Only difference is, this write-up makes mention of the airport in Tripoli. Well of course when I lived and worked in Tripoli (1993/94) Libya was a no-fly zone because of the sanctions imposed by the UN over the Lockerbie disaster, so I never even got to see the airport, instead getting in and out of the country entailed having to make a long overland journey through Tunisia and on into Libya through the border , a journey which could take anything from 14 hours to two days (army, security and all sorts of intermittent checks all along the way) often reaching the border to find it closed and having to make the long journey back (to Tripoli or Tunis - depending on whether your intention was to get out or in!) An alternative was The Maltese Run - fly to Malta and bunk up on the over-crowded rat-infested rusty tin can boat over to Tripoli, an overnight erratic hit-or-miss journey depending on whether the boat was passably sea-worthy at the time or even in the mood for the journey.
This writer's experience of working in Libya is obviously a lot more recent. Be that as it may, nothing much seems to have changed. Reading this has prompted me to write about my experiences there. When I have a bit more time, I am going to add my own adventures here.
Meanwhile ... here's a taste of:
(from here: http://www.myspace.com/judidonegan/blog/241353743 )
The Single Girl's Guide to Surviving Tripoli
19 Jan 2008
Living and Working in Libya presents some Unusual Challenges:
Application to Libya
Getting into Libya is almost as tricky as getting out of Libya. Any successful job application is followed by a battery of blood tests, chest x-rays, urine analyses, eye tests, ear tests, nose tests, unexpected prodding and poking, etc, the results of which are all sent away to be examined by Embassy appointed 'Experts', and when they confirm what you already know you receive a certificate declaring you fit and healthy! (Which you knew already, but Hooray anyway). The next step is for passport and qualifications to be translated into arabic, approved by someone hired specially for the purpose, who writes a report which is distributed, added to pile, occasionally filed and then a tentative contract of employment is produced – that's only "tentative" mind you, never one to make a hasty decision, the Libyan employer will confirm your employment after your arrival in Tripoli and, guess what? Further health tests!
Undaunted, and full of misguided enthusiasm for a new job, its time to go shopping! The shopping list for life in Libya is exhaustive, and includes the need for an adequate supply of batteries, tampons, sellotape, dvds, sewing kit, corkscrews (you never know), soap, moisturizer, hand sanitizer, magazines, flashlight and an assorted range of electrical tape, fuses, pliers, screwdriver and other useful tools for fixing/assembling things like electric lamps, phones, dvds and so on, also envelopes, pens and post-its plus emergency food rations like chocolate digestive biscuits, Cadburys fruit and nut, and the sort of powdered meals that can be mixed with fruit juice are a good idea.
Clothing to Pack
Depending upon what time of year you arrive in Tripoli it will be either very cold or very hot, both indoors and outdoors. Bring clothes for both seasons as there is nothing to buy in Tripoli other than the local's fav which comprise full length Burqa's (housecoats for women) and Gallabiyas (long dresses for men). Burqa's worn by western girls, whilst undeniably handsome, are frowned on. Western girls are meant to dress in Western clothes, don't be like Michael Jackson in Bahrain and disgrace youself by wearing a black hijab if you are a man, a nonmuslim to boot. Far more sensible to stick to European dress, but remember you are not the heroic Kate Adie and this is not CNN, so no need for lots of journalistic pockets, you'll only lose your keys and/or be mistaken for an Eyetalian. However, like Kate Adie, all outfits should cover legs, arms, neck and should allow space for breathing but not sweating.
Flights to Tripoli depart London at around 6am, check in is at 3 so depending where you are traveling from there's not a lot of point in going to bed that night. It also means everyone arriving in Tripoli will be tired and cranky after the 4.5hr flight and the early check in, and if they're not then they soon will be. The new arrival to Libya finds him/herself in the long queue of foreigners waiting at Immigration, whilst gleeful LIbya scurry unhampered pass you through Immigration for first pick from the luggage carousel. Your fellow UK travelers are invariably made up sub-contractors and returning oil company workers with thick regional accents, beer bellys and whiskey breath and who are united by a complete and utter disdain for the Libyans. 'Fookin ell' and 'Jesoos wept' are frequent refrains from the expats as the sole Immigration officer tests each foreigner's excuse for being there, breaking off occasionally and disappearing for a few minutes as the rest of the new arrivals sweat and fumein the hot, unairconditioned hall.
