Libya: Out of the Shadow
A solar eclipse in a country seeking acceptance
BY Marco Werman
August 03, 2006
Notes From Libya
Read an excerpt from Werman's trip journal where he explores the region's love of astronomy and encounters inquisitions and kindness on the streets of Tripoli.
Marco Werman is Senior Producer with Public Radio International's The World, covering world music for the program. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Werman got his start in radio while freelancing in Burkina Faso, West Africa, for the BBC World Service, where he later worked as a producer. Werman has produced a number of music stories for FRONTLINE/World. In his most recent story, "Soundtrack to a Riot," Werman reported from Paris following last year's violent unrest.
Libya is not the first place that springs to mind as a hot-ticket destination. But much has changed in the country in recent years. In 2003, after decades of economic sanctions and living in the political wilderness, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction and finally took responsibility for Pan-Am Flight 103, which was brought down by Libyan terrorists in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The world cracked the faintest smile in Libya's direction, and the former pariah began to emerge from its isolation. Nowadays Lonely Planet sells guidebooks to Libya, and such is the cult of personality of the country's longtime leader that the English National Opera is staging Gaddafi the opera in London next month.
All of which brings us to this week's Rough Cut, Libya: Out of the Shadow. Who better to explore the mysteries of present-day Libya than our roving world-music reporter Marco Werman? And what better way to get inside the country than to tag along with the 10,000 astronomy enthusiasts who descended on Libya earlier this year to watch the solar eclipse?
"I wanted to go to Libya," explains Werman, "but it was still hard to get press visas to cover anything -- music or politics. The eclipse was my way in."
After arriving in Libya, having been turned down for interviews with any Libyan officials, including Gaddafi, Werman spends three days in Tripoli trying to find out something -- anything -- about what Libyans think. Roaming through the bazaars, tea shops and Byzantine alleyways of the capital, with a government minder in tow, Werman gets to work. "Can I ask you a few questions for radio?" he asks, microphone in hand. "I'm from Americano radio in the United States. ... Hello. ... Do you speak English?" Werman implores as merchants duck inside their storefronts. "I am sorry, I don't speak English," comes the standard reply, delivered in impeccable English every time.
So how does a reporter report on the political and cultural changes under way in a country if none of its citizens will talk to him? Well, the answer is he doesn't. Instead, he retires to the nearest cafe to smoke some "hubbly bubbly." Cameraman and producer John MacGibbon (the editor who designed FRONTLINE/World's distinctive on-air look) captures Werman enjoying rather a lot of this activity to sooth his reporter nerves.
"It's actually calming me down quite a bit, considering it's just tobacco," says Werman, the embers of apple and mint glowing from a giant water pipe.
When Werman finally does come across someone at an outdoor cafe who is willing to talk about life in Libya, he seizes the moment. "You want to be like a human?" Werman asks, to make sure he heard the young man's complaint correctly. "And you don't think you're a human here in Libya?" "No one is hearing my voice," the man laments. And sure enough, seconds later, the minder shuts down the conversation.
Undeterred, our reporter heads to the annual international trade expo in town, surely an opportunity to get some pointers on Libya's newfound "openness." It's the first expo since 1979 at which a U.S. contingent is present, and it's a big deal for Libyans. Rows of children stand waving American flags, marching brass bands add to the pomp, and the logos of Coca Cola, Chevron and FedEx loom large -- the country appears open for business, at least. Werman waits patiently outside the cordoned-off American pavilion, where Libya's prime minister is supposed to show up. But he never does.
"Oh, well, there's always the eclipse," you can feel Werman telling himself after another evening passes without an interview. The next morning, leaving Tripoli behind, Werman takes a flight south from the Mediterranean coast. Passing over hundreds of miles of sand dunes and date plantations, he finally arrives in the town of Jalu in the Sahara Desert.
Those 10,000 eclipse chasers who arrived in the country with Werman have already set up camp on the desert plateau, pitching their tents and assembling their astronomical gear. The scene puts you in mind of the annual Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert or perhaps something altogether more biblical. Never mind that Werman was shunned by a Libyan society too nervous or nannied to talk -- the celestial stage was set for something far more mind-blowing.
As the big moment approaches, a reverent hush falls over the crowd: "Oh, my God, it's total eclipse," swoons Werman, relaying the event to his radio show, The World, back in the United States. "The moon has just covered the sun -- you can look directly at it. Gossamer waves of light are shooting out from the sides, and all around me are sunsets."
"It's just incredible," says Werman, almost at a loss for words.
To see it for yourself, click on the video and enjoy the show!
