Gaddafi had been in power eight or nine years when I went to Libya. It's difficult to say I was in Libya though. I was confined to an oil camp, which, at the time, I compared to an aircraft carrier in a desert sea or Swedish open prison even though I'd never been to one. Sweden in those days was considered lax and the oil camp was lax in respect to its being awash with illegal alcohol and other drugs.
Every night, I hung out with my Libyan friends smoking dope, drinking the colourless moonshine and listening to Arab or Afro-American music. The 'Who' album 'Live at Leeds' was a favourite. A television was often flickering away. Gaddafi appeared a lot and was ignored until someone tired and threw a shoe at the screen. This was the nearest I came to political comment. I soon had the impression Gaddafi wasn't liked but that it wasn't safe to talk about it. My friends were all from the east of the country, especially Benghazi. The seat of government in Tripoli was a long, long way away and the ruling elite was remote tribally as well.
Expatriates weren’t supposed to leave the oil camp except to take leave when you'd fly from the camp airstrip directly to Tripoli airport and then out of the country. However, occasionally I sneaked out of the camp and one night we drove into the desert to a scattered mess of discarded containers and packing cases, which the Bedouin employed as shelters. You knew they were there because of the glow of oil lamps. We stopped the car and there was an exchange of signals by headlights and somebody left our car and returned a few minutes later carrying a load of illegal intoxicants.
Today, Gaddafi accuses the rebels of being high on drugs. Certainly, most of my friends in the old days were often quite intoxicated but they weren't sleepy-heads. They often had science degrees from British or American universities and spoke English, not just with fluency, but often with poetic sensibility. I arrived back from leave once after a lot of flying, North Africa to Switzerland, to England, to Canada and back again to Libya all in jut a few days. I was not only tired and disorientated, but was further agitated because my luggage had disappeared along with my precious Dickens books to get me through the long days. My friend Hassan, Hassan meaning grace, collected me from the airstrip and, when he dropped me at my bungalow, he gave me a copy of 'Under Milk Wood' and said it would rest my mind, especially the prologue.
The loss of luggage at least gave me the excuse of going to Tripoli to look for it. It was a pretty place but the atmosphere seemed austere and subdued. Benghazi, when I managed to sneak out of camp to make visit there, was entirely different. It was hot as chilli peppers, not just temperature-wise, but culturally. At night, the little streets were crammed with cars honking greetings to friends and cousins. Everyone seemed to know each other. It seemed young, vibrant but tense.
The tension may have had something to do with political repression. Maybe it came from a society which, in the space of a few years, had changed from being very poor to quite wealthy and potentially very wealthy. The young people I knew often had, as I said, a cosmopolitan education and were used to money. Their parents on the other hand might have scratched a living from goats and sheep. Before the oil came, Libya exported almost nothing, some dates and scrap iron from burnt out, Second World War tanks dragged out of the desert.
My friend Hassan's family derived its wealth from scrap iron. The family or clan occupied an entire street. Well, it was more an alley than a street. Outwardly it was cramped and mean but indoors and behind the facade, the apartments were spacious and opulent. The quality and quantity of the food I enjoyed there was fabulous. It wasn't the custom to visit the source of the cookery to express thanks. It wasn't straightforward meeting women although we did visit a divorced woman and smoked hash with her. It seemed normal but I think she was an outcast.
We drove to the remains of a Roman city. There was no tourist hub-up, just us. The wind blew in from the desert. There was a screaming silence and as I looked at the colossal wreck around me, I thought of Shelley's poem Ozymandias, and the words, 'Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.' But it was all in vain in the end just, as it looks that way for Gaddafi as I write now.
Libya by Gareth Rees
Photo by Alex Sebley
taken from blogspot- Read 'Rees'