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Region | 'Many Shining Heads': A Journey through Libya and the Past


30 Apr 2011 23:30Comments
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[ passport ] "It's four o'clock," said the large woman, jamming her body in the doorway. Mohammed negotiated with her in Arabic, then translated.

"It's 3:55!" I replied. She started to close the door.

"When can we come back?" She must have smelled the anxiety steaming off me. The bulk of my Sony camera was peeking out from under my scarf as well. I lowered it gently until it faced the ground.

"Sorry, but we have to leave on Wednesday," I began again, apologetically. "We've come a long way...." Mohammed talked rapidly with the woman, shrugged, and told me we could see the archives only with a letter from the Libyan University.

"Archives?" I repeated, my mouth going dry.

I tried to keep the tremble from my voice, but I would have camped out overnight, even in this reeking slum, even in the rubble that looked like photos of the London blitz, I would have slept there, just for a chance to see inside the old Jewish school.

"If you had a letter from the University. But even then, Libyans only," Mohammed translated.

"We are Libyan," my father shot back. "We are."

"Let us go inside," I pleaded with Mohammed, my eyes naked. "Please."

The woman pulled on her hejab. She squinted at our pale faces. She shook her head and looked over her shoulder, into the dark corridor of the school, willing someone to come out of the shadows and back her up.

I didn't blame her. Leaving aside our blatant inability to speak Arabic, and our big Anglo smiles, we just didn't look the part. My father is a redhead, for god's sake. Or was, before he lost it all to male pattern baldness. His profile resembles Emperor Augustus on those crude roman coins. Jewish perhaps, but never Libyan.

The funny thing is, he is Libyan. Half, anyway. He was hidden in a closet, not five blocks from this school, during the second pogrom. It was 1949, and he was a one-year-old baby tucked among the linen, while mobs of young men trailed kerosene torchlight through the streets, looking for Jews.

Something in the jut of his jaw might have hinted at this ancient truth, and she hesitated.

A single gaze burned between them and I grabbed the opportunity to duck through the door. I faintly heard Mohammed yelling my name, but I kept going.

The brown shawl I'd slung over my hair sagged down to my shoulders as I ran. I pulled it up and it fell back down. The video camera switched on, I panned the courtyard with its four scraggly cacti, and then, letting the camera roll, I ran up the stairs. I took them two at a time, my long wool skirt swinging heavily at my ankles.

On the first landing I found something strange. An opening. It was waist height. I hesitated, and then ran past and up to the first-floor landing.

My father appeared beside me, breathing heavily. Below, Mohammed's voice roared.

We ran to the classrooms. We shook the doors, and I had visions of the treasures almost at my fingertips. Old schoolbooks where my grandfather might have scratched his name. A charter for the school, signed by my great grandfather. Documents with prices, agreements, contracts. But the doors were bolted shut, and there were screens over the windows.

So much of their lives, lost. The offices, the schools, the casino, the opera house, the racetrack, and his family home, confiscated, knocked down, erased. Even family graves gone, stones smashed and rolled under tarmac to make a new highway. This school was all that remained. And its secrets were all safely locked behind deadbolts.

We heard steps in the courtyard below so I beckoned to my father, follow me, and I took him back to the tiny door on the landing. We crouched down and waddled into the musty little room beyond. There we stood together at the center of the cramped, empty space. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust.

Not empty, no. There were thin stone slabs, propped against the wall. My father started taking photographs, but I couldn't move. I felt spider webs of adrenaline spinning through my fingers. There was a name on the tombstone before me that looked very familiar.

Arbib. It was my uncle's family name. It was my cousin's name. It was my great aunt's name. My father's camera clicked a few times, but when he lowered it from his eyes, I could see they were wet.

I turned on my camera, and my hands shook, but the battery light blinked and the camera died in my hands.


