It’s about time I got to Libya on this blog. But the whole experience takes a bit of time to get over. Tash had just given birth, we had agreed that it was the time to leave Jordan and this thick South African voice turned up on my phone one evening, giving a short “interview” and then offered both me and Tash a job without even speaking to her. It was like speaking against the noise of a vacuum cleaner. OK.
So we flew out to Tripoli, meeting our new upstairs neighbours, arriving from Malawi, on the plane. They are still friends, and now work in Mozambique. It was a bizarre collection of people on the flight. I bought a battery razor on the way and the (male) flight attendant asked me in a way that I can only describe as flirtatious, if I was going to trim my goatee when I got to Tripoli. Meanwhile passengers were desperately drinking before arrival in the dry country.
So we were prepared for months of no alcohol. In the event, when we arrived at the school, the welcome party at the Primary Head’s house (who had “interviewed” me) was rammed with home made wine and Tunisian bootleg beers. Staff we met were suspicious of us and cautiously welcoming. It did not take long to get the measure of the place. Each holiday there was some uncertainty as to who would return and who would do a runner. There was just the one scruffy supermarket in Tripoli, where it was normal to see expats with trolleys full of grape juice. They imported yeast (they told customs that it was for allergy-required bread-making if questioned) and made vast quantities of wine in 10 litre water bottles with a condom on the top. When the top blew, you knew it was ready for bottling. Small stubbies could be purchased for about £4 a can from the regular taxi driver to the school, Faraj. Or you could buy “Flash” – a malevolent home-distilled spirit made by West African immigrants and only palatable if taken with a good amount of fruit juice. In short, everyone seemed desperate for alcohol in the expat circle. So when it was Remembrance Day and a very moving service in the Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemetery in Tripoli commemorating the campaign of the Desert Rats, and the Ambassador invited all those present back to his residence for canapés and a drink… well who would not concur?
There was an Embassy club where there was a bar, but our school, unlike the other British School, was banned from it because one of our staff had been reported to the authorities prior to our arrival for weeing against a wall which turned out to be that of a mosque after one heavy session there (“there” being the Club, not the mosque). It caused a bit of a hoo-ha. The other school was superior in every way. Their staff had multiple entry-exit visas so could head off to Malta, Cyprus, Tunisia or wherever, for weekends if the life here got too much for them. They lived in a compound which was secure and guarded. Once, one of our colleagues was followed home in his car. They went into the driveway after him and took the car off him at gunpoint. In true Libyan style (polite and considerate) they said, “Take anything of personal value from the car, but this is our car now.” Our school took your passports off you on arrival, with their single entry visas, and kept them under the pretence of getting work permits, exit visas and permissions. It would always take the whole term and sometimes people would not even know if they had the exit visa in their passport until they arrived at the airport and a school flunky turned up with them… or in some cases did not. People had been stuck there and not been able to leave for the holiday after having booked and paid for their flights.
This happened to one teacher, whose wife had flown home to have their child. I can still remember seeing the poor man, broken and cowed, outside the school office every afternoon to see if he could get home to see his new-born. Eventually it got to the stage where his wife’s family gave him an ultimatum – you get home within a week or this marriage is over. He was still stuck without the exit visa he needed to leave the country when we left. Apparently the principal didn’t like him. He was hoping that he could persuade his wife to return to Libya, where the money was good, so had not told her the real reason he was not on the next flight home.
Mobile phones did not work in Libya. You had to use the one the school provided. These were bugged. There were certain words, like “Gaddafi” for example, that would trigger a click and all went very muffled, your credit would go down at triple rates. And once, when someone was speaking in Welsh on the phone, a voice came on and interrupted with the words: “Speak in English”. It was said that the houses were also bugged and that each street had a local informer who was obliged to provide a report on subversive behaviour every so often. They had to do this, whether there was any or not, so if nothing had come to light then they had to make it up. It became apparent, after we had left, that the Principal had access, and used this access to every email we had sent or received. He had blended in to the local culture seamlessly.
When Gaddafi spoke to the nation, all shops had to close and everyone was expected to listen, or watch the TV. But he knew how to keep people sweet. New births accrued a sizeable government payout. University graduates were paid at graduate rates, even if they did not find a job. But it was advised never to mention Gaddafi by name, inside your house or elsewhere. It really was like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. No-one even dared to speak his name.
Taxis were unspeakably dangerous vehicles and sadly we lost the “reliable” one used by the school. Friends from Jordan had come to visit as they were there on business. I do not know what was said (in Arabic) between our friend’s Jordanian colleague, Jamal, and Faraj when we collected them on the journey back to our house. But after that Faraj would never pick us up. He was always busy, or accepted, but then simply did not turn up. There was some rivalry between Jordanians and Libyans that must have kicked in and that we did not understand. So we were left to take our chances with the nuttier ones.
