Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part Eight

Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part Eight

As I explained before signing off last week, in 1985 a Libyan student invited myself and a fellow Brit lecturer to spend a week in his village in the Fezzan, the southern, desert region of the country.
Graeme and I flew to Sabha, the main city in the Fezzan and spent the night at a hotel. The next morning, stitching our bits of Arabic together, we found the bus station and then – stretching our language capacity to the utmost – found the bus to take us to Ubari, where Hamed (not his real name) lived.

All the way – about two hours’ journey – we travelled along a narrow green strip of farming land sandwiched between dunes and rock desert. I don’t know whether the existence of this was due to existing oases or to the Gaddafi regime’s determined efforts to turn Libya green.
Hamed had no idea what time we’d arrive, but in Ubari a procession of giggling children led us to his parents’ house. As soon as we got there and greeted the family, Hamed ordered a sheep to be seized and told us he and his friends would take us for a picnic “in the forest.” Shortly afterwards there was an agonized bleat as the sheep went to meet its Maker. “Thought you wouldn’t like that done at the picnic ground,” said Hamed. “You Brits are so soft.”

The “forest” where the picnic was to be held turned out to be three or four trees and some stubby undergrowth. But our hosts had bought plenty of fold-up chairs and blankets and were immensely good-humoured company.
During our week or so in Ubari there was very little conventional sight-seeing to do. There was a hike over some sand-dunes to see some rocky outcrops where Tuareg nomads had left messages in tifinagh, their very distinctive script, for those who were following them, but I’ve described that in an earlier column. (Records of tifinagh date back to the third century BC; the idea that Africa was analphabetic before colonialism needs serious challenging).

We did visit an archaeological site, evidence of the work of an ancient Libyan civilization, the name of which I’ve forgotten (“why am I not surprised?” groans my long-suffering editor). This comprised a couple of dozen stone structures, each a few feet high, placed at more-or-less regular intervals but forming no obvious pattern. They looked a bit like an artist’s impression of beehives. Archaeologists are baffled as to their purpose. Computer graphing of the layout suggests they had nothing to do with astronomical charting, which would have seemed possible, as the ancient Arab world was a birthplace of astronomy, as well as of many other sciences. My hunch is that it was an ancient practical joke, designed to mystify future generations.

Most of our time in Ubari was spent visiting friends and relations of Hamed in villages scattered around the area. The hospitality and friendliness were outstanding. Every time we drew up to a house where a feast was being prepared, my colleague Graeme let out a muffled bleat, imagining the sheep that was about to be slaughtered.
On the last evening Hamed drove us back to the regional capital, Sabha, where he told us we would be staying next to the airport, from which we’d catch our flight back to Benghazi the next morning.

It turned out his friends were members of the Libyan Air Force and we were being given a room in a building on the military base. For a few hours that evening we sat with Hamed’s friends, all in uniform, drinking contraband whiskey. It seemed pretty crazy, given that, after the latest Gulf of Sirte incident, Libya and the UK were practically at war. Every time I heard footsteps in the corridor I flinched, but all went well.
To be continued

Chris Dunton

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