The Boyz From Misrata
The fountains across from the corniche are working, geysering water into the man-made lake outside the medina walls. Inside the old part of the city, kids are setting off fireworks, and the sharp reports echo through the narrow streets. It's the Prophet Mohammed's birthday tomorrow. Martyrs' Square is filled with families, skater boys, and hotshots on motorcycles. They're doing donuts and popping wheelies between exploding cherry bombs, Roman candles and bottle rockets. The mood is chaotic, exuberant.
Policing and traffic control -- such as they are -- are a DIY affair: Young men in camouflage pants, who were mostly civilians until last year, do their best to sporadically keep order. Ambulances idle on the margins of the square to treat fireworks-related injuries, of which there will be many. Every kid above the age of 5 seems to have been issued a lighter and a fistful of fireworks. Women in traditional garb fire bottle rockets and star shells from their second-story windows.
At the Radisson, club sandwiches and café lattes arrive on time in the lobby, and the occasional flash of camo provides the only discordant note amongst the professional expats: midlevel oil executives, aid and embassy types and the occasional security guard.
At the amusement park, parents buy cotton candy and popcorn for their children.
This is Tripoli, after 42 years of nightmare. The city and its people are just now waking up, trying to figure out what to do -- and how to do it.
And it's not what's screwed up about post-Gadhafi Libya (and there's plenty that is) that's so amazing. It's what actually works -- so soon after 42 years of absolute control and centralized power vaporized almost overnight -- that's frankly incredible.
Libya is a hard place to make what is, putatively, a travel, food and culture show. I am not a journalist. I am certainly not a war correspondent or a foreign policy specialist. I am not even particularly knowledgeable about Libya's very complex, ever-changing political and security landscape. I was, frankly, frightened by the daily security briefings, with their ever-escalating levels of concern.
If anything, the week I spent in Libya made me appreciate how difficult it must be to report hard news from places like this. The obstacles and the perils are enormous. And I came at it from a place of relative luxury. Unlike the many journalists who've reported for years from Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody is currently shooting in my direction. While Libya may be a "high risk environment," according to the security people, it is not a war zone. Simply put: Compared to the people who work in places like this for a living, my crew and I are pussies.
What did we come home with? Well, I don't know yet. I do know that it was alternately frightening, fun, life-changing, heartbreaking, illuminating -- and ultimately inspiring. Did we get what we came for? No. Yes. And more.
In Misrata, the site of a major battle in the revolution that overthrew Gadhafi, the young man and one woman who looked after us were, until recently, medical students, garage mechanics, truck drivers, shopkeepers. They'd been turned, in the space of a few months, into battle-hardened fighters and field medics, and they were incredible. They were proud, generous, funny as shit. They enjoy a barbecue by the beach just like you and me. They were welcoming and hospitable, just like the people I've met in Montana and Missouri, only younger and somehow sweeter. Those who fought against Gadhafi -- from whatever city, in whatever group -- seem to know and recognize each other on sight, even if they're total strangers.
If they speak English, they speak it with an American accent, as they've learned from television. They carry pistols and hand grenades and have AK-47s in their cars. When things go bad (as they did around the country a number of times while I was there), they look pained and embarrassed. They would say, heartbreakingly, "We have money. We have oil. We only want security. Peace. We want to be like everybody else. We want to be like Europe." As they're painfully aware, achieving that desire is not going to be smooth or easy. When I asked how long it would take, most shrugged and smiled and said, "Five years." Others, less optimistic, said, "Ten."
I wish them the very, very best.❚
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