Crossing into Libya – Jason Pack survives border bureaucracy and sustainable development consultants

At the Libyan border

I figured getting to Tripoli for another quick research trip would be significantly easier than the time I went to visit the Iraqi archives in late 2003.  This time around, I thought it would be very unlikely that I would encounter what the Iraqis used to call an “˜Ali Baba border guard’.  One such petty bureaucrat playfully attempted to enforce the HIV test that had been mandatory for foreign visitors under Saddam, thereby compelling me to cough up a hundred bucks to prevent him from sticking a dirty syringe in my vein. I had also heard that the Libyan road network from the Tunisian border to the capital was entirely secure, unlike the Amman-Bagdad route in 2003 which passed through the “˜Sunni Triangle’ near Fallujah where frequent IEDs necessitated lengthy detours onto local roads.  On both accounts I was flat out wrong.

Possessing no definitive information about how to get to Tripoli from the U.S, I flew to Tunis on September 14th. There I was advised to go to the Tunisian resort island of Djerba and the Radisson Blu in the zone touristique, a common “˜departure’ hotel where journalists and consultants were known to assemble into convoys headed to Libya.  As soon as I was off the propeller plane at the Djerba airport, I spotted two hipsters at the baggage carousel positively oozing a metrosexual vibe. They turned out to be Arabic-speaking Georgetown grads, who over the course of the next 36 hours would alternatively style themselves as sustainable development consultants, green entrepreneurs, and experts in import-export.   In their more candid and giddy moments they made such statements as “Libya feels like the Wild West.  I am sure it is where I will make my first million.” Or even more revealing of the condescending and predatory nature of many ambitious Westerners in the development field, “When I was in Benghazi in April, it struck me that the people were in such dire need of skills and capacity building, you could rake in the cash simply by setting up a falafel restaurant if you could import decent ingredients and bring quality control to its operations. Imagine what you could do in the fields of desalinisation or genetically-engineered seeds modelled on Israeli agronomy methodology but produced in Jordan!”   Although I did not share their motivations for coming to Libya, I knew that sticking with them would keep me safe and cut my costs in getting to Tripoli.

Over cappuccinos in the Radisson’s neo-Ottoman kitsch lobby we kept our eyes firmly peeled on the reception as droves of retired French couples poured in on their package Tunisian beach tours.  This flow was punctuated by the occasional band of Libyan warriors in fatigues or buff middle-aged westerners hauling camera equipment.  After a few fruitless conversations with journalists back from the frontlines of Bani Walid, I was pounced upon by some curious Brits who had overheard me explaining a certain aspect of my research on the British Military Administration of Libya after WWII.  They asked me to write them a short blog post about my encounter with the Libyan archives and the ways which Qaddafi commissioned historical research to buttress his regime. In exchange they told us that their Libyan drivers planned to stay in Djerba for a day before returning to Tripoli and that we could ride with them.  We were now in the trustworthy hands of Mustafa, a Berber engineer with reddish hair and freckles, and Karim, a former ExxonMobil employee who proudly showed us his certificate in “VIP and Evasive Driving Manoeuvres.”

Just before the border, Mustafa bought — and immediately consumed — two warm beers (Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Libya). Suitably buzzed Mustafa was able to fall asleep while we waited in the endless lines of cars at the Ras Djedir border. Many Libyan men knocked on our windows waving wads of Libyan dinars that they hoped to exchange.  Then a sub-Saharan African man asked if we were in a rush.  Terms were negotiated in French. Hopping in the backseat he directed us onto the dirt shoulder bypassing all of the other cars. Parking in a ditch, he ran our passports into the Tunisian visa bureau to be stamped.

Arriving on the Libyan side of the border in no time flat, we were greeted by teenage border guards wearing “˜Free Libya’ T-shirts as if they were waiters in a theme restaurant and the shirts were their mandatory attire.  The illusion was barely shattered by the AK-47s they carried.  They peered into our car, studying our faces intently. Being of the internet generation, they greeted us in English, “˜You good? How your health? Welcome to Free Libya’.

We drove a few hundred yards ahead to a second checkpoint.  There, slightly older guards wearing t-shirts of the local militia “˜The Revolutionaries of Zuwaara’ (Thawwar Zuwaara) looked us over and asked our nationalities.  Shocked that an American could answer such a question in Arabic, I was asked how I had learned the language.  Mustafa joked that we had been waiting in line at the border for such a long time that he had managed to teach me the subtleties of Modern Standard Arabic grammar!

We drove another few hundred yards to a third checkpoint.  Here, yet more serious looking thirty-something guards sat outside under an outpost bearing the Berber (Tamazight) flag. Northwestern Libya has a significant Berber population that was overrepresented amongst the rebels’ elite fighters. They asked for our passports and why were going to Libya. Then a stern, bearded man with a rifle asked me what I thought to be a rhetorical question, “˜Do you need to have a visa to enter Libya?’ When I discovered he expected an answer, I failed to resist my occasional habit of being a pedant. “˜We don’t need to have visas as Libya is now free from Qaddafi’s stupid visa regime; the Transitional National Council leaders have said so in a recent press conference.’ He quickly replied, “˜Wrong. I think Americans do need visas to enter Libya, and if you are journalists, your drivers should paint in Arabic and English on their car that they are carrying journalists.  Without these things you can’t enter Libya.’  The consultants then chastised me for not keeping my trap shut. Karim hurriedly popped out of the front seat and initiated a tete-a-tete with the border guard.

It turned out that Free Libya also has its “˜Ali Babas’ and this was their standard ploy.  The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof had a similar experience. But we seem to have gotten off cheaper than he did.  For twenty-five bucks the impossible visa and fictitious journalist car tag requirements were eliminated.  At the fourth border station, we engaged in a chat about the humidity.  At the fifth and sixth stations, I successfully averted a conversation by saying “˜Allahu Akbar’ rapidly many times in succession.  The next thing I knew, we were in Free Libya proper.

After twenty kilometres and three more non-border checkpoints run by local residents and militia members, we encountered a road closure where we were informed by vigilant checkpoint guards from the “˜Militia of Free Zawiyya’ (Katibat aZ-Zawiyya al-Hurra) that a sniper had been active on the forthcoming section of the main road and hence they were diverting traffic.  The militiamen were calm, confidant, and smiling.  In fact, everyone seemed to be more relaxed and tolerant in the new Libya than I had ever seen them under Gaddafi. On the hundred miles to the capital we were stopped at no fewer than fifteen impromptu checkpoints and were greeted with myriad warm handshakes and offers of free coffee and cigarettes.   Not once did I see a spot where NATO bombing had damaged the main road, whereas every tenth building had been hit by the indiscriminate artillery shelling of Gaddafi’s men.

Despite all the damage to infrastructure and six months of long lines for petrol and bread, Libyans kept telling me how happy they were.  Although the new Libya’s border procedures have room for improvement — a Jihadi carrying an Afghan passport could apparently enter the country so long as he had a few hundred dollars of spare cash – Libya still seems to be a place where hope and trust have replaced fear and loathing.

Jason Pack researches Libyan History at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge University.  He frequently travels to Libya.

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