Libya with love

As we walked across Martyr’s Square the first time, as we looked for a hotel, I said something about how Libya had better be the epitome of kickass to justify the hassle we’d had to get here. Gerard said I was just making it easy for me to be disappointed. He was wrong. Libya is worth everything we put into getting here: the money, the week queuing outside the Libyan consulate in Alex, the flights up and down the Med, the lot.

 

Tripoli is an easy city to like, with its sea front and proper commercial ships overlooked by the coastal that forms the corner of the tumble down old city. It cleverly manages to combine feeling safer than Tunis with a bit of revolutionary excitement. Everything that could possibly have been painted with the red, black and green of the new flag has been, and there was a small protest in the square when we arrived. By the time we’d dumped our bags it had shrunk, but had some information signs that we checked out. The demonstrators explained they objected to a clause in the current draft of what will one day be a constitution allowing anyone who’d defected by the 20th of March, the day after Gaddafi attacked Benghazi, to hold office. They were all really friendly, interesting and pleased to see us. Unlike the people we talked to in Egypt and Tunisia they, like everyone else in Tripoli, all said the revolution had changed everything and were confident that things would improve dramatically in the coming years. Which is not to say; people aren’t concerned about the future. Everyone says Gaddafi neglected education, and worry about what that will do to the country. People say the Youth have no respect, and a Sufi mystic said the Salafis are bigots with too much power and confidence and not enough knowledge of Islam. But everyone is confident that whatever happens, it’ll be better than Gaddafi. The city feels like its celebrating, and has got out its biros to cross his (gormless) face of the one dinar note, and scratched Jamhariya, his name for Libya’s government, off the car licence plates. The odd burst of celebratory gun fire, fireworks and, worst of all, the sticks that go bang which kids throw all over the place has almost given me post traumatic stress, and I wasn’t there during the war, but Tripoli seems happy. No one, not even the people with touristy shops in the old city, tries to sell us anything. If the national museum wasn’t still dismantling the galleries about Gaddafi and cataloguing what went missing during the war the city would be practically perfect.

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Tunisia – not smelling of Jasmin

There is nothing like being proved right about something to make you like it. In Tunis, Sousse, Kairoun and Sfax the cities provided a backdrop to our disscussions about how they felt like like they were waiting for something. Consequently when on Friday our louage, as Tunisia calls the serveece, was stopped by a neat line of rocks across the road outside Metlouie we were not surprised at all. Protesters milling around, stopping traffic into the mining town in Gafsa governorate seemed to explain the atmosphere, rather than confusing us.

Tunisians are pretty keen to chat, and none of the people we talked to thought the revolution had changed anything. In Egypt we met people who were inspired by the revolution and others who were disillusioned with it, people who were determined to create a country worthy of its martyrs and people who thought the revolutionaries had already lost. In Tunisia only a group of students Gerard met thought anything had even started to change. The students from Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution started, who invited us to stay with them, were completely uninterested in politics.

We talked about all this as we waited on the road for a couple of hours, watching the police watch the townsfolk watch us before our driver decided to take us over a desert track. My boyfriend checked the news for us and read it to us over the phone. Like much of the south Gasfa province had been on strike the day before.

Tunisians have told us a lot (blue repels mosquitoes, the yellow doors in Tunis are on houses that belonged to money loving Jews) and we might now be able to explain the weird atmosphere in Tunisia, but we will never understand Tunisians obsession with complicated change manoeuvres. They have way more small denomination coins than Egypt, but instead of handing them over they will go to any lengths (while reckoning in thousands of milliems, in French) to work out a way of giving one a note. If you buy something for, say, eight dinar they’d definitely prefer to take 22 and give you a ten dinar note than accept a ten and give you two as change. Nor will we ever understand why they go to bed so early – we arrived in Tripoli, Libya on Wednesday and, since leaving the airport, have loved everything.

 

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Drunk and Disturbing Me

We’re still in Tunisia, and I don’t really know what I think about it. Tunisians and I need to work really hard to understand each other’s Arabic, and they can’t believe it wouldn’t just be easier to talk French. The Tunisian old cities are similar enough to Damascus to remind me how much I miss Sham. It’s worse than being homesick because the Damascus I miss has been shot to shit, the people I shared it with scattered and scarred by the war. My relationship with Sham is in its Sinead O’Connor phase; obviously it’s over but Nothing Compares To You, Damascus. Our break up is still too recent for me to want to be impartial; I just wanna be in pre-war Syria.

