Charting the Romans - Libya


Nader smiled at me from the front of the bus. He was young, about 25 and infinitely excited about his first busload of tourists, necks craning to look out the windows of the ancient bus that was carting us, at a rickety snail pace, up the side of a mountain to Gasr- Al Haj. 

Nadar has singled me out earlier on in the journey - curious as to what a young Australian girl was doing in the middle of the Libyan desert with a hoard of elderly British tourists. I had to admit - I was intensely out of place. If it wasn't evident in the juxtaposition of my youthful 19 years, it was painfully obvious in my bright blonde hair - that stood out like a sore thumb amongst the locals in the Western Mountain Region. Tourists were a rarity here. Young, single, female tourists? Unheard of. 

I'd come to Libya on an expedition with my Grandfather, a war historian and lecturer who had been hired by a small cruise liner to guide talks on area. The ship was charting old Roman civilisations across the coastline, and I had found myself in a place of great privilege - escorting tours off the ship into the (basically) untouched Libyan wilderness. I was young, curious, excited and absolutely fucking terrified. I won't pretend that I wasn't.

We went everywhere with police escorts.

Strange, stoic individuals who said nothing and wore dark sunglasses that hid their expressions. They scared me more than the reason they were paid to be there. Nothing unnerves me more than not being able to see a mans eyes. On this particularly rough journey up a mountainside, we had two policeman with us. One sat up the front of the bus, chatting animatedly to Nadar in Arabic, holding on for dear life as the bus jumped and lurched it's way around potholes. The other, sat behind me. Relentlessly boring a hole into the back of my head, that was more uncomfortable that the hot leather seat I kept getting stuck to.

I looked back to Nadar again, willing him to come and talk to me. At least Isomewhat knew this man, who had talked wistfully about his dreams of bringing tourism to Libya. He smiled at me again, but he continued his conversation with the Policeman. 

At Gasr-Al Haj we exited the bus and I ran ahead, eager both to put distance between myself and the police guard and to start snapping away. In my haste to photograph, I didn't listen to a word said about the beautiful round structure I was standing in. It seemed infinite and strong - mythical and ancient. We were led into rooms used to store grain and oils. It smelt musty and disused. Like i am forever guilty of doing, I wandered off - wanting to see more of the village - and found myself in the presence of an old man, dressed head to toe in white cloth. He stared, curiously. I suppose I was to him, as unusual and surprising as he was to me. He did not smile, but I was enchanted by his face. Weathered and tan, his expression betraying nothing. I smiled timidly and continued on, weaving my way out of the structure and into the village. I saw no women.

After a while I made to return to the bus. It was midday and hot. As I neared, I realised the way was blocked by a group of men, the police guards amongst them. Fear creeped it's way up my spine and I searched desperately for Nadar but did not find him. To get the bus, I would have to pass through the men. I braced myself and arranged my face into what I hoped was an expression of grim respect, thinking that if I averted my eyes and kept moving they would not stop me. Years of generalisation and childhood rhymes of stranger danger, had me certain I was inherently endangered. But I continued on anyway.  The men nudged and smiled at each other - but no one moved. No one touched me.

I made it through and to the bus and an arm grabbed my elbow.
It was the stoic policeman who had sat behind me on the way up the mountain. 

'What is your name" - he asked. Heavily accented. My startled naive brain scrambled to break down the question and whether it was safe to answer. "Rachel." I said. "My name is Rachel. What's yours?" I automatically asked. 'Stupid!' chastised my brain. 'You just engaged in conversation with someone dangerous, run away you idiot'. The policeman smiled. "Hathaim" he replied, and removed his sunglasses. I stared.


I don't know why I was so surprised. Lets remember that I was 19 and had been built up by years of stereotyping and media manipulation - we can safely assume that at this age, I am a total harebrained idiot. Nevertheless I was surprised by the policeman's blue eyes - and the kind crinkles at the corners that reminded me of my father. In some truly cliche representation of wholeness, those blue eyes had torn down this misconception of separation. 'One', it seemed to say. We're all the same.

The policeman reached out his hand to shake mine, "It's nice to meet you". I smiled back.

Libya was my first solo trip overseas. At the time I had no idea how fortunate I was to have such an intense welcome into the world of adventure. I had no inclination that my life was about to change permanently - that I was already changing with every smile, every handshake and every cultural difference that would shake me to the core. But Libya meant so much more than self growth. The sheer determination and passion that I felt from the people I met here - represented a huge push for world change. I would soon learn that most Libyans would stay silent about the political state, and that their fierce silence spoke volumes for the revolution in their hearts. Weeks later, when I left, I vowed to return, knowing in my heart that one day Libya's tourism would flourish.

Six months later Libya would be at war. Triploi refugees would flee into the western mountains I'd once travelled through freely and the country would be left in a perpetual state of unrest that still continues today. 

I read in the New York Times that year that a man named Hathaim, a rebel fighter, had tried to contact his wife in Tripoli. I knew there was very little possibility it was the same man, but my heart lurched none the less. Soon, several of Libya's world heritage sites would be destroyed from bombings. It wouldn't compare to the number of innocent lives lost and I wondered, how many of those lost souls, had blue eyes.



Rachel ClaireComment