Most people assume the Libyan Jews were merchants and traders who settled in Tripoli in the 1800s, as they settled along the necklace of cities strung around the Mediterranean. That was true for our family and many of the wealthier Jews who lived and traded with Europeans in the port, but it was not true for most of the Jews living in the Hara. The ones that lived around the Jewish school were about as native as you can get. They settled in Libya before the Arabs, in the third century B.C.

By 1941, native and foreign Jews together accounted for a quarter of the population of Tripoli. But during and after the war, thousands of Jews fled to Israel or Europe. When Qaddafi came to power in 1969 he dispatched the remaining population by confiscating all Jewish property. All debts owed to Jews were declared null and void. Today there is not a single Jew living in Libya.

So why were we standing in the Jewish school in the winter of 2005? Qaddafi himself had declared himself in favor of our return. The Iraq war had already descended to its early nadir, and Colonel Qaddafi, ever the opportunist, transformed himself into an American ally. He said he was ready to atone for his earlier sins. It was a ludicrous about-face for the dictator. Here was the champion of the Lockerbie bombers, turning himself into a symbol of hope for the Western world. If we could rehabilitate our relationship with him, said President Bush, we could set a good example for all the Islamic powers.

The appeal for Qaddafi was clear: U.N. sanctions would be lifted. Lucrative oil deals with the West would be back on the table. And he put on a good show. In 2004, he even invited a delegation of Italian Libyan Jews to visit Libya. My grandfather received an invitation, but he declined.

"Libya is dead," he roared. My father and I reacted differently. My parents are practicing Buddhists who have lived in North London since the early '70s. For us Libya was never alive. It was a myth, an utterly foreign time, place, and religion. But when Qaddafi said he was considering reparations to the Jews, my father and I took notice out of longstanding curiosity.

I'd always been told we couldn't visit Libya because the Haggiags were on a black list. We once owned stretches of land on the port at the heart of the Libyan capital. Qaddafi didn't want a Haggiag coming back to make a claim. But in his new guise as an American ally, he seemed willing to at least let us set foot on Libyan soil.

For all my excitement about seeing the place where my grandfather Roberto grew up, I was also so nervous that I couldn't sleep for a week before the flight. I imagined bombs and abductions, my arrest and the smell of a Libyan jail cell. I thought I'd be reassured once we had arrived and gotten through customs, because then Tripoli would become a real place rather than the one I spent so long trying to imagine, but as soon as my father and I arrived at the airport we were taken aside by Libyan guards.

They led us to a small room at one side of the check-in counters and had us stand, keeping our toes behind a faded green line. In the bland, repetitive beige and green of the detaining room I thought I saw Qaddafi's power -- quiet, ordinary, brutal. After a heavy silence of about 15 minutes, during which I asked my father to spit out his chewing gum (he was trying to quit smoking), a distracted-looking official came into the room, stamped our passports, and waved us away.

We walked out into the muggy air of Libya, smelled wet sand and fumes, and met our guide, Mohammed, and our driver, Utman. Mohammed looked like he was in his 30s, medium build, with small round eyes and a button nose. He spoke to us in English set to an Arabic soundtrack. His words rose and fell in a hypnotic way, often tilting upward at the end of a sentence. Utman was a compact, middle-aged man with heavy eyebrows and an impressive mustache. He was a product of the Italian colonial period and he conversed fluently with my father in Italian.

As we walked to the van, I saw palm trees waving alongside the parking lot. For the first time, I felt a little excited to be there, in such an exotic place. But driving in from the airport, uneasiness crept over me again and something verging on sadness, perhaps disappointment. We drove along a sandy asphalt strip toward towers of cheap, modern housing, and all along the road I recognized the familiar trademarks of poverty: wires, bottles, plastic, metal, all twisted and braided together on the ground.

The only color punctuating the highway came from 40-foot billboards placed every few miles, each one painted with the green outline of Libya and Qaddafi's face, 30 feet tall. He wore a fez and stared off into the distance under a wave of brown curls that made him look like a '50s matinee idol. Splashed on walls and lampposts in between the billboards I saw posters that blazed with Qaddafi's symbol of liberty, two black fists breaking thick chains above the number 36.

