02nd May 2009
She was standing on the veranda of her Tripoli beach house when I left. “I will never forget you, Harry,” she whispered, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear with long, delicate fingers. “This was the most incredible night of my life”. Beep beep. The 4am alarm brings me back to the hideous reality of my time in Libya. Day two of a grueling drive across the country. I am the traditional boiled-lobster colour across one side of my face and one arm, wile remaining white as a sheet on the other.

Some numbers
Total number of days - 3
Total number of kilometres - 2200
Broken bones - 1

I won't bore you with the full Libyan visa saga. After a month of waiting, I finally gave up on the transit visa that I wanted and managed to get a tourist visa at the border by hiring an agency to bribe the guards. Unfortunately, part of the deal was that I had to have a ludicrously expensive "guide" in my car at all times. Hence the brief stay.

This was my first impression of Libya - the toilet at the border post.

Having eaten a dodgy Merguez sandwich in Matmata two days before, it was something of an emergency. This was not what I was hoping for - the bowl full to the brim with brown liquid and the door hanging off its hinges. It occurs to me that this toilet can be seen as a metaphor for my experience of Libyans in general – looks bad, smells bad and was unable to take care of some straightforward but important business.

General Impressions
The towns have a depressing, neglected air, not helped by the fields of blowing rubbish that surround them. The number of half-finished houses make them look like abandoned building sites. It is uncomfortably hot, even in April, and there seems to be a constant burning wind that blows dust in your face. I saw absolutely no vegetation of any kind, although I'm told that the area around Bengazi is quite green.

My contact with the locals has been mostly limited to the government drones in the consulate in Tunis and the jackboot troglodytes at military checkpoints. Nevertheless, after the clueless but endearing enthusiasm of the Algerians and the relaxed sophistication of the Tunisians, the sheer bloody-awfulness of the Libyans was a surprise. The country receives huge revenues from its oil, which seems to have made the locals arrogant and abrasive. Libya is the weak link in the great chain of Arab charm and hospitality.

After minimal examination of virtually no evidence, I have decided that Libya is the world's worst country, dislodging Wales from its natural position at the bottom of the list. I would argue that Wales has nicer people, equally bad food and worse weather. Take your pick.

Definitely the most dangerous country so far. People drive everywhere at 120 mph but a guy won't think twice about riding a donkey in the fast lane of the motorway. Unsurprisingly, they have a lot of accidents.

With characteristic Muslim fatalism, my guide refused to wear a seat-belt on the basis that Allah would decide if he should live or die. I saw the logical extension of this philosophy the only time that I was in a car with a Libyan at the wheel: We were driving along at a hundred miles an hour when he suddenly shrieks out 'Allahu akbar!' (God is great) and pulls out to overtake two lorries on a blind hairpin. I would have shaken my head in disbelief if it hadn't been pinned to the passenger window by centrifugal force.

The Political Environment
The man in charge is the widely respected Colonel Gaddafi, a towering intellect who recently changed the name of June to "summer month". There is an entire floor of the National Museum in Tripoli devoted to him, which has to be seen to be believed.

Every single Libyan thinks he is some kind of secret agent, even the children. There is always someone pointing at you, peering over the top of a newspaper or following you in the street. They apparently keep watch on each other too, stasi-style.

The police are frighteningly incompetent. The job appears to consist of wearing a full bottle of cheap, foul-smelling aftershave, taking bribes, and standing back to let good old fashioned islamic justice take its course, such as when an angry mob inflicts a murderous beating on a woman driving a car.

I heard that for a Libyan, being found with whisky means imprisonment for spying. Diplomats drink whisky, therefore you must have got it from them, therefore you must be giving them information. It stands to reason. A Tunisian photographer also told me that he was held for 3 days on suspicion of terrorism because the police couldn't work out how to switch on his camera to check what his photos were of.

One good experience in Libya. After breaking down in the car, I was sitting by the side of the road to wait for the mechanic and a local boy of about 12 walks up. He is selling honey. We chat about one thing and another, then start an impromptu game in which you have to throw pebbles into a tin can about 10 feet away. After some wrangling about the rules we settle in for a marathon five-setter, with the kind of easy camaraderie that comes from competitive activity. After about an hour - with me in the lead - a policeman shows up and the boy runs off. It seems that Gaddafi has made the selling of honey by children an arrestable offense. Another visionary move by the great man.

I realise that this is a pretty irrelevant anecdote. I only mention it because I will probably remember this encounter when I've long forgotten the famous ruins that I saw the same day, and because it put me in mind of a passage by Malouf that I read last week:

"Sitting now with his head back, he saw from outside him, above and at a distance, these two old blokes sitting at ease beside a river, and it seemed miraculous to him that one of them, against all the odds, should be himself. Miraculous, too - that this breath should be here for him to catch hold of, and that this moment, just after four on an autumn afternoon in 1987, should have been waiting up ahead for them to reach it."

Worst Moments
  • I fractured a rib in jiu-jitsu. This is one thing I can't directly blame the Libyans for. It is a right bloody inconvenience. I can't sleep properly or sneeze and I could be mugged by an 80 year old woman with one arm. I also can't laugh without agonising pain. Lucky it happened in Lybia.

    Best moments
  • Leaving.

    The ruins at Leptis Magna and Sabratha were very worthwhile. The great thing about the shambolic administration is that you are left to wander around the ruins unsupervised. In America, the site would have been closed to the public long ago by the health and safety mafia and you would be shown a mulitmedia "experience" instead. I was intrigued that dwarf fighting was listed as one of the main attractions at the amphitheatre in Leptis Magna.

    I am aware this isn't an even-handed appraisal of the country. The southern desert is apparently stunning, and it may well be that in years to come, I return to Libya and wonder how I could have been so wrong. In the meantime, this blog is the only place that I can vent my frustration without getting the cattle-prod-up-the-arse treatment in the back of an armoured van.

    My dark night of the soul ends tomorrow, when I face six hours of "formalities" at the infamous Sollum border crossing.

    Through suffering comes redemption.