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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Libya: To The Devil’s Mountain in the Golden Sahara / Now in Egypt / Sudan on Friday

Libya: To The Devil's Mountain in the Golden Sahara
Kaf Ajnoun: The Devil's Mountain. Located in the deepest Sahara of southern Libya, this 1281-meter high rocky massif rises almost vertically high above the desert plains and sand dunes of where the Libyan Sahara kisses the Algerian border. Its massive silhouette looks like an impregnable citadel; its pinnacles the watch towers; the protruding boulders steps in a magical ladders. The Tuaregs, master navigators and nomads of the Sahara, have numerous tales about the mountain and the powerful jinns (genies) that gather here from thousands of miles around. They say, on windy nights, one sees the lights of jinns in conference shining from the peaks, hear their drums and their celebratory firing of their muskets; and those who challenge the legends by climbing the mountain, will suffer from the deed. As such, traditional Tuaregs, brave warriors they may be, give Kaf Ajnoun a wide berth.
I have no intention of challenging the ancient myths, but seeing the Devil's Mountain from afar probably do one no harm. Three weeks ago, I flew into Tripoli from Nairobi (via Dubai and Amman), where I met up with my friends from Singapore, Gary and Kenneth. From there, we began our journey through the ancient Greek and Roman cities of Libya, as well as an expedition into the Sahara, in search of the legends of Kaj Ajnoun.
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We arrived in a Libya in the midst of rapid change and drastic if not confusing economic reforms. Libya has been ruled by Colonel Gaddafi since 1 September 1969, when he, as a 28 years old army officer, launched a coup d'etat and overthrew King Idris Sanusi. Gaddafi sees himself as the quintessential Arab socialist revolutionary and philosopher king. He expelled foreign troops, nationalized the economy, and proclaimed support for the Palestinians, liberation movements across Africa and a whole host of rebel movements across the world. He proclaimed Libya the world's first "Jamahiriya", broadly translated as "state of the masses", in which the people supposedly govern themselves without any government. And Libya became officially known as Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – what a mouthful of grammatically awkward English.
His radical rhetoric and support for various anti-western causes earned him the wrath of America and the West. He was accused of sponsoring terrorism and specifically for 1985 bombings in Berlin and the destruction in 1988 of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in which 270 people were killed. In 1986, the US bombed Libya, killing more than 100 people, including Gaddafi's adopted daughter, Hanna, and injured, among others, two of his sons. In defiance, Gaddafi sent submarines to bomb a tiny Italian island and proclaiming victory by declaring that Libya had destroyed five US war planes. The word "Great" was added to Libya's official name, henceforth the current official name, Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, or "Great Libyan Jamahiriya" in short.
The West demanded that Libya handed over two bombing suspects and when this was refused, sanctions were imposed on Libya, which lasted 7 years, during which the Libyan economy shrunk and 21,000 Libyans died because they could not go overseas for medical treatment abroad. US$30 billion of reveue was lost. A deal was struck in 1999 where Libya handed over the suspects for international trial in The Hague, and UN sanctions were accordingly suspended. In 2003, Libya gave up its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes and open sites for international inspections. In 2006, US removed Libya from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. Economic reforms began to be implemented. Officially, the socialist ideas of Gaddafi's Green Book remains, but in reality, capitalism has taken off in full swing.
These are exciting times for Libya, as the country rushes to refurbish its ageing and under-maintained infrastructure and marches towards modern capitalism. Foreign investors and businessmen are dropping by to exploit the new opportunities. It was during our visit that the Singapore government sent a business delegation headed by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the highest ranking national leader by protocol, to Libya.
Even then, Libya remains wary of the world. The nation continues to apply archaic rules for foreigners wanting to visit the country. Its visa application process is outrageously complicated and bureaucratic, even when compared to North Korea. We went to a lot of trouble to get our passport translated into Arabic and get the translation duly endorsed by our passport issuing authority, as required by Libyan regulations. This rule had been in force for a long time, abolished a few years ago, and then suddenly re-imposed in November 2007 after Colonel Gaddafi was allegedly angered by the French refusal to allow all his bodyguards to accompany him on his visit to France. No notice was given for the implementation of the rule, and it was reported that at least two plane loads of French tourists and one cruise ship were turned back at Libya's airport and port for not having the required Arabic translation, notwithstanding the rule was only announced less than 24 hours prior to that.
We had complied with the translation rule and had a tiring exchange of emails before getting a version of our visa approval letter emailed to us so that we could board the plane for Libya. We thought that everything would be alright upon arrival. We were very wrong.