"Thirty-six years of freedom from foreign oppression," shouted the posters. Just before we reached the Mediterranean, we drove past a vast concrete bunker, painted gray.

"Colonel Qaddafi lives there," said Mohammed.

"I thought he lived in a tent," I said to my father, with a smile.

"No," Mohammed said, the word tilting upward like a question.

My father and I sat on our hotel beds that first night, jet lagged and a little shocked, and asked each other what we were doing in this weird dictatorship.

When we awoke in the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel our first morning, we still felt nervous and uncomfortable. The hotel lobby seemed like the Starship Enterprise, with people in African robes and towering headdresses gliding alongside Japanese businessmen and Arab sheikhs.

Mohammed and Utman met us at the door of the hotel, and we greeted them with a weary nod before they drove us into the old city. I felt them looking at my bare head, perhaps with curiosity, maybe even disapproval, so I fished a brown scarf out of my camera bag and threw it over my shoulders, and then, when no one was looking, I pulled it up over my head. I looked for women on the streets to see how they dressed, how they walked, but saw mainly groups of young men, all staring at me with what looked like an intense, almost aggressive curiosity.

Under scrutiny, that's how I felt at first, but my perception of the Libyan attitude changed so quickly that it seems laughable now. On that afternoon of our first day, our guides took us into the old walled city and helped us find our way into the souk where we had our first of many similar Libyan meals: a thick oily soup dressed with spicy harissa, chopped vegetable salad, oily meat, and rice. Then Mohammed and Utman walked us through the new city past rows of sugar-block houses with Italianate balconies.

Dad clutched a scrap of paper upon which our cousin Ketty had written a few street numbers.

We wanted to find the house where great aunt Eni and cousin Ketty must have lived. We inquired about number 96, their house number, and were told plainly that house numbers are no longer used in Tripoli.

"Everyone has a mailbox number now," said Mohammed, as though proud of this development. My father shook his head and smiled and wagged his finger at Mohammed as though he was joking, but Mohammed remained stony faced.

"We could find an older Libyan," I suggested, "someone who might remember the numbering system?"

Dad grabbed Utman, and in Italian said, "You're old!" Utman, who looked about 50, chuckled with pleasure. While they spoke, I turned on my camera. Dad talked to the camera.

Dad: So here we are. Our only hope was to find an old man who would remember the number, and here is Mr. Utman, who's been looking after us and who has been driving us everywhere, and he apparently qualifies as an old man, and like most old men he can't remember a thing. So there you go.

They both had a good laugh about that.

We continued to ask older men on the road, but they all smiled, and shook their heads, and asked my father good-naturedly about his trip, using Italian to communicate.

Eventually we gave up and just walked the length of the street, examining each house for clues. We chose a yellow-and-cream building, squat and square, that looked like it might have been theirs, and we took some photos. Dad posed, shrugging with his hands up in the air, apologizing with his posture for getting Ketty's house wrong.

After that we looked for the galleria where my great-grandmother, Palmyra Tayar Haggiag, lived when she was in her 50s and 60s. It was in a circular Italianate courtyard. Art deco murals graced the octagonal walls, but they were peeling and faded.

No street numbers marked the doors, of course, but I could imagine Palmyra leaning out of one window, perhaps the one that opened next to a faded mural of a lion head.

The courtyard had cracked marble floors and open arches exposing us to honking cars on two sides. A wind whistled through and it felt surprisingly damp. I asked my father, who has many fond memories of Palmyra, what it felt like to be in Tripoli, standing outside her house.

He laughed at me for so obviously playing the journalist. And I laughed along, it did feel odd, and still I raised my camera on his face, and eventually he began to speak.

Here's what he said: "There's something so strange about coming to a place that you were in when you were a very small child, because I have flashes, images of Tripoli -- this brilliant sunlight, the strangeness of it, the very white walls and the green shutters. And now I come back and I know much more about the history of Libya, about my family, about what they went through, how they had to give up everything, everything. A whole life. But not only a whole life, a whole history, because they were the last generation, and so it's very bittersweet.

