“California is exactly like Libya”: A day trip to Ajdabiyah

Posted: March 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

Kalifoonyaa zayy liibyaa bi-zzabt.

“California is exactly like Libya.”

So begins Chapter Two of Eerik Dickinson’s excellent book Spoken Libyan Arabic (2004, Dunwoody Press). Dickinson 

teaches his readers Libyan Arabic using real dialogues between Libyan expatriates in the United States, one of whom compares California’s terrain, coastline, and Mediterranean climate to Libya’s.

And it’s true. All along Libya’s coast, azure waters lap sandy shores under big blue skies. And driving west through Cyrenaica on the highway, from Tubruq through Derna into the Jebel al-Akhdar (the Green Mountains), arid Nevada gives way to California’s Central Valley, where verdant hills are fenced off and made productive. Cows moo and sheep baa.

And there’s plenty of desert in Libya. Some of it as scenic as Death Valley.

Last night, CNN was reporting breathlessly (and, frankly, a little confusingly) from the highway between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah, at the putative front line. But word this morning is that Ajdabiyah is firmly in rebel hands, after having been under siege for ten days. So my friend Xavier and I hop in a taxi in Benghazi and head south to Ajdabiyah. (Xavier writes for Barcelona’s La Vanguardia.)

I’ve never been to Bakersfield, the pumping heart of California’s oil industry, but I suspect driving there is much like driving to Ajdabiyah from Benghazi. You pass stretches of farmland and stretches of windswept scrub. You pass rest stops and gas stations and stretches of not much at all, where lone trees grow sideways, inexplicably. A late-model Chevy Tahoe zooms past you. So does a Kia Rio. Your clunker hums along in the slow lane, doing the best it can.

There are, however, differences. Forty-five minutes from Benghazi, we drive past a charred multiple rocket launcher (MRL). This is the first of many mangled remnants of Qaddafi’s army that we’ll see in the 160 km (100 miles) between Benghazi and Ajdabiya.

After another 15 minutes, we stop to inspect a group of five or six destroyed vehicles in a field, each spread about 50 meters apart. All are from Qaddafi’s forces: tanks, MRLs,and armored personnel carriers. It looks like a one-sided battlefield, where only one side showed up to get destroyed.

This is how the Coalition’s air power has changed the game. These tanks were menacing Benghazi until a few days ago. Then, Coalition jets began pounding them.

Now, it seems, the game is this: the rebels wait for Qaddafi’s equipment to go up in flames, courtesy the Allied deus ex machina, and then they press forward along the empty highway — to Ajdabiyah, and then toward the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf. And then, presumably, hugging the coast, they will move on to Qaddafi’s birthplace of Sirt. And then on to Tripoli, inshallah.

Thirty or so people mill about the battlefield: all civilians, all Libyan. Most are young and middle-aged men, but there are a few families. People snap photos, climb on top of tanks, and prise open the hatches of these gutted hulks. From the other side of the road, where a few other vehicles lie, comes a stench. I don’t go to check it out.

Spray paint, incidentally, is vital in revolutions. When you liberate a building, you spray-paint your slogans on it. When you come across a destroyed enemy tank, you spray-paint that too. Someone, presumably a cheeky rebel fighter who came across this wreckage, tagged this one “Athar Bu Shafshufah”: “Uncle Curly’s Ruins.”

Uncle Curly, of course, is Muammar Qaddafi. The colonel’s hair gets a lot of attention in this country. Caricatures highlighting his famous ‘do now cover the walls of central Benghazi. Some of them would do Jean-Michel Basquiat proud.

Uncle Curly

A middle-aged man in glasses, clean-shaven and neat in a blue Oxford shirt, has a camcorder out, surveying the wreckage. He approaches Xavier and me, greeting us in English. Atif is a surgeon in Benghazi, and before coming here today, he was working in the hospital for two days straight, treating the wounded. He studied medicine in France and worked there for years, but returned in 2003 to be near his extended family.

We discuss the role of Libyan exiles overseas in supporting the 2011 revolution. Many foreign governments, he says, knew little about leaders of the interim (rebel) government, like Mustafa Abdul Jalil, so Libyan exiles in Europe and North America have effectively conducted a public-relations campaign on the nascent rebel government’s behalf.

