Libya's sudden decision to end its years in the international wilderness and embrace the West has abruptly transformed one of the world's most isolated countries. Iason Athanasiadis reports from a nation in flux There is something of the pasha in Khalifa Mahdaoui, a descendant of one of Libya's most influential tribes. It is not just the red fez perched on his head as he ambles in his suit and tie from his ground-floor office to the trellised porch outside, lights a menthol cigarette and takes a sip from the dainty cup of Turkish coffee delivered by an aide.The impression is confirmed by the long series of petitioners who file past throughout the day to seek Mahdaoui's blessing or advice. It is fuelled by the authority with which he snaps instructions into his cellphone to the select few who have his number. A former military officer now in his fifties, Mahdaoui was once a regime confidante. Decades of turmoil later, today he is a political survivor par excellence. Mahdaoui is the director of the Arthouse Gallery in central Tripoli, a breeding ground for Libya's new generation of painters and photographers. But as he skips through topics as diverse as the recent expulsion of Iranian diplomats by the Moroccan government (they were accused of attempting to spread Shiism among Morocco's Sunnis), the environmental ramifications of Libya's Great Manmade River project (not as grave as some environmentalists would have it), or the ulterior motives behind the resurgence of Sufi Islam in Libya (the best strategy for combating resurgent Salafism), it becomes clear that Mahdaoui's interests reach far beyond the remit of the arts - and that he has taken a particular interest in Libya's recent opening to the West, about which he is not exactly enthusiastic. "You can be a pasha but not a sharif" - a descendant of the Prophet - he says cryptically to me in the middle of a discussion of the country's rapid modernization. "You can buy titles but not roots." That Libya is in the midst of an extraordinary transformation cannot be denied: after years of isolation, the sleepy North African nation has made a dramatic turn - unleashing forces of development, economic prosperity and sudden cultural and political liberalisation - with uncertain consequences for one of the world's most pious and conservative societies.
When the leader and guide of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Muammer Qadafi, abruptly announced in 2003 that Libya would renounce its past support for terrorism and co-operate with the United States, the country's decades of isolation came to an end. The regime that once banned English in schools - dubbing it the language of imperialism - was now eager to embrace the West. Coming in the same month that American troops captured Saddam Hussein, Qadafi's decision to abandon his country's nuclear programme and join forces with the United States was trumpeted as a triumph for the hard-line approach of George Bush and Tony Blair. But inspectors found only some desultory stocks of First World War-era mustard gas and a nuclear programme that was years away from producing a bomb, despite decades of effort. As commentators quickly noted, Qadafi had been attempting to strike a deal to lift sanctions on Libya and end his state's pariah status since 1999. Libya, which possesses the world's ninth-largest reserves of oil, has been a wealthy country since petroleum deposits were discovered in 1959 under King Idriss al Sanusi. But unlike the oil-rich Gulf states, which were thrust in the past few decades into great material comfort amid a dizzying rush of modernisation and westernisation, Libya spent more than 20 years - after the coup that brought Qadafi to power in 1969 - all but sealed off from the rest of the world. In the 1970s, after Qadafi declared a socialist republic, few western goods reached Libyan shores, though some wealthy Libyans imported expensive cars and purchased luxury watches abroad. (Some reportedly wore two Rolexes at a time to get the point across.) Later, the fear of the "Socialist Inquisition" - neighbourhood committees that would terrify Libyan businessmen with the question "Min eina laka hatha?" (Where did you get this from?) - dampened the taste for ostentation. Suspects were taken to the district prosecutor's office where, amid peeling walls and chuntering air conditioners, they laid out diagrams of their wealth. Houses and land were confiscated. Often these went to regime loyalists, who were also rewarded with new cars and lump cash sums. The embargo imposed by the UN in 1992 over Libya's refusal to hand over two citizens suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing swiftly ended the import of luxury cars and banned even international air travel to and from the country. The very occasional banana was viewed as a rare treasure to be profitably distributed on the black market. When many of the Tunisian bakery workers who operated the country's ovens were expelled on one of the Great Leader's whims, much of the country went for several weeks without bread. On the closed border with Egypt, impromptu tent-cities peopled by stranded labourers sprawled into the desert. But within weeks of Qadafi's declaration in December 2003, caravans of European politicians and businessmen hoping for lucrative contracts were beating a path to his door. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, risked international opprobrium by welcoming Qadafi to the Champs Elysees in 2007, but the visit has proven lucrative for French defence companies - the two countries inked $4 billion arms deal. Chinese companies, once constrained by the embargo, have taken a keen interest in Libya's oil sector. And Italy signed a wide-ranging $10 billion political and economic treaty earlier this year that ranges from infrastructure to immigration to the inevitable military sales. As part of a plan that the columnist Rami Khouri has dubbed "neocolonialist", Italy will assume responsibility for policing Libya's borders to limit the flood of immigrants making the nightly trip across the sea to the European Union.
