It seemed only fitting that Libya, during a historic time of great turmoil, strife and defiance would be the last sovereign nation for me to visit. It was a decision that I really didn’t even give a second thought to. I knew how to do it, where to do it and what to say. I had talked to people who had been; I had read several blogs and stories about people doing it and I was ready. I didn’t know what to expect when and if I got through the border so I didn’t have any set plans and didn’t even have a way of getting there. As usual though, it all worked out for the best and I can honestly say that my short time in Eastern Libya was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
We left Cairo on an Egypt Air Express plane at 9am bound for Mersa Mutruh, which is about 250km from the Libyan border near Sallum. We were very eager to get going but clearly a little anxious at the unknown ahead of us. Neither myself, nor my friend Maria speak Arabic more than a few basic words so that is always an issue especially heading into a war torn nation.
At the Cairo airport, I noticed a well dressed man in a suit who clearly looked educated and he had a Libyan rebel flag on his lapel. He also had a small carry on backpack with a Canadian flag. I mental noted him and figured I would try and chat with him when we landed as he looked like a Libyan dissident who was perhaps returning to Libya after some time. I figured I could ask his advice or even his translation skills at the border if that’s where he was in fact going. When we landed in Mersa Mutruh, as luck would have it, we started chatting and he was exactly that. He and his daughter were returning to Libya for the second time in 32 years to visit their family; the first time was last month. The daughter had never met any of her 42 cousins and they were heading to the historic town of Tobruk in Eastern Libya.
They had a big minivan and again, as luck would have it, invited us in their car to Tobruk. How could we possibly say no? In the car was Hussein, the man who invited us and his daughter Yasmina. They live in New York and Hussein has worked for the UN at times and currently is on a mission in Montreal. They were unbelievably nice to offer. In the front was Hussein’s brother Sanoussi and his close friend. Collectively they were the most unbelievable and selfless people. As we set out to the border we began chatting about Libya, their family, politics and of course Gaddhafi and the war.
I was enchanted by the conversation from real Libyans who had been affected by the iron fist rule of the crazy dictator. They regaled me with stories from their youth and how Gaddhafi used to be and how Hussein had decided to defect, etc. He explained to me from an insiders perspective about the rebel movement and what will happen once the new government is in place. We also chatted about the UN’s role, Israel, Iraq and every other topic under the Middle Eastern sun and I was fascinated.
As we pulled into the lovely little city of Sallum, the Mediterranean Sea sparkles in the natural harbor in town. Checkpoints abound as you wind thru town and up the large mountain to where the border post is. I felt very confident that with Hussein having a UN passport and he and Sanoussi speaking Arabic and knowing the people, we would both be fine with our US passports although Maria’s states that she was born in Russia which is always tricky when crossing borders.
The Egyptian side took a while because of the numerous checkpoints and the rigorous paperwork needed to drive across the border, both exiting and entering. So after the formalities were finished and we got stamped out of Egypt, the real fun began as we pulled up to the Libyan entrance gate.
There was a short line of supply trucks and cars and a ton of soldiers at the gate on the Egyptian side of the border. It was very hot and the soldiers didn’t look too happy. There was a lot of commotion and yelling when we arrived and it was hard to decipher exactly what was happening. Hussein then investigated closer and found out that on the other side of the border there were a bunch of Egyptians who were trying to smuggle Chinese made fake Marlboro cigarettes across the border back into Egypt. Apparently shipping the fake merchandise into Libya is much cheaper than doing the same in Egypt so that’s what they did. Hussein said it was a very lucrative business.
As the soldiers wouldn’t let them pass and in fact shut the metal gate that is the border, people were getting upset on both sides. If you’ve ever been to Africa, you’ve undoubtedly seen those supply trucks piled high as you can see with a bunch of workers or kids on the top along for the ride. I know it sounds stupid and dangerous but this is life in Africa and happens all the time. These kids started getting testy and so did the drivers of the held trucks.