The issue of bad governance arises, as it has time and again in my conversations with relatively highly educated Libyans. Atif complains that in Libya today, people are appointed to important positions without the requisite qualifications.

“Take Qaddafi’s minister of health,” he says. “Is he a doctor? Does he have background in medicine? No. He’s a teacher! But he got the job because he’s close to Qaddafi.”

The same is true, says Atif, even of the director of a major Libyan hospital: he is a teacher, not a doctor or a health specialist. He got the job because he was in Qaddafi’s circle of elites. This kind of irrational administration irritates many Libyans.

We get back in the car and move on, south toward Ajdabiyah. Every five minutes or so, we pass more wreckage. Some of the tanks are pancaked. We also see minivans and SUVs that are charred and smashed, as if they were stomped by a giant flaming robot. Some lie on their sides. I think I even see a BMW 3-series burned out on the side of a hill.

Had these passenger cars also been with Qaddafi’s forces? Or had they just been parked along the highway on the wrong day of the week, while Coalition planes were destroying anything in sight? I remember the parking ticket I got in Oakland a few weeks ago, for leaving my car on the street on the second Tuesday of the month.

What did these cars look like to the Coalition pilots who blew them up? Dots on a screen? And had there been people inside them? Real, live humans? Were they incinerated instantly, gone without a trace?

Jean Baudrillard would have had something to say about this.

And what’s going on here, anyway? Is this a revolution? Is it a video game? A civil war? A tourist site? What does it mean that these people are here, in a battlefield that’s not a battlefield, inspecting the charred remnants of the state machine that oppressed them for 41 years, videotaping these tanks, climbing on top of them, holding up Vs-for-victory and snapping photos of their kids?

Shit, what am I doing here?

outside Ajdabiyah

*                             *                             *

We keep driving. And despite the intermittent heaps of twisted metal, real life goes on. That’s what you don’t see on TV.

We pass a shepherd boy, tending a flock of sheep. A few minutes later, we pass another flock — of, ahem, camels. A car sits by the side of the road, under a tree, with its hood up – and from a distance I assume it’s been bombed, until I see that it’s intact, and that there’s a family sitting next to it. They’ve stopped to have a picnic, and have put the hood up to cool the engine.

We pull into a rest stop. It’s packed. The slide-door refrigerator is fully stocked with Pepsi and mango juice and Power Horse energy drink and Mirinda, just like every other rest-stop fridge in the Arab world. Behind the counter is the ubiquitous espresso machine. In the kitchen, four short-order chefs slap fried eggs and tuna onto baguettes. I order sandwiches for me, Xavier, and Fatih, our 38-year-old taxi driver. Another guy in line picks up our tab, refusing to let us pay, despite my best efforts. He’s doing it out of gratitude to the foreigners who are here reporting on Libya’s revolution.

Libya has been virtually closed for decades, after all. And people who support the opposition know that foreign attention is vital to foreign support, and foreign support vital to victory. They’re grateful. In the past few days, countless people have approached me and said, sometimes in halting English, “Thank you Sarkozy! Thank you Obama! Thank you Cameron!”

Or, as one man told me today: “All Libyans want Mr. Sarkozy to fly to Tripoli and stay. We would be happy if he would become our new leader.”

I’m not sure he speaks for the entire country, but his sentiments are heartfelt.

We get back in the car, driving and munching on sandwiches. A beat-up Toyota station wagon passes us. The guy on the passenger side has two fingers up in the air, out the window, exulting. A Lincoln Navigator zooms by, with one red-black-green rebel tricolor pasted on the back and another fluttering from a pole held out the window. It’s like driving to a bowl game.

Above the flag, a sticker on the Navigator’s back window reads (in English):


“Certified and Experienced.”

“Permanent Make-Up Available.”

The English-speaking market for depilatory services being limited in this part of the North African littoral, I deduce that the Navigator was probably bought used from the United States by someone who hadn’t seen the point of scraping the advertising sticker off the back window. (It’s also possible that it was owned by a Libyan family in the United States who moved back to Libya.)

