Sitting in a cafe on the edge of Tripoli's Medina, the old city, the commanding voice of the late-great Egyptian diva Oum Kulsoum was crackling over an old stereo. It was partly the speaker and partly the old recording, but for the first time, I felt like I got her music. It just worked here. Flowery runs of voice and instrumentation, and then nothing. The vacant spaces in between were filled by the soft voices of men chatting and the muted bursts of bubbles in the water pipes.
It was the ideal accompaniment to an evening in Tripoli, surrounded by ancient turrets and crumbling Italian colonial buildings. After a day trying to speak with government officials, becoming an officially recognized foreign journalist, then finding no one would speak with me, Kulsoum's music perfectly echoed the rise and fall of expectations this trip to Libya carried with it.
I was an American in a country that has, to put it mildly, had an antagonistic relationship with the U.S. for 20 years or more. I was also a journalist in a country with little tolerance for free media (even though satellite dishes were everywhere, popping up in recent years like mushrooms after the rain; and Libyans were just as likely to watch Hollywood gossip on the E! channel here as they were to catch the latest news on Al-Jazeera). Pondering all of this, I wondered what sort of welcome I would get.
As soon as I arrived, I tried to set up interviews with Libyan ministers, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Gaddafi's more influential sons (he has seven), or Colonel Gaddafi himself. The Libyan government failed to come through on any of these requests.
Fortunately, I wasn't here just to speak to officials. The main goal, frankly, was to see -- even in eight days -- what was going on in Libya. With a total solar eclipse passing through the country on March 29, 2006, I figured that my passage to this former pariah state had been quite literally determined by the stars.
For Colonel Gaddafi, this celestial event must have seemed equally serendipitous. Eclipses are a perfect coincidence anyway, a beautiful geometrical alignment of earth, moon and sun that has been occurring as long as these bodies have been in motion. The fact that this one would unfold over Libya just as the country was aiming to return to the international fold, was a golden opportunity for Gaddafi -- an astronomy buff himself. The eclipse would serve as the ideal metaphor for Libya, emerging from the shadow.
Many Libyans told me that the new rush of foreign companies arriving to secure Libyan oil and the arrival of 10,000 some-odd eclipse-chasers to their country amounted to the biggest economic impact on Libya since the trade embargo was lifted by the Bush administration in 2004.
At dinner one night, a Libyan named Amar sitting nearby felt compelled to lobby me to tell good stories about his country. "We've suffered a bad reputation here in recent decades," he said, in clear English. He also told me how much he loved Oprah Winfrey. Reeling a bit from his last statement, I asked him if he had read any of her book club recommendations. "Not yet," he said. "They haven't gotten here yet."
After watching the eclipse in Jalu, I returned to Tripoli wanting to know more about Libya and astronomy. I'd read that Gaddafi was an amateur astronomer. He had even embarked on a project to build one of Africa's biggest telescopes near the border with Chad, although Libyans were skeptical whether the project would ever be completed.
"We've suffered a bad reputation here in recent decades," he said, in clear English. He also told me how much he loved Oprah Winfrey.
Still, among the few thousand that had made it to Jalu, several hundred were Libyans -- especially if you counted the number of military and government officials hovering over the event. Were these people genuine star-watchers or just Libyans who were lucky enough to find a plane seat to travel the several hundred miles into their own remote landscape to witness the event? Looking for answers, I visited Tripoli's planetarium.
I'd heard a lot about astronomy being a luxury science in the Arab world from astronomers working in the deserts of Morocco, Qatar, and Algeria. A handful of astronomers from these countries had come to watch the eclipse, and they all told me that if you studied science growing up in the region, it was almost inevitable that you would be guided toward medicine or another practical science. Looking at the stars was a discipline for the educated wealthy.
At first glance, Tripoli's planetarium was impressive. The main projector had been a gift from the former East German government, and the East Germans had done a fine job at the time of duplicating the Zeiss planetarium projector built on the other side of the Berlin wall. As I walked through the front doors, the smell of coffee and strong cigarettes wafted toward me.
I spoke to the planetarium director in the quiet of the theater. The air conditioning was not running, and the room was hot and still. Not surprisingly, he didn't open up about Libya's embrace of astronomy. He downplayed Gaddafi's support of astronomy, saying that the desert telescope project never really had that much public support. He spoke in ambivalent terms about the stars -- a Libyan Carl Sagan he was not. In fact, I got the impression that he would rather not be at the planetarium at all that day. He seemed to be worried about characterizing his country as pro-astronomy or anti-astronomy, as if that might carry some political subtext.
One thing was clear, people were not breaking down the doors to get in. Old gum spots dotted the theater floor, headset volume knobs were broken on many of the armrests, and a closer inspection revealed a rather rundown neglected attraction. No show was scheduled that day, and the only people inside were middle-aged men nursing cups of espresso at the planetarium's cafe.
Since it was my birthday, later that night I decided to celebrate -- as much as you can in a country where alcohol is banned. I took a taxi to the same cafe in the Medina to enjoy a cup of mint tea and a water pipe. I happened to mention to the young driver, another solid English speaker, that it was my birthday. He stared at me incredulously as if to say, "What? You get in my taxi and wait five minutes to tell me it's your birthday?"
When we arrived at Green Square, the main plaza in Tripoli, the driver told me to wait in the car. He then ran across to a group of flower sellers, who peddle their wares past midnight, and asked them to make me a long necklace of aromatic jasmine and tiny daisies. Touched by this gesture, I thanked him and wore it for the rest of the evening and the next day. It dried up hanging from the doorknob of my hotel room and would not have survived the trip home. But I remembered it, the same way I tried to figuratively bottle some of the energy I'd felt in the Libyan desert.
I wanted to disprove something I'd written just after watching the eclipse. In my notepad, I'd scribbled, "An event that lasts just 4 minutes. An opportunity for people to come together, united by a single event, a phenomenon that unites as if it's a single religion. And then what? The eclipse ends, we forget."