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This must be one of our most nightmarish bureaucratic experiences ever. I got my visa upon arrival at Tripoli airport (though there was a 1.5 hour tussle with Nairobi Airport due to a silly translation error in the visa approval letter) after merely an hour's wait. Gary, however, is in deep trouble due to no fault of his. Whilst the Libyans had evidence of our visa approval, they could not find the original copy (i.e., they have copy but not original) of Gary's visa invitation letter in their file records. As a result, they refused to grant Gary the visa and we spent five hours at Tripoli airport dealing with the issue. Sounds confusing?
Basically, a government department had misplaced the original copy of the visa approval document and although everyone has evidence of the visa approval (in the form of copies made of the original approval as well as notice to the airlines to allow us to fly into Libya), the actual visa could not be issued if the original approval could not be found and properly filed with a copy of the actual visa to be issued at the airport. But since the approval itself had been complicated, no one wanted to restart the process, and clearly the officials who had approved the original visa could not re-approve something they had previously already approved. Hence we got stuck in the middle and no one wanted to compromise or do anything about it. Sounds like crazy bureaucratic minefield right?
In a poor corrupt country, one could just pay a bribe and all problems would be resolve within an hour. But not in Libya, for it is an oil-rich state still living in the 1960s revolutionary fervor of its enigmatic leader. Clearly, in a country blessed with record oil revenues, few officials were concerned about the predicament of potential foreign investors or tourists. Everybody was probably more concerned with making sure rules were strictly followed and his/her own turf was guarded. This incident does indeed tell one a lot about whether Libya is ready for business or tourism of the kind practiced elsewhere.
We couldn't resolve the issue on our first day in Tripoli. A special pass was issued to Gary so that he could leave the airport but had to return to try resolve the issue the next day. Our original itinerary, which involved setting off for the Sahara immediately the next day, had to be set aside as a result of this fiasco. Gary would return to the airport the second day and a third day. It was only on our third day of arrival, after numerous paper shuffling, discussions among government departments (all of which in Arabic and hence we had no idea whatsoever of the proceedings), many phonecalls to Kenneth's Libyan contacts and business associates, that they agreed to issue the visa to Gary. We still have no idea what transpired but the approval itself was cause for celebration. Allahu Akbar! Allah is Great!
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Tripoli. A city with the old and new; Myriad small lanes in the Old City; Tall office blocks; Billboards of Colonel Gaddafi everywhere in his characteristic dark glasses and fist clasped "gong-xi" pose; Kebab stalls at every corner. The weather was surprisingly cold even with the sunny Mediterranean sun. The waterfront could have been Cannes or Marseilles, with swaying palm trees and couples sharing secrets on benches.
Very few people speak English here but everyone is genuinely friendly and tries to communicate in a bizarre mix of Arabic, French and Italian. There are few English signboards – virtually all signs are in Arabic, the very outcome of Colonel Gaddafi's famous Arab language policy.
We walked through the Old City, visited the Roman Arch of Marcus Aurelius, one of the symbols of ancient Tripoli, known as Oea, whose ruins and foundations now lie beneath modern Tripoli. We also visited the Green Square, where Colonel Gaddafi gave speeches and presided over march-passes.
In Libyan supermarkets, one can find many products from Tunisia, Egypt and the UAE. Things are surprisingly cheap and affordable here. I was to discover that even at the airport in Sabha in the Sahara, one can find packs of biscuits for only 2 to 3 dinars (about US$1.7 to US$2.6), which implied an efficient transportation and delivery network even to remote, sparsely populated areas, hence keeping prices low. What a contrast with West Africa where everything is expensive and comes from France.
We spent a good time strolling along the fine sandy beaches of West Tripoli – Libya clearly has a future if it decides to develop a beach tourism industry like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. But the country would need to simplify entry requirements and visa rules so that casual tourists could come whenever they want to with a minimum of fuss; and a transformation of cultural mindset, difficult it might be, so that some degree of international beach norms becomes acceptable in this country.
Later, Kenneth's friendly Libyan business associate Abdalla brought us to the seafood market where we had very fresh seafood and a good chat about many aspects about life in Libya. This is a country with enormous potential but very misunderstood by most of the world due to the various events of the last few decades. Abdalla had spoken in seminars in Europe about Libya and had met many cynics who highlighted all sorts of perceived problems in Libya, to which Abdalla responded jokingly that he would be very afraid to return to Libya if what they said were indeed true.
