Long-form journalism for Guernica magazine
by Kate Grace Thomas
October 7, 2011
A Lonely Planet guidebook writer in Libya details her experiences filing reports from the Arab Spring.
Photograph via Flickr by matee
Libya: When to go
March to May: Honey and grapes; olives and dates. Libya in bloom.
August: Late sunsets and live shows at Cyrene’s ancient Odeon. High season? High times.
November to December: Winter sun, ocean breeze. (Wear a headscarf or wrap your ears tight in a tagelmoust.)
Excerpt from the Lonely Planet Guide to Libya, Third Edition. (Unpublished.)
1. Springtime in Ajdabiya, Libya
“Get over,” the armed rebel fighter screamed. “Get out of the way.”
His checkered scarf danced in the hot wind. It was early evening and he looked tired. Five o’clock shadow dappled his cheeks.
We stood there for a moment looking over the dusty hamada, the Libyan rebel and I, at the final outpost on the way to Ajdabiya; the last point before the road winds west to the front line.
Then he screamed again. “Move.”
His cries were not directed at me but to a pair of girls playing in the middle of the desert road, a truck headed right for them. They ran to the edge of the strip and tumbled into a narrow ditch, laughing, as the pick-up plowed down the road, its chassis tattooed with rebel graffiti tags, its wheels tearing up the freedom flag that fluttered into its path.
To my right, a tall man sitting on the steps of a damaged building shook his head and said something in Arabic. His legs were splayed over the stoop like the stream of bullets that must have hit recently, leaving their black acne on the wall behind.
It was early April and Libya’s revolution was underway. I was covering the long, painful labor of breaking free from the regime. The Arab Spring, we called it. The Arab Awakening, said the Libyans. I was covering the rocket strikes against regime forces near the western gate of Ajdabiya, the NATO bombing that misfired onto revolutionary fighters, the horror stories that tumbled readily, sometimes loosely, from the lips of the displaced.
“If you want to travel safely in Libya, always ask the driver to bring his wife.”
As a freelancer, I was pleased that editors wanted my stories. They wanted soundbites from press conferences with the rebels’ National Transitional Council. They wanted analysis on Qaddafi’s most prominent son and heir apparent, Saif Al-Islam, and his now-curtailed plans for modernizing Libya. He had been close to modernizing his father’s regime when the revolution began. There had been talk of small gains towards political reform, of releasing some prisoners, of serving alcohol in some tourist hotels. But the moment he moved closer to the gearstick, wrapping his palm around his father’s like a kid learning to drive, the sandstorm began and trapped them behind a valance of dust. The editors wanted to understand why this began. They wanted to know when this would end. I wrote and sent them the stories. Days passed in a haze of smoke, adrenaline, deadlines.
But war was never my beat and my Libya stories were not supposed to be about it.
In December, before the revolution began, I had driven through the western gate of Ajdabiya looking for honey. Farmers sat in deck chairs by the side of the road, chewing on warm cigarettes and selling large amber jars of the stuff. Honey season was over, but the bees that fed on the shmari berry—a tart, orange fruit that grows up and down the Libyan coast—still produce liquid gold.
I smeared the honey onto crackers and pita, used the roadside stops as checkpoints while researching a Libya guidebook for tourists. The Libya guide wasn’t Lonely Planet’s most lucrative title, but for the last three editions it’s been a standalone book, with nearly 300 pages of reviews, recommendations, and information on ancient sites and desert safaris.
The guidebook I researched last winter was never published, put on hold when the Arab Spring surged into Libya that February. I was writing a guidebook to a country that no longer exists; a country where busloads of Italian tourists gathered around hotel buffets; where billboards advertised the Qaddafi brand—forty-one years, they sang, the leader’s face peering down at the cars on the highways like that of a god who thought he created them. The guidebook I researched was a guidebook to the past.
2. London, England
“So you’re going back?” my friend Laura asked, her eyes darting between the television—scenes of celebration in Benghazi, as the revolution got underway—and her one-year-old daughter, sitting at her feet.
We were gathered in her living room, a few of us, lying back in armchairs, sprawled on couches, discussing films and marriage and babies. And now, war.
“Why would you go? Are you sure?”
I was already bouncing in anticipation, pitching editors and looking up flights.
War is not my beat. I knew that. But Libya, somehow, was. I went in December to tell its stories—stories of nascent tourism and marvelous ruins, stories of deserted beaches and drinking sugary tea in the winter wind. And now, there were more stories to tell.
