Monday, April 13, 2015

Flying with Friends

Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) was not the best airline in the world but it was a reasonably safe and effective one. However, actually getting onto its planes was always a hassle. No matter how far in advance you had booked, you would usually arrive at the check-in desk only to be told that the flight was already full. The root of the problem was not inefficiency but rather the importance that Libyans placed on friends and family. Foreigners would book their seats weeks in advance but then the LAA reservation clerks would be approached by colleagues or other airport workers needing to book a seat for their brother or their cousin or a friend of their cousin or someone who said he was a friend of a friend of another of their cousins. Since it would have been unthinkable to refuse such a request from a fellow Libyan, the clerks would simply add the names concerned to the top of the passenger list. So each flight would be grossly overbooked.

I encountered this problem several times when I had arranged to fly out of Libya on LAA. Luckily, I was in a better position than most other non-Libyans who had booked seats: Our school provided English courses to many LAA employees and the airline’s general manager (Georges H----) was himself one of our students. Although I never asked any favors of Georges, I wasn’t above using his name if necessary. This always made for an interesting and enjoyable interaction at the check-in desk.

Me: Hello. Here’s my ticket. I’m on the 1:00 pm flight to London.

Clerk: I’m sorry but the flight is full. You must wait for another flight.

Me: Can you check the list, please? I’m sure I’m on it.

The clerk would pretend to check.

Clerk: I’m sorry. You are not on the list.

Me: Can you check it again, please?

The clerk would pretend to check once more.

Clerk: No. You are not on the list.

Me: That’s very strange. I made the booking through Georges H-----, your manager. He’s a friend of mine and a student at my school.

Clerk: Oh. You know Mr. George. Let me check again. Yes, there you are. I didn’t notice before because your name is at the top of the list. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Different Country, Different Customs

      There were a lot of things you couldn’t buy in Libya. Sometimes this was because the items were banned: Alcohol fell under the heading of banned goods, as did bacon and all other pork products. Also banned were any magazines or books that included photos of women with bare arms or legs, or wearing clothes with low necklines. Some other items weren’t banned but were simply unavailable. Avocados, for example, weren’t grown there or imported, and individuals were forbidden from bringing them or other fresh fruit or vegetables into the country. 

      Inevitably, the unavailability of these items meant that expatriates living in Libya spent a lot of time and effort trying to smuggle them into the country. Every time a flight arrived at Tripoli from a western country, several of the passengers would try to sneak in some forbidden goods, usually including a bottle or two of whisky.

      The Libyan customs officers were wise to the situation. They would search every passenger’s luggage with great care and they would confiscate any illegal items that they found. While you were waiting in line to go through customs, you would hear and see different reactions from the customs officers depending on which items they found in people’s luggage. The discovery of fresh fruit or vegetables would bring merely disapproving looks and comments. The discovery of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label or a copy of “Cosmopolitan” would be celebrated with shouts of glee. (Sometimes the officers who found whisky would disappear into a back office with the whisky and reappear a few minutes later looking even more gleeful.) The discovery of bacon would generally elicit a more hostile reaction. I have even seen customs officers who found packets of bacon in a suitcase throw the packets to the ground and literally jump up and down on them, all the while shouting abuse at the offending traveler.

      I myself never tried to smuggle alcohol into Libya. As the director of a school, I knew that being caught smuggling alcohol would have reflected badly on the school and might even have resulted in its closure. However, I missed avocados, bacon and ham so much that I spent time developing a technique for getting them through customs.

      I would travel with the forbidden food in two plastic shopping bags, together with a bottle of whisky. When I reached the customs desk at Tripoli airport, I would put the shopping bags on the counter, open them to show the contents and hand over the bottle. I would say I realized the goods were banned and would apologize profusely and abjectly for having brought them with me. The reaction was always the same. The officer would immediately confiscate the whisky and put the bottle under the counter. He would then give me a stern lecture about the ban on alcohol. After that, he would hand me the two bags of banned foods and tell me to go through. 

      I guess this shows that honesty really is the best policy.


Keep Right On to the End of the Road

Driving in Libya was always interesting and often challenging. One reason for this was that Libyans frequently ignored driving laws and rules. So they would stop without warning in the middle of the road to greet a friend who was walking on the verge or who was driving in the opposite direction. They would also do irritating things like driving the wrong way down one-way streets. However, many of the roads were at least as much of a problem as the drivers. Let me give an example.

