By-lanes of Benghazi

Gaddafi puppet  in downtown Benghazi

Gaddafi puppet in downtown Benghazi.

The past year has been the most tumultuous in Benghazi history. From an obscure city on the Mediterranean it was pitchforked to the centre of world attention as the cradle of the Libyan revolution.Today as that effort comes to fruition with the appointment of Libya’s democratically elected prime minister it has once again hit the world headlines for the unfortunate terrorist killing of the American ambassador to Libya .

Late November last year just as the dust of the revolution was settling down I along with a friend went for a walk around the by lanes of this now famous city.This blog post is a trip down those memory lanes.

downtown Benghazi (Photograph taken before 2011 revolution )

downtown Benghazi (Photograph taken before 2011 revolution )

Sauntering around downtown Benghazi I could not help noticing the crowds in front of the banks.Cash was still tight as the new interim government struggled to normalise the situation.The streets were still littered with rubbish as the cleaning crews which fled were yet to make a return .As usual the cafes and the cigarette stalls were as usual doing brisk business.There was an air of optimism that tomorrow would be better.

Italian quarter – downtown Benghazi

Walking along the narrow streets of the Italian quarter I could see  businesses were largely idle with people not having enough cash.The Italian quarter has a nice colonial feel to it and is pleasant to  walk around .Later we moved to the waterfront near the courthouse, the site of the epic happenings last year.Now, after the storm things were quiet.The courthouse was covered with graffiti along with pictures of the dead and missing during the conflict.

war art

war art at Benghazi

A little ahead from the courthouse was a unique war memorial. Art and expression in any form was discouraged in the old Libya.Freedom brought forth a urge to express oneself  this was done in many forms – graffiti,newspapers,television channels, radio stations to name just a few. So this was’ war art’. War equipment creatively welded and rearranged to form various intriguing forms.We had a pleasant hour lounging about this one of a kind museum.Soon I would be leaving this city of friendly people to go and work in another part of the country.I sure would be carrying  some compelling memories of this city. Today Benghazi is back in the spotlight. A pity it’s for all the wrong reasons.

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Leptis Magna

gargoyle at Leptis Magna - Libya's best kept secret

(Third part of a three part series on trip to Tripoli and Leptis Magna in Nov 2011 just days after Libya’s liberation)

About 130 kilometres east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast is the tiny town of Al Khoms .Al Khoms houses Libya’s best kept secret – the magnificent Roman ruins of Leptis Magna.

marketplace - Leptis magna

marketplace - Leptis Magna

Leptis Magna (or Lebda as Libyans call it today) was a prominent city of the Roman empire. The site is one of the most spectacular and unspolied Roman ruins outside Italy and a UNESCO world heritage site.Thanks to Libya’s restrictive visa policy it is largely unknown to the outside world.

We almost did not make it to Leptis Magna .We had heard rumours of foreigners being robbed by gun toting youngsters in the villages enroute (everybody in Libya has a gun these days, except yours truly) and had cancelled the trip. However on our walks through Tripoli we met a BBC crew filming Libya’s tourist spots.They told us that it was pretty safe to go there and the site was a must see. So we hired a taxi and off we went.Two friends from Goa sightseeing in wartime Libya.

The road was silken smooth and we made the trip in just over an hour. The site was largely deserted but we managed to get a tour guide ,an old man who also doubles up as English teacher in the local university.

Leptis Magna

Leptis Magna

Leptis Magna is huge and needs at least a full day to cover. However we had to get back before dusk (remember the gun toting youngsters?) so we had a quick two hour trip. Al Khoms has a couple of good hotels and it would be a good idea for wannable tourists to stay there and explore the ruins at their leisure.

the arch of Septimius Severes - Leptis magna

the arch of Septimius Severes - Leptis magna

As it was typical of the Romans the city is very meticulously planned.Originally founded by the Phoenicians in the 10th century b.c it eventually became part of the new Roman province of Africa in 23 B.C. Leptis achieved its greatest prominence when its native son Septimus Severes became emperor of Rome – the first African to do so.In its heydays it was one of the most important African cities next only to Alexandria and Carthage.By the third century Leptis Magna went into decline . Ransacked by a Berber tribe in 523 A.D.  it was abandoned and quickly reclaimed by the desert.