The trucks started revving their engines like they were going to drive through the soldiers and the gate into Egypt. The soldiers took their AK-47’s and pointed them right at the trucks and some of them even fired their guns into the air in warning. Suddenly, the kids on the top of the truck started throwing big softball sized rocks at the soldiers. A few were knocked down and the soldiers started firing at the trucks and the kids. The gunfire and rock throwing was literally about 50 feet or 15 meters in front of our car.
Everyone started to panic. The cars started flooring it in reverse in one mass exodus everyone backed up as the firing went on. The casual onlookers ran back for cover and we all ducked in the car but peeked one eye over the dash to see what was happening. It was pretty scary and certainly dramatic. I had been at some crazy border entrances in my day but had never seen gunfire erupt like this. To my knowledge nobody was hurt by the gunfire but I really don’t know either and didn’t stick around to find out. Again, fitting it was my last UN nation to visit, but we still hadn’t gotten into the country yet.
We then had to wait some 30 minutes or so for the situation to calm down. Then they finally started letting some cars from our side of the border through and it was a sprint to the gate. We were behind in line and they closed and opened the gate several times while we waited as the situation on the other side was unclear. Finally we snuck through the gate and weaved through the trucks on the other side to where the Libyan customs office was. I say office but it was a small shack/hut with a 20 year old kid manning the customs desk.
We had to fill out these little yellow customs forms that literally ask the same questions, like date of birth etc, 5 times in very poor and misspelled English. After filling it out, our passports and entry cards were presented to the kid manning the desk. I was expecting a grilling on why we were there etc. There was nothing, he didn’t even look up, he just stamped our passports and that was it. I had this whole “journalist why I’m there” story ready to go that I had been spending weeks thinking about but didn’t even have to pull it out. It was shockingly easy. I am sure it helped that we had Libyans with us and a UN diplomat by a sheer stroke of luck but whatever the reason, we were in Libya!
Arriving into Libya was a big rush for me as it meant I had become the youngest American to ever complete the United Nations list of sovereign nations at 32 years and 364 days; a day before my 33rd birthday. Obviously, I have traveled way more than that but the UN list was bound to fall at some point. If I had known there was actually a Guinness world record for the being the youngest, I would have finished the list much earlier. An Italian guy finished it up at 29 or so several years ago. Either way, I was on cloud nine and we were off the 150km or so to Tobruk.
On the way we continued our interesting conversations and we stopped off at a few beautiful lookout points along the Mediterranean Sea. They told us that these were the most beautiful spots in Eastern Libya and they were quite nice. Before we approached into Tobruk, Hussein and his brother invited us to Sanoussi’s apartment for dinner with their family that night. We didn’t want to impose on their family reunion but they insisted. Again, how could we say no to that amazing opportunity to go into the house of a prominent Libyan to celebrate the fall of Gaddhafi and the end of Ramadan.
Sanoussi’s friend had a cousin that owned a hotel in town and we dropped our stuff off there, got ready. The hotel was very nice, tourist class and clean. They had a nice rooftop restaurant with great views of the city, harbor and the sunset. We were then picked up by Sanoussi again around 7 to go to his house for dinner.
The dinner experience was one of those surreal kinds of things that has to be experienced to truly understand and convey the way it went, but I will try my best. First of all, it was a little odd going to a family that was reuniting after so many years house for dinner but it was also impossible to say no given the circumstances. It was such an honor to be invited. Sanoussi told me I was his brother and whatever I needed or wanted he could provide for me. I couldn’t believe how nice he was. When we arrived in the gorgeous and massive apartment it was more of the same.
We met nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters and all were so kind and welcoming. The conversation was awesome again and then came dinner. It was served that the men were in the living room and we ate on the floor and without hands along with a spoon for the unreal spicy Libyan soup they served. The women ate in the TV room and had the same food. Apparently, they always eat separately by sex. I thought it was slightly strange but it seemed so natural there that it didn’t even faze me at all.