'When The Leader's sun wus arrested in Lundun for coke recently they 'ad all the foreign workers out 'ere for 8hours – the fookin ambassador 'ad to get ont' phone to the foreign minister in Lundun and he ad to apologise personally so the bluudy Immigration would let the foreign workers back in' – the furious watery-eyed northerner tells the man to his left, who rolls his eyes sympathetically, says 'ay', and lights up another smoke. Nevertheless, everyone gets processed eventually, and then there is a nervous moment when you wonder if your luggage will still be there. Of course it is, its lying at the bottom of a dusty pile which you then drag onto a trolley and load onto a ridiculously high conveyer belt to pass through a dubious looking x-ray machine that doesn't look like its actually working, meanwhile a group of silent rather grimy looking men in oddly sized blue uniforms and police belts stand around smoking and watching you without moving.
Once you have split your blouse from the effort of hauling 32kilo suitcases onto the conveyer, broken the moisturizer you bought at Heathrow, torn 3 nails and watched your chocolate hobnobs roll across the arrivals terminal its time to make a debut into the arrivals lounge.
Lounge is a misnomer in any case, the very word suggesting comfort, in fact nothing could be further from the truth, there are no seats anywhere, nor cafes, shops, bureau de changes or any of the other outlets usually found at airports, it's just an extension of the luggage claim area with the difference being that here bedlam reigns as entire families have congregated and emotionally overwrought women clutch returning sons, brothers, uncles, cousins or sometimes complete strangers to their heaving bosom and wail noisily, all around families screech and chatter happily and the new European arrival reluctantly tears him/herself away from looking at some of the more interesting bedoin tattoos on the women's foreheads.
The First Port of Call in Tripoli
Is always a hotel. Which can be a bit of an eye opener to the uninitiated. According to the sign over the door the Etoile Splendido boasts 4 stars, which is immediately dispelled as you enter into a lobby without light, a greasy desk with an even greasier looking desk manager who utters one word, 'passport' which he photocopies and then returns with an oldfashioned key attached to a 5inch piece of wood and points towards a lift, this is just a tricky initiative test because its not working as there is no power in the afternoon.
So after scaling the stairs to a darkened corridor and locating your room, you enter into the scruffiest hotel room you've ever seen - in teh dark you make out one chair, one oldfashioned wardrobe and a single mattress on a frame on the floor. The idea of lying down with your head 6inches from the ground where you can clearly see the trail of wildlife that are marching in well disciplined lines across the soiled carpet and into the even dirtier bathroom, is not appealing. In the bathroom the ants disappear behind cracked tiles that must surely have been put up sometime in the 60s? The sole source of light is from one window that has a big crack and a piece missing, a grey curtain flaps energetically in front of it. This is a common experience, and its then that the newcomer to Tripoli can only sigh, look out the window at the shockingly stinky sea and console themselves that this is just the first night, there are bound to be better places, at least there is a coastline so there must be a nice beach somewhere. How innocent! You can't apply the word "nice" to Tripoli unless used in the past tense as in: "50 years ago the Italians made a nice promenade in Tripoli", or "there was a nice café behind that rubble and the garbage over there", or "when there were trees it was nice and shady" (one day all trees were removed after an assassination attempt was made on the Leader from a tree).
Of course there are those who arrive and are just plain ornery believing its not obligatory to stay in a hellhole. So having researched the city from the safety of the internet back home in London, seen my bed on the floor in Tripoli, and viewed the antique bathroom, it took me all of 5seconds to resolve to move to the recently completed Corinthia, which is the new 5 star (real 5 stars, not selp-appointed 'stars' like everywhere else in Tripoli). Reasonably calm having made that decision I recall going to the lobby to wait for my ride to take me to dinner and sat down at a vacant sofa to wait, this then posed a new problem, of what part of you touches what part of the sofa, for example, the arms of the sofa and chairs are so soiled they are a shiny black while the rest of the upholstery still sports what must have once been colourful flowers. Hooray for hand sanitizer!
I moved from the infected sofa to the bar and tried to buy a coke, but the unshaven man behind the counter fails to understand the most international of words and when I point to a glass of something that looks like coke he leans beneath the counter and hands me a warm carton of orange juice which I pay for with filthy notes exchanged for dollars from the reception Manager. By now the hand sanitizer has been used at least 9 times.
I hang around the lobby not touching anything waiting for my guide, as soon as she arrives I explain I need to move to the Corinthia. My guide, a Canadian graduate of Cairo University, smiles knowingly and in a mixture of Italian and Arabic retrieves my luggage, signs something (hopefully not a recommendation) and we are out on the street hailing a taxi and moving off towards relative sanctuary. The Corinthia looms out of the grimy confusion that is downtown Cairo, it is clean, full of shiny marble and sparkling aluminium. In the lobby a large painting of the Leader smiles out at elegantly attired diners who sip coke from ice cube laden glasses. A discounted room is made available and I gratefully move up to a new clean suite with a double glazed view over the glittering sea. The feeling of hope returns.
