Jets and mortars

I am sitting on the rooftop of the school where I live on the top floor. To the north and east, there are mortar explosions punctuated with rapid fire. Puffs of black mortar discharge float in the turquoise blue Libyan sky. Then there is silence for a few minutes before another burbing crackle of gunfire and the thud-thudthudthud-thud of mortar. A distant explosion now comes from the southeast. I can see nothing of the exchange, but the sounds are ominous.

The lads are playing football (soccer) on the field below me, undaunted by what has me quietly fretting. There is a nonchalance among the people who have been living with events like this for two years.

A jet suddenly rips through the air. I see it speeding in an arc around the city and then back to the north – the Mediterranean. It is quite low and close; I can make out the Libyan insignia on its wings as it swoops around me. It makes another pass above me, like a solitary missile frightening in its powerful fracturing of the sky.

A building is now on fire to the north. I can’t see the building, but a great mass of black smoke is billowing into the air. As the jet makes a third pass, gunfire increases.

Flocks of white pigeons are escaping to the west, but now the sound of mortar fire is coming from a wider perimeter.

A colleague reports that the news on France 24 has picked up on the disturbance. A militia from Misrata had fired on demonstrators in the city. Cars on a nearby highway are honking their horns.

Suddenly, there is quiet. The sun is setting, casting long shadows across the garden walls.

Still, occasional rounds of fire puncture the beautiful Libyan evening.


November 8…

There are the voices of children playing in the street outside my window, but in the distance are the periodic bursts of gunfire continuing the mayhem that began last night in Tripoli.  Here on the near-outskirts of the city, we are advised to not leave the compound.

Responses to the militia conflict that took a life and injured a dozen or so bystanders are varied. the groundskeeper at first denied (lied) that there had been an incident last night (even though we could hear the blasts), and then he shrugged it off by saying that these things have been happening for the last two years, and not to worry; it will pass.

A fellow colleague philosophically mused that what happened last night is only as serious as one wants to take it. Foreigners aren’t being targeted per se, and the only direct impact will be that some parents may not bring their children to school on Sunday. (Our school week runs Sunday to Thursday, Friday being the Islamic holy day.) 

The Libya Herald  reported that residents dragged barricades across the roads leading into the city in the wee hours of the morning to block the resupply of munitions into the city, further testament to staunch initiative individuals must take in the absence of a government. 

I feel like I am living in a 19th century frontier town in the American West when guys with guns would face each other down in Main Street and all the townsfolk would flee to safety. Only here, the weapons are not six-shooters and there is no sheriff.

Every moment a microcosm

October 24, 2013



After several weeks of no Internet connection, suddenly we have it. There are any number of reasons why the foreign teachers have had such a sporadic and weak Internet service.


The first possibility is that the mechanical devices are flawed or damaged, and there is no one in the city of Tripoli who is capable of repairing it properly or who cares to do a professional job of fixing it. Maybe there IS someone, but he (yes, he only) realizes that the longer he can ineffectively patch the damage, the longer he has a job and can bill the company for services not performed. Probably no one in the administration would notice.


There is the likelihood that the Internet provider bill has not been paid – for a long time. Always, always there is always “bukara” (tomorrow) and the condition “Inshallah” (God willing) to any request for anything here. Will the TV repairman come tonight to make my TV work? Inshallah. I wait for hours, and he never shows. No one is surprised.


Maybe “someone” does not wish the foreign teachers to have access to the outside world through the Internet, and that “someone” is intentionally keeping the service from working. Maybe one of the foreign teachers is thinking to get the hell out of the country and book a ticket to Malta – and never come back. It has happened here more than once; teachers have disappeared without a word to anyone and without a backward glance at the consequences of making the staff even more short-handed.


I can understand that seemingly selfish impulse. If not for those few motivated students among the mass of mostly undisciplined, disrespectful, and lazy children who go to this school, I would have left the first day. If not for the possibility that there are two or three of those students who will make a crucial difference in the future of this country, I would quit this vale-of-trash-strewn roadsides and perplexing inefficiencies.


Just another Libyan conundrum

We were walking through the souq (old market area) in Mdena (old city) last Sunday browsing among the crowded alleys covered by faded beach umbrellas when we came upon a small, dusty child of about 7 or 8 years standing at a low table on which were arranged a dozen or so handguns. At first we thought they were toys, but no – we picked them up and hefted them, noticed the bullets arranged nearby – they were the real deal. Nearby, a man wearing a “have gun will travel” t-shirt was selling a wide range of weapons as well.  His patched teeth matched the silver of the ammunition. We marveled and moved on, thoroughly creeped out.