Many of the cars on Libya’s roads were imported, used, from the United States. Two weeks ago, a Nissan driver in the city of Al-Marj explained it to me thus, after I noticed that his car’s speedometer reads in miles and not kilometers: “We can’t afford new cars here in Libya. But since around 2003, when Libya’s relations with America improved, we started importing used cars from America. The other countries in this region won’t import cars that are banged up, but in Libya, we will – we just import them and then fix them up here. Even the Korean cars here – many of them are imported from America.”

I asked why they came from America in particular. “Used cars from America are cheaper than used cars from Europe.”

So the next time you trade in your dinged-up ride, know that it might end up in Tripoli or Benghazi.

*                             *                             *

Wondering why we’re getting passed by every car in sight, I glance at our taxi’s speedometer. It’s marked in kilometers, not miles, and it’s oscillating wildly between 160 km/h and 200 km/h. It’s busted.

“Hey Fatih,” I ask in Arabic, “what kind of car is this?”

“Dauuuu,” he replies.



“What’s that?”

“Dauuuu. It’s a car maker. It’s Korean.”

“Ohh… Daewoo.” Now I recognize the logo. “How do you spell that in Arabic? Like this?” I scribble something on paper and show it to him while he’s driving.

“No. Like this. Dauuuu.”

(For those keeping score at home, it’s spelled daal-alif-waw-waw.)

A lot of the cars on Libya’s streets are Korean. Of those that are less than ten years old, half are Korean. Kia, Daewoo, and Hyundai are everywhere. Japanese cars are also very common, but they tend to be older, because late-model Japanese cars are pricey for Libyans. Used American cars are pretty common as well. European cars are rare.

But the links between Libya’s economy and those of East Asia extend well beyond the car industry. Despite liberalizations in the last decade, the Libyan economy remains state-dominated, and one of the ways the regime expends its oil rents is by hiring foreign construction companies and industrial concerns to build houses and factories. Everywhere, even in rural areas, Chinese contractors build sprawling apartment complexes and do infrastructural work. So do Korean and Singaporean companies. Brazilian, Turkish, and German companies have a significant presence too. But Chinese companies predominate – something many Libyans know.

“Right, Dauuuu,” I say. “What year is your car, man? And when did you get it?”

“It’s a ‘96. But I bought it last year, in 2010.”

I translate all this for Xavier, who wants to know how much Fatih paid for it and how much mileage it had when he got it.

“I paid 3,000 dinars [around $1,800 at current black-market rates]. How much mileage? Dunno. A lot. A lot.”

I glance at the odometer. It reads 582,736 km (around 360,000 miles).

“This car is my life,” Fatih goes on. “I don’t have a government job. Qaddafi gives me nothing. All I have is this taxi – to feed me, my wife, and my two bambino.”

(In addition to espresso and cappucino, another charming legacy of the brutal Italian occupation is a tendency to pepper Libyan Arabic with the very occasional Italian word.)

I ask Fatih how he feels seeing these bombed-out tanks.

“How do I feel? I feel great – I feel like celebrating. Look, if the French and the Americans hadn’t bombed these tanks, do you know where they’d be right now? In Benghazi. The city would be destroyed by now. My whole famiglia would be dead.”

For a second, I think I’m in The Godfather Part Two. But this is a serious conversation.

I ask him about the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986. How did he feel about the United States then?

“Look. Back then, there was no satellite television. There was no proper media, you know? We didn’t know what was going on in the outside world. All we heard was Qaddafi, Qaddafi, Qaddafi, ranting at America, America, America. But now, it’s different. Now we know what’s going on in the world. Now we have Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, you name it.”

Was there ever a time when he liked Qaddafi, I ask? Some of the Libyans I speak with – just a few – say yes. They admit having been drawn to his charisma and bravura, his willingness to stand up to the Western powers when no other Arab leaders dared to.

“Me? Nope. Never. Muammar’s all talk – talk, petroleum, talk, petroleum.” He means that Qaddafi always makes promises about what oil wealth will do for Libya, but never comes through.