coliseum - Leptis magna

coliseum - Leptis magna

The arch of Septimius Severus welcomed us at the entrance .We were the only visitors at the vast site. Over a fascinating two hours we made our way through triumphal arches,huge columns,baths,temples,market,circus ,theatre ,hippodrome ,forum and harbor.And that was just scratching the surface as two thirds of Leptis Magna is buried underneath and has not been evacuated.The baths were fascinating with latrines and steam saunas.The market place has special measuring stones for measuring the merchandise .But by far the most magnificent was the coliseum .Set against the blue sea it was not difficult to imagine the events taking place here thousands of years ago.As I walked through the animal enclosures for tigers and lions the movie ‘Gladiator’ came to my mind.Besides the coliseum right on the beach was the hippodrome which was the scene of chariot races.The Romans certainly took their arts and sports very seriously.

theatre -Leptis Magna

theatre -Leptis Magna

As dusk settled in we reluctantly made our way back to Tripoli.But my mind continued to linger over the Roman ruins.As Libya goes through a pivotal moment in its history  the world is waking up to this lost city.Welcome back Leptis.

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Tramping through Tripoli – II

arch of Roman emperor Marcus Auralieus- Tripoli

arch of Roman emperor Marcus Auralieus- Tripoli

(Second post in a three part series on visit to Tripoli and Leptis Magna in Nov 2011 a few days after liberation of Libya.)

Day two of our Tripoli sojourn was spent entirely in walking about the city.We wanted to go to see Bab Al Azziza (Gaddafi’s fortress like compound) for some war tourism but a local told us that it had been completely razed to the ground.”Gaddafi finished” he said with a gleeful grin .So we gave it a go by and stuck to in and around the medina area.

al fatah towers ,marriot hotel just seen on the left side corne

Walking around we came across the pentagonal towers .According to locals all the five towers can be seen together at only one point (photograph in previous post). Next to the pentagonal towers were a few more huge buildings .One was the Al Fatah towers with a revolving restaurant on the top .The other two were hotels one of which is the Marriot hotel.Also in the vicinity is the Corintia hotel .These few buildings are probably all of the large buildings you will see in Libya.

coffee at a Algeria square

coffee at a Algeria square

Our long walk continued along the sea .We came across the small fishing harbour and fish market.From there we entered the souk medina in the old city.The place has a centuries old feel about it lined with cafes ,gold shops and all manner of shops.Just near the souk is the arch of Marcus Aurelius ,the Roman emperor who was born in Libya.Behind it is another historical landmark ,the Gurgi mosque built in 1834 .Coming out of the souk into Martyr’s  square we made way for a coffee in front of Algeria square.The impressive mosque there was a erstwhile catholic church which was converted to a mosque. An hour passed off slowly sipping coffee and watching the pigeons .Dusk settled in and we made our way back to our rooms after a weary day.

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Tramping Through Tripoli

El Eemad towers - the face of Tripoli

El Eemad towers - the face of Tripoli

(A three part series on visit to Tripoli and Leptis Magna in Nov 2011 a few days after liberation of Libya.)

rush for air tickets at Benina airport - Benghazi

rush for air tickets at Benina airport - Benghazi

Getting to Tripoli from Benghazi in the immediate aftermath of the liberation  was a onerous task.By road was out of question as it passed through Sirte and there were tens of checkpoints all along the way.My friend and I had some urgent work so we decided to take the aerial route.Normalcy was still being restored and the flight timings were erratic.Lots of people who had taken refuge in the city of Benghazi during the revolution were returning back to their homes and the flights were full.Still after a six hour wait at the ticket counter at the airport we managed a ticket to Tripoli.

dictator turned doormat- welcome at hotel Gesar Libya

dictator turned doormat- welcome at hotel Gesar Libya-Tripoli

Landing in Tripoli at night we were roundly fleeced by a non regular taxi .On a co-passenger’s advice we checked into hotel Gesar Libya near the medina.The hotel had seen better days but now was going to seed.Still for 30 dinars and the location it was a pretty good good deal.

The next day after finishing up our work and a futile trip to the Indian embassy which was closed we wandered about town.Armed militia(thwars)  with their klashnikovs were in charge of the city security.They had taken up lodgings in the many city hotels including ours.After the  initial apprehensions we were walking about normally, even at night.In fact in most places it was business as usual .

colours of free Libya

colors of free Libya

We strolled through the now famous Green square (renamed  Martyr’s square) .The site of many Gaddafi speeches, this was the among the first places captured by the revolutionaries and the images beamed worldwide announcing the fall of Gaddafi .Now it was peaceful with many young couples soaking in the autumn sun.The adjoining Omar Mukhtar road was bustling with the sale of flags,caps,key-chains,bags, in the revolutionary colors .One notable sight was the many newspapers which had mushroomed overnight . In the Gaddafi era there was hardly any press.Now suddenly the dam had burst and Libyans were on a writing spree.