Tripoli, Libya's capital, has begun to sprout name-brand high-end clothes stores, foreign companies, and a pasty-faced army of western consultants and advisers. A three-storey Marks and Spencer has opened alongside boutiques for Mango and United Colours of Benetton on the exclusive Gargaresh Strip, Tripoli's version of Sunset Boulevard. Expat white-collar workers stand outside the glitzy Corinthia five-star hotel, castigating their translators or drivers in loud English for running late. In a country that is resolutely religious but where veiling is not obligatory, increasing numbers of fashionably-dressed unveiled women began appearing in public. At local dinner parties even well-to-do Libyans talk constantly of whether the foreigners now run their country. "Within the regime, there's a separation between the people who want clubs, bars, skyscrapers and free-trade zones to be allowed and the others who are against the opening," said Yassen el Kanuni, a businessman who often retreats from Tripoli to the great wastelands of the Libyan Desert. But those who would prefer that Libya retain its old ways may be fighting a losing battle. "Society is getting more open if anything," said Ibrahim, a Libyan expat who spent over a decade in Egypt before moving back to work for a foreign advertising company. "Now that foreigners live and work here, the locals look up to them and like what they see - they emulate it." I met Ibrahim and his friend Hebba, a British-Libyan fashion designer, at a new cafe in Gargaresh. We sipped espressos and fresh juices as they told me how much they enjoy their privileged social lives in Libya, from private house parties with homemade alcohol to co-ed outings at remote beaches. With trade, wealth and open borders, of course, come unwanted side effects. At the shisha garden of Serai, an expensive restaurant with outdoor seating next to Tripoli's landmark Green Square, Moroccan, Algerian and West African prostitutes openly congregate. Some cruise the adjoining streets throwing lascivious looks at males under their hijab. If there are any brothels, they are a well-kept secret. But just like the designer drugs allegedly flooding the country from neighbouring Algeria, alcohol, drugs and illicit relations remain available despite being banned. Unsurprisingly, Libya's social conservatives are concerned that the opening will push Libya further down the slippery slope of social ills. "When the country is open it'll most certainly attract drugs, prostitutes," said Munzer al Aawi, the keeper of a mosque in Tripoli's Old City. "Not that they're not available now but when they're in the open it'll be too destabilising for ordinary people." Even as it stands on the precipice of irrevocable change, Libya is a remarkably pious country. There is a mosque in every neighbourhood, spaced apart at no greater a gap than 400 metres. Five times a day, a cacophony of amplified sound erupts from the minarets and young and old alike crowd into Tripoli's mosques. In the bazaar, the evening call to prayer marks the day's conclusion. Shops are shuttered, the faithful troop by the ablutions pool and, save for the imam's occasional summons and the drone of traffic, the city falls silent.
In other Middle Eastern and Islamic countries, like Turkey and Egypt, the gradual encroachment of westernisation has often produced profound generational rifts - leaving older people alienated from less pious young people absorbed in western pursuits. But in Libya younger men dutifully attend prayers alongside their fathers, uncles and grandfathers. I met Majdi, a 29-year-old minibus driver, at a fruit juice stall in Benghazi. He is set to marry his first cousin, par for the course in a closed and tribal society like Libya. But his poorly paid job as a part-time driver means they will not wed for another three years, so that he can save up the money for a house. "There are no bars or clubs in Libya," he tells me. "If you sleep with a girl you have to marry her, otherwise her brothers slaughter you." Majdi and his fiancée's very occasional dates take place in a hospital. Though not a romantic location, it is low profile and unlikely to contain anyone potentially embarrassing "aside from ill people", as he says. The alternatives - cafes or dark parks after the evening prayer - are unthinkable in a country where the state press runs campaigns complaining about "sinful" locations and the loose women who frequent them. "In Libya, if a girl sits in a cafe she's a prostitute, or maybe she's not Libyan," said Majdi. "Even in Saudi Arabia women go to cafes. So we're more conservative than the Saudis."