"My father would never come back here. That's all gone for him. And when I do come back it's like we're walking among the ruins of my own family history, which is so close to me and yet also a history and therefore very far away. It's something like looking through a telescope but the wrong way around. Do I feel very strong emotion? No, I don't. I mean it's more subtle than that."

Later we walked back toward the French and Spanish streets in the walled city, and visited the old European embassies for a five dinar fee. At night we dined at a new restaurant on the waterfront, where Mohammed said we'd see the lights of the harbor. I knew my grandfather Roberto's house had once had a balcony that overlooked the water, and I imagined that he stood on it and watched the blinking lights from Italian warships and French trading boats and African barks, but when we arrived at the new café, all those imagined lights, were gone. Like so much else in the new city the harbor had been given a bleak, industrial façade. A new concrete highway had eaten away at the strip of water that once flowed right under the restaurant's windows. Instead of wooden boats bobbing offshore, I saw mighty oil ships, great shadowy creatures with square eyes, moored together as though ready to go into battle.

My father tried to order a beer, and I whispered to him, for the fourth time that day, that Libya is a dry country. He asked if I meant "arid," and I rolled my eyes.

"Order a nonalcoholic Beck's," I whispered. My father obliged, and then he winked at the waiter and asked for a shot of alcohol to go with it. The waiter blushed and I noticed Mohammed frowning at us.

As an icebreaker, I asked Mohammed what our last name, Haggiag, meant in Arabic.

"Haggiag? But where is it from?" He asked, puzzled. My father and I shot each other a look. We'd discussed this situation at breakfast and decided we didn't know if we could trust Mohammed and Utman enough to explain our background.

"Libya," said my father. Mohammed raised his eyebrows.

"We know the Haj, to Mecca," Dad said. "But what is the 'iag'?"

"It means pilgrims," said Mohammed. "A man goes to Mecca and he is called Haj."

"I know," whispered Dad. (But why would a family of Jews have the name of pilgrims to Mecca?)

"A woman goes to Mecca," continued Mohammed, "and she is named Haja, but a family, a group, goes to Mecca, and they are..."

"Haggiag," I said.

"Hadjej," corrected Mohammed. "We say Hadjej."

"That is very good, very good," said Utman, smiling. "Hadjej, the Hadjej! Very powerful man, Hadjej!"

"Yes," said my father, warming to Utman. "Strong!" He flexed his bicep, grinning.

"No," Mohammed said, shaking his head. "Utman doesn't mean you."

"He doesn't?" My father put on his signature look of disappointment, eyes smiling, corners of the mouth turned down.

"No. I will tell you the story," said Mohammed.

He told us the story twice, once there in the restaurant and once in a mosque the next day. That time he went straight up to the dais in the middle of the mosque and stood upon it for effect.

"I see many shining heads!" Mohammed shouted, impersonating the famous al-Hadjej ibn Yusuf, an early Iraqi tyrant, who had once been an Imam.

One day, the story goes, Imam al-Hadjej entered a mosque in a fancy part of town, where the rich men and women went to pray. They dressed in their finery and preened, and refused to allow the shabbier members of the congregation to sit near them. So al-Hadjej arrived one day wearing only his most humble rags. The rich men, bending down to pray, swatted at him, and would not let him past. When al-Hadjej finally skirted his way through the crowd, he was full of rage, and he mounted the Imam's dais, and with a clear, angry voice yelled, "I see many shining heads!"

To explain what he meant by this, Mohammed puffed out his chest and stood tall on the dias.

"Then he unsheathed his sword and told his guards to lock the doors," said Mohammed, brandishing an invisible weapon.

"Hmmm," I murmured.

"'I think I should teach you a lesson,' said al-Hadjej, and...." Mohammed sliced through the air with his invisible sword. "Off with their heads."

Mohammed smiled down on us. I shivered and my father laughed uneasily.

"Aren't there any other Haggiags?" he joked.