So clearly I’m not fair to Tunisia. It’s probably amazing really. I’m swinging from loving the rolling hills of Cap Bon, backed the improbably blue Med and the medina’s narrow alleys, with doors and windows picked out in blues as unlikely as the sea, and thinking about Syria. But I don’t think it’s only that my second country has dumped me. Too many Tunisians just seem unloved, uncared for. So far only one person to come up to us after dark hasn’t reeked of beer. My Syrian friends drank, some of them allot, often cheep vodka outside, but it seems Tunisia’s public drunkenness is of a different breed. My friends enjoyed getting pissed. Simple as that. Both Syria and Egypt had an underclass for whom survival was a struggle, but somehow they didn’t seem as desolate as their Tunisian counterparts. I can’t think of a Syrian equivalent of the man who showed me and Gerard round a mosque today and smelt of alcohol, madness and neglect. Despite living on the edge of a refugee camp in an Iraqi suburb I saw one person in Syria combine hopelessness and booze. After two years it is literally shocking to see the pairing again. I discussed it with Gerard a, who made thinking noises. The boys not being as surprised as me (although they were pretty surprised by the toothless beggar who tried to kiss me at 10am) makes me wonder about Britain.

We’re in Kairoun at the moment which claims to be the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world. They’re wrong, Damascus’ Umayyad mosque is, but it’s still a relaxed, residential old city. I like it, particularly the well that’s linked to one in Mecca. A bunch of guys with a banging sound system have taken over the piazza between our hotel and the walls of the old city. They’re playing a catchy song about Jihad, draped everything with posters about spreading the revolution and are busy fund raising for Gaza. They’re having a great time. Tunisia is as changeable as my feelings.

 

Tunisia Map

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Neither ice cold, nor in Alex

We arranged to collect our Lybian visas from the consulate in Alexandria. The paperwork was processed in Tripoli, and inevatably took longer to come through than it should. We quite enjoyed not doing much and hanging out in art deco cafes. Llwelyn, instead of feeling that not having read the Alexandria quatet diminished his enjoyment of the experiance, was so taken by the atmospheare he decided he could write his own book about the city. Slightly after we got board our paperwork came through and we skipped of to the consulate, like lambs gamboling en rout to the abatour. much to our suprise the conulate told us to fill in some forms and come back next week.
Our visa service provider assured us the wasnt anything to worry about so we hopped on a bus to Siwa, an oasis anoyingly close to Lybia, where we cycled around looking at ruins qnd cooling of in guide-book-blue springs.
Prehaps you can see where this is going; the consulate said Tripoli had revoked our visas. We spoke to our visa providers in Tripoli, who confermed everything was OK. Over the last week, which we spent in Alex waving forms outside the consulate, we have hered every single plausable exscuse for them not stamping our 400 doller visas into our passports. weve had a good range of totaly unbelivable reasons as well.

After six days of consulate fun we were overcome by rightious anger, bordam induced mania and the realisation that we couldnt imagine life without daily consulate bothering. Obviosly we needed to escape, so booked flights to Tunisia. I was worried about how quickly Id become compleatly ok with boardom and routien. Then as we booked our flights we noticed the meal options included a bland food option. If the are people out there who find a standad airoplane meal too exciting I have a long way to go before turning into a total drone.

Tunis seems strange after Egypt. Somehow by seeming so European its very forign. Things seem to shut at night; people drink alchool in the streets, the ice cream is kick ass. But then when we returned to our hostel after a spot of shisha in the old city a weding was underway in the hostals commen room. We escaped it into a Gaza solidarity thing where we were molested by drunks. It seems like Tunis has multipal personality disorder; but it could be that anything other than the Lybian cosulate is too confusing for me to deal with.

Sorry about the spellng and punctuation. This keyboards been compiled by someone who values originality in key placement, the keys stick, the punctuation marks are disguised as other kinds of punctation marks and the spell checker is in French.

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Egypt Vs Syria. 3 differences.

Egypt finds American wrestling hypnotic. I never saw a Syrian cafe with wrestling on TV.

Syria doesn’t have the idea that one can where flip flops outdoors. This is reflected in the language, they call them slippers. Syria is as surprised to see ‘slippers’ in the street as we would be to see some one whereing their pink, fluffy numbers on a bus. The only person in Egypt not wearing flip flops is Llwyelyn, who says he’s traveling so lightweight he can’t take any.

In Syria women were everywhere. Even in early June one saw rich girls in posh cafes and students flirting with each other, despite the revolution turning into a war. Cairo has women. Aswan and Luxor have children or mothers, nothing in between. Hear in Alex their are trendy young things, but even so womens hair surprises us in a way it didn’t in Damascus.

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More dead sheep-part 1

Egypt has been a bit too amazing really. Sight-seeing takes up most of our day, then in the evenings the Egyptians that adopt us in which ever place we happen to be take us on all sorts of adventures. If local hospitality doesn’t end up with us eating sheep’s guts or climbing mountains under the light of the full moon we collapse into bed, too tiered to turn adjectives into sentences.

During Eid al Adhar things really got a bit out of hand. We spent most of the holiday in Luxor, where we woke up with the Mezzuien on the Friday, the 26th and the first day of Eid. Prayers were broadcast over the loud speaker, but both the size and enthusiasm of the congregation made this unnecessary. Like anyone right at the beginning of a major holiday people were too excited to sleep and, instead of going back to bed, after prayers they cranked up a sound system. When the boys gave up on bed and joined me on the balcony they were amazed by how small the crowd outside was, but what was lacking in numbers was compensated for by feeling.