Marabouts are Muslim holy men and are greatly venerated. It has become customary to bury them in a square, stone or brick tomb situated at the exact spot where they passed away. 

These tombs can never be moved. Unfortunately, a surprising number of marabouts happen to have died right in the path of modern roads. “So what?” you are probably thinking. “All you have to do is bypass each tomb by routing the road around it.” This would be the logical solution – but it was one that was never employed in Libya. Instead, a modern, well-surfaced road would be built to within maybe 20-30 yards of a marabout’s tomb. Then the road would simply stop, to start again 20-30 yards on the other side of the tomb. So you would be hurtling along on a nice, fast road when suddenly – and without any warning - you were driving on dirt and heading straight for a rather solid-looking tomb. It wasn’t normally a major problem during the day but it could certainly give you a very nasty fright if you were driving at night.

Talking of nasty shocks at night reminds me of something that happened on one of our trips to the oasis town of Ghadames. 

We started off from Tripoli rather later than usual and so we were still maybe 50 miles from the oasis when night fell and we ran into a rainstorm. A huge rainstorm. The rain was absolutely pelting down and the wipers on my Volkswagen Beetle couldn’t cope. Although I was only able to catch occasional glimpses of the road through the rain and darkness, I knew it ran as straight as a die for miles and so I kept on driving. However, we eventually reached a place where I couldn’t see any sign of the road at all. I stopped. I got out and walked ahead of the car to check that we were still on the road. We were – but the road only extended perhaps five yards in front of the car before it came to a ragged edge overlooking a vertical fall. It seemed the storm had totally washed away the bridge over a “wadi” (river bed). If I’d kept driving for just a few more seconds, we would have plunged into the wadi and been swept away by what was now a raging river. As it was, we had no choice but to turn around and head back home.

That isn’t the end of the story, though. Back in Tripoli, I told a Libyan friend from Ghadames what had happened. I mentioned that I wished we had started the trip a few hours earlier, because then we would have crossed the bridge well before it was destroyed by the storm. “Oh no,” he laughed. “You would have had the same problem. That bridge was washed away two months ago.”

I didn’t ask him why nobody had thought of putting up barriers or signs to warn drivers using that road. I'd been in Libya long enough to know not to ask stupid questions like that.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

With a Little Help

      As the director of a private language school in Libya, I always felt bad that the pay and benefits I could offer our teachers were nothing like as good as those enjoyed by the (much less effective) teachers employed at the language school run by the oil companies. However, there was one area in which I took great pride: My ability to arrange exit visas for those of our teachers who wanted to leave the country when we had 3-day weekends. The oil company school’s teachers had as many 3-day weekends as ours had but their administration could never arrange exit visas for such short breaks. Time after time our teachers would get to spend a long weekend in Malta or Tunisia while their oil company school counterparts were unable to leave Libya.
      But at one point in my third year it looked like this one advantage was about to disappear.
      A 3-day weekend was on the horizon and three of our teachers wanted to spend it in Malta. They were fairly new arrivals and they were all very excited at the prospect of hitting the Italian restaurants of Malta and shopping at the Marks and Spencer store there. In the two weeks before the break all these three teachers could talk about was Malta, Malta and more Malta.
      Once I had completed all the necessary paperwork, Mansour (the school’s fixer) took the exit visa applications to the Immigration Office. The applications were rejected. Mansour didn’t know why. The following day I sent him back to try again. The papers were rejected. The next day I sent him there once more, this time accompanied by the school secretary, Ali. The papers were rejected. Neither Mansour nor Ali could tell me why. So the following day – which was just one day before the teachers were due to fly to Malta – I sent Mansour back to Immigration but this time I went with him.
      Mansour and I got to the Immigration Office at 7:00 a.m. and we spent the rest of the morning either waiting in lines or being sent from office to office. Nobody could tell us exactly what was wrong with the applications but every official we spoke with agreed that they could not be approved.
      By noon we had spoken to every immigration officer that we could find and we had to admit defeat. We walked out into the parking lot. Mansour was close to tears. I was about as angry and frustrated as I’d ever been, mainly because I was dreading having to tell the teachers that their Malta trip was off.
      Suddenly Mansour grabbed my arm and dragged me across the parking lot towards a Libyan army officer, who was just getting out of a car. “Abubakr! Abubakr!” he shouted. The officer turned and greeted Mansour warmly. He was Abubakr Younis, the head of the Libyan Army and one of the twelve young officers who had mounted the Libyan Revolution. As luck would have it, he was also an ex-student of our school. Mansour introduced me and then proceeded to explain the problem. I crossed my fingers. 
      “Give me the passports and come with me,” Abubakr said and led us into the Immigration Office.
      I was expecting some kind of discussion between him, us and the Immigration officials. There was no discussion. Abubakr just walked up to the main counter, leaned over and snatched an ink stamp from the official behind the counter. He opened each passport and stamped it. Then he threw the stamp down on the counter, gave me the passports, shook hands with both of us and walked away.
      Mansour was so proud I thought he was going to burst. “Abubakr my friend,” he told me. He kept on repeating it all the way to the school.