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Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power through the coup of 1 September 1969, is mentioned everywhere in the newspapers but hardly quoted by name. He is always "Leader of the Revolution". Gigantic billboards bearing his likeness, or those that bears the numbers "38" (number of years since his revolution), "1969/9/1" (date of the revolution) are everywhere.
His quotations from the Green Book, in which he espoused his "Third Universal Theory" (supposedly after the first two, capitalism and Marxism), are quoted on banners and monuments everywhere in Libya. Here are some of his catchy slogans and core beliefs:
- Partners, not wage-workers
- Democracy with popular congresses everywhere
- The problem of democracy in the world is finally solved! (of course, by the Green Book)
- Political struggle that results in the victory of a candidate with 51 percent of the votes leads to a dictatorial governing body disguised as a false democracy, since 49 percent of the electorate is ruled by an instrument of governing they did not vote for, but had imposed upon them. This is dictatorship.
- Sport is a public activity that must be practiced rather than watched."
- An individual has the right to express himself or herself even if he or she behaves irrationally to demonstrate his or her insanity.
- Black people will prevail in the world
Gaddafi proposes that all governments should be abolished and replaced by popular committees and congresses everywhere. There will be no inter-party squabbling common in democracies and instead everyone in a country will work together as one singular party to select their representatives who do not have selfish personal or partisan interests. There are no governments, presidents or governors, as all decisions are undertaken by the people through committees. In fact, all government departments in Libya are known as "General Committees" and embassies abroad are called "People's Bureau". Gaddafi is a mere Leader, or as one of our guides called "Advisor to the Revolution".
One sometimes find billboards depicting people of the world admiring the Green Book – which reminded me of similar stuff associating North Korea's Kim Il Sung and his Juche Theory – or Africans cheering Gaddafi, or billboards bearing the numbers 1999/9/9, the date Gaddafi announced his plan for the formation of the United States of Africa, a supranational union on the same basis of the European Union. Gaddafi considers himself the chief advocate and father of African unity. Interestingly, Afriqayah Airways of Libya adopted the numbers 9.9.99 as its logo.
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Many of the Old City's inhabitants are black Africans, whereas people of other parts of Tripoli have fair or a typical brownish Mediterranean complexion. Could it be that middle class Libyans have moved out of the Old City into the suburbs, leaving the congested dilapidated old dwellings with antiquated or non-existent plumbing to the poor African illegal migrants from the south? Call it the ghettoisation of the inner city – a process already long crystalised in most large Western cities.
Walking through the many shops blaring out flamboyant English and French rap, I suspect these people have only recently been living in the shantytowns of Ibadan and Ouagadougou, and are dreaming of moving on to the bright lights of Milan and Paris. Thousands drown every year in their attempts to reach Europe from Africa on small rickety boats, that is, if they succeeded in crossing the hot merciless Sahara in the first place. An issue of the Tripoli Post carried a statement from the Libyan General People's Committee for Public Security declaring that Libya will no longer be obliged to protest Italian coasts from illegal immigration so long as Italy does not provide the necessary support. The Libyans have a point here. Libya is a large country with a small population. Why should it incur heavy costs to guard the Italian coast if Italy does little on its part? After all, the continuing stream of illegals provides manpower-scarce Libya with a constant source of low cost manual labour necessary for the country's development.
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We visited the Jamahiriya Museum, a huge depository of Libya's national treasures in Tripoli's Red Castle. This is a fantastic place with lots of Greek and Roman sculptures and mosaics. The Roman sculptures were particularly erotic. Gaddafi's cars were also exhibited, together with amusing captions in rather bad propaganda English that betrayed an imitation of Soviet-accented English once articulated by TASS and Novosti Press Agency. The jeep in which Gaddafi stormed to power in the 1969 coup had this caption: "This car is the apparent witness of the historical penetration and courageous swoop on the aurora of the morning 01/09/1969…which carried the leader [Gaddafi]…on the obvious victory procession with his battlefield uniform risking one's soul for Libya, Arabism, Islam and Humanity altogether." I guess, I, as a member of humanity, have to thank this vehicle for carrying the Leader to victory. I trembled with awe…
A Volkswagen on display used to carry Gaddafi around the country for his clandestine revolutionary activities. The caption said, "…it has embodied the simplicity in confronting the Mercedes Benz car, which has incarnated clamor, haltingness and false arrogance. There were great differences between the two cars while the Volkswagen was rolling up time and distances to bring closer the salvation day, the Mercedes was moving between night clubs, gambling halls and military bases driven by agents of the Italians, Americans and British in the defunct regime. All paid from the Libyan people's wealth. The people were suffering from poverty, oppression, sleeping on the ground, and protecting themselves from heat and cold by zinc panels under the yoke of an agent regime that had lost sovereignty, will and legitimacy, whereas it infiltrated to the country from abroad in the darkness under the cover of charlatanism, heresy."