Senior Interactive Producer
Carl Bomar - Phoenix, AZ
I was off the coast of Libya while onboard the U.S. Navy cruiser, U.S.S. Biddle. We were dared by Qaddafi to cross his so called "line of death" which we took him up on whole heartedly as often as we could. Which in turn, forced him to retaliate with MIGS, which were swatted out of the sky by our Tomcats. Soon thereafter we bombed Tripoli and Bengazi. After the dust settled, we returned to port in Naples. This is where I met many Libyan citizens, while sharing drinks and sea stories. I learned this from my own experiences, and from those of the Libyans, that people don't hate other people, governments do. Reagan and Qadaffi were polar opposites, and although the official line was for us to hate the Libyans, I found them to be intelligent, friendly, and just as human as we are. I would wish that all the people of the world could just have the chance to visit the real people of other countries, not to judge them as we are told to do officially, but to embrace mankind as we would wish to be embraced.
san diego, ca
Wonderful. I hope the USA can be loved and respected again.
How cool is that! Marco Werman rocks.A revealing glimpse of Libya's uncertain emergence from its past, and a solar eclipse to delight my imagination.
It's obvious that Marco was prodding and promting those few they did interview to say something, anything controversial. This type of inductive reporting, getting sound bits to fit your perception of the story rather than allowing the sound bits to make the story itself, is why this piece failed for me to bring forth anything substantive except for the "plan b" story of the eclipse and an example of ignorant journalism.
I really enjoyed watching the piece. Wish I had been there! I think they really did a fantastic job melding the eclipse with the political. And, the best part of the piece was the eclipse itself. The reporting sent shivers down my spine -- and was a great metaphor for the state of Libya now.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Thank you! We are pleased that the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences agreed and awarded this story an Emmy in the broadband video category.
Maurice Oliver - Portland, OR
After listening to "The World" each weekend on two different office jobs over the past ten years I only needed to hear the intro music and then no more than three words to recognize Marco Werman's voice. I'm glad to know the trade-ban has been lifted. I feel the Libyans have paid enough. I must commend Mr. Werman's determination to "interview" someone, anyone that might have been Libyan but I could not help but wonder if he knew/cared that he may have been putting their very life in danger in the process! Maybe he should stick to what he's good at: picking the best pieces of world music around!
Unfortunately I was teaching a class when the "Libya, Out of the Shadow" segment aired here in the Seattle area on Tuesday 31 Oct. A friend drew my attention to the video, albeit after the fact. In any case, I have visited the site and read the text which instructs me, "To see it for yourself, click on the video and enjoy the show!" However, I am unable to do so. Can you tell me why? I did find a page that said "video", however, it just takes me again to the text.How can I view the video?
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Just go to the Libya story page and click the red box marked video. You can watch in Quicktime or Real Player. For best viewing, we recommend Quicktime.
Jim Buxton - Vernonia, Oregon
My wife Cici and I were also in Libya for the eclipse. Cici and I were part of the Fred Espenak (Mr. Eclipse) group while it appears that Marco and John were part of the Sky and Telescope group. I was pleased and delighted by this piece, not only because it brought back vivid memories of the experience, but also because I just finished putting together a very similar slide show including short film clips for presentation to the Wanderers, a group associated with the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy in Portland, Oregon. Of course, the photographic equipment used for the Frontline piece was of much higher quality than mine, but what was uncanny was that we chose to show almost identical scenes. I found the Libyan people to be warm, friendly and gracious. I found myself the object of interest and was invited on more than one occasion to be included in conversations and family photographs. Aside from the language differences, I had no difficulty in discussing political issues with people that I met in the desert about a mile from camp. But politics took a back seat to just plain getting to know these wonderful people. Cici and I both agree that given the means, we would go back in an instant and happily spend more time there, visiting friends that we made, meeting more people and seeing more sights.
I was rather disconcerted by Mr. Werman's complete lack of judgement by posing politically charged questions to locals in front of Libyan government officials. And while Werman hops on jet and heads back home, I couldn't stop thinking about the treatment these individuals would get following the departure of the camera's eye.
In the future, Mr. Werman should stick to his main story and leave the political reporting to those more capable of shielding the privacy (and well-being) of those speaking out against the policies of their governments. Very shoddy reporting.
John Leeson - Toronto, Ontario
Having been in Libya and Jalu for the eclipse, I was happy that one of the organizers of the amazing tent city shared the fascinating story of the planning that went on in Libya for the eclipse.Faced with the prospect of thousands of tourists from around the world descending on a country that had not previously experienced large-scale tourism, Naser Edeeb and his company, and others, were incredibiy resourceful.For anyone interested in how this came to be, I posted Naser's story at http://www.jookjoint.ca/libya/jalu.htm
Allen Como - Stuart, FL
My wife Therese and I were on the same tour with Marco and had several nice conversations with him and his cameraman. Marco's report hit the nail on the head from what we observed. How can we obtain a copy of the program, we'd be happy to pay for it?
