Places to Visit? Libya a Visit with Impressions

Posted on 29 November 2012

I am recently back from a week in Tripoli, Libya, teaching our MBA students there (I teach at Aston University). I agreed to do this just before the revolution – and as we have just passed the first anniversary of freedom you can see there has been a bit of a delay! As the time approached to go, the trepidation grew. The foreign office still advises against all but essential travel to Tripoli, and against all travel to some areas of the country. However  I was going with a colleague who had been there before, and assured me it was now safe.

My first impression of Libya was that Libyans seem to be very polite! On boarding my flight from Frankfurt, everybody seemed remarkably helpful, assisting with the packing of each others bags in the lockers instead of just pushing to get their own stuff in. When I commented about this on Twitter, I got this reply from a Belgian diplomat in Libya:

“yeah, they need to help each other, because everybody carries at least 4 pieces of hand luggage”

My second impression was that it was VERY HOT. About 36 degrees I was told. Leaving the plane felt like crouching in front of a hot oven and opening the door. This would have been bad enough in a t-shirt – but of course I had been warned before I came that as a woman I needed to follow  a ‘modest’ dress code. I was advised that meant full length trousers (or full length skirts of course) at least three-quarter length sleeves, a high neckline, not too tight and clingy, and definitely very opaque. Wearing a headscarf is optional though. Almost all women do, but I saw a few around without.

Next thing I noticed was the bullet holes through the glass in the passage way into the airport. Nice!

I’m told it could take a couple of hours to get through the airport in the past. Nothing like that now – we went straight through in minutes. Though it was quite interesting to have to get all our luggage scanned on the way IN to a country. We were met by a driver and whisked to our hotel, on the sea front.

I had a number of nice meals whilst I was there, but the best was when my colleague introduced me to the Athar Restaurant, just by the Roman ruins of the Marcus Aurelius Arch (below) in the old city. Beautiful place. If I had any stamina I would have sat outside on the terrace with a wonderful view of the arch. Unfortunately, even at about 8pm, it was so hot that I wimped out and opted for the air conditioning inside.

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The food was lovely. A nice range of nibbles (humous etc) then a tasty vegetable soup, followed by the much recommended dish of the restaurant, Algarra. I was tempted by the Young Camel Algarra, just so I could say I had had it, but was told the Lamb Algarra is actually much nicer, so decided to be sensible. The algarra is a stew cooked in a sealed pot. It is brought to your table in a metal box with flames still licking over it. The waiter breaks the top off, them pours it out onto your plate. It was delicious!

Also a revelation was the limon drink – a mint and lemon juice drink, it didn’t sound very appealing to me, but actually was very tasty and refreshing. I tried it in other restaurants afterwards, but this version was the best.

After the meal we walked through the souk (market) streets. These can be very crowded and busy, very lively. Unfortunately I felt a bit too uncomfortable to take photos of people, which I’m told some don’t like. When we got to the large Martyr’s square, we were slightly disconcerted to see the roads closed off by armed pickup trucks accompanied by soldiers/militia and guns, and crowds the other side of the square. It actually didn’t feel threatening, because there were plenty of people about not reacting to them, and I noticed a little girl walking up to one pickup and chatting to the soldiers, who were smiling and friendly to her. Nevertheless we decided to wander off up a shopping boulevard. The buildings either side of the street were beautiful, though somewhat run down. There was an interesting hierarchy of tradespeople. The best off had actual shops – mostly pretty small – in the front of the buildings. Then outside at the roadside there were stalls. The goods were spread outwards from both types, leaving a sometimes narrow gap to walk down. The pavement tended to be covered over like a tent. Then, presumably because they could not afford stalls, the next level was the car-top stall. These were parked, especially whenever you had to cross a side street, and the bonnet and roof covered in goods. The shops and stalls tend to be grouped together, so you get stretches all selling the same things. Clothes, then shoes, then watches and jewellery, etc. I am told you can buy imitation almost anything. I really enjoyed my evening – and just wished I could photograph it all!

We found out the following morning that the soldiers and guns in Martyr’s square had been there as part of a gun amnesty. People were encouraged to hand over weapons in return for entry into a prize draw. It’s all part of the attempts to disarm the population after the revolution and help get the country stabilised and ‘normal’ to encourage the rest of the world to start travelling and doing business there. The people I spoke to were very keen for this to happen as soon as possible. Apparently we missed the best part of the evening…when two tanks were handed in!

I did manage a handful of pictures around Martyr’s square another evening. The square was very busy around 7:30pm. Throngs of cars, plenty of people. Flower sellers. Open shops. Evening seems to be a big time to be out and about, and go shopping.

So what of my actual work? It was great! The students were mostly rather more mature than average MBA students in the UK. Some were really quite senior in their organisations. Because of Libya’s near isolation at times, it could be difficult to obtain internationally recognised qualifications. These were people hungry to learn – a teacher’s dream! They asked some very good questions. They were also very optimistic about the future of their country and excited about its potential. And they wanted to be ready for when international businesses started to work with them again – with a good qualification, and with a good understanding of how these businesses work. They really convinced me of the potential in the country, and they were so upbeat, despite the many challenges the country faces. It was hard to relate that to some of the stories I heard of what had happened to and around them only a year earlier. People they knew being killed, driving through the streets trying to get home and seeing bodies around them, the missiles going overhead, and so on. But now they just seem to want to  get on with the positive future they hope for.

The building where I was teaching.

The building where I was teaching.

Our partner organisation in Libya, Awardbrand, were great. Good facilities, and very efficient and helpful. For example when I wanted an overhead projector (so students could do drawings and diagrams and show them to the rest of the class) after some surprise that I wanted something so old fashioned, they managed to produce one for the following morning. Additionally, the driver they organised to deliver us to and from the hotel was always on time and friendly. In fact at the end of the trip, once the course was over, he took us on a tour around the local graffiti of the revolution. Unfortunately much of it has now been painted over. We kept arriving at white walls! But here are some of the highlights of those we saw.

There were direct reminders of the fighting in some places too. But where I was, at least, they were the exception.

Demolished

It was a fantastic trip. I really enjoyed it. I hope the students and others I talked to are right about how the country will develop and become peaceful.  I’d like to go back there again! Next time I’d try and stay for extra time at the end, so I could look round the town in daylight.

Article by Karen Caine