we couldn't have read it.  Our Italian colleagues got the basics from their Arab friends who could speak Italian; we heard it from our Italian colleagues in their broken English.  Other reports filtered back from English friends who'd heard it from their Tunisian cook, Sudanese gardener, Egyptian receptionist, etc., etc., etc.  Rumors floated about expatriate offices, ephemeral as specks of dust on the dry Sahara wind.  If there was ever a case of Chinese Whispers...or in this case...Arabian Whispers, I report it here for your delectation. 

Obviously, I can't guarantee the veracity of this account.  To be honest, I'm not even 100% sure it was the 1st September holiday though all signs point to that being accurate.  I can only vouch for the details I received at the end of the whisper line, and for my own experience which was that after seeing the fabulous new beach road before the military display, we never went down that particular stretch again. 

On the following Sunday, as mentioned above, we returned to work as usual.  Janice and Denise were back from leave and the minibus was full.  We all called out in our assorted English accents, "Musbah, take the beach road!  Musbah, we want to go along the beach road!" but Musbah only crouched over the large steering wheel of his precious bus, scowling with irritation, staring ahead, and ignoring us.

Three Kilometres from Tripoli (borrowed from TripAdvisor)

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