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We did a fair bit of shopping for clothing in Tripoli. No, this isn't a typo mistake. Libyan (and Turkish) businessmen went to Italy to seek (aka steal) local designs, especially the Italian style body-hugging t-shirts and jeans, and got them custom-made in China. They are all on sale in Tripoli for between 15 to 20 dinars (about US$12 to US$17). Very good prices. You cannot find similar Italian-style designs in China or Thailand. I bought 5 pieces! We all agreed that Tripoli is a most unexpected fashion paradise. Gary even said that it was better than Chatuchak or MBK in BKK.
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With Gary's visa secured, we flew more than one thousand km south to the desert garrison town of Sabha, where Gaddafi spent his formative teenage years in a secondary school here. There were probably more Gaddafi billboards here than any other Libyan town we have visited. At the airport, we were picked up by Musa, our Tuareg guide, Baraka, our cook, and Muhammad, our driver. Musa and Baraka were both Tuareg born in Niger's Agadez region but have lived in Libya for many years.
We were to discover that the entire tourism industry in the Libyan Sahara, from guides to drivers and souvenir stall keepers, seemed to be manned and run by Tuaregs from Niger, who speak a mixture of Tamashek, their ancient tongue, and French, the language of their ex-colonisers and of their successor regimes in Tunis, Algiers, Rabat, Bamako, Niamey and N'Djamena, capitals of the modern nation-states that rule the Tuareg lands today. Perhaps, Arabs from the Libyan Mediterranean coast are too comfortable with the urban lifestyle, thus leaving the Sahara to the Tuaregs, whether or not the latter are Libyan citizens.
Gaddafi himself, though an Arab of Bedouin descent, has long cultivated the Tuaregs and often praise their nomadic and independent way of life. By cultivating this ethnic group whose kin straddle the territories of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Niger and Chad, Gaddafi has hoped to entrench his prized efforts to unify Africa and perhaps even lay claims to huge swaths of Tuareg-inhabited Sahelian Afrca. For people such as Musa, who has no Libyan citizenship despite having lived here for many years and married a Libyan citizen, his loyalty, as he confided with me, always lie with the tribe rather than the state.
Niger, to the south of Libya, is the poorest country in the world. As noted in my February 2008 travelogue, Niger has one of the world's richest uranium deposits but that wealth probably went straight into its leaders' Swiss bank accounts. The Tuaregs, who live in the northeastern swath of the Nigerien Sahara around the ancient caravan town of Agadez, are up in arms against the government, and this insurgency is gradually spreading across to the Tuareg inhabited part of neighbouring Mali. Niamey, the Nigerien capital which I visited this year, was a nervous garrison town at the edge of the insurgency. The instability is causing many Nigerien Tuaregs to move to Libya, by crossing the desert on a 60 day camel ride.
Libya, after all, is a small country with lots of oil. Since 1969, Colonel Gaddafi has been using the nation's oil revenue to finance his many adventures to "liberate" other lands and diplomatic gifts across the world. His efforts have long been in vain, as many are interested in his cash, not ideas. Over the years, Gaddafi had made protégées not only among revolutionaries such as Nelson Mandela and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, but also bloodthirsty tyrants and villains such as Idi Amin and Charles Taylor.
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Libya is one of the largest African nations by surface area but has only 6 million inhabitants of which 2 million are expat workers. This is one of the world's most sparsely populated nations. Most of the inhabitants live on a narrow coastal strip whereas the rest of the country is hot, arid desert of the Sahara. We sped southwards deeper into the Sahara, initially on paved highway at a comfortable 160kmh, then went off road into the dirt track. Before long, we were among deep in the Sahara – gigantic sand dunes, strange rock formations shaped by millions of years of wind, erosion and friction, and fields of rocks and boulders around us, sometimes all at a time.
There were no road signs, vegetation or landmark of any kind, just tracks from previous vehicles and occasional piles of stones left as roadmarkers by two millennia of caravans that passed through these regions. But it all looked the same to me. We are, for the lack of a better description, in the middle of nowhere. It was the sort of place where if you want to have a leak, no convenient bushes or shelter could be found.