Over dinner, Caroline, my guide explains what will take place tomorrow, but nothing can prepare me, nor anyone, for the reality:
Arrival at the Office
The new arrival is responsible for getting themself to the office which is tricky as there are no street signs in English, and absolutely no company or other signs in any European language to help, plus taxi drivers do not speak English. There are however a lot of large bill boards with pictures of The Leader. So instructions go something like this: walk down to Martyrs Square, turn left at the picture of the Leader, go to the crossroads and turn right at the Leaders picture, then continue to the roundabout and take the 3 o'clock road with the Leader's face on the wall, you'll need about an hour..….
Somehow you get yourself to the office where you pass through a turnstile and announce your name to the guards behind the glass. Unusual for an oil company you think, a turnstile. The guards speak no English but point to the stairs and you go up to the 1st floor and find someone who understands English and directs you to room full of men (who are the Human Resources Division), where you hand over the 35 passport photos you were instructed to bring and told to sit down which is where you are then given the obligatory once over. The best thing to do is to smile at everyone. Someone handed me a Lion bar. They are not ungenerous the Libyans; they are incredibly scruffy and they all smoke like chimneys, oh and the men address each other as Habibi (darling).
Mr Shafiqi shuffles in, he is the chain smoking HR manager who you met in London. He explains who your chain of command is, and you sign the contract. He smilingly evades all questions about the job, and you smilingly don't press it. But you have been alerted to the nature of things in the office the night before, all too fantastical to really absorb, but anyway, this is a day for being processed. My Shafiqi calls out to a tall gangly youth called Taher who speaks not a word of English, but beckons me to follow. We run across the road to the main building, through yet another turnstile and then into a basement office that has what look like medical posters on the walls, but as the room is lit by 2 60watt bulbs and everything is in Arabic its hard to be sure. There are two white guys in filthy checked shirts, stained jeans and enormous metal toed work boots sitting against the wall on wobbly chairs. A hejabed woman beckons me over and points to a book where I am to sign in, I see the two guys before me have names that are made up entirely of consonants.
After a while they disappear and then a woman appears in the doorway and says 'henna, henna' to me which means come here. I follow her into a little room with metal floor, metal ceiling, metal walls. She takes out a hypodermic syringe and indicates I should roll up my sleeve. I refuse. She gabbles fast in Arabic and I have no idea what she is saying, but can guess. Then 2 more nurses arrive and one speaks English and says this is standard. I did a blood test in London I say, sure that there is a mistake, but the English speaking one smiles and continues to insist this is OK. I ask to see the hypo come out of a fresh pack and this is done. I give blood then and am ushered into see the Doctore, the nurse babbling something to him as I go in. He has sad red eyes and asks me to sit down then looks at my hands, turns them over, sighs, scribbles his signature on a form in arabic and says that's fine you can go. Its very bizarre. I later learn that when my guide Caroline had her skin check he insisted on seeing her breasts. We go back to the waiting room and then Taher arrives and I follow him to a small VW bus where the two consonant heavy guys are sitting, the nurse gets in with big red test tubes full of blood, and we all bounce over the bumpy potholed roads to the laboratory, where I try to follow the nurse but am bawled at in Arabic to stay in the bus. This is good as there is chaos outside the Lab with crowds of people, some looking very fragile, and a lot of pushing and shoving going on.
The two guys in the bus are Polish oil riggers, they explain this medical has to be undertaken every year for work permit renewal. They have just arrived from the desert that morning and are leaving that afternoon on 6 week rotational leave. Then one says 'arrgh you wait you see what next' he is grinning widely and clearly amused at what comes next. 30minutes later we pull up in front of a huge building with crowds of people in groups, there are groups of Philippinos, groups of Libyan men, or women, there are the fat, beer bellyed expat oil contractors having a smoke. I stand around in my blazer and Caribbean blonde hair feeling very incongruous, and one of them comes up to me. 'yer waitin' to go in?' he asks, I smile and nod, 'first time? Well yer in fer a rit treat' he grins. A bus drops off a new load of men who join the throng where people are waving money about their heads. I am looking for Taher amongst the heads. 'It'll take a minute is all' says my new friend 'who're yer with?' I tell him my oil company name. 'It's a complete farce, nor even an X-ray in the box, I dinnae even take me cigs an' lighter out' he says pointing at his top pocket which bulges with the telltale line of a packet of cigarettes.