(to be continued in the next post.)

Omar Mukhtar Road - Tripoli

Omar Mukhtar Road - Tripoli

print mania

print mania

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Daffodils !

daffodils

daffodils

‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud,

that floats on high o’er vales and hills,

when all at once I saw a crowd,

a host, of golden daffodils …..’

 ‘Daffodils‘ by William Wordsworth (1804)

Wandering home  from my college among the hills of Garhyan earlier this week I  had a deja vu  moment .Spring had come to the Western mountains (Jebel Nafusa) in Libya and the hills were abloom. The sudden sighting of a dense patch of daffodils in the olive orchard took me back to my school days.Back then in the  poetry class I had struggled to visualise Wordsworth’s most famous work.Now,decades later, gazing at the serendipitous sight in the olive orchard the picture was finally complete.

multi hued flowersEven though my house is a fair distance from the college I preferred to walk.It was spring after all.The skies were clear and a warm sun was shining down . There was a buzz in the air with the bees busy at work. The  route from my college was transformed into a beautiful  carpet of multihued flowers.yellow,white,purple, orange,violet..  .Almond trees were in full bloom with their pretty white flowers.The area contains many olive orchards which produce what are considered among the world’s finest olives. There below the olive trees the turmoil of last year seemed like a distant memory.Yes,Libya was alive and well.

another day - on the lonely road to zintan - western mountains; libya

another day - on the lonely road to zintan - western mountains; libya

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Snow white in Garhyan

Garhyan - Libya

Earlier  this February on a cold lazy morning in Garhyan I peeped out of my flat window.Seeing white I rubbed my eyes but the image held true.Overnight Garhyan had been covered with a blanket of snow.

Garhyan - Libya

Garhyan is a small hill town in the Western mountains of Libya just an hour’s drive south of Tripoli.While I am a newcomer to this place , having come here last month, locals told me that this was the first snowfall in 7-8 years.There had been a lot of news on the television about unusually heavy snowfall bringing life to a standstill in Europe.So the snow  had now decided to make a short trip across the Mediterranean into North Africa.

kids playing in the snow

Although I had experienced snowfall once earlier in Shimla ,nonetheless I was excited.Coming from tropical Goa ,where you don’t really have winters it was something to be savored .I logged into Skype and showed my little son back in India a view of the snow.He immediately demanded that I bring some back with me.Later all ensconced in warm clothing I went out for a walk in the snow. I hooked up with friends and we had a pleasant hour driving around the hills and vales of Garhyan .Schools had already declared a holiday so lots of kids with their parents in tow playing on the white hill slopes.Snowmen and snow fights.Already Gaddafi jokes were doing the rounds.According to one he  had forbidden snow here all these years and now that he is out it was snowing!

snow laden coniferous trees

Garhyan offers spectacular views of the Western mountain (Jebel Nafusa) region on any given day .On that February morning the white vistas would have given far off Switzerland a run for its money.

 

 

 

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Libya Hurra !

liberation day in benghazi

A moment comes,which comes but rarely in history,when we step out from the old to the new,when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation ,long suppressed,finds utterance.

(Jawaharlal Nehru speaking on the eve of India’s independence on 14th August 1947.)

Libya’s moment came last month.In the evening of 23rd October 2011,in front of thronging crowds at Birkha square,Mustafa Abdel Jalil ,the N.T.C chairman declared Libya liberated from decades of Gaddafi’s tyrannical rule.A bloody civil war had just ended three days earlier with the killing of the dictator whose rotting body was now kept for public viewing in a vegetable cooler in the city of Misruta.

all roads lead to birkha

So that evening I and my friends joined all Benghazi residents in making a beeline for Birkha square.A carnival atmosphere prevailed as men ,women and children with painted faces and fluttering flags moved towards the grounds in their ‘sierras’.

a sea of humanity

At Birkha there was a sea of humanity .The colors of free Libya – red,black,green were everywhere.The event was being beamed live around the world by major news networks.By the time I reached the short opening ceremony and speech making (thankfully)was already over.