“In Libya,” said the driver. ”There is too much space between.”
He said “too much” as if it might be a good thing.
“Tripoli and Benghazi are very far apart,” he said. “Not only in terms of kilometers, you understand? Most Libyans must choose; either we are true to Tripoli or we are true to Benghazi.”
We were driving east from Tripoli on the thin coastal road, our eyes stinging from the odor of cheap gas and leaky engines in winter’s porous, smog-laced air. Upon arrival I would review hotels, beaches, and ancient ruins. We drove with the windows down, the sun gently coppering our faces and the desert wind blowing up from the south.
“I think it is good,” the driver said as we set off, his voice deep, heavy, nourishing us with its stories, “to see the road.”
The road that we saw was long, flat, its sides lightly buttered with sand. A few camels. Roadside cafes selling sweet, sugary red tea. The oil refineries of Ras Lanuf, their fires ablaze with promises of an even wealthier Libya. (“One day,” the driver said, “Libya will be like Dubai.”)
Juniper bushes and olive groves; lemon trees, their branches bowing under the strain of swollen fruit. A few more camels. But mostly, the road.
We drove fast at first, slowing to a gentle canter, our hips rising to greet the bumps in the tarmac like horseback riders crossing the steppe. More muscular cars hurtled past us, deftly negotiating bends and trees, their lips a breath from our backs like stallions sniffing for mates.
Mabrouka, the driver’s wife, sat beside me in the back. (“It is safer that way,” the driver told me. “If you want to travel safely in Libya, always ask the driver to bring his wife.”) She was quiet, her eyes warm when she looked at me. She rubbed rose oil into her hands and read. Her voice, when she did speak, was sweet and smooth—honey to his bread.
“Let’s stop,” she said, after several hours of quiet, and we pulled into a service station. On the wall above us hung photographs of a man in cargo pants. We ate our soup.
“Winter food,” the driver said. It wasn’t bad: dense, oily, busy with vegetables and skinny slivers of pasta.
On the wall above us, Colonel Qaddafi in the desert, crouching down, his weight on his thighs. Colonel Qaddafi firing a rifle. Colonel Qaddafi laughing, drinking tea with a Berber family.
“Isn’t he handsome there,” the driver’s wife said, running a finger around a brass frame. On the other side of the table the driver smiled proudly, nodding, as if she were talking about him.
“Qaddafi,” said the hotel manager, “has slept in this bed.”
In the old Benghazi, solo travelers were uncommon. “Where is your group?” they would ask, kindly, when I ate alone in hotel restaurants. “Where is your leader?” No leader, no group, please don’t put the candle on the table. Just me and my laptop; fixers, drivers—soon I would call them friends—researching the guidebook.
If you’ve a soft spot for ancient sites, I wrote, northeastern Libya was made for you. This little-visited corner will take you back in time, through the prehistoric ages to the time of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines, all the way to the Italian occupation and the Siege of Tobruk. It was here, meters from the sugar-sand beaches of the Mediterranean, that stone-age men carved tools, the ancient Greeks carved civilizations and the Byzantines carved—
—I stopped. The driver was knocking at the door of my room.
He was, he said with pleasure as we drove into town, a man defined by his suits. He had thirteen of them, some made by a Benghazi tailor, one made by his older sister, several bought off-the-peg. Even now, in December, they hung heavy on him, restricting his movements when he drove. Their wool is thick, their arms long, grazing his knuckles when he shifted into fourth.
On this day, he was wearing a blue suit as we headed out to review a hotel.
4. Benghazi, Libya
“The front line,” the man in Benghazi said to a half-empty press conference, “is in Misrata.”
“The front line,” the man in Ajdabiya said, running a calloused hand down his necklace of bullets, “has barely moved in weeks.”
“The front line,” the man in Ras Lanuf said, “is at Brega.”
“Can you go to the front line?” asked my editor.
He spoke as Libya’s front lines were multiplying, spreading along the coast like swollen, bleeding spider veins. Soon rebel forces would push onwards, winning gains seventy kilometers west of Brega. Before long, they would lose both towns to Qaddafi loyalists. But they would win them back.
At the hospital, the rebels were still fighting, in their beds.
I asked questions. (Answers: broken arms, toes, the places in between.)
I talked with a fighter who fractured his thigh and sustained bullet wounds to his chest. Before the revolution, he worked in an office.