Having said all that, we did make the most of our time in Libya. Our house was on a sand road just behind the school in Saraj (a suburb of Tripoli), deeply rutted, and impossible to push a baby buggy on. We used to have to drag it backwards down to the local shops. Vehicles had to drive it at walking pace. Most of the local shops were convenience stores. Our favourite, a fruit and veg shop, had a lovely man who would always coo over the baby and pick out a red rose, “marsh’allah-ing”. (Marsh’allah = sweetie”). He would carefully pick off all the thorns and give it to her, every time. She, in turn, would then fastidiously pick off all the petals on the way home. We also took an amazing trip down to Ghadames, close to the Tunisian border, with our friends/upstairs neighbours. OK, we had to get a letter from the Principal requesting, on officially-headed note paper, that no-one would hinder us on our travels and assistance would be provided if needed, but it was a great trip. The school were still holding our passports. We went to Sabratha, a beautiful, un-touristed Roman site on the Mediterranean coast. Then on to Ghadames – an ancient stop on the caravan route between Cairo and Tunis. It is a town of restored, ancient white-buildings where most of the “roads” are covered alleyways. Women lived their entire life on the upper floors, never allowed to set foot upon the earth. They shopped by lowering baskets down to the markets and got around the entire place on rooftops and by walking on the top of walls. The town made its living on protection money and tolls from travellers. There had been a British consulate there many years ago. It would have been weeks of hard travel from civilisation and would have been a bit of a punishment posting for any civil servant working for the British Empire. We had booked the trip through contacts at school and when we got to Ghadames the house we had booked was occupied, so they tried to send us to a nasty hotel a way out of town. It took a bit of a stand-off to get what we had expected. We also stopped off at Nalut Qasr – a fortified 13th century granary, completely deserted and totally atmospheric (see post “99 photos from Libya”).
One of “He-Who-Could-Not-Be-Named’s” nephews was at the school. At first, his personal security guards would hang out outside the classroom in the corridor smoking, and ensuring security, presumably. Eventually they were persuaded to wait in their black-windowed 4WD in the car park and only came out during play times. Children were allowed to play around the scaffolding where building works were being done and at one evening performance the windows were shot at. The Head of Primary was a South African thug. He insisted that he was not pandering to the locals’ demands and that if they turned up late for concerts/assemblies then they would not be admitted (“They will have a 240 lb 6″4 South African to deal with,” he said). He stood on the door to enforce this, chest thrust forward and trying to look like an imposing bouncer (head of a primary school?), even when Gaddafi’s family were involved, so turned them away too. I later learnt from my classroom assistant that the discussion between the parents and their security guards went something like this:
“Do you want me to take him out for you, boss?”
“No, he’s not worth it.”
The Principal was from New Zealand and consequently so were many of the staff. This included the best man from his wedding amongst others. This person had a son at school and the (English NQT) Year One teacher, who had a penchant for young boys, had started an affair with him when he was 15. After we left and the school still held our daughter’s birth certificate, I had asked for it back, and heard nothing: until I brought this matter of paedophilia and the complicity of the Principal to the company’s attention. The reaction of the Principal had been, “I don’t think there is a policy on this so I can not do anything” (with regards to my friend’s son) when complaints from parents were received. The company agreed to return the birth certificate on the condition that I never mentioned the whole unfortunate series of events again. It is a Dubai-based, global education company. They also threatened to ensure that the UK authorities retracted my teaching certificate if I did not withdraw all allegations. Yeh, right. I got the birth certificate back.
Please look at “99 Photos from Libya” to see how beautiful this country should and could be. But in the event, we packed up as much of our stuff as we could (more than we could carry), got an exit visa and our passports back from the school the evening before we left and then resigned when we got home. It was only a case of good luck that we were let out of the country with about £500 excess baggage fees. We could not have got any shipping out of the country without a final exit visa so just took what we could. On the plane the flight attendants were immediately besieged with requests for drinks, to which they knowingly complied, very quickly, even before take off. We hired a very large long -distance taxi from the airport to our house in the UK along with our three airport trolleys, each one packed higher than any of our head heights. From Gatwick to Somerset was time enough to have a chat and tell our story. The taxi driver told us: “Wow, I’ve never picked up people who have run away from a country before.”
Shortly afterwards the whole place blew up and our colleagues had to run for their lives. We saw some of them interviewed on the BBC News at the airport. A lucky escape for us in the end. At least we left without an emergency evacuation. They lost everything they had there.
But this photo, from International Day, says it all for me. It is of an American child and a Libyan in my class, sworn enemies at the time, and still to this day. They say it is 6183 miles from Texas to Tripoli, but I don’t believe that…