What about Seif al-Islam, I ask (Qaddafi’s most prominent son)? “Many people thought of him as a reformer,” I remark, “at least before this revolution. Did you?”

“Seif? Naw. He’d always say ‘reform, reform, reform.’ And he’d talk about human rights. Did we get reform? Did we get rights? Nope.”

*                             *                             *

After two hours of driving, we arrive in Ajdabiyah. It’s a dusty, colorless provincial capital of around 130,000. A few storefronts and homes have been hit by mortars, but on the whole, the city looks much like it presumably did before. Which was pretty shoddy.

After visiting a hospital and encountering a few of the same reporters I’ve come to recognize over the past two weeks, plus fortunately little in the way of war-related injuries, we drive to the city’s northern neighborhoods, where the shelling from Qaddafi’s forces was the most intense. This was where rebel forces established themselves after moving in from the ring road, so this is where Qaddafi’s forces shelled the most.

We pull up next to a guy walking down the street wearing reflective wrap-around sunglasses and a gray polo shirt. Fatih, our taxi driver, rolls down the window.

“Hey, I’ve got a couple of foreign journalists here. Can you tell me where to go to see something in the city that got hit really hard – you know, something that got bombed out really badly? Something these guys could get some good pictures of?”

Fatih is eager to help, and he assumes Xavier and I want to snap photos of as much destruction as possible. But neither of us is keen on that approach. We’re more interested in talking to people.

Regardless, the guy in the wrap-around sunglasses jumps in the car with us. “I’m from the neighborhood,” he says. “I’ll show you around.” His name is Ibrahim. He’s probably in his late 20s.

We spend the next hour walking with Ibrahim and a half-dozen locals from shelled home to shelled home. Every tenth structure or so is damaged, some irreparably so. We walk through living rooms and kitchens turned into piles of rubble, through bedboards and tricycles and space heaters lying amid plaster and ash. Most of the neighborhood’s residents had evacuated by the time the rockets and mortars came, but a few stayed, and some were unlucky – Ibrahim points toward one home, saying a man passed away there, and then to another.

What’s just as notable as the wreckage from the shelling, though, is the decrepit state of the neighborhood itself. The roads are rutted and completely unpaved, with water mains showing. Half-built cinderblock structures are everywhere. The neighborhood looks like it’s in a perpetual state of disrepair – so much so that it takes Xavier a few minutes to realize this isn’t a result of the shelling and the siege of the city.

We ask Ibrahim about the exposed water mains. Was this part of an ongoing improvement project, I ask? “Improvement?” he scoffs. “They don’t improve a thing around here. Nope, some Chinese company is supposed to be fixing this stuff up, but nothing’s happening.”

Ibrahim, it turns out, stayed in the neighborhood during the shelling, which happened on Thursday (March 24), between 1 pm and 11 pm.

“Were you here fighting alongside the rebels?” Xavier asked, and I translated. “No, I stayed to drive people around,” Ibrahim replied. “People were wounded, so I took them to the hospital. Families were scared, so I drove them out of here.”

Most of the houses are still vacated, but a few people are returning. Some of the unlucky ones whose houses were struck are piling their possessions on top of cars.

We stop to talk to a weather-beaten forty-something man named Ahmad. There were 18 people living in his home, he says – three families, all related. Their one-story home is about the size of a smallish suburban single-family unit in the United States. (This kind of crowding is common in this neighborhood: three or four nuclear families, all kin, sharing one roof.) Now, the kitchen ceiling has collapsed onto the stove and floor, and sunlight pours through a gaping hole in a bedroom wall.

Fortunately, Ahmad and his family had evacuated to a tent in the desert by the time the mortars struck his house. But the house, he said, is beyond repair. “We’re going to move in with a neighbor for now.” I ask about his occupation, and, delicately, about his income. “I work in an agricultural center,” he says. “I make 280 dinars a month (around US$170). I ask if anyone else in his family has an income. “My mother has a pension of 130 dinars a month (around US$75). That’s it.”