The old caretaker for the mosque came in to the room and directed a toothless grimace at Mohammed.

Mohammed pointed to me and said, "Her name is Haggiag! Al-Hadjej!"

The caretaker nodded and said something to him in Arabic and Mohammed looked at me, puzzled.

"Where is the name from?" he asked.

"I told you. Libya," I said.

"Before that?" Mohammed pressed me.

"Morocco, I think."

"Arabi," I heard him say to the caretaker, who smiled and nodded at me.

By late afternoon a clean, desert sunlight flooded the city and afforded us glimpses of the Tripoli my grandfather must have known.

It felt like a city abandoned, enchanted, left to sleep for a hundred years. Posters peeled and wires fell like plastic necklaces, sometimes unraveling down the side of a building and spilling onto the road below. Rubbish was strewn evenly across the pavement and throughout the decrepit Italian gallerias and piazzas. Everywhere the famous blue shutters of this Mediterranean city had been painted Qaddafi's bold green.

Filth and propaganda posters covered the landscape with such a uniform gray and green mishmash that the whole city seemed wrapped in a chrysalis. And yet, even decorated with this strange decay, Tripoli was intense, exquisite. The light was Provençal in its clarity and romance, the ramparts of the old city white and bold against a cobalt sky.

From Tripoli, Mohammed launched day trips to the great ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna. Here he came into his own, showing us great marble columns waiting to be shipped across the Mediterranean, uncovering mistakes on Roman road signs, and badly made Roman toilets, decoding complex mosaics in old ruined villas. My father loves history and gobbled up every word, stored every arcane detail in the great book of knowledge he holds clearly in his mind. In Sabratha, on a windy day by the sea, my father climbed up a half broken Roman plinth and pointed dramatically at Utman and Mohammed and yelled "I see many shining heads!" and Utman roared with laughter, while Mohammed tittered politely.


On the third day we left Tripoli and traveled 11 hours into the desert, where we found troglodyte cities built into mountain caves and trading cities made of white clay.

As we left Tripoli and drove into farmland, the landscape became surprisingly green. Farms fanned out in every direction along the road. Gazing upon the evenly planted olive trees and terracotta rooftops, you could be forgiven for thinking Libya was Tuscany, except for that ubiquitous skin of rubbish and the bright soil, stained by the sand so that it has become the color of burnt sienna.

We stopped often for food or coffee. If we had no money, shopkeepers would readily give Mohammed the coffee or a pastry and ask him to pay later.

We began to really appreciate Libya through Mohammed. He was young -- it turned out he'd only just turned 30, which means he was born after the Green Revolution. An engineer who once worked for Halliburton, he had a master's degree from a university in Malta. We asked him to elaborate on this last achievement, but he refused to say anything else, and I caught him looking sideways at our driver, Utman, as if warning us of something.

We also befriended Utman, who was always laughing and using expansive hand gestures while driving like Road Runner (beep beep!) and speaking in rapid Arabic. Slowly we developed small jokes with these men, which grew, as we crossed the desert, into fondness.

We drove deeper into the desert, toward an oasis on the Algerian and Tunisian border called Ghadames, now a World Heritage Site. We wanted to go there because my grandfather's family had owned a camel trading route, and Ghadames was one of the oases they used to water the camels.

After about an hour on the road, Mohammed announced we were driving through Gurgi. I sat up in the car when I heard the name, Gurgi. My grandfather described it as a huge farm filled with olive trees, owned by his uncle, where he'd go and help with the olive harvest. I was eager to see it, since my great-aunt Dina said her brother spent so much time there, they used to call him "the Prince of Gurgi."

There was a second story about Gurgi, from the war. Gurgi was a refuge for our cousins. Arab farmers housed and fed Tripolitanian families during the worst of the bombing raids, and when the Jews fled the city, their first stop was always Gurgi, where they would stock up on food and decide where to go next.

But when Mohammed announced we'd arrived in Gurgi, all I saw out the window was a cloud of smog on an ugly urban highway.

I leaned forward and asked, "But Gurgi was farms?"