coming home victorious

The attention had shifted to the rebel fighters who were the cynosure of all eyes.They had just returned the previous day from the final battle of Sirte .In combat fatigues with menacing guns and other weaponry sitting atop their battle modified civilian vehicles they were a formidable sight.The Toyota Hilux pickup with a machine gun mounted behind was the workhorse of the rebel forces during the war.As they held an impromptu parade the crowds of grateful citizens cheered ,shook hands ,clicked pictures chanted slogans and sang songs with them.Just a few months before these were docile young men who had perhaps not even held a gun.Occasionally the some of the brash youth let loose a volley of machine gun fire into the sky,perhaps to impress some wide eyed pretty damsel in the crowd.

remembering the martyred

On a more poignant note the crowds of joyful faces also contained many sombre ones.People were holding up pictures of their loved ones who were martyred in the conflict.A reminder of the  heavy price of this freedom.Just the previous week I had seen our landlady grieve over deaths of five young men in our locality in the battle for Sirte.To these fearless men Libya is forever indebted.

fireworks of a different variety

As dusk turned into night the fireworks came on.But for once these paled in comparison to the volley after volley of machine gun and anti – aircraft fire.The night sky turned red with streaking bullets.Volley after deafening volley were fired in celebration despite the organiser’s pleas earlier to the contrary.It was a ferocious fireworks display like none I have seen.I later learnt that this braggadocio resulted in the death of a infant baby who was struck by falling sharpnel.

libya hurra !

As the evening wore on we made our way back.Thus ended the revolution ;with hopes of a new beginning.A revolution like perhaps no other in history.From the initial revolt in Benghazi to the bloody siege of Misurata;from the dogged resistance in the western mountains to the sudden fall of Tripoli;from the vengeful destruction of Sirte to the brutal killing of the despot ;it had been a roller coaster ride for Libyans.For eight months I, like so many Indian colleagues had followed the Libya story,almost everyday, praying for our Libyan friends.Now was time to cheer and wish them well as they rebuild a Free Libya – Libya hurra!

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End game in Libya

cartoon on a coffee shop in benghazi

The end was swift and sudden.The battle for the last town held by Gaddafi loyalists, Sirte had inexplicably dragged on for weeks.Everybody here in Benghazi, 500 kilometres away ,was puzzled by the fierce resistance being put up by a few cornered pro Gaddafi fighters.What were they fighting for?As it is their vanquished leader was supposedly on the run, far away ,somewhere in the southern desert.

youth in benghazi celebrate as the news breaks

On the twentieth of October I was enjoying a seesh tauk at an Egyptian restaurant in Benghazi.The last pockets of resistance had just fallen in Sirte and the whole of Libya was finally free of Gaddafi’s rule.Celebrations were just beginning in the streets outside.Suddenly a group of boys ran out from the alleys shouting “Muammar” “Muammar”. They jumped up and down ,hugged their friends and generally went crazy.The celebratory tempo went up several notches.Almost as if on cue the minarets of the mosques started blaring prayers.Somewhat perplexed I went home and logged on to the net.’Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi reportedly killed in Sirte’ ran the breaking news ticker.Television news later confirmed the death and provided gory pictures and footage of the bloody end.’Brother leader’ had died a dog’s death; beaten ,dragged on the street and shot by his own people.The death also brought the eight month long civil war in Libya to an abrupt end.

celebrations in Benghazi

Benghazi went berserk.The city was the birthplace of the revolution in February.In March Gaddafi,’s army had entered the city limits with explicit orders to erase the city from the map.My colleagues tell me that the instructions were  to rape and kill. NATO bombing of Gaddafi’s army just a few miles outside Benghazi on 20th March 2011 saved the population of one million in the nick of time.So retribution tasted especially sweet to the residents here.Not many here shed tears for the manner of the tyrant’s death .In fact it was a mass catharsis for a populace which had endured decades of brutal repression.

a procession of oil tankers!

Celebrations for Libyan youth means burning benzene (petrol) and rubber.By evening hundreds of cars were careening up and down the city roads continuously honking horns.My friend who had his room overlooking one of the main thoroughfares had a splitting headache that night.Kids and young men alike hung out of the car windows waving the Libyan flag and flashing the V sign.Women in cars ululating as is the Arab tradition.I watched while drinking ‘khalta’ at a roadside coffee shop downtown as celebratory gunfire rocked the night.Some people had gotten hold of huge fuel tanker trailers and were driving around the city roads with beacons flashing and sirens wailing.The destination for everyone was the old courthouse by the Mediterranean sea where the revolution had first started.The party had just begun and would continue for days.After all it was a party 42 years in the making.

