Springsteen in Libya

Posted: March 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

Last week, during the battle for Ajdabiyah, I was sharing a ride from Tubruq to Benghazi with a 25-year-old guy dressed in a green knock-off Adidas soccer jacket with yellow stripes. I struck up a conversation.

Me: “Why are you headed to Benghazi?”

Hussein: “I’m stopping in Benghazi for the night, and then heading to Ajdabiyah. It’s my hometown. Going to fight [that is, to join the rebel forces].”

Me: “Take care of yourself, man.”

Hussein: “Thanks. What’s your name?”

Me: “My name’s Ryan. I’m from the United States.”

Hussein: “I’m Hussein. Your name’s Bryan? I love Bryan Adams. Celine Dion, too.”

Me: “Uh, the name’s Ryan. With an ‘R.’ ”

Hussein: “Oh.”

Hussein has four brothers and one sister. Four of the five sons are fighting with the rebels.

Me: “Your mom most be scared.”

Hussein: “Yup.”

Hussein had been studying engineering at a university in Benghazi for a while, but dropped out. “What’s the point?” he said. “All of my friends who had graduated weren’t getting jobs anyway.” To get a proper job — an official one, with a regular salary, he later explained — you need to have been in the army. “And even then, it’s pretty damn hard to get a proper job. You need connections.” Most formal employment is controlled by the state. Otherwise, people work in the informal economy.

Me: “How long have you been involved with the rebel movement?”

Hussein: “From the beginning. I was one of the protesters who started even before February 17 (the revolution’s “official” start date) — on February 15, in Benghazi.”

Me: “How did you know to join the demonstrations in the first place? How did you get involved?”

Hussein: “Facebook.”

Me: “And how’d you get into Bryan Adams and Celine Dion?”

Hussein: “Facebook, you know? And other websites. Online, people are always talking music, sharing music.”

The Libyan musical landscape in 2011 is diverse, as is the case across the Arab world. There are older-style local tunes, popular with the elder folk. There’s Arabic pop, which mixes tabla rhythms with dance beats — Lebanese stars like Nancy Ajram and Wael Jassar

are ubiquitous. There’s catchy rai music from the Maghreb, like Cheb Khaled. There’s hip hop, or what they call here raab (the letter “p” doesn’t exist in most Arabic dialects; it gets changed to a “b”). Fifty Cent is pretty popular, and there’s some homegrown hip hop as well.

And then there’s the soundtrack to the revolution. In Benghazi’s central square, nationalist songs celebrating Libyan freedom stream out of large speakers in Gar Younis University’s support tent. (Gar Younis is Benghazi’s largest university.) Best of all, one clever Shargawi (that’s what you call someone from Benghazi) remixed a speech by Qaddafi in which the colonel vowed to take Benghazi back from the rebels street by street, house by house, room by room. Entitled Zenga zenga, dar dar — “Street by street, room by room” — it’s become a pop sensation in liberated Libya.

And yesterday, as we drove through a checkpoint, some rebels on inspection duty asked where we were from. “I’m from the United States,” I said in Arabic. “Yeah, man! I loooove heavy metal,” he responded in English, put his fingers up and rocking his head back and forth, doing his best Ozzie Osbourne impression.

Last night, some rebel fighters in Brega put us up and shared their dinner with us. We talked foreign affairs and the politics of intervention. This morning, one of them — Khalid, a 39-year-old bakery owner from Benghazi — called me over.

“Hey Ryan — come here for a second.”

“What’s up?”

“You like Sabaringasteen?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Sabaringasteen? You don’t know Sabaringasteen? He’s American.”

I drew a blank.

“Listen to this,” Khalid said, punching buttons on his phone.

I recognized the opening snare hits and guitar riff immediately — they brought me back to the eighties. Then the Boss’s voice kicked in. “I was… born in the USA…

“I love Sabaringasteen,” said Khalid with a broad smile. “And Kenny Rogers. You know Kenny Rogers? Kantaree [country] music. I love kantaree music.” Khalid was wearing a red turtleneck and stone-washed jeans. He has a handlebar mustache and a bit of a paunch. It worked. All he needed was a ten-gallon hat.

I smiled back. “Bruce Springsteen — he’s from the same state as me in America,” I said. Gotta rep Jersey when I can.