Back in trendy Gargaresh, I spend a night with Mutaz Shegewi, a young entrepreneur looking to profit from his country's opening. In a country where the teaching of English was only recently un-banned, Shegewi has a massive business advantage: he grew up in the United States. The reason why people like Majdi cannot afford to get married, Shegewi tells me as he steers his blue sports car through the streets, is that credit is non-existent in Libya. As we pass through Abu Nuwas, another trendy neighbourhood, where shoppers are out in force, Shegewi explains that Libya has dodged the brunt of the global economic crisis, though inflation has posed a challenge for poor Libyans - the price of fuel jumped 33 per cent in the first week of March, from 15 to 20 cents per litre, a slight increase but a consequential one in a country where the average civil servant's monthly salary is frozen at $300. Shegewi, who has recently left his job in the oil sector, plans to shift his efforts toward Islamic tourism and make his fortune expanding Libya's nascent tourist infrastructure: the country boasts 2,000 kilometres of undeveloped beaches and five Unesco World Heritage sites, and the country is earning a reputation as an underrated, catch-it-before-its-spoilt tourist find. "We can't compete with neighbouring countries like Tunis and Egypt that have mass tourism infrastructure," he said. "It's better to focus on Libya's culture and on Islamically-appropriate tourism than to chase westerners with promises of sandy beaches and hedonistic nights."
Khalifa Mahdaoui, who has watched ruefully from his trellised porch as Tripoli's Italian colonial skyline has been augmented with a series of soaring steel-and-glass office towers, is decidedly unimpressed with Libya's headlong rush toward the West. Mahdaoui - who married a Greek Christian woman, scandalising his storied family - might be expected to welcome these cosmopolitan changes. But while living in Greece he watched that country shed its traditional ways as it joined the EU and embraced modernisation, and he believes a sinister western agenda will transform Libya and erode its national culture. "The Americans' target is not religious ideologies or the Taliban or al Qa'eda," he said. "It's about fundamentally changing the culture of other civilisations. They were successful in Asia with China and Japan, which they flipped into their own form of economic system - but when this system comes to direct contact with simple people in Afghanistan living according to centuries-old principles, it breaks down." Echoing Qadafi, Mahdaoui believes Libyans need to retain their self-sufficiency and resist the temptations of western consumer baubles. Quoting Tunisia's first president, he says, approvingly: "Bourguiba used to say that since we eat cous-cous and baziin we don't need imports." Mahdaoui reasons that if all politics is cultural then the only way to limit western incursions is by buttressing Libya's indigenous culture. He looks anxiously toward Saudi Arabia - which he feels has lost touch with its Bedouin roots in the push for development - and fears that Libya will meet the same fate. To that end, he has become involved in the preservation of Ghadames, an ancient desert city some 600 kilometres south-west of Tripoli, near the border with Algeria and Tunisia. In Ghadames, an Unesco World Heritage site, Mahdaoui perceives indigenous ingenuity at its finest: a city constructed entirely of stone, clay, palms and sand, with soaring crenellated towers, a sunken labyrinth of passageways and a dazzling array of white spires. To Mahdaoui it represents the achievements of his people during an era when the inhabitants of what is now Libya could still address the West on equal terms. "Two hundred and fifty years ago Ghadames had a commercial agreement with Manchester and 300 years ago it dealt directly with Vienna," Mahdaoui said, referring to the city's importance as a wealthy trading post on the caravan route that once crossed North Africa. "How people should resist modernity and safeguard their culture is something I care deeply about. That's why I protect Ghadames, that's why I want it to continue as it was." Ghadames was a deep repository of desert culture. Its Tuareg residents manned and managed the caravans running from Central Africa up to the port cities of the Mediterranean and developed a unique social system that fine-tuned their trading lives to the desert climate. Today the city is unchanged - and it looks as it might have six centuries after the Prophet, around 1200 AD, only emptier: its last full-time resident moved away in the 1980s, enticed by an adjacent modern town of new air-conditioned cement boxes, erected for the residents of Ghadames by the socialist state during an earlier drive to modernise. Around the time that the city was emptied, in fact, the international sanctions that would plunge Libya into isolation were imposed - and Ghadames, at least, was