As our minivan bumped its way past herds of camels on a lonely road in the northern Sahara, the Berber tribesman behind the wheel reached for the stereo. Do you mind, he asked, if we hear some music he enjoyed more than the Arabic dance songs whose toots and chants had accompanied our four-hour journey? He reached for a cassette. I had a good idea what was coming.
The dusty desert air was pierced with an unmistakable hoser croon: “Here I am, this is me, I come to this world so wild and free…”
The first few times I had caught them playing Bryan Adams, I had assumed that Libyans were trying to humour a rare visitor from Canada. After a half dozen encounters with the Ontario chanteur, in taxis and stores and private homes, I realized that I had been flattering myself. They really like the guy.
When an entire country has been isolated from the western world through a dozen years of embargos and restrictions and mutual threats, you have no idea what you will find when you arrive there. And when it has also experienced 35 years under an all-seeing and all-knowing leader who is at once cartoonish and menacing, you come prepared for surprises.
A predilection for the sound of Canadian soft rock is, nevertheless, a bit hard to fathom. While this trait may not quite survive being stretched into a metaphor, it is worth pointing out that it makes a lot more sense once you have spent some time with the post-embargo Libyans. A literate and well-connected people, they long ago raced ahead of their own government and much of the Arab world to build their own, peculiar appreciation for the West.
Their country has opened up to the world so fast, so dramatically, that every friendly handshake or street encounter has the feel of a peace summit. Their leaders, in little more than a year, have apologized for the terrorism of the 1980s, paid billions in damages to the victims, destroyed their nuclear and chemical weapons facilities, embraced foreign investment, welcomed international flights and imports, and declared their 1969 revolution all but over. A few years ago, the only signs on streets were images of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. Today, they vie with Pepsi and Microsoft.
In our two-week visit to Libya, we have had unprecedented opportunities to examine the country and its people. Even six months ago, those few journalists who managed to get themselves a Libyan visa were assigned a full-time government minder.
When we arrived at Tripoli airport, an official with a clipboard had approached us and declared: “There will be someone waiting for you downstairs.” But that someone never materialized. For more than two weeks, we have had the run of Libya, with no overt restrictions (aside from occasionally being summoned to the Ministry of Information to be berated for the inappropriate reporting in the Canadian media).
We met Libyans, ordinary and extraordinary, stayed in their houses, ate their extended-family meals from big trays on the floor and slept on cushions at the edge of their tent-like rooms. We attended two weddings and a funeral, a raucous soccer game, a high-school party, numerous morning and evening sessions at cafes around the shisha (a water pipe filled with sweet tobacco, once considered backward and gauche and now faddishly popular with young men), endless card games, prayers, lengthy lunches, midnight dinners, online chats, sunrises on the beach: All the continuities of Libyan life.
And Libyan life is far from the grey, regimented experience that you would expect from Col. Gadhafi’s closed society. Libyans enjoy a standard of living far higher than any African nation north of South Africa. A small, mostly homogenous community of fewer than 6 million people, they are blessed with a culture, a dialect, a sense of personal style, and a national cuisine that combines its Arab history with influences from Morocco, continental Africa, Turkey and Italy. They are a strictly Islamic nation, but they wear it lightly: Most women wear headscarves, but they tend to be whispy, perfunctory and chic. The number of women working in professions, walking with no headcoverings in public, and mixing freely with men is far higher than in other Arab countries.
You do not see crowds of Arab men discussing politics over tea at streetside cafes, as you do in most other Arab states. Groupings of any sort are discouraged: The one thing that is very strictly illegal, and quite unmentionable, is anything resembling a political party. That includes any sort of club, think tank, newspaper, or, just to be safe, any public discussion. The stakes are too high. The fear is too great.
That said, foreigners, even Americans, are treated as welcome guests rather than sacrilegious threats. There are religious conservatives, and revolutionary zealots (“Watch out for men with beards,” a European executive here told us, “They’ll give you a hard time”) but you get the sense that they are a dwindling minority, like the Bedouin nomads who still ply the desert on camel.
Politics aside, there are more freedoms here than one would expect inside Col. Gadhafi’s revolutionary state. Libyans are encouraged to travel abroad, and a great many have done so. In downtown Tripoli, it is hard to find people, especially people under 25, who do not speak some English or Italian. Satellite television and internet are unrestricted and widely available, and Libyans of all classes and ages seem to gorge themselves on the west’s electronic output. Even though most countries were officially forbidden from exporting computers to Libya as recently as this year, every middle-class home and internet café seemed to have the latest fast machines containing the latest versions of Windows XP - - although the operating system, like the music CDs on the store shelves, is strictly bootleg. The Dutch businessman who owns the Libyan Microsoft franchise admitted sheepishly that even his office runs mainly on bootleg copies of Windows. That’s the nature of freedom in a rogue state.
Not that the Libyan leadership did not exercise a heavy presence.
An interview with Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, the prominent son of the country’s revolutionary leader, was everything we had expected: After four months of letters and phone calls, we arrived in Tripoli and waited four days. At two in the afternoon, we received a cell-phone call: He had summoned us. Someone would call with details within the hour. Twenty hours later, the phone rang again and we were told to go to a certain hotel immediately. A car carried us deep into the desert. We were ordered out, on an empty stretch of road, and into a second car, which made a u-turn and followed another long path into the desert, through the fences and floodlights and thick metal gates of the compound, and into the Arab heir’s oasis of olive trees and Bengal tigers. He smiled archly and pronounced: “I am just giving a piece of information which you can use.”
Col. Gadhafi and his sons may seem, to our eyes, like outsized and anachronistic figures from an earlier African era. Such thoughts are never uttered in Libya, not even by the Prime Minister or the most rebellious teenager. Those who have recently dared express criticisms of The Leader at public meetings have been rounded up and jailed. Among families and ordinary Libyans, any conversational lapse into politics was always greeted with a stern admonition: “We do not talk about such things.”
Besides, the Gadhafi clan play a role here that might be described as equal parts Prince Charles, Bill Gates and the Pope. The movements and meetings of The Leader are discussed with a respectful reverence, and his pronouncements are the subject of constant radio phone-in talk (all the media here are state-run). His children are celebrities, and young people proudly boast of their brand-name affiliations: Seif controls the Libyan rights to Pepsi and Adidas, Saadi the Puma shoes franchise. Your choice of t-shirt logo indicates your preferred heir, the playboy statesman or the Europhile soccer star.
This all bears little resemblance the utopian, Arab-flavoured socialism that is meant to define all of Libyan life. In the 1980s, almost everyone was employed by the government, private businesses could be counted with one hand, and anyone who worked, from engineers to janitors, earned a state-guaranteed salary of around $200 a month. Libya was the founding state of the Great Arab People’s Jamahiriya, a collectivist oasis that would soon spread across the Arab nations and the African continent.
A decade and a half of embargos, dwindling finances and crumbling infrastructure have certainly diminished the Libyan enthusiasm for revolutionary experiments. The Prime Minister and Col. Gadhafi’s ideologues at the Centre for Studies of the Green Book both told us in interviews that the country resembles Eastern Europe as the Berlin Wall fell - - though in this case, the economy is being transformed in order to maintain the revolutionary government, not to replace it.
If we met any single individual who was able to capture the pain and excitement and exasperation and promise of modern Libya, it was a slight, bespectacled man in his sixties named Dr. Dareef Aribi.
We had made a long drive west from Tripoli to Zuwara, a dusty beachside town not far from the Tunisian border, to attend a wedding. It was a big Arab ceremony, with three days of celebrations and 500 guests sprawled in tents along the beach and all-day dancing and feasting. The groom was the oldest son of a local optometrist, whose three older daughters had become doctors and whose three younger brothers were planning health-related careers.
When we ventured into the town, we quickly learned that the father of the groom, Dr. Aribi, was a household name to everyone in the region, including the many dirt-poor farmers who got by on nothing more than government subsidies. People simply called him “the eye doctor,” though eyes were rarely the source of their wonder. He was an institution, albeit a highly reluctant one.
We pulled him aside and asked to see the source of his sprawling reputation. He laughed quietly, somehow pulled himself free from the endless wedding preparations, and took us to the Eye Building.
Across the road stood a looming, Eastern Bloc government structure, abandoned and crumbling. It had been the regional hospital. In the early 1990s, as Libya began to become isolated from the world and its revolutionary government fell into a bureaucratic malaise, it had begun providing fewer and fewer services, opening shorter and shorter hours. Eight years ago, it shut down completely. Libya, starved for oil revenues and trapped in expensive international obligations, was having trouble providing even the basic necessities of health and education. It was a stagnant, drifting nation.
This was where Dr. Aribi entered the picture. He had been employed, like all medical professionals, by the government. In 1993, he decided to take advantage of a new, largely untested law, and open a private practice. “My friends really warned me against it - - they said this was a short period of privatization, like we’d seen before in Libya, but it wouldn’t last and I’d lose all my money,” he said. As it happened, he did lose all his money.
But he kept on going. He was the only eye doctor around, and people had terrible vision. They also had a lot of other things wrong with them, things that neither he nor the increasingly feeble state hospital could treat. As the years went on, he began to make money, lots of it, while he watched the poverty and destitution increase around him. This was when he had his dream.
The clinic, called Shatti (“the beach”) cost him millions. It is an astonishing structure, built in a nautical-modernist style with eyes, an Arab symbol of luck, painted on its walls. To call it a clinic would be a petty insult: It is a full-fledged, four-storey hospital, with three surgeries and room for 200 patients and doctors practicing almost every field of medicine. It looks far cleaner and neater than any clinic in England, and on par with the best in Canada.
Downstairs, Dr. Aribi and other fee-charging practitioners offer optical, skin and psychiatric services. On the upper floors, they use their revenues to run a full-fledged hospital that provides free treatment to the poor residents of the region. Dozens arrive every day, getting the kind of care that is almost never available to anyone but the rich in the developing world.
For anyone in medicine, the 12-year period of United Nations trade and transportation embargos against Libya was terrible. Almost nothing made it into the country. “It was extremely difficult - - you couldn’t even get basic medicines, ampicilin and so on. We had to make driving trips into Egypt and Algeria to get things that should be shipped fresh every day.”
This, at least, has become much easier, and he is talking with other doctors about pooling money to buy an MRI scanner. Today, his greatest difficulties come not from outside but within. “The government bureaucracy is impossible,” he says. “Papers that should be handled the same day, for emergency surgery, take four months. The public service is absolutely useless.”
This is one criticism of the government that is unlikely to get him in trouble. Libya’s Prime Minister, the irreverent ex-oil executive Shukri Ghanem, used almost exactly the same words in a Globe and Mail interview to describe his country’s most serious problem. Libyans have awoken to the fact that their Soviet bureaucracy is a disastrous failure, much as they recently awoke to startling realizations about their revolutionary violence, their rogue-state status, and (hopefully) their poor human-rights record.
There is a giddy mood here, a sense that these things are changing fast, that the cone of silence has lifted. Dr. Aribi speaks enthusiastically about his contacts with medical experts throughout Europe and Asia, and his plans for advancing the country’s standards of medical care. Still, his clinic, like every public and private building in Libya, features a large portrait of Col. Gadhafi in its foyer. Amid all this celebration and change, his visage is a constant, looming, unmentionable presence. You can feel him there, in every waking hour, in the awkward silence of his people.