Mohammed pointed to a tall concrete wall on our right. Behind it, a few tall palm trees waved at us.

"This is still a farm," he said, pointing to the palm trees. "You know why they kept it?"

"Why?" Dad took the bait.

"Because the people here, they honor the palm tree and the olive tree," said Mohammed. When he said "palm," it sounded like "pallum."

"If you cut a palm tree, they cut your throat."

We sat in silence, hoping that was what Mohammed considered a joke.


A little further into the desert we passed Tiji, a barren spot dotted with concrete bunkers.

"This is a bad place for us," said Mohammed. "Especially if you are doing the military service. Because if you do anything wrong in Tripoli, they will send you to Tiji. To become a soldier here. And we hate that very much."

"Have you been in Tiji?" I asked.

Mohammed ignored my question.

"These are Egyptians, sitting there, waiting for jobs," he said, pointing to a group of men hunched together beside the highway, their clothes covered in dust.

For the next hour, Utman drove so fast into the desert it looked like the scenery was taped and set to fast forward.

I filmed out of my car window, amazed at the speed of the desert. Then abruptly we stopped, and I found myself filming a military checkpoint. A guard leapt off his motorcycle and walked toward us.

"Turn that off," hissed Dad. I'd frozen in place. When he spoke it broke the spell and I quickly wrapped the camera in my shawl. No matter, the guard hadn't seen me. He joked with Utman and flipped through our papers, and then waved us along. Twenty miles down the road the whole ritual happened again.

"How many checkpoints are there?" I asked, my voice a little squeaky.

"Many," said Mohammed, waving his hand.

"A bit fascist," I muttered.

Mohammed turned and looked at me.

"What if we run out of water?" he asked. "What if Tuareg raiders find us and take our cars?"

"They do that?" I squeaked.

"No one will know where we are except these men."

"And they'll come and find us?" I asked.

Mohammed shrugged.


As the sun grew large in the late afternoon we stopped for a coffee break in the desert. We stopped because Dad had seen a herd of wild camels, three brown and one white, and wanted to find out if the white one might be a different species. He asked Utman to pull the van onto the cracked earth beside the highway.

My father jumped out of the van and walked slowly toward the herd. I walked out with him, laughing at his audacity.

Meanwhile, Mohammed opened the trunk and took out a tall thermos of sweet coffee and a dozen honey rolls baked by Utman's wife. I circled back to the van, enticed by the smell and frustrated because my formal shoes were sinking awkwardly into the half-baked sand. We ate and watched my father approach the camels.

Mohammed said that Dad was lucky there was no male camel in the group or he would have charged into my father and spit on him. We both found that image hysterical and began spitting on the ground and giggling. Libyan music rolled out from the van's tinny speakers, and warmed by the coffee and the laughter I danced a little on the sand. Utman stomped his feet and clapped his hands, and I repeated the gesture. Then Mohammed began shaking his arms and hands. By the time my father came back to us we were having a full-on dance party.

Dad stood before us and declared the camels dromedaries.

Mohammed said, "They are not that. They are camels."

Dad shook his index finger at Mohammed. "But camels have two humps!"

Mohammed looked at me and winked. "We don't have those camels yet, Sir, but we've ordered them."

My father walked up to him. "They only have one hump!" he said, pointing to the camels, now grazing in the distance. Mohammed nodded.

"Where did you see camels with two humps?" he asked.

My father thought for a moment. "London Zoo," he said. They laughed.


I lost interest in the camels and started to climb one of the fossilized sand dunes, with Utman following closely after me. At the top we found piles of half-formed rocks. There were delicate sand flowers, cakes of sand half fossilized into millefeuille, and little crystal rocks. I put a couple of them in my pockets. Utman looked at me quizzically. Who collects rocks? But always obliging, he dropped a black boulder into my hands and a white one and an orange one. By the time Dad arrived at the top of the dune I was staggering under the weight of a huge pile of rocks.

"What's this?" he asked.