(The next line of merchandise was of jeans displayed low-slung on models just above the critical bulge, the pockets of pants over-stuffed with plastic. )

The next morning we learned of the arrest of the Libyan Al Qaeda operative. He had been taken that evening from one of the very alleys we had been leisurely walking – the coppersmiths’ shops where men crouch on the floors banging away at the metal crafting works of art. I had chatted with them; they were so very friendly.

A few days later, as you know, the prime minister, Mr. Zeidan, was taken from his home by factions opposing his “government”.  I spoke with my local colleagues, very concerned now about my own safety. They laughed it off – don’t worry, they said; the kidnappers just wanted to give the prime minister a good talking to about his inadvisable friendship with the United Sates. Not to worry. “This is the way things are done in Libya.”

Sure enough, Zeidan was released later in the day. Unharmed, but professing an attempted coup.

There is such a disconnect between the urgency and direness of events that happen here as reported by the media and as responded to by the people who live here.

Crimes of Passion

The recent hubbub over an “attack” on the Russian embassy in Tripoli is exasperating. What appears to have been a reaction to  a quarrel gone awry has morphed into a perceived international incident. A Russian woman killed a Libyan man in a personal altercation. She then fled to the Russian embassy for refuge. Relatives of the victim sought revenge by accosting officials at the embassy; this is the way of things here (see below). Eventually, the woman was arrested. The Russians are not considering this a diplomatic attack, but the media is sensationalizing it to the detriment of Libya’s global image.

A week ago, the grandfather of one of my students told me that it had been taking an hour to drive his grandson to school because the road had been blocked with rocks and sand by the family and friends of a young man who had been killed in some sort of gang-related violence. The family of the victim had asked the government to do something about the violence, but — getting no results in that department — they took matters in their own hands and made a political statement by bulldozing debris onto the highway.

Such actions do not necessarily constitute a wayward society, nor should they condemn a culture to blatant misjudgement. Let’s look at ourselves. Who was protecting the naval base that was the scene of a massacre on U.S. soil not too long ago? Who is able to protect American citizens from the random acts of stupidity of American men with guns?

Yes, I do live in secured quarters and I cannot take a taxi without someone (male) accompanying me and I do not go out at night (there is nowhere to go anyway) and I take care to wear long sleeves and long pants in public, but I have been always treated with respect and friendliness. I hate to think that Libyans are being demonized by the misrepresentation of a local tragedy.

Still Here

The first two weeks of teaching were extremely exhausting. My contract prohibits me from posting details of the challenges of the school, so that must wait until later. But, after resigning after the first day, I’ve decided to stay on because the owner is willing to address some of the major concerns, and most of the children are adorable. Further, better alternatives to this school in Libya are few and far between; children report being struck on their bare legs with a stick for not standing up straight enough in government schools, for example. Bound by my belief that the democratic model of education is key to the future betterment of the world, it would be a bit hypocritical of me to abandon a critical situation just because it is hard as hell.

It is interesting to note the chaos of the country — trash everywhere but in the most exclusive neighborhoods, traffic so tied-up it takes more than an hour to drive a mile or two, abandoned bombed-out buildings (Is the rubble of Gaddafi’s compound left as a reminder of the destruction of his regime, or ??) — is reflected in social behavior. There are acceptable disregards to personal boundaries, requests for order, adherence to rules in adults and children. For many, freedom seems to mean a person can do whatever he or she wants without concern for the common good.

Near the school is a ghost town consisting of the rusted steel-beamed shell of a super modern mall and hundreds (a thousand?) of deserted 12-storey apartment buildings in various stages of construction, frozen. The desert is slowly reclaiming the land. Sand has obliterated the sidewalks and snakes across the highway. Thorny plants and stubby palms have moved in. The irony is sad.

I walk through this landscape on my way to the nearest market with a colleague, for to venture out alone is said to be not advisable. Constraints on my movement are uncomfortable and puts into perspective the simplest freedom of walking a few blocks in safety. As I have noted before, every person with whom I have had contact has been friendly and welcoming. Still, there is a prevalence of fear of gangs, Taliban, and other groups given to violence. Checkpoints with heavy artillery along major roads are common.

Last Saturday I attended a gathering of Libyan and ex-pat women at a local hotel. The event was sponsored by an organization called International Women in Libya (IWiL) started by a couple of British women who have been working in the country for awhile. The purpose is to empower the women of Libya and to create safe venues for social and personal expression for them. I hope to get to know some of these amazing individuals better. One woman did a presentation of the Red Cross working with the Red Crescent regarding political prisoners still incarcerated in remote areas of the country. The woman is the spokesperson for the Red Cross here; her reporting was eye-opening.

The next nine months look to be intriguing, but I am looking forward to flying to Malta soon for a gin and tonic.