A Brief Encounter with the Colonel's Son
Evening Standard, August 2000
Libya creates a knee jerk response; "have you met Colonel Qaddafi?" is followed by "is it safe?" After six years taking lecture tours round its unforgettable classical ruins, all I can say is it gets more efficient every year. Fortunately enough goes wrong to keep my appetite for travel keen.
Nothing can quite match the disorder of my first trip. It was in the very, very early days of tourism. Twenty four hours before we arrived a crowd had burned the Union Jack and the Stars and Bars on Tripoli's Green Square. In those bad old days either you had to dodge CIA agents in Malta or fly into neighbouring Tunisia, try to catch an habitually overbooked internal flight, wait for the arrival of your Libyan contact on the island of Jerba (anything between 2 to 6 hours in the airport café), and then make your way to the one permitted border crossing.
Relations between Tunisia and Libya are always fraternal and often acrimonious. It is said that on his last visit to Tunisia Colonel Qaddafi put aside his carefully prepared speech to parliament and launched into a bitter diatribe against the enthusiastic welcome the Tunisians had given Michael Jackson who had given a concert the week before. The Tunisians for their part confiscate any copies of the Colonel's Green Book at the border. On that trip we kept a book on the number of police and immigration checkpoints between the two fraternal nations - and recorded 13 in 24 hours.
So unusual were tourists that our small group was thought to be a party of Bulgarian engineers and our claim to be British tourists was dismissed as a great joke. Just an hour before we were due to return across the Tunisian border at the end of the holiday, we were informed that it was only open to those with a vaccination against the bubonic plague. Whether such a thing was available or not (Libya was then under heavy U.N. sanctions), none of us wanted to go near a syringe of neutralised black death. We spent a night in a barely-disguised brothel and missed our flights. In the face of a genuine crisis the Libyans rallied around beautifully. The following day we were whisked on board a ferry and literally waved through customs. It was an unexpected treat to leave Tripoli harbour at dusk and wake up in Valetta's great harbour at dawn. Pity that my Trailfinders travel insurance, after six years of correspondence, has still not payed up.
This spring I caught the desert a-bloom but my group was also caught by a monumental thunder storm. With our national character to uphold we carried on inspecting the ruins of Ptolemais as if nothing untoward was happening. Two hours later we were elated by antique carving but completely sodden. I asked my Libyan colleague to check that the heating had been switched on in our hotel. It is not a great hotel but it has the distinct commercial advantage of being the only hotel in the entire region. Omer rang through on his mobile, his face went blank and he beckoned me out of hearing distance of the group.
"There is a problem", he whispered, "One of Colonel Gaddaffi's sons is at the hotel".
"What fun" I said.
"That is not all. He is with his football team."
"How lovely" said I.
"All the rooms are taken."
"Oh dear" I said.
"The manager feels a little shy about asking the Colonel's son to leave but he says that the good news is that the heating is on."
Despite many calls later that afternoon we could not get the manager to overcome his shyness. We entered the lobby in some trepidation. Like the manager I was a little shy of telling my wet and cold group of travellers that there was nowhere to stay. A large handsome man in a respledent cloak greeted us with a sonorous "Salam aleikum" (Peace be with you). He turned to the hotel manager and graciously informed him that as some other guests had arrived it was clearly time that he should be leaving. With a nod, and the barest hint of a smile, the Colonel's son promptly left the hotel. It was a typically Libyan situation. A state of anarchy converted at the very last minute into harmonious order by personal charm.
This October I will be back amongst the honey-coloured ruins and in February I hope to head south deep into the Sahara. Who knows, I might yet meet the Colonel.
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