"Utman's idea," I said, but as I walked toward him I stumbled and started to skid down the steep side of the sand dune, scattering rocks as I went. Dad and Utman hooted and started down behind me. Utman showed us how to ski through the sand, arms outstretched like a clumsy bird, whooping loudly. My father followed, arms above his head, so I dumped the rest of my loot and swooped down behind them. We must have looked so strange from the highway, three clumsy forms flying down the sand, our heels kicking up great plumes as we descended.


When we reached the desert city of Ghadames, we were taken to a brand new hotel, built for several hundred people. Perhaps it was underpublicized or we were there off-season, but the two nights we stayed in the Dar Sahara, we saw only one other family. We were otherwise alone.

Walking through the deserted courtyards and gardens, I talked to Mohammed about Libya. I asked him if he'd known any non-Arab Libyans growing up. He said no, not until he'd gone to Malta.

"Why do you think all the foreigners left Tripoli?" I asked.

"Jobs. Opportunities." He shrugged.

He told me earnestly that the Jews left Libya because they were traders and they needed to find new markets and better ways of making money.

On our sixth night in the desert, after filming a sunset over the dunes, Mohammed and I went to find an Internet café. It was 11 o'clock at night and both Utman and my father were asleep. On our way home, Mohammed met a couple of friends who worked in the hotel. They smoked and chatted. Mohammed introduced me, but they didn't speak English so I just smiled, as Mohammed spoke in Arabic and gestured toward me.

"They want to know if you'd like to look like an Arab," Mohammed said.

"What?" I asked, sure I'd misunderstood.

"A Tuareg. We can do the turban on your head so you look like a desert warrior!"

"Okay," I said, "why not?"

They wrapped my brown scarf around my head, giggling as they did it. By the time they finished I was giggling, too. Mohammed took pictures, in which I look drugged with tiredness.

Afterward he asked me to sit with him and talk for a while. I agreed, hoping to do a little "real" reporting about Libya that day. We sat on a couch in the hotel lobby and each ordered a hot tea. But before I could ask any questions, he just began to talk. He told me his mother was paralyzed and his father was dead. He said he had been educated in Malta, but he couldn't tell his friends about his time abroad because they would be suspicious of him. Apparently Libyans don't like their businessmen educated abroad. Finally he confessed he was a virgin, saving money to afford a bride.

After talking for two hours, I asked him what he really thought about Qaddafi. He said loudly that Qaddafi is a great man and a kind leader. I raised my eyebrows at him as if to say, "Really?" He threw a nervous glance at the hotel clerk and asked me to follow him to a private room. There he explained he avoids strong opinions.

Then he moved over and sat next to me, and asked if he could kiss me. I wasn't surprised. There had been moments between us when he put his hands around my waist and lifted me down from the back of a camel, or put a hand onto my arm to show me around the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, and I thought he held on a little too long. So I said I really understood his isolation and how difficult and lonely it must be to spend a whole life traveling around the desert with strangers. Then I showed him a picture of my boyfriend, Chris, and told him we were engaged (it wasn't yet true, but would be the following month).


On the way back to Tripoli from the desert, we asked Utman to drive fast because we had a dinner appointment at the Turkish Embassy. Mohammed looked disappointed. We made a short stop to walk through the desert town of Nalut, and while I filmed the picturesque ruins of the mountain town, he walked in front of the camera with his arms raised, pretending to be a guard.

"This is my house," he said. "Do you have a permit?"

I switched off the camera and asked him what was wrong. He said he had arranged a surprise for us in the town of Gharyan, but we'd miss it if we went back too early.

"What kind of surprise?" I asked, cautiously.

"You will like it." He insisted. I called the ambassador and asked him if we could arrive an hour late.

Everything about Gharyan was a surprise. We pulled up in an empty parking lot alongside the burned-out carcass of a Ford and some cinder blocks. A couple of chickens pecked about. I looked at Mohammed sideways and he just smiled and touched my arm, steering me out of the car. Dad strode around the car, looking at me, like, this is one crