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“How would you sum up your country?”

After much thought Mohammed replied, “Going back to normal”

What is normal about this country where a litre of petrol costs seven times less than a litre of water? The ancient Greeks had a saying that ‘everything strange comes from Libya’. This was based on the fact that they spoke like ‘owls and bats’ and that their cows grazed backwards, which they did on account of their forward facing horns.

In more modern times, namely since the revolution in September 1969 when Gadhafi came to power, Libya has deliberately set out to be different. Working hard against globalistaion, Libya has its own calendar and its months are a combination of the ancient agricultural calendar with some nationalist overtones, such as September which is Al Fatih, literally the ‘Opening’ as 1st September is the date of the revolution. In the 1970s in this most conservative of Muslim countries, a woman’s army corps was set up.

I happened to arrive on the 1st September to find Tripoli awash with green flags. Buildings were ablaze the same tired revolutionary graffiti, houses flew flags and companies sponsored huge billboards of Gadhafi proclaiming the 37th anniversary of the revolution. I even saw one man with his broken arm in a green cast.

Green is the colour of Libya. Its national flag is green. Green Square is the main square, where there is a choice of horses, thrones and even gazelles for the kitsch souvenir photo-call. There is even the Green Book, which sets out Gadhafi’s ideas on the nature of an Arab socialist state.  In 1977 Gadhafi declared that power had been returned to the people. He stated that an era of Jamahiriya, ‘the state of the masses’ had arrived to replace the Jumhuriya, ‘Republic’.

There is even the ‘Green Book Research Centre’ which makes annual pronouncements about the interpretation of Jamahiriyia. That is the theory. In reality the Green Book and the proclamations of the Green Book Research Centre have caused and added to the confusion. The rules of law are in a state of flux as the judicial system is subordinate to Jamahiriyia. There is little consistency and no guarantee. As a result there is little internal investment which in turn has led to a decaying infrastructure.  Jamahiriya has not worked; perhaps this is what Majdi was referring to.

Much of the above is more a reflection on the quirkiness of the country’s utopian dream and Gadhafi himself not on the man on the street. Notwithstanding western propaganda, Libyans are extremely friendly and certainly deserve better than their arbitrary government and international isolation that was their lot in the 90s.

Libyans have a great sense of humour and are forever pulling each other’s legs. The Saity, a tribe from Benghazi, are the butt of many such jokes. ‘A benign genie feels sorry for a donkey and wants to help the unfortunate beast of burden. It tells the donkey that it will change it into a human. The donkey is delighted. The genie continues saying that he will change the donkey into a Saity. The donkey replies, “No thank you.”’

When I told this joke amongst a few Libyans they roared with laughter and I can assure you it was on no account due to my rather stilted delivery.

I went to the medina, the old town, in search of normality, in search of the man in the street. Here I found a labyrinthine set of alleys that have a sense of community and are continuing everyday life in defiance of the decay around them. Gravelly grunts of acknowledgement greeted women shuffling slowly along; a glimpsed view of an ankle covered in henna tattoos. Boys ferried trays of coffee around, shopkeepers flicked water on the ground, copper was clanked and beaten into shape. Wafts of perfume preceded veiled women; sizzling, meaty smells caused my stomach to rumble. There were exotic spices, lengths of cloth and more black faces than I had expected – barriers to entry to Libya are low and there has been an influx of West Africans.

I sat in a small square, drinking coffee, watching daily life go by. As I was absorbing my surrounds and reconciling myself to the fact that everything, in the medina at least, appeared to be normal I was jolted out of my seat by the call to prayer. The strident call of the muezzin did not have the same effect on the Libyans around me, most of whom sat still. I was surprised that the call to prayer seemed to fall on deaf ears. Was Libya not a devout Muslim country? I was curious to learn later that only some 30% of the population attend daily prayer.

Is Libya normal? Well, I suppose its all relative and dependent on what your benchmark of normality is. Perhaps it is easier to say that ancient Libya is full of fantastic antiquities - reason enough to visit the country - whilst modern Libya is full of ironies. Whatever the changes over the next few years, one can only hope for the best for the people of this most intriguing of African states.






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