We interview members of another family whose home was struck. This home is not as badly damaged, and they plan to repair it. Two of the men of the family stayed home during the shelling. “Why did you stay?” Xavier wants to know. “Well, it’s our house, you know?” one middle-aged man replies. “And besides, we never thought the leader of our country would shell his own people. What kind of a leader does that, anyway?”

Xavier asks me to ask the man how he felt during the shelling. The man hesitates, not knowing what to say. “Well, it was scary,” he begins. One of the crowd of onlookers chimes in sarcastically. “It was fantastic! It was awesome, man. He loved it! He was playing music and dancing! How do you think it felt?”

Smart-Ass has a point.

*                             *                             *

Later, we meet a 27-year-old petroleum technician named Ali, who works for a state-owned oil company. He was in the neighborhood when the shelling started, and ran home to get his car – to find that its windshield had been smashed in the attack. He shows me the windshield – a shattered, spider-webbed maze of white. Nevertheless, Ali found a way to drive the car to a town 30 km away, having packed into it some kids from his extended family. He’s now come back to survey the damage to the neighborhood.

Ajdabiyah is not far from the great Libyan oil fields on the Gulf of Sirt, and Ali spends 20 days of each month working at an oil field in the middle of nowhere. His income is excellent by Libyan standards – around 800 to 1000 dinars a month (US$475-US$600)– but he’s aware that the expatriate Britons he works with earn $6,000 a month for similar work.

His real gripe, though, is with what he considers Libya’s sorry state of development. Looking around, it’s hard to argue with him: we’re in a middle-class neighborhood in a provincial capital, but the streets are dirt tracks, with pipes showing. Some are undrivable. The houses are depressing cinderblock pillboxes.

Like every other Libyan I’ve spoken to for more than three minutes, Ali asks where the country’s oil revenues have gone. “Why should Libya look like this?” he asks, pointing to the unpaved roads around us. “Why can’t it look like Dubai?”

As we’re talking, someone lugs over the remains of a three-foot-long rocket to show us. I acknowledge it with a wave. There’s not much to say.

“I work on an oil field that produces 100,000 barrels per day,” Ali goes on. “The price of Brent [crude] is US$100 per barrel. So I know how much money this government earns from oil.”

“In fact,” he adds, “once the February 17 uprising started, we [at the oil field] refused to pump any more oil, because we knew it was going straight to Qaddafi, to supply his military.”

Oil is this economy’s lifeblood, and everyone knows it. It’s not only those who work in the oil industry who think in terms of oil revenues. Many ordinary Libyans express their frustrations about the country’s wasted potential in barrels per day.

*                             *                             *

Driving back from Ajdabiyah to Benghazi, we stop at another bevy of broiled tanks, two on each side of the highway. At the top of a sand dune, next to one of the tanks, lie Russian-made missiles and some opened plywood cases with orange labels reading “EXPLOSIVE.”

The atmosphere here is even more carnivalesque than at the other site. One dad walks his young son and daughter across the street, while another helps his kid up onto a tank and hands him a rebel flag, getting him to pose with it. Passing drivers rubberneck and clog traffic, honking and taking pictures on their cameraphones as they move down the highway. Tractor-trailers pass by, hauling tanks and MRLs taken intact from the enemy, with the rebel flag planted atop them, ready to be recycled for rebel use.

I ask Xavier if he’s ever seen anything like this before – instant war tourism, if you will. In Egypt last month, I’d seen people climbing on tanks for photos, and he’d seen the same in Tunisia – but there had been no war there. “When I was in Sarajevo and Grozny,” he replied, “I saw lots of destruction, much worse than this. But there, the suffering was so terrible, and so prolonged, that no one wanted to celebrate anything.”

On a destroyed tank across the street, someone has spray-painted “Rabish Bu Shafshifah: Al-Bi’ah bi-l-Jumlah.”

“Uncle Curly’s Junk: All For Sale.”

On the drive home, I count two dead camels.

Well, one and a half.

  1. Manel says:

    What a pleasure to read your posts, Ryan. A bit of coolness between all this mess. I’d only want to ask you about the feared islamists. You talk about them with people or is it taboo? Thanks for your chronicles on the ground, really.