In this wide expanse of near-nothingness, I felt a sense of helplessness. My survival lies in the hands of these Tuaregs whom I trust probably knew this land like the back of their palm. In 1999, the Tuaregs that brought me into the Moroccan Sahara for an evening of camel ride told me that they relied on the stars, but here we are penetrating the desert at its deepest in broad day light.
Muhammad drove like a contestant on the Paris-Dakar cross country rally, testing the suspension of our vehicle to the limit and kicking up a trail of dust wherever we went. Our hardly 4WD rocked and shook as it negotiated the rugged terrain, sometimes making sharp 45 degree descent down the sides of sand dunes. Many a time, I prayed silently to Kuanyin, Allah and all the almighties for our vehicle and our safety, for we have obviously broken the cardinal rule of desert travel – always travel in groups of at least two vehicles. Any breakdown in the desert is potentially deadly. One dies within days either from exposure or lack of water.
Over the next few days, we passed by the famed prehistoric rock carvings and paintings of Wadi Methkandonsh and Jebel Acacus. Over 10,000 to 18,000 years ago, the ancient men, mostly hunter-gatherers and early pastoralists, drew or carved images of daily life, celebrations and of a wide range of animals including the giraffe, cattle, elephant, hippopotamus, crocodile, dog and big cat. Obviously, the Sahara was a different land altogether. The Sahara used to be a fertile plain of huge lakes and long rivers supporting lots of vegetation and wild creatures. Climatic changes over the millennia had long driven its creatures either to extinction or to move to places with more hospitable climate further south of the Sahara. These ancient tock art are today a World Heritage Site.
We spent nights in the open, among the huge sand dunes of Wan Caza and Ubari Sand Sea. Endless crests of rolling dunes of soft fine sand, some well-shaped like the firm breast of a young lady. We climbed up the high dunes on several occasions, hoping to witness the famous Sahara sunset. Unfortunately, at the critical moment, the skies were always cloudy. This was the season when the hot Harmattan whirlwinds of the Sahel meets the cold Mediterranean from the north, creating no less than a mini-revolt in the skies, cumulating in the opaque clouds that obstructed what could have been spectacular sunsets over the Sahara.
At night, we could hear whispers from afar, for the desert breeze carries conversation far beyond, in a phenomena that sometimes temp the unwary to wander out to investigate, only to get lost in the sand sea.
Every evening, we looked forward to Baraka's Soup de Tuareg, a delightful mixture of salted dried beef and vegetables, stirred with cumin powder, corianders, chili and somewhat disappointingly, Maggi soup cubes. I wonder if the soup was genuinely delicious, or whether it was our desperation for something hearty, warm and mildly spicy after a day in the wilderness. Meals were inevitably followed with tea Libyan style which involved green tea prepared from leaves imported into Niger from China, and packed and labeled in Niger with a local-sounding brand. The tea would be poured from one cup to another so that bubbles were formed. This is very much like our teh tarik (air tea) though the major difference is that Libyans use green tea for this, whereas Singaporeans and Malaysians use red tea. Have we discovered the origins of teh tarik?
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Jebel Acacus has one of the most spectacular landscapes I have ever seen in my life. This is a region of small mountains and weird black rocks towering above sand dunes for as far as the horizon. Sculptured by wind and erosion, the pinnacles and rocks formed the most unlikely shapes and together they resulted in a landscape that could only reminded me of Mars and scenes from Planet of the Apes.
We drove towards the ancient caravan town of Ghat, once a great trading centre in the middle of the Sahara. Together it is a sleepy backwater with an abandoned, decaying old centre of mud bricks, linked to the rest of Libya by a road from Sabha. The old caravan roads had been cut off from the town by an incursion of Algerian troops a few years ago into a wadi ten km south of the town.
The weather was rapidly changing – hot, still, oppressive air was enveloping the land with a shroud of trapped heat. Mosquitoes were everywhere. The only comfort was that they moved about slowly and easy hits for the human hand. In that respect, they seemed as slow as their normal prey, the locals, some of whom take life easy and seemed to take forever to perform simple tasks.