We stand around idly chatting then Taher materializes and bawls henna henna to me so I follow where he pushes to the front of the women's queue, no men here, hands over some money and I am ushered into a room, shoved into a tiny metal box about the size of a coffin and the door slides shut, 10seconds later the door opens and I am ushered back out to join the throngs of people. Its all over. I have not removed my clothes or jewelry and the whole exercise seems a bit pointless to say the least.
Everyone is in a good humour on the bus back. The rain has stopped and the streets steam, the Poles are going back to the single mens quarters to shower and head for the airport and I am getting to see a bit of the city where everyone drives at lightning speed and hopefully there is a rainbow at the end of this road. Yeah right you're not in Kansas now Dorothy.
The new arrivals employer will be certain to make a first impression, the all important first introduction is designed to ensure that you are in no doubt as to his absolute power, which you will in any case soon come to realise is omnipotent in this male society where women are a submissive class, playing a very secondary role. The introduction may require you to wait an hour or so on an uncomfortable chair in a small room adjacent to his office, where a number of scruffy male engineers, clerks, passersby will sit around staring at you. The all invincible boss will be shouting at any number of people in the office next door. Occasionally the door will open and a harassed looking engineer or clerk will emerge looking pointedly at you sitting neatly against the wall. You are the new girl. You are currently being discussed in minute detail throughout the building.
Eventually the boss will emerge, invariably smaller, fatter, taller, thinner in stature than expected. Depending on his success with getting bankhanders from sub-contractors he may be wearing a clean smart suit, or be unshaven in a 2 day old gallabiya. Your role is simply to do his job, and to do it to a standard that makes him absolutely, unquestionably marvelous in the eyes of his superiors and the whole company – that is, unless something goes wrong in which case it is entirely your fault.
Not that a stirling job performance will make a damn bit of difference to his pay or your pay, and you can forget any concept of 'bonus' Libyans earn a paltry salary, even the Chairman of the company will be earning 5 times less than you, all salaries are decided on a scale by The Leader who's life out in Serte means he has no grasp of people';s needs in and no inkling as to the cost of living in Tripoli, which is why everyone is dependent, quite literally on baksheesh which is a sum automaticlaly calculated into contract prices by overseas contractors. The Libyans, generally cheerful and friendly, are open about it. And once they get to know you and trust you, you will hear the stories of the endless suffering they have endured that justify just about anything.
The Libyans with the best lifestyles have nice jobs in Contracting roles where they come into contact with foreign sub-contractors. They enjoy long summer holidays at Lake Como and educate their kids at the American School in Lausanne, the whole family drive smart new VWs or Toyotas. They are in no way shape or form ambitious, they used their ambition long ago and have arrived at where they are and that's where they will stay till retirement. In the meantime, going to the office means to have as social and as fun time as possible and business means meeting outside the office to exchange account details. If the boss is particularly well liked and successful, he may be assigned a European female as a sort of unspoken bonus, she will do his work and if she's attractive everyone will assume he is doing her.
Looks are Important:
As a new European female to the Tripoli office, If you are reasonably attractive you will be alright. All Libyan men want to flirt. Ideally resulting in sex, but if they can be seen talking to you they are happy with that to start, as it gives them something to boast and lie about. Unfortunately, if you are not particularly attractive you will probably be ignored, starve and die, or fired very early on, or possibly be called to HR and told that the work permits have not come through or been declined perhaps even cancelled by the ministry or some such nonsense.
New arrivals need to get used to being stared at.
There are Libyan women in the oil firm, who are invariably young and almost all wear the hejab and a full length housecoat – although one or two racier ones sport western dress, a ton of makeup and bad hairdye jobs and are the subject of endless rumor. Then there are the religious women who suddenly, just prior to marriage cover up their whole face with a thin black cloth, causing one generally good tempered western educated Libyan to snap who are you? when addressed by the virgin ninja in question. After the wedding the bride then returns to work, emerges chrysallis like and covered in slap. Hamdallilah...
he day after processing you will be relocated to your permanent accommodation which the company has arranged in either Stalag I or Stalag II. Both are located more than 15km from your place of work, are surrounded by barbed wire and have strange signs outside the guardposts mysteriously proclaiming: 'if security is compromised there will be hanged'. Hanged if I know what it means. There are also curious tank traps, in the form of strategically placed road blocks, permanently ready to tackle the invading hordes although the brochure does not say the country is at war, perhaps The Leader is afraid of his own tank commanders. There are numerous changes of guards on the gate and some speak english depending on what you/they want that day.
