The first hit of an Arabic city is always unforgettable. The ground is dusty and dry, old Mercedes cars bump across unmade roads while gleaming 4x4s shoot past nearby on newly built freeways. The air is thickly scented; tobacco, coffee, mint and oil, periodically infused with the melancholic tones of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer. As I step out of my hotel in Tripoli’s ramshackle medina, this air of difference wraps itself around me. I pull my coat a little tighter against the surprisingly cool air and walk down to the harbor, where mammoth tankers lie slumbering in the water, glinting through the dusk.
In the half-light, faces are turned towards me with surprise and interest, but no one speaks. Before long I realize that to be a female tourist out and about on her own in Tripoli is still something of a curiosity. I look back, struck by the different looks and races that pass by: angular Egyptian faces, dark Algerian skin, Touareg gliding past draped in head-dresses and robes. It feels slightly alien but not for a moment — even on that first walk on that first night — do I feel unsafe.
How many times was I asked before I came to Libya: Is it safe? I’d smiled and nodded and said that I was going with a group and was sure it would all be fine, but by the time the 10th person had looked anxious for my fate my anxiety levels were starting to rise. But now I was actually here, checked into my cozy room in the El Khan hotel, where the manager had welcomed us into the elegant courtyard like old friends and handed us champagne flutes filled with almond milk, I was already struck by how very different the reality of Libya is to the perception.
‘A FUTURE TO LOOK FORWARD TO’
People come to Libya for two things. Most, like the group of three couples I was with, come for the Roman ruins: Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Cyrenaica are some of the most impressive ancient sites in the world. Others come for the desert, to trek across the vast silent wastes of the Sahara that lie in the south of the country. It’s still not an easy place to visit — the visa process and red tape are almost impossible to negotiate independently (Israeli passport-holders cannot enter the country and Americans can have difficulty) and 90 percent of visitors come on escorted tours, which tend to be expensive.
But new short-break itineraries — I was on one of the first four-night trips with Kirker Holidays — are a more affordable option, giving the chance to experience a country in transition, before tourism has barged through the door and dressed everything in familiar colors. Tripoli itself has the air of a city emerging into the light after a period of darkness; bemused, blinking but determined to make up for the lost years.
And there have been lost years — Lockerbie, sanctions and bombings combined to make Libya one of the most reviled countries on the planet throughout the 1980s and 1990s. “For many years life was difficult,” says Abdul, our guide. “The sanctions hit ordinary people hardest. But now we have oil money, there are constant discoveries of natural gas reserves, and Gaddafi has improved relations with the West. We feel that the good times are coming again, that there is a future to look forward to.”
There is a sense of rebirth in the air. Muammar Gaddafi is still everywhere, of course, pictured in aviator shades and startling purple-satin outfits on countless advertising hoardings. But the country he has dominated for almost 40 years is finally starting to change: laws are being introduced to bring in a minimum wage, grants to start businesses and buy houses, schooling for children. On the first morning we drive out of Tripoli past shiny hotel and apartment towers that look as if they have been imported straight from Dubai. Tripoli is a city on the up.