      Of course, I didn’t mention any of this to the three teachers. As far as they were knew, the whole process had been routine: They had asked for exit visas and Mansour had popped down to the Immigration Office and picked them up.      

Monday, August 19, 2013

Turning Heads

When Sue and I got to Beirut in 1970, I found it very irritating how people in the street would stop and stare at Sue. Okay, so she was blonde and it was the era of miniskirts. But that still didn’t justify the way pedestrians, cars and even buses would stop when we walked down Hamra Street.

One day I complained about this to the owner of the school where we worked. He laughed.

“They aren’t looking at Sue,” he said. “They’re looking at you.”

“Me? Why me?”

“Because they’ve never seen a man with long hair before.”

The next time Sue and I walked down the street, I looked more carefully at people’s reactions. Our employer was right. Everyone was staring at me.

Me in 1970

A few weeks after this episode, the Barbers Guild of Lebanon passed a resolution condemning long hair on men. The resolution further stated that any men with long hair who came to their shops would have their heads shaved. I take some pride in thinking that I may have contributed to the barbers' resolution. 

Eating Disorders

Eating with Libyans was normally an informal affair. Everyone would sit or lie on the floor around a large communal bowl of food. You would sometimes use a spoon but often you would just pick up pieces of the food using pieces of bread or just your fingers. Unfortunately, this relaxed style of eating didn’t always go down well when translated to other cultures.

My daughter Emma used to run into problems with this. She spent the first five years of her life in Libya, and she spent much of that time with a Libyan family that we knew well. So she learned to eat the way Libyans ate at home. This caused problems whenever she went back to the UK, where she would tuck into a plate of spaghetti or even a bowl of ice cream using only her fingers. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but her grandma was absolutely horrified by it.

I ran into similar problems when I travelled from Libya to visit an International House school in Cairo. I was invited as guest of honour to a party at the home of one of the school’s receptionists.

My first mistake was deciding to sit on the floor when I saw there weren’t enough chairs for everyone. The hostess said “This isn’t Libya” and brought me a chair.

Then came the food. This consisted of tiny (1.5 inches across) pizzas. I was handed a pretty china plate with three mini-pizzas on it. I picked up the first one with my fingers and ate it.

Everyone stopped talking. Somebody started laughing. “Look at him. He’s eating like a Libyan,” she said. Then everyone laughed. After this, all the Egyptians proceeded to eat their pizzas the proper (British) way, with a knife and fork.

Sometimes I could understand why Libyans generally disliked Egyptians so much.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Protect and Serve

Christine, one of our teachers in Libya, was walking down a main street in Tripoli. She noticed that a teenaged Libyan was following her. He kept his distance but he also kept making hissing noises at her. She ignored him. The boy kept following.

Suddenly a car zoomed up and screeched to a halt beside the boy. Christine stopped and turned around to see what was happening. To her surprise, a man got out of the car, grabbed the boy and dragged him over to where she was standing.

It turned out that the man was a plain-clothes policeman. He told Christine that she needed to accompany him and the boy to the police station. When she asked why, he told her that she had to bring charges against the boy for sexual assault, so that he could put the boy in prison.

Christine thought the policeman was overreacting. “He’s only a boy,” she laughed. “And he didn’t really do anything.”

“He was harassing you,” replied the policeman. “In Libya we don’t allow men to harass women. We need to put him in prison.”

Christine had visions of the boy being imprisoned for years and having his whole life ruined. So she kept reasoning with the policeman. It took a while but she eventually persuaded him to let the boy go after giving him a stern talking-to.

“Now I will drive you to where you are going,” the policeman told Christine. She said that wasn’t necessary but he insisted. So she got into his car.

The policeman then drove her to an empty building lot and proceeded to try to assault her.

Christine never could see that by insisting the boy was set free, she had effectively told the policeman she welcomed or at least didn’t mind sexual advances from strangers.