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Sands of Sahara

sahara desert - libya

a long way to go

(Third post of my three part series on my journey back to war torn Libya in Sept 2011.)

On the last leg of our journey to war torn Libya we boarded an old Mercedes bus in Alexandria for the thousand km road journey to Benghazi.Benghazi is the de facto capital of free Libya since the uprising began in February 2011.The bus fare was 200 Egyptian pounds or 50 Libyan dinars.You can also travel in smaller Mercedes vans called Vitos which are a dime a dozen and regularly ply the route.Be warned that they drive these like maniacs.

flag of free libya at border outpost

The coastal road is very well maintained and we made good time to the Egyptian border post of Salom.We reached there after a six hour journey at two o clock at night. The next two hours was spent in the border crossing formalities ,first on the Egyptian side and then later on the Libyan side.The Egyptian customs and immigration were more through than their Libyan counterparts who did not bother to check or scan our luggage.Perhaps they were not too worried of a few more guns smuggled into a country already awash with weapons!So it was Egyptian customs and immigration check followed by a short ride through no man’s land (200 mts) and checking on the Libyan side at Ahsaad .Finally we heaved a sigh of relief when our Libyan visas were stamped.It was 4 a.m when we finally entered Free Libya.

camels in the desert

The journey to Benghazi was far from over as we had a further nine hours journey ahead of us.The new tricolor flag of free Libya was everywhere.Our driver then left the coastal Mediterranean route and took an inland route which cut through the northern regions of the Sahara desert.The landscape was stark and dusty but beautiful.Here and there we came across hordes of camels .For hundreds of kilometres south stretched the world’s largest hot desert.Below its sands lay Libya’s wealth;the sweetest crude oil on the planet.Less well known but equally significant the Sahara has a gigantic fresh water aquifier which brings water to Libya’s cities and has the potential to make Libya’s desert bloom.Also the sands are the theatre for the great Libyan manhunt – the hunt for Muammar Gaddafi who was thought to be hiding in the desert down south.(edit:Muammar Gaddafi has since been  killed in his hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and was not hiding in the Sahara as was widely speculated.)

the mediterranean view as we near benghazi

We came across many dusty small towns with numerous checkpoints where young gun toting  rebels checked  our visas .At one such dusty town we stopped for a brunch of koobz (bread) and tuna fish washed down with coffee.Finally at one in the afternoon and a sixteen hour bus journey we rolled into the city of Benghazi.It was a emotional reunion for us as we were accorded a warm welcome by our landlady and her family.It almost felt like coming home.

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Alexandria

(Second in a three part series of my journey back to war torn Libya in Sept 2011.)

Alexandria founded in 331 b.c by Alexander the Great is Egypt’s second largest city.We landed at the old Alexandria airport(since closed for renovation).After a quick immigration check we piled into a taxi and made way towards our hotel in Rami area.Hotel Transit turned out to be a good find.Good clean rooms,a fine Mediterranean view and a hearty continental breakfast for fifty dollars.To add to the excitement it had an ancient,creaky lift to provide the thrills.

Alexandria street

Unfortunately our stay in Alexandria was short lived as we had to board a bus for Libya the same evening.Still a walk along the corniche by the sea gave us a feel of the place.The place has a old town feel to it with buildings long past their glory.Egypt is a fairly liberal Arab country and lots of young men and women were out enjoying the weather.I witnessed an altercation between a taxi driver and an Egyptian lady when his taxi bumped into her car.Things heated up quickly and the lady in hijab threw a few kicks and punches to subdue the belligerent taxi driver.

an accident on alexandria roads

We had a late lunch of the ubiquitous Arab snack; shawarma and coke before checking out of our hotel and taking a taxi to the bus station.Taxis are distinctive yellow and black;the Russian made Laada,supposed to be  sturdily built for harsh Siberian weather.Alexandria also has Africa’s oldest tram network operating since 1860.The old slow yellow trams seem an anachronism in the fast moving world around them.Saw many movie theatres , a rarity in the Arab world;a testimony to Egypt’s thriving movie industry.We had green tea at a roadside cafe with the owner encouraging me to try out his range of hookahs.Soon by nightfall we boarded an old Mercedes bus and began our thousand km journey to Benghazi .

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