It was near Ghat that we came by the towering peaks of Kaj Ajnoun, the Devil's Mountain, which cast a dark shadow over the plains and beyond, like Dracula's Castle transported whole to the sand dunes of the Sahara. Among the many Tuareg legends associated with Kaj Ajnoun was one about a Ghadames merchant who met a red-haired jinn here on his way to Algeria. The jinn passed him a piece of paper with strange symbols and unknown writing, to be handled over to a black dog which would meet him at a specific place in Tuat, Algeria. The merchant headed for that place in Tuat and indeed was met by a black dog and was given a lifetime of wondrous riches.
A few explorers attempted to climb Kaj Ajnoun and some of them suffered badly from illness soon after. One, Henrich Barth, became sick and unwell soon after the climb, lost his way while descending the mountain. Dehydrated and thirsty, he cut a vein to drink his own blood. He was saved by passing Tuaregs, almost unconscious, down with high fever and close to death from exposure. A holiday need not be so dramatic and so we merely took a few pictures at the foot of the cursed mountain and pressed on with our journey.
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Day four in the Sahara and we were getting restless with the usual green salads, Tuareg soup and spaghetti. The salads were no longer fresh; we had new concerns over Baraka's casual handling of meat and greens with his bare hands; the four day old bread now with a much hardened crust and stale interior, covered, like all of us and everything else, with a thin layer of fine golden sand.
Another three hours' drive passing a range of desolate table-mountains, a Repsol oil installation (the nation's oilfields lie here), a huge car junkyard, a unforgettable dumping ground for that unique symbol of mass consumerism known as the plastic bag and a few new model towns to which Colonel Gaddafi has moved the formerly nomadic people.
Finally, we arrived at Germa, where we visited the ruins of the capital of the Garamantian Empire, who once fought against the Romans for supremacy in the interior of North Africa, before disappearing mysteriously around 500 AD. Some historians believe that the Garamantians had declined due to the depletion of water and natural resources, the result of over-population and wastage. Will modern Libya go the same way if the Great Man-Made River project of Gaddafi, which diverted underground water from the Sahara to the coast, uses up all the water available?
The Garamantian ruins are little more than piles of collapsed mud brick. The setting was eerie, with strong winds beating against the walls and the plains. A huge field full of trunks of dead palm trees stood beyond the ancient walls, with decapitated tops.
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We explored the salt lakes of the Ubari Sand Sea. Shivers of silver surrounded by palm trees, papyrus reeds and the curves and crests of huge sand dunes. Visitors jumped into these salty lakes, floating like they would in the famous salt waters of the Dead Sea. Is this the proverbial Garden of Eden? Gentle breeze covered us with a thin layer of sand. Even as I went to the toilet for my own bombardment of ancient Germa, I discovered a mysterious layer of sand even on my bum. No idea how that came about, but I have had enough of sand in this day five in the Sahara. I would like to have a nice hot shower, clean toilets, soft beds, the internet and choices of food for my meals; whether or not I get to see beautiful lakes in the sand dunes, (yet-to-discover) glorious Sahara sunsets, lost civilizations in the desert, mysterious rock paintings and heaven- or hell-inspired natural rock formations.
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Our final day in the Sahara: We woke up to find ourselves in glorious sand dunes and the best of clear blue skies. Perfect for photo shots. We had the best sand dune photos of the entire trip so far. I even got Baraka, our cook, to pose like a Tuareg warrior. Even though most of the time Baraka had behaved like a self-proclaimed joker who brought out the loudest laughter from everyone, I managed to get him to pose in all seriousness, in his blue-and-green turban and robe outfit, grazing afar into the horizon, with sand dunes in the background.
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Back to Tripoli, we explored the ancient Roman cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. The first urban settlements on the northern coast of Libya were built by the Phoenicians from ancient Lebanon, who ruled these cities from Carthage in what is today Tunisia. The Phoenicians sacrificed their first born to the gods and huge amphorae containing burned bones of the sacrificed have been found in sacred places of these ancient Carthaginian cities. Enriched by trade and riches of Africa, Spain and the Mediterranean islands, the Carthaginian (also known as the Punic) Empire was once of the greatest powers of the Mediterranean, until their rivalry and eventual defeat by the Romans.
Carthage itself was destroyed but cities such as Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Oea, collectively to be known as Tripoli ("Three Cities"), gained autonomy and prosperity as self-governing city states in the Roman Empire. They embraced Roman culture and religion with enthusiasm and their status was further enhanced with later grants of status as Roman colonies.
