‘We’ve been trying to get you to come and talk here for the last three years,’ my host complained as we shook hands at the airport. ‘Here’ was Tripoli, capital of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, bathed in mild February sunshine; my host a functionary from the World Centre for the Studies and Researches of the Green Book – the Green Book is the Libyan equivalent of the Little Red Book. ‘The lecture is just an excuse,’ I told him. ‘I’m really here to see Leptis Magna’ – the capital of Rome’s African empire. We both laughed. He because he thought I was joking and me because I wasn’t.
I was billeted at the state-funded el-Kebir Funduq, rebuilt in 1982 on the site of the colonial Grand Hotel. The old place looks much nicer in photographs than its soulless replacement, with its surly receptionists, appalling service and second-rate food (the worst breakfasts ever, and that includes Pyongyang circa 1972).
The hotel overlooks the waterfront and is within walking distance of all the main sights, including the great old mosque-church-mosque, the Ottoman souk and the museum. Close by are the huge marble arcades of the colonial period. Some have a Belle Epoque charm; others are more reminiscent of grandiose Italian Fascist architecture like the railway station in Milan. Above both varieties of arcade are beautiful apartments with baroque plaster mouldings and shuttered windows, which once housed the colonials. Walking through the decaying arcades, crowded with noisy men-only cafés, one gets a glimpse of prewar Italy, far preferable to the imitations of Dallas typical of the cities of the Gulf States.
In a waterfront café with a lively Libyan intellectual, freshly returned from Canada and excited about his plans to launch a weekly newspaper, I notice that most of the young women, including those arm-in-arm with a boyfriend, are hijabed. A few of the hijabs are worn tight to look like a nun’s cowl; quite a few are designer versions and usually (as is also the case in Cairo) it’s what is worn below the neck that attracts attention. It’s not uncommon to see hijabed women wearing tight-fitting tops and jeans. In such cases a display of hair might well be thought a distraction. But my companion is shocked. ‘It was very different when I left for Montreal several years ago,’ he said. ‘Only a minority covered their heads and most wore skirts. And at least half the people in this café would have been women.’
Has there been pressure from the state?
‘Exactly the opposite,’ he said. ‘The government doesn’t impose any norms in matters of dress. Not now and not under the monarchy.’ But Gaddafi is pious, I insist. Why else would he have ordered the uprooting of the wonderful vineyards surrounding Tripoli? (Libya’s neighbours, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, have maintained their vineyards.)
‘It was a mistake,’ my companion declared. ‘Especially as our wines were better.’
We discussed his project for a cultural magazine. He was confident that changes were on the way in Libya. Things had improved. The secret police were less visible and had stopped harassing people. There were a few hundred political prisoners, mainly in Benghazi, a centre of salafism crushed fifteen years ago after an insurrection. It was in Benghazi last month that several hundred Islamists stormed the Italian Consulate after a Northern League member of Berlusconi’s government was seen wearing a T-shirt with one of the Danish cartoons on it. The minister was sacked the following day and Berlusconi apologised.