His mother did not know he went to war or that he was in the hospital. “She’s sick; I don’t want to worry her,” he said.
Where did she think he was? “At home with my brothers. I wish I didn’t have to lie,” he said. “But this is my revolution.”
I asked the rebels one of my standard questions. What do they dream about at night?
Mostly, they said they do not dream of much. Now is not the time for dreaming, they said. “Now is the time for fighting.”
5. Benghazi, Libya
“Qaddafi,” said the hotel manager, “has slept in this bed.”
He said this as I was sitting on the edge of it, the underside of my wrist trailing its milky white cover. I moved.
The dressing table had an oval mirror above it and a stool below. The stool had a curved stem coated in gold stucco and its top in vanilla satin was so plump and full that it spilled out like a surgical enhancement.
In the bathroom, three showers stood side by side. One had floor to ceiling massage jets. In the porcelain tub were waterproof pillows and a built-in flatscreen.
I couldn’t afford to stay there, so I thanked the manager and left to write up my review. This was the private wing of one of Benghazi’s largest hotels, concealed from the public by fat palm trees, elephant grass, and a thousand-dollar price tag.
Although we spent days together, we did not become friends, the driver and I, in old Benghazi. We could not be honest with one another. When I am with him I had never, never in my life, had a glass of wine. I had never dated. I had never swum in the ocean without a long T-shirt and a scarf. “No,” he told me, once, and I didn’t protest again, “you have not.”
Although we were at funeral, the driver no longer wore a suit. He turned up in a loose T-shirt, jeans and sneakers—his uniform in this new Libya.
He wore lies too. He held them tight to his body like the suits that reined him in.
The driver took me to a patisserie in the city center; its window display was sticky with pyramids of bird’s nest pastries stuffed with cashews and nut paste, each one dribbling honey and vice.
I stood outside, leaning against the lamppost while he bought cigarettes. “Do you smoke?” he asked when he returned. I shook out a “no”—of course, a “no”—and he returns, moments later, offering a large box of cakes.
“Here. Your substitute for cigarettes,” he said, kindly.
6. Benghazi, Libya
In the old Libya, the driver would greet me with a handshake. The first time we met in the new Libya, he ran towards me, nearly skidding on the shiny white floor of the hotel lobby, wrapping me into a hard hug, the nose of his baseball cap brushing against my shoulder.
“In war, ” the driver said, “it is easy to die.”
“Pick a day,” I almost expected him to say.
The photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros died on a Wednesday, killed when a group of rebels in Misrata came under fire in an RPG attack.
On a Sunday, I sat with Chris on a pair of tired blue armchairs outside the hotel’s media center, beneath a poster advertising “the real Libya.” It showed images of the ancient sites of Cyrene, Apollonia, Leptis Magna. We didn’t talk about those places, nor where the real Libya might be. He asked me which power sockets were functioning, and I asked about the hotel buffet.
Ahmed, a friend of the driver, died on a Friday. An elderly man, he was shot through the temple while standing outside his house. The driver and I joined the mourners inside Benghazi’s main cemetery.
“Those killed in battle wear their blood like clothes into the afterlife,” he said.
I wrapped a black cotton scarf around my cheeks. It was a gift from a brother of the dead, who walked in the heat to fetch it for me because, carelessly, I had left mine in the hotel.
(“Keep it,” he said afterwards. “Wrap yourself in loss from time to time. It’s okay.”)
Although we were at funeral, the driver no longer wore a suit. He turned up in a loose T-shirt, jeans and sneakers—his uniform in this new Libya. It was another time, another country.
We watched, as Ahmed and eleven others were lowered, one by one, into the earth.
“In the morgue, warriors do not smell of death,” the driver said. “They even smell good to us. Strong. And in the afterlife, their spilled blood rinses away their sins.”
There were no tourists; no work. The journalists, he said, don’t care about the ancient sites.
But the blue armchairs outside the media center did not smell good to us. J, a producer, could no longer sit in them; could no longer walk past their thin leather skins, still stewing in stale smoke, spent adrenaline, and the memory of the ones who didn’t come back.
7. The Libyan Desert
The cities break up
The earth is a train of dust
Knows how to marry this space.
“The Desert/ Adonis” (1984)
Into the desert we went, the driver, his wife, and I. We took the road south from Tobruk, past the World War Two cemeteries with their neat rows of headstones and swept pathways, stippled with aloe vera plants, flowering cacti, and simple dedications. These burial grounds were tidy, orderly, nothing like the mass graves slowly filling in Tripoli.
Drinking from cans of sparkling pineapple juice, we drove deeper into the desert. A thin layer of sand coated the hood of the car, as fine and white as snow; outside, camels stood awkwardly, slouching in groups between the dunes. We skirted Graziani’s fence, a barbed wire monstrosity that runs for 270 kilometers, built to separate Libya from Egypt during the Italian occupation. We drove past heaps of discarded cardboard, past steaming piles of garbage, past lone shepherds and camel farmers until wind-sculpted dunes hid the horizon and everything was yellow or blue.
Most of Libya is sand, with vast swaths in the south, in the west, along the borders with Sudan and Chad, and in the east, where the Eastern Desert meets the Great Sand Sea. In 1953, attempts to locate oil reserves below the sand revealed something else instead —vast quantities of ancient water, trapped in pockets between layers of strata. Much of it amassed between 14,000 and 38,000 years ago. It is now piped to Tripoli, Sirte, and Benghazi via the Great Man-Made River—“the eighth wonder of the world,” Qaddafi quipped at the time—a project that shifted 85 million square meters of sand in the initial construction phase alone.
“There is no hope,” the driver said later, when we crossed the sand dunes, “and the night is cold.”
I looked at him, questioning the sudden pessimism. “That’s what the Americans wrote in their diary when their plane crashed in 1943,” he said.
After taking off from Benghazi in a sandstorm, the B-24 bomber Lady Be Good came down near here. It had been due to take part in a bombing raid against the Italians. Used parachutes were found near the plane years later, while the bodies of the crew were dispersed further afield; one had walked a staggering 145 kilometers in search of rescue.
I heard more stories of sand. They were rusted into the abandoned cars—Jeeps, Chevys—that sit at the foot of one of the dunes, deserted by the Long Range Desert Group, a British army reconnaissance unit active in the area between 1940 and 1943. Nobody knows what happened to their drivers, whether they were killed in battle or collapsed of thirst in the heat.
By day, we drove, slinking over sand dunes and sitting atop them too, starting avalanches with toes, searing ourselves into the sun and the silence. We climbed desert rocks, spotted ancient tombs, ran our hands over the heads of sea sponges—slowly fossilized here after the ocean became a desert. At night, we threw our backs down on the cool, hardened sand, stars swarming above us, and slept.
“Hadi,” the driver said. Peaceful.
He said other things, too, while we were out in the desert. There were no tourists; no work. The journalists, he said, don’t care about the ancient sites. They don’t want guides to take them into the desert. So he passed his time at home, in the countryside at picnics.
But he said he felt tense. “At night they come out,” he said, before we drove back to Tobruk. “The ones who will always love the Qaddafi.”
There had been talk of small gains towards political reform, of releasing some prisoners, of serving alcohol in some tourist hotels.
8. Brooklyn, New York
The Libyan Spring was almost over; summer was taking hold. I was in New York but my editors still wanted stories about Libya. They wanted to know about the history of Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound—the old hearth of Libya’s King Idris, the chief of the Senussi Muslim order, who reigned over Libya from 1951 to 1969, when Qaddafi tore power from him in a bloodless coup.
The compound used to be sand. Qaddafi had concrete poured into its grounds, burying the ghosts of footprints, sowing grass seeds around its vast contours. He covered the compound with the concrete of his ideas, his doctrine. He covered Libya with them too. But when the rebels showed up, firing their rounds, chipping away at its surface, pockets of sand became visible.
Qaddafi had tried to turn Libya into rock, his rock, but underneath it was sand, shifting sand, all along.
I sat at my computer, looking out the window of my Brooklyn sublet and called the driver in Benghazi. “The revolution has been like one long Ramadan,” he said. “Every day, holding on, fighting, praying. Waiting.”
The driver had seen many Ramadans but this one, he said, was longer than the rest. There was no moon in the sky that could have charted its progress. It was measured by the earth instead. “By the earth we had to shift; by the earth that shifted.”
“I think the wait is almost over,” he said, down the crackling line. “Not the work, but the wait,” he said. “Now it’s time for a new season.”
Kate Grace Thomas writes international news, features, and short fiction. For the last five years her work has been largely focused on West Africa, from long-term bases in Liberia and Senegal. She has written for The Independent, The Guardian, and Lonely Planet, among others.