Except for the solitary sheep, hobbled up outside. It didn’t look at all keen on the water and grass the local boys, all wearing new galabayas, were trying to interest it in. When we went down for breakfast the lovely man who owns the Fontana Hotel told us it was his sheep, and he’d sacrifice it just as soon as we’d eaten breakfast. I thought maybe he waited so as not to put us off our food, but it turned out to be so we could watch. Gerard doesn’t like dead things.

I was impressed that they put the sheep over a floor drain in the hotel before doing the deed. Even so the was more than enough blood for everyone to dip theire hands into and print them on the walls, something I didn’t see in Syria.

We headed out in search of coffee, but instead found a sheep being skinned. We stopped to marvel at the high standard of butchery on display, but also to listen to the music that soundtracked the sheep’s dismemberment.

We love Egyptian music. Despite it being everywhere we cannot get enough of it. Not even deep pro Syrian prejudice can make me say Levantiane pop is better. Egyptian music is just so dammed dancy. And we ended up dancing. A lot.

We were about 15 years older than anyone else dancing, until three lads got bored of lounging against a car looking cool and jumped into the circle. They had a routine that they must have really practiced; they were extremely good.

The sun continued its journey across the sky. The patch of shade we danced in shrank and the mud and blood started drying up. Women gave me water that tasted of Nile and I’m too polite to refuse in an attempt to stop me dieing of heat exhaustion. Someone had the sense to pull the plug, and we were sat down and fed tea. The dancing turned out to just be a prelude to our Eid adventures, but as the moon is now well across the sky and the internet cafe is shutting the rest will have to wait.

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Egypt


Its the 12th and I’m getting cold feet. Egypt seems fine, the demo that greeted me as I got off the bus in Tahir square was pretty small (and since then its looked a lot more dramatic on TV than in the flesh). But I’m one day, 2 hrs and 24 minutes late for my roundevouz with Gerard. We said that we’d return to our chosen cafe every hour on the hour, or at lest I said that in a message I hope he received, so inshallah he’ll turn up soon. meanwhile Llwyelyn is still in the UK, possibly dieing of viles disease. nether of these little things can be categorized as good omans.

On the plus side I’m doing better with the local Arabic than I expected. I understand, except when I don’t, in which case i completely, comprehensibly, unconditionally fail to understand. admittedly the Egyptians laugh, and if they can switch into English, when I lisp the Arabic exultant of ‘forsouth, i beg of you enlighten me as to the location of…’ Syrian dialect has, so far, done the trick.

Even better, while in 2007Ciro overwhelmed me as much as she beguiled me this time I’m complicatedly in love. The city would remind me of an old woman who’d been beautiful 60 years before, were it not that she is so alive. No matter how beautiful her streets are they are filthy and even the goats in the Ally made of the wreck of glorious Mameluke buildings seemed to eat plastic bags with vitality. The places outside the maelstroms of hooting cars seem some how intense, like a lot of enagy is going into chilling out.

It is impossible to tell how much the revolution has changed Egypt since I was hear before. The almost complete absence of low denomination notes that complicated everything has been circumvented by minting a load of coins and the citys fleet of aging pergots seems diminished, the fallen war horses replaced with Dewos. I doubt the Arab Spring is responsible though.
People are willing, although not particularly pushy, to talk politics. Everyone says they’re disappointed by the revolution, but other than jobs and freedom cannot say what they expected from it. Someone said that drinking in the street was allowed now, but he neither approved nor though that it was enough for the price Egypt had paid for the revolution.

In the same way its hard to imagine Ciroas ornate architecture getting the scrub it needs and the pipes rerouted underground its hard to imagine how her uncountable children can create the jobs and improved living standards they revolted for. But then overthrowing
Mubarak took quite some imagining, and yet it happened.

In Cairo the weather isnt as hot as I’d expected. My personal conditions and forecast is ‘slightly over clouded, set to clear.’ I hope that Gerard shares my sunny outlook. As he hasn’t emailed I assume either his cool hasn’t melted, or some disaster that makes my endless hours in Gatwick pale into insignificance has befallen him. maybe the is a place in the sun for Egypt as well.

***

One of the reasons I thought Gerard would make a great travelling companion was his self reliance. we’ve crossed Tahir square a few times en rout to the Egyptian Museum and the Nile a few times, and seem to have hit it when its been calm. Certainly it hasn’t been stormy enough to dislodge the touts. After staggering out of the Egyptian museum thinking 3000 wasn’t that old after looking at things from the dawn of history, it was refreshing to stand at the center of contemporary events. The are some fantastic murals commemorating the martyrs of the revolution. I couldn’t help wondering how meany miles of wall will be needed to remember Syrias dead as I looked at them.

While we’ve been sight seeing Llwyelen has decided to delay his demise. Barring disasters, and I’m not sure my luck has recovered enough for it to be safe to bar disasters, he’ll join us tomorrow evening.

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