Xavier Mas de Xaxàs (my traveling companion from Barcelona’s La Vanguardia), our volunteer driver Muhammad (from Benghazi), and I spent the rest of today between Brega, Ras Lanuf, and Al-Sidr, all oil towns and ports along the Gulf of Sirt. We moved forward and backward as the rebels advanced and retreated, interviewing them.

As I write this, it’s 7:00 pm on March 29, and we’re driving back from Ras Lanuf to Brega. We pass young rebels with Kalashnikovs who had never touched a gun until the revolution, driving their own cars to the front, wearing camo and black-and-white checked kuffiyahs (neckerchiefs) and reflective sunglasses — thawra chic. Groups of them sit by the side of the road, eating dinner. Some have brought along whatever they could find at home for protection — construction helmets, work boots, and even those plastic dive masks you wear to go snorkeling. Toyota Hilux pickup trucks zoom past, bearing Russian-made artillery pieces older than me.

This is what a twenty-first-century ragtag volunteer army looks like. These guys are all heart, not much coordination, and no training whatsoever.

To the north, in the stone’s throw between us and the Mediterranean, rises an orange gas flare from the Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Company. Here, from the Sirt Plain, come most of the 1.6 million barrels of oil that Libya produces each day. (Well, that was the figure before the revolution; it’s much lower now.) Behind us lie the gutted, burnt-out shells of Qaddafi’s tanks and supply vehicles.

We pass a yellow road sign with a camel symbol on it. Camel crossing.

Muhammad, the driver, slips a CD into the stereo.

You’re so beautiful… I wanna get with youuuuuu…

Akon. In Ras Lanuf.

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The Boy Scouts of Libya

Posted: March 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

The Boy Scouts of Libya

On three occasions, I’ve seen Libya’s Boy Scouts (al-kishafah) playing a role in relief efforts and in helping to manage the social dislocation this conflict has caused.

In Al-Marj, in the heart of Cyrenaica’s farm belt, I visited the meeting site of a local Boy Scout troop, which was packing relief supplies and finding accommodation for refugees who had fled Benghazi on March 19, as Qaddafi’s forces began shelling the city.

“Why did you join the Scouts?” I asked Ahmad, an 18-year-old troop leader. “I wanted to volunteer and help other people,” he said, simply. And that’s what they were doing.

On March 27, in Ajdabiyah – which was just trying to recover from three weeks of siege and back-and-forth fighting – I saw a long line of relief workers and citizens outside the door of the city’s Boy Scout headquarters.

And yesterday (March 28), again in Ajdabiyah, at a gas station with a wait of several hours (the rebel government decided to give away free gasoline in Ajdabiyah), I saw a middle-aged man in Boy Scout uniform helping to manage the lines and traffic.

In a country where formal social institutions have been either gutted or monopolized by a dictator for 42 years, the foundations of civil society can come from interesting places.

What´s for dinner in Libya?

Posted: March 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

What’s for dinner in Libya?

Here’s what dinner is like in Libya.

You and three or four other people sit on the floor around a large metal basin about two feet in diameter. It’s full of rice, couscous, or pasta flavored with spices or sauce, often tomato-based. Mixed in with the rice might be chick peas, cauliflower, slices of bell pepper, tomato, onion, etc. On top of the rice are large chunks of meat on the bone – usually lamb (at least in the homes that can afford it, I imagine). A bowl of salad (lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, all chopped) sits on the side, in a dressing of lemon juice and salt. There might also be green chilies or long green onions to nibble on while eating. Hareesa (red chili paste) is a common condiment.

Each person gets a spoon. And then you tuck in. If there are four people, it works nicely, because each person eats from one quadrant of the bowl. If there are four pieces of meat, each person gets one. You eat all the meat, fat, and tendon off the bone. If the back end of the spoon is thin enough, it comes in handy for getting the marrow out of the bone.

After the meal, you have sweet tea (often green tea) or Arabian coffee, served in small glasses (the size of shot glasses), maybe with some sweets or cookies. You also might have laban – a fermented dairy drink found all over the Arab world, and in some form or another across much of Eurasia, basically thin yogurt – as a digestif. If you’re in a farmhouse, as I have sometimes been, the laban is fresh. And you sit around on cushions, chat, and watch the latest news from Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya on the TV that is always on in the main living/dining room.

“Is it only since the revolution began that everyone has been watching satellite news nonstop at home?” I once asked. “No,” I was told, “Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya is always on, revolution or no revolution.”