    • ryanmcalder says:


      I’ve talked with people about it a little, but not much. Frankly, I think it’s not much of an issue — it’s just not that relevant to the way things are actually playing out on the ground here.

      It’s not a taboo subject by any means. But the question is more whether I’d be getting reliable information. Will try to look into it and follow up with a post later.

      Thanks for your interest,

  2. Yasmin Anwar says:

    Hi Ryan, I’m with UC Berkeley’s NewsCenter. Can we link to your blog so that readers can follow your travels through Libya? Let me know ASAP

  3. Nick says:

    Great visceral details. Thanks for bringing us news from the front, Ryan!

  4. hizzyhoo says:

    Was thinking of hitting you up to watch a NCAA game together. Had no idea you were chasing down tanks in battle zones. Stay safe.

    • ryanmcalder says:

      Holice — It pains me to be missing the Big Dance. I don’t even have the bandwidth to check ESPN.com. Which has done wonders for my productivity, but has robbed me of the chance to school everybody back in Berkeley with my dazzling tourney selections.

      Final Four should be around now, yeah? Who’s in?

      Heard you and Rachel got engaged — congratulations!


  5. Reena Flores says:

    Hello Ryan,

    Found your page via The Atlantic’s official tumblr page, where Revolutionology was reblogged (link here: http://theatlantic.tumblr.com/post/4160367671/revolutionology-a-uc-berkeley-sociology-student-is). Wanted to give you kudos for your commentary and tell you that this post particularly resonated with me. I’m a UC Berkeley student from California’s Central Valley, and to read such a comparison is absolutely chilling.

    Also, regarding one point you made in this post: your comparison of Bakersfield to what you saw and experienced from Benghazi to Ajdabiyah would be, at least from my experience, considered pretty accurate. And while burned remains of armored trucks don’t exactly line the I-5, your description may even be more accurate than you think– especially with Lemoore’s Naval Air Station located in that vast Central California expanse as well.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing.

    Stay safe,

    • ryanmcalder says:


      Thanks for the thoughtful response. Great to hear that the Bakersfield comparison wasn’t off the mark. Let’s hope there are never burned-out tanks on the I-5.

      Take care,

  6. ERic says:

    Thanks for your post. Really amazing to get a first-hand, non-reporter account. Take care.

  7. Colin Glassey says:

    Great post. Best wishes. I have gave misgivings about this operation but if the people you have been talking to are representative of the people who will run the country after Gaddafi is ousted, it gives me some hope.

    • ryanmcalder says:


      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I, too, have some misgivings. Is there such a thing as a “clean” intervention? No. Can foreign intervention set dangerous precedents? Yes. Is there moral ambiguity? Absolutely. Do the possible post-Qaddafi outcomes include political turmoil within Libya? Yes.

      Nevertheless, I personally feel intervention by air remains the right option for European and North American governments. Why? And what exactly does intervention entail? For how long? By what means? And with what kind of involvement after Qaddafi falls (if he does)? I hope to explore these issues in further posts.

      I write as someone who was deeply opposed to the invasion of Iraq, by the way.


  8. Rick Draganowski says:

    I have been folowing the news for considerably longer than an average lifespan. I have found that to hear of events directly from the people involved is the only way to find truth. I truly and deaply appreciate your work and I encourage you to continue.

    Thank you

    Rick Draganowski

  9. stan says:

    That was an awesome post! Looking forward to more. Especially some insights into who the rebel leaders are and their plans.

  10. […] field work. Now, he’s in Libya (!). Sample posts: Libya’s internal security apparatus, California is just like Libya, and Fast and the Furious: Benghazi Drift (my retitling). Much needed field work, but be safe! […]

  11. Suliman Gaouda says:

    OH the smart ass got me ROFLMAO….aaah Libyans….you gotta love their sarcasim

  12. adelita husni-bey says:

    Hey Ryan,

    great writing, really enjoyed the read..and brought me back to my homeland.
    Im an Italo-Lybian artist researching the green mountain, past and present rebellions..wondered if I could contact you privately for some info/ a collab.


    Adelita Husni-Bey

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