Leptis Magna, in particular, became one of the empire's greatest cities when a local boy founded the Severn Dynasty that ruled Rome for a few glorious decades. Grand theatres, amphitheatres, forums and temples were built in the city that was the capital of the province of Libya which was at that time the granary of the Empire. Sabratha, a smaller city, was similarly prosperous, and was bestowed with grand public structures with intricate carvings and magnificent mosaics. Today, even in a ruined state, Leptis Magna and Sabratha continue to impress visitors about Libya's glorious Roman past.
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We headed inland to the Berber towns of Jebel Nafusa. Located on top of Jebel Nafusa near the border with Tunisia, Nalut is an important cultural centre for the Berber people, the original inhabitants of North Africa, many of whom have fair complexion and blue and green eyes. One can find signboards in the very symbol-like alphabet of the Berber language here. We visited the Nalut Castle with its amazing claustrophobic, closely-built rooms. Here one also finds many Tunisian vehicles loading up on cheap Libyan petrol, which cost US$0.10 per liter, to sell across the border in Tunisia.
The Berbers, who are more numerous in Morocco and Algeria, are a people immensely proud of their cultural heritage and their non-Arabic identity. Increasingly, Berber cultural monuments such as the Qasr al Haj, a huge fortified granary once home to hundreds of Berbers, and various dammus, which are traditional underground cave dwellings, are preserved and opened to visitors as museums and showcases of Berber heritage.
From Nalut, we drove to the ancient caravan town of Ghadames. The landscape en route was bleak and dry. Not quite the sand dunes of Fezzan but the high plateau, arid plains and bone-dry wadis here were equally eerie and dead silent. In fact, the Berbers and Tuaregs of the region still tell tales of the jinn that live in these parts.
Ghadames, located near the tri-border region of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, was once a major caravan trading town. Here, settled Tuaregs built a city of palm gardens with a sophisticated water distribution system and a natural air ventilation system that allows its inhabitants to enjoy natural air condition environment much welcomed in a desert environment where temperature often rise to 45-50'C range during the hot season. (The world's hottest ever recorded temperature was 53'C in a location south of Tripoli in the 1960s). Ghadames' labyrinth-like sheltered streets and whitewashed walls was amazing, and evoked images of Death Vardar and Skywalker's Star Wars locale. In fact, the movie was filmed in nearby towns in southern Tunisia, which bears a similar kind of local architecture.
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We flew to Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and historically the metropolis of Libya's eastern half known as Cyrenacia. We are guests of Kenneth's Libyan friend, Abdalla, whose family hails from Al Bayda, a city to the east of Benghazi. We were driven around Benghazi's landmarks. Much of the city was destroyed during WWII and hence there were few old buildings. Even then, we stumbled onto a nice Roman Catholic church where we met the Papal Ambassador to Libya, who is Maltese, and the Libyan Society of Architects building which is a nice Moorish-Andalusian style mansion with nice carvings and exhibits on Libya's heritage.
From Benghazi, we headed for Al Bayda, which is located in the beautiful Green Mountains. Located on the highlands, Al Bayda enjoys a year-round temperate climate, with snowfall in winter and cool comfortable weather in summer. The ample rainfall here has allowed the city and the surrounding region to develop an agricultural sector not found elsewhere in dry, arid Libya. Al Bayda is also the base to visit the ancient Greek cities of Cyrene and Apolonia, which are within 30km from the city radius.
With Abdalla, we experienced Libyan hospitality at its best. Even though he was busy with the affairs of his family's business holdings and the engagement of one of his younger brothers (- the engagement ceremonies and parties would involve their entire tribe, which included thousands of people), Abdalla still spent a lot of time with us, driving us around the various ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine sites of Cyrenacia. We also met many of his friends, and had lots of tea and smoked shisha with them.
We visited the Friday market. The climate was cool and it even drizzled a little – what a contrast from the Fezzan where it rained only a few times a year, or even none at all in some years. No wonder the Green Mountains produce so much vegetables.
We dropped by Cyrene, once the largest Greek city outside Greece and the granary of Ancient Greece. Enormous site spread across sloping hillsides from the high fertile plateau of the Green Mountains to an intermediate plateau also full of greenery and farms. From this intermediate plain, the plateau fell off 200 meters down to a coastal strip by the Mediterranean. It is also on this coastal strip that the ancient port of Apolonia, the port for Cyrene, was located. Compared to the grid like streets and organized patterns of the Roman cities of Leptis and Sabratha, Cyrene was more disorderly, with crooked lanes and a labyrinth of alleys.
We were told about the local belief that powerful jinns live in these hills and the many caves and niches that dot these cliff sides and slopes. There are many legends and even modern day tales about treasure hunters and troublemakers who disturb the peace of the ruins and got punished by the jinns.
