Given Muammar Qaddafi’s recent death and the continued political uncertainty in Libya, tourism will likely not be the country’s boom industry any time soon. Some people, however, get paid to visit the hot, ruined, sand-blasted terrain of North Africa. Journalists, sure, and politicians, too. But also travel writers.
On account of the Arab Spring the third and most recent edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Libya was never published, according to one of its primary authors Kate Grace Thomas. In a vignette-style article about being a travel writer in a warzone published on Guernica, Thomas explains:
I was writing a guidebook to a country that no longer exists; a country where busloads of Italian tourists gathered around hotel buffets; where billboards advertised the Qaddafi brand—forty-one years, they sang, the leader’s face peering down at the cars on the highways like that of a god who thought he created them. The guidebook I researched was a guidebook to the past.
Thomas’ dispatch from the turbulent Libyan heartland is as riveting as any other you’ve read, even lacking the injuries and explosions you’d hear about from an embedded journalist. But what really made this essay memorable was how Thomas repeatedly blurred the distinction between travel writing and traditional reporting, between natural landscape and political landscape, between tourist amenities and cultural anxieties. For Thomas, they are one and the same. Following are a few of the best tips for savvy tourists.
On the massive geographical rift down the middle of Libya:
“Tripoli and Benghazi are very far apart,” he said. “Not only in terms of kilometers, you understand? Most Libyans must choose; either we are true to Tripoli or we are true to Benghazi.”
On the best way to hire a cab:
“It is safer that way,” the driver told me. “If you want to travel safely in Libya, always ask the driver to bring his wife.”
On luxury accommodations:
“Qaddafi,” said the hotel manager, “has slept in this bed.” . . .
I couldn’t afford to stay there, so I thanked the manager and left to write up my review. This was the private wing of one of Benghazi’s largest hotels, concealed from the public by fat palm trees, elephant grass, and a thousand-dollar price tag.
On scenic routes:
We took the road south from Tobruk, past the World War Two cemeteries with their neat rows of headstones and swept pathways, stippled with aloe vera plants, flowering cacti, and simple dedications. These burial grounds were tidy, orderly, nothing like the mass graves slowly filling in Tripoli.
Back in New York, Thomas reflects on her travels, her commissioned writing, and the rapid changes sweeping Libya. Specifically, she meditates on Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound:
The compound used to be sand. Qaddafi had concrete poured into its grounds, burying the ghosts of footprints, sowing grass seeds around its vast contours. He covered the compound with the concrete of his ideas, his doctrine. He covered Libya with them too. But when the rebels showed up, firing their rounds, chipping away at its surface, pockets of sand became visible.
Qaddafi had tried to turn Libya into rock, his rock, but underneath it was sand, shifting sand, all along.