After the soup there was an amazing mix of foods ranging from lamb to babaganoush to the most amazing fresh bread that was actually baked by Hussein’s mother. It was truly divine and absolutely delicious. I was floored by the taste and by the hospitality. After dinner there was rounds and rounds of coffee and tea and dessert breads. I was so full. Hussein kept joking that I ate all the food but each time I finished any portion of anything Sanoussi would replace it immediately and I couldn’t not eat it! It was so good!
After a long after dinner conversation and the watching of Al Jazeera to get the latest Gaddhafi news, we went back to the hotel to see that the entire town was out and about celebrating the end of Ramadan. It was pretty cool to see. All the shops, restaurants and stores that were strangely closed during the day opened for business at night and the streets raged with people walking around, letting off firecrackers and living their lives. As Sanoussi said, “There hasn’t been anything to celebrate in 42 years so people are just happy and being themselves now without Gaddhafi”. Amazing I thought.
As we got dropped off, Sanoussi came into the hotel with jus and started talking to the guy at the desk in Arabic and 10 seconds later he told us that we didn’t have to pay for the rooms, he took care of it. I was blown away. It was almost embarrassing how nice they were to us. I have never been treated so well in my life. It was truly the most amazing and authentically nice experience of my life. I have nothing but the most amazing thoughts about the Libyan people that we met and especially the amazing family of Hussein and Sanoussi whom I am forever grateful.
They also helped in setting us up with a driver to take us all the way back to Cairo. The original plan was to head straight to Benghazi but after our incredible and unexpected experience in Tobruk, we decided that it couldn’t get any better and by driving another 6 hours to Benghazi with another 6 back plus the 12 hours to Cairo didn’t make much sense. So we decided to head back to Cairo.
Our driver was kind of funny/annoying. He was a very nice rotund guy who didn’t speak a lick of English. He didn’t use any influence with having white Americans at the border getting out of Libya or back into Egypt. There happened to be a huge truck of Libyans entering Egypt to work and it took 4 hours to get us through without any violence or stress this time. He was very laid back, lazy and in fact about 60km later we stopped at a rest stop.
He didn’t say anything, just stopped the car and went into the prayer room to pray or so I thought. So after about 45 minutes I am starting to get annoyed and thinking, how long can one person pray for. So I go have a peek into the prayer room and he is passed out on the floor sleeping. So of course I am baffled about what to do.
There are other people praying inside and also sleeping so I didn’t want to interrupt their prayers but Jesus Christ my driver is sleeping and we are sitting there sweating our asses off and waiting to go another 7 hours back to Cairo. So after some debate I decided to go in and give a psst sound and see if he wakes up. Nothing. However, the guys praying turn around and I feel like an idiot. So then I am like screw it and walk inside and kind of kick nudge him so he’d feel it but not too hard. He wakes up and sees me above him giving the thumb sign as in let’s go! He nods and gets up. He doesn’t attempt to speak and goes and washes up in the bathroom.
We think we are ready to go and then he goes back into the prayer room and starts praying for a few minutes. I was a little annoyed after 4 hours at the border that he slept then prayed. I felt like Seinfeld because we were the discussing that you pray then sleep not the other way around! It was weird. Finally he finished and we could go after being at that rest stop for like 75 minutes.
The rest of the ride was nice along the coast seeing all the developments along the Egyptian Mediterranean and then there was a shortcut back to Cairo through the desert. We got lost driving in Cairo and it took an hour to find the hotel where I had to do a radio taping with Peter Greenberg for his nationally syndicated radio show which will air in the US September 3rd. I will have programming details when I get them. It was fun and I look forward to hearing it and hopefully doing that more often.
I had a truly memorable experience in Libya and there wasn’t a better possible way to have seen my final sovereign nation in the world. It may be one of my most memorable and a fitting way to do it. I hope that when I finish the TCC list it will be half as memorable.
Thanks as well to everyone for their birthday wishes and emails, etc. It was as memorable a birthday as I’ve ever had. My 31st was in North Korea and now my 33rd was in Libya. For 35, I’ll have to think of another hot spot!