We also visited Susa, the gateway town to Appolonia. Susa became home to many Cretan Muslims who fled here after the Cretan War between the Turkish and Greeks in the 1890s. I was pointed out a few Cretans and they have very fair complexion. The mother of Abdalla's good friend, Ahmat, is a Cretan and that could explain for his European looks.
The centre of Susa looked deserted. We were told that many people moved out in the last two years after a powerful jinn named Abdul Kadir got upset with treasure hunters digging around Apolonia and started "creating trouble" for people who hang around the area after dark. It was interesting that the belief in jinns seemed strong in Libya. I don't recall people telling me about jinns in my travels across the Middle East over the years.
Apollonia is quite small and has little more than a few groups of columns. Most of the city, like Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Cyrene, was destroyed in the great earthquake and tsunami of 365 AD. We drove to picturesque Ras al-Hillal – a small stream and surrounding grove flowed down from a pool formed from a waterfall plunging down the Green Mountains. The nearby coast and mountains combine together to form a symphony of nature and geology. Abdalla commented that we were privileged to see the Ras al-Hillal before development takes off here. Indeed, a few villas had already been built nearby, not to mention a huge house and marina at a nearby bay owned by relatives of the power of the land.
The beautiful coast was full of rocky coves and low bush forests. Crystal clear azure waters, glaring sun and blue skies. This could have been Cote d-Azur or Provence, except for the absence of vehicles, luxury villas and settlements of any reasonable size. There is definitely much potential for tourism development, but Libya would need to simplify entry requirements and even learn to accept the habits of more open-minded foreigners.
There was a stretch of coast covered by low young forest, which grew after the ancient groves were burned down in the 1990s by the government in order to flush out some anti-government rebels. Beneath calm is always some undercurrent unhappiness and potential for violence. This has always been the case in volatile Middle East.
We went to Abdalla's family farm where lots of grapes and fruits of all sorts were grown. Abdalla personally prepared lamb in the traditional manner for us – a hole was dug into the ground, fire set in it and lamb placed inside to be cooked while the hole was covered over by mud and soil. He even had to collect firewood and mix mud and water to prepare the earthen oven. How much more authentic can you get? The lamb tasted fantastic, and the friendship and hospitality were certainly much appreciated.
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I spent 17 days in Libya, the longest I have ever stayed in any Middle Eastern country. This has been a most enjoyable visit, not least, due to the company of great friends like Gary and Kenneth, and the hospitality of our Libyan friends. Libya is a country blessed with great historical cities and spectacular natural scenery and landscapes, much of which remains unknown to most people outside the country. Politically, Libya has long been a pariah state and hugely misunderstood by others. It is now opening up and exciting developments are taking place. The stock market is new and small, with only four listed companies. Interesting opportunities abound and I would be having a close watch.
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From Tripoli, I flew to Egypt, which I last visited in 1996. It is very refreshing to be here after a multiple months' stint in backward Africa. Gary and Kenneth were amused by my wow-wow about street lights, paved sidewalks, safe streets and modern city amenities in Libya. I told them they have to forgive me because sub-Saharan Africa was extremely backward and deficient even in what most of us in rich and middle income countries would find fairly ordinary conveniences of modern living.
Now Egypt is one level up from Libya. Downtown Cairo is the preeminent metropolis on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. The airport I landed in is definitely much more modern than the hot and stuffy one I flew from in 1996. There is even an enormous modern shopping mall next to the terminal building. The whole airport looks very clean, modern and even resort-like, with palm trees, flunky sculptures and so on. Cafes, ATMs and all the usual stuff one finds at home. The road to the city centre was lined with palms trees, public murals and statues, which fit in well with many of the old stately mansions in nearby Heliopolis. We passed new malls and glass towers, and bustling streets. Lots of shops, restaurants and buzz that the rest of Africa lacks. I am elated!
In Cairo, I managed to secure the Sudanese visa. I have to mention that the Singapore Embassy in Cairo had been very helpful and efficient in preparing the letter of recommendation required by the Sudanese, even before meeting me in person. I will be flying to Khartoum on Friday. Rebels in Dafur attacked the western suburbs of Khartoum suddenly last weekend, forcing the closure of Khartoum International Airport. Let's hope all will be ok before and while I am in Sudan. Inshallah!
OK, that's all. You will hear from me again, from Sudan.
Wee Cheng

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