spared the haphazard process of transformation that threatens the integrity of other medieval mud and brick cities like Sanaa in Yemen, Ouarzazate in Morocco or Ghardaïa in Algeria. Seven gates, one for each district, puncture the high walls that protected the Old Town from raiders. Reinforced tunnels curve into an underground maze designed to defend the city but also to channel and cool the hot desert air. Each of the seven districts possesses its own zawia (a Sufi gathering place) and a tawfarda, a domed sitting area where the tunnels come together and male elders gather under handprints engraved into the limestone to ward off evil to resolve disputes. Alongside the sophisticated urban planning, a complicated code of social conduct evolved. The women only emerged at dawn and sunset, while the men were absorbed in the mosque praying, to make their way to the hammam. They conducted a separate social and economic life on the interconnecting roofs above the city, secluded from unrelated men. In a conservative city where the men were often away for months on business and hundreds of itinerants passed through every day, elaborate conventions arose to safeguard privacy: visiting females knocked twice, males three times, and old men once. If there was no reply, visitors would look through an external peephole. A mirror embedded in the far wall reflected a lit lantern whose flame indicated whether the man of the house was in, running an errand or travelling on a caravan. Much as Mahdaoui might like to preserve this mode of living, it has already been extinct for almost 30 years. Louay Adham, a visiting architect, recalled that when he first came to Ghadames in 1979, young children still ran squealing beneath the gloomy arches past shuffling old men. "Then air conditioning, refrigerators and computers arrived," he recalls. "People wanted luxury and they abandoned the Old City". Today the population of Ghadames has doubled, and the new town, which begins at the edge of the old city, has 20,000 residents - leading conservationists to warn that the old city should not be rehabilitated, since the delicate mud houses could not sustain the stresses of 21st-century living. Nevertheless, the hot summer months bring many families scurrying back into their old houses, when their 20th century cement constructions prove inferior to the old city's 10th century cooling technology. The city's generational silence is being disturbed by fresh activity. Japanese tour groups file through the tunnels and African labourers hop from rooftop to rooftop, repairing the damage inflicted on the mud walls by the passing of time and rare but intense Saharan rainstorms. Ibrahim Malek, the Unesco representative in Ghadames, tells me that maximum taste and effort are being poured into the restoration. Malek, an intense man in his mid-forties, was born in the old city and vividly recalls playing in its streets and passages as a child. After his family moved to the new town, he worked for an oil company before quitting to devote himself to what he really loves: looking after Ghadames. Though he has never lived outside Libya, his English is fluent, and his excited gestures are reminiscent of a North American motivational speaker. "We know what are the things to avoid in expanding tourism and I don't want to be one of the people who has his fingerprints over opening bars and selling alcohol to tourists here," he said, noting the unceremonious ejection of a group of Egyptian traders who had applied Cairene hassling techniques on tourists. Ghadames would never become a Khan el Khalili style attraction with traditional handicrafts, tourist cafes and themed tours. Malek wanted something more, something classy, and as the director of the Ghadames Development Authority, he was in a position to realise his dreams. He had already hired a Spanish lighting company with a reputation for fashioning horror movie sets to illuminate the city by night. They would add neat features, he told me, such as recordings of footfalls passing through the old city, a baby crying in the distance, people working. Tourists walking through the city would feel as if they were traversing a living organism, not a gentrified shell. The local airport, which currently receives two flights a week, will be opened to international traffic so that budget carriers like easyJet and Ryanair can ferry tourists directly to Ghadames by the planeload. A fleet of 4WDs could be bought to accommodate the crowds wanting to sample a picture-postcard Saharan sunset over the dunes. And new hotels should be built to house them. Ibrahim showed me one of the prides of his restoration. The Turkish governors' residence - a fine example of the local architectural style - was now a "resource and information centre" with fitted air-conditioning units, flat-screen computers wedged into alcoves, a room filled with whirring servers and local workers sporting sunglasses and baseball caps.
Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, lies on the Mediterranean coast 650 kilometres east of Tripoli, and it has long been a kind of rival to the capital - it was the staunchest base of support for King Idriss, a place traditionally opposed to Qadafi (to the extent that such opposition exists) and considerably more conservative than Tripoli. One Islamist rebellion in the 1990s was swiftly suppressed, but Salafist views still proliferate among the country's disaffected - as can be seen from the large number of Libyan jihadists arrested or killed in Iraq. (Ibn as Sheikh al Libi, the head of an al Qa'eda training camp in Afghanistan who was captured by the Americans and reportedly the source of bogus information about collaboration between Iraq and al Qa'eda used to justify the American invasion, mysteriously died in a Libyan prison last month.) Benghazi's residents believe themselves the victims of deliberate neglect from the government in Tripoli, and they have maintained a sullen opposition to the state's authority, punctuated by occasional eruptions of unrest. A 2008 visit by British musician Bob Geldof was touted as the first rock concert in Libya - organised by Qadafi's son Saif al Islam to give young people and the urban classes a glimpse at the more liberal future they could have should he win the succession battle against his six brothers. The crowd reacted to the long-winded speeches that preceded the concert and began throwing stones at the stage, from which Geldof had to flee before a riot erupted. "It was a social experiment in bringing western culture to Libya," a businessman and member of Libya's elite told me in Tripoli. "And it failed - dramatically." Two years earlier, Benghazians had burnt down the Italian consulate in an anti-western riot after the publication of cartoons of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper. "If the leader is opening up towards the West then their reaction is to close and be more Islamic," said Gisela Vejmelek, an Austrian who stayed in Benghazi through the embargo years. "They're using Islam as their own Revolution." In the 1940s, Benghazi had been a cosmopolitan entrepôt. Then its Jewish community emigrated to Israel, the Christians left and alcohol was banned. After surviving over a decade of deprived isolation, Vejmelek and her husband, a Greek construction entrepreneur who grew up in cosmopolitan Alexandria, have launched an international school in Benghazi intended to raise a generation prepared for the demands of an interconnected world. "What they gain is a multicultural community, which is a necessary weapon in the international society we live in," said Kanakis Mandolios, Vejmelek's husband.
Today, 65 students from 40 nationalities speaking 12 languages attend the Benghazi European School. By 2011, the school will have 100 pupils taught by a mixture of Libyan university professors, foreign full-time staff and expat wives moonlighting as occasional teachers. More important than academic achievement, the school is an experiment: to nurture, in Libya's conservative second city, a new generation of multilingual young Libyans, comfortable in English and French and able to mingle with Christians, Jews and non-believers as easily as with fellow Muslims and Arabs. It is an attempt to reverse a century's experience of ethnic homogenisation and fight the Salafist resurgence. To this end, an ethnic quota system strikes a conscious balance between international students, full Libyans and half Libyans from mixed marriages - a symphony of languages and nationalities rather than a dominant single culture. A fluent Arabic speaker originally born in Egypt, Mandolios comes from a generation of cosmopolitan Greek emigrants who were once plentiful in the Middle East but are now on the brink of extinction - a culture romanticised in literary works like Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet but erased by the storms of pan-Arabism, and then Islamism, that have swept the region in the postcolonial era. "We no longer live in homogeneous ethnic states, we're entering again the era of empires," he said. "The trick now is to learn to get along."
Driving back into Tripoli, my cab rushes past faded revolutionary posters that hearken back to the militant socialism whose shadow still hangs over a Libya in transition: "Democracy," one reads, "is not the freedom of expression but the rule of the people for the people." Another says "Our oil is our weapon in war and peace." "Civilisation is not in metal buildings and late-model cars - that's just modernity," my taxi-driver observes, complaining about the unthinking haste to change apparent all around us. "Civilisation is in what you have in your head," he concludes. "And unfortunately, the 1980s generation inherited empty heads." African workmen from Chad and Niger, their eyes shielded against the morning sun, crouch alongside the roadway waiting for foremen who will drive by offering $10 daily wages. They are the muscle powering Libya's dynamic growth. A profusion of plastic bottles, bags and containers disfigured by the heat lie discarded on the cement kerbside, marooned in pools of sand blown in from the desert. The wealth generated by oil poses no new threat to Libya - it has always been present. But as a freewheeling, newly liberalised economy is erected on the ruins of crumbled Arab socialism, Libyans are realising that the new order will leave the losers at the kerb as it thrusts the winners into prosperity.
Dismantling the socialist state is a less radical gesture than it might appear, for Libya is a country where the tribes have always been more powerful than the government. But few countries have been poised to change so dramatically in such a short interval. Libyans, warily eyeing the astonishing shifts in lifestyle that unfolded over several decades in the Gulf, are understandably threatened by the uncertain future that awaits. When I return to sit with Khalifa Mahdaoui, under the trellis in his garden, he is even more firm in his opposition to what he believes is the American agenda for Libya: the creation of a model Muslim state more pliable - and more resource-rich - than the other secular behemoths of the Mediterranean, Turkey and Egypt. "You can gather people in a tent, a conference hall, but money doesn't buy everything," he says, in an elliptically obtuse criticism of the Libyan leader, who still meets visitors in a Bedouin tent. "A people's history is not counted in 20 or 30 years." Bringing western ideas into Libya, he concludes, "is like putting a dam in a wadi. They think they can block the water but it will overflow."
Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer.
Updated: May 29, 2009 04:00 AM