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Libya: Out of the Shadow will be broadcast on PBS on October 31, 2006, as part of the first episode of the new season of FRONTLINE/World. Check back on our website that week and select "About FRONTLINE/World" from the top of the homepage. That section will have information on purchasing a copy of the episode.
The eclipse was a gift of God that opened a small gate for the external world to discover Libya from close up, and it's a gift to me also to guide 106 eclipse chasers to Jalu. One of them was Mr. John and his wife Ocsana and the rest of the people. It was with no question an unforgettable memory. I don't need to speak about their impressions and how they were welcomed in their ( second country ) after the big event completed successfully. What I want to say about Libya is just like what Amy Philips has said (the nature of the people is different than the nature of the governament ) and some things are clearly changing positively. Libya now is movig to be a country of peace and hospitality and if there were some black clouds, they will soon be followed by sunshine.
Marc Sabb - Tucson, AZ
I had the pleasure of meeting both Marco and John while on the eclipse tour. I am a physics instructor here in Arizona and so the desert was not so alien for me. While I enjoyed the video peice I'd like to comment on the overall tone. I have never met a more engaging and welcoming people that the Libyans. Everywhere we went the people were universally welcoming and cordial, quick with a smile and warm greeting. In Marco's online daily journal the reports were very positive and told of the unique social flavor and engaging personalilties of the everyday people of Libya. I did not get that same sense from the video piece. Why? I felt that overall it tended to a more negative tone based on lack of political freedom to express opinions openly. I too did get some sense of that. But, it was far outweighed by the warmth of personality of the individual Libyans I talked with daily. As American journalists, who were fortunate to be perhaps one of the first granted entry into a closed society, I think we need to tread softly and put more effort into finding common ground than to point out our differences...Peace.
John Leeson - Toronto, Canada
Enjoyed the film, as I was also in Libya for the eclipse (also at Jalu). The trip was an extremely memorable and moving experience, and the Libyan people were a very big part of that. Unfortunately, perhaps the time limitations allowed you to focus mainly on the (understandable) reluctance of the people to speak openly on camera and in front of security! I found the people I met to be incredibly warm, generous, friendly and curious. A few talked openly about the country's politics. I am encouraging people to visit Libya. It was wonderful!
Amy Phillips - Tucson, AZ
Great piece, Marco and John. As someone who was also there, but purely as a tourist and not as a journalist, with no need to "ask the tough questions," I found the Libyan people to be among the friendliest, most welcoming people I have ever encountered. Being sensitive to the political ramifications for both countries, many of us on the eclipse tour came away with the same conclusion: there is a big difference between the nature of people and the nature of governments. As Americans, we were as exotic to the Libyans as they were to us, given the years of isolation between us. We just scratched the surface in terms of getting to know one another. My experiences with the people were so encouraging that Libya is now at the top of my list of places I would most like to visit again. We've shown that it can be counterproductive to try to force change upon people or governments, but I believe that changes for the better will occur in both of our countries if we are allowed to continue meaningful cultural exchanges that benefit both; it's hard to beat the combination of societal enlightenment and tourist dollars. I just hope that Libya can maintain its beauty and gracious attitude as tourism increases. Thanks, Marco and John, for bringing this story to the rest of the world.
Abdul Mokthar - Tripoli, Libya
Am so delighted to write to you from Libya. First let me introduce myself to you. My name Abdul Mokthar, lives in Tripoli . i work in tourism sector plus other activties. If you decide to visit libya you can rely on me for many subjects and assistance. Libya is a huge country. Its location is very strategic. Libyan people are very friendly and have warm hearts. Please feel free to contact me any time for any asisstance.
Hafed Al-Ghwell - Washington, DC
The price for talking in Libya is to lose your head, that should explain why no one wanted to talk to Marco. Next time you have a program about Libya, you should try to contact Libyans, like myself, living in the U.S. or Europe, we will be happy to share our own thoughts.
The U.S. will allow Gaddafi to "run" Libya as long as it is beneficial to them. Some time in the future the U.S. will attack Libya with dire warnings to the world of their weapons of mass distruction. As usual the American public will suck it up and the oil and weapons men will create another war to satisfiy their greed. But lets not get ahead of ourselves, there is still the matter of going after Iran. We all have President Bush telling us of Iranian intentions to create nuclear weapons and how they are funding the Hezbollah. Actually it's the United Nations that funds Hezbollah through their aid programs to African and Arab countries. It's about time the American public woke up to what's really going on!