The camp is your final resting place as it were, and will be a big let down after the Corinthia. The standard flat comprises a living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, some have a small balcony or garden. Be very careful of the electrical appliances as nothing is earthed and there have been occasions when the newcomer has been thrown across the room several times before remembering those vital five words Do Not Touch the Plug! Accommodation is selected in an area where other single girls live so you can all keep an eye on each other, and if you miss something there are guards posted outside each apartment to watch, wait and report. Recordings of the noble Quran belt out all day from the speakers attached to the oncamp mosque, and, spaced evenly apart at 10metres distance, just in case you forget where you are, are flagpoles with the all green Libyan flag. At the far end is the sea.
Once you've made your bed and thrown the contents of your suitcases into the massive oldfashioned wardrobe, had a good cry and fiddled with the tv to find that its not working, you may wander down to the beach, under the ever present flapping green flags. This should cheer you up as the sun shines and the cobalt blue of the mediterranean lends a reassuring summer camp feel to the place.
Finding things to do:
On arrival the new recruit is so busy assimiliating into their new environment they have no time to realise that once the groceries have been hunted down and paid for, called 'foraging for food', there isn't actually much else to do. No cinemas, bowling alleys, bars, pubs, lounges, discos, billiard halls, arcades, square dancing, raves, pottery, painting, rambling, flower arranging, sex or book clubs are available in Tripoli. And unfortunately at least one oil company has failed to provide its female employees with membership to the one swimming pool on the camp. Hence, the need for a good dvd player.
Eventually the new girl will meet someone, probably one of the oil contractors, who will excl.. What you don't have a dvd player? And direct her down to the Tuesday market which is a wonderful world full of ripped off chinese merchandise that arrive on leaky old rusting tankers piloted by pirates. Buy the more expensive brand name player, one that you recognise as it will play the Malaysian rip off dvd's that also come in on the same tanker and are scratchy and sometimes a bit garbled, but at just £1 a throw at least provide an hour or so of stop-start entertainment.
A wine kit is also useful as it will ensure you are invited along to expat gatherings. Those strange social events where the mad, watery eyed old lags with jovially wobbling beer guts and that antique accessory, a Rothmans, hanging from a pair of wrinkled old lips, lean against a homemade bar in dated 25yr old fashions guzzling noxious 'Flash' which is the poisonous local moonshine, whilst jawing on about how fantastic the place is, and then, after a little while, how awful the locals are, and 'noon of the Bastads can fookin drive!' After a few hours of concentrated guzzling of this 150° pure alcohol they will pack you into their car and hit the roads so you can see for yourself.
The first week you could find yourself at a darts club where big blokes from Leeds and beyond chuck a few darts around in a smoky den and await the applause of young philippino girls. Any interference with the tiny philippino children results in a sharply directed kick to the shins and an impromptu coughing fit from the unhealthy old heathen with the darts and the foolish ambition.
When not working or foraging for food the new girl goes along to these expat bashes where for the first 3 months she'll find herself answering the same questions over and over, where you from? do you like it here? did you bring a wine kit? If not exactly hanging on her every word, the ancient sozzled expat perks up when he hears 'wine kit', sometimes causing him to salivate messily at the thought of potential mind-numbing alcoholic beverages that will be shared around and have them all yapping like hounds for a few hours, just before slipping into a catatonic stupor whilst nodding along to Rod Stewart. Of course if you are a good looking gal you don't need the wine kit, but roller blades for a fast getaway and a good set of elbows help.
If your employer does not provide a pass to the camp pool then the entire camp population will know you work for Agip and will feel very sorry for you. This is to be expected and nothing to be ashamed of. For some reason Agip are the only oil company who fail to provide their female foreign staff with a pass to use the pool. Never mind. Enough old lags will willingly lend you theirs and if you agree to spend endless hours listening to what a hard time they are having shortly before they go back out on rotation to see their wives, they will lend you their pass again, if you agree to bedroom exercise you may keep the pass indefinitely. Of course some cleverly present the pass and then, manipulate the gift attemptin to make you feel obliged to them. However, one can always take a tip out of the Irish girl's manual and confidently borrow their usual refrain of: why doncha fuck off back tya wife. It Seldom fails to have the desired effect.
There is of course not just the one camp pool. There are two others. One on Skanska camp, which is a 30ft shallow lap pool with a wrinkled liner, surrounded by rusting portacabins or trailers as they are better known and wrinkled old liars. For an annual fee of £200+ one can join in the fun of watching scantily clad middle aged english men and women scamper around in a drunken attempt to provoke sexual fury in the opposite sex and make something happen. What the bundled up Libyans who look down from the surrounding tower blocks think is anyone's guess. The camp is situated directly over some roman ruins dating back to 300ad where no doubt similar bachanalian romps took place. An ancient marble centurion, weathered and faceless after 20centuries of facing the elements and squadrons of clambering children, stands guard over the catacombs which have been partially excavated.