Who cooks and does the dishes? My understanding is that it’s almost always those women who live in the house. In the families I have visited, women and men eat separately – when there are guests or extended-family members present, anyway. And since each home may have 15-30 people living it, comprising three or even four nuclear families, there are very often extended-family members present. Being alone at home is not common in Libya.

This may be different among less “traditional” families, especially in Tripoli. (I’m not a fan of the word “traditional” – in this case, muhafizeen ‘ala al-taqalid wa-l-‘adat is a little better.) But when I’ve been present, the adult men and teenage boys have sat and eaten in the main living room, and the women and small children have eaten “inside” (juwwe), in that part of the home that is private and not accessible to guests. I have wanted to speak with women at the homes I’ve visited, but I haven’t found occasion to do so conveniently without imposing on the families hosting me.

Last night, though, I had dinner with some rebel fighters in New Brega, who invited us to stay in the homes they are sleeping in while they fight. We’d just shown up out of the blue, but they insisted on sharing their dinner with us. There were definitely no women around. In driving around this zone, which is full of rebel fighters and their supporters and not much else, I hadn’t seen a woman for hundreds of miles.

This little oil town is normally inhabited by petroleum engineers and oil technicians who work in the fields and refineries nearby. Compared to Ajdabiyah, with its rutted, unpaved streets, it’s neatly kept, with well-paved streets, painted curbs, and even landscaping. But the town is now deserted, except for those rebels given use of some of the houses by sympathetic owners who have evacuated with their families. Some of the homes bear bullet holes, even on the inside, where Qaddafi’s forces shot them up.

While watching Al Arabiya and talking about the meeting of foreign ministers that is to take place in London seeking a diplomatic end to the conflict, we ate lamb with peppers and penne (or, as all pasta is called here, makaroon – macaroni). (I went to sleep before a speech that Barack Obama was to give on Libya, but all the fighters stayed up to watch it.) “This is the consummate Libyan meal,” said one of the fighters. (The rebel fighters I have seen, by the way, are all men, ranging in age from their teens (including one 13-year-old) to 60. But I understand that a few of the Revolutionary Committee members fighting with Qaddafi’s forces in the cities are women.)

“Who cooked?” I asked.

“Me!”

It was pretty good.

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):

“GOT BROWS?”

“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.

“Huh?”

“Dauuuu.”

“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.

Remember Bahrain!

Posted: March 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

I’m about to add another post from Libya.

But before I do: The uprisings in Libya, Yemen, and Syria are overshadowing a violent crackdown by the government of Bahrain on that country’s peaceful protesters.

Libya was an “easy” consensus for the Western powers: it wasn’t hard to agree that Qaddafi is distasteful and worth getting rid of. But in Washington, London, and Brussels, Bahrain is a thornier case, to which Western. There’s an American military base there, and the United States’ oil-producing GCC allies — especially Saudi Arabia — desperately fear the emergence of democracy in Bahrain. So Western governments have been happy to turn a blind eye as GCC countries have sent troops to help the Al Khalifah regime quash dissent. It helps that the Al Khalifah are blaming the uprising on Iran.

From the BBC:

March 20: “Bahrain unrest: Outspoken blogger forced into hiding”

March 23: “EU envoy defends Bahrain police amid unrest”

Please follow events in Bahrain, pressure your government not to support the government crackdown, and check out this site:

“Distress Calls from Bahrain: A Facebook Documentary.”

Benghazi at night

Posted: March 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

A couple of weeks ago (March 15), at 11:30 pm, I heard automatic-weapons fire and loud booms while in my room at Benghazi’s Hotel Uzu. I opened the window and saw red beads of anti-aircraft tracer fire rising into the sky above Benghazi’s harbor. Curious, I found a driver and went back into the center of town — where I discovered that all of the fire was not coming from any fighting, but just from young men driving around in jeeps and firing their weapons into the air, letting off steam and pumping themselves up. Testosterone.

Later, at 3:30 am, I heard tires squealing loudly on the road in front of the hotel. Were pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces chasing each other? Was someone fleeing an attack? I opened my window again — and saw a line of 20 cars full of raucous guys in their teens and twenties, waving the revolution’s black-red-green tricolor, dancing with their heads sticking out of their car windows and sunroofs, chanting off-color slogans about Qaddafi and his hair, and drag racing across a highway bridge. Drag racing for the revolution, you could say. The world over, from Oakland to Benghazi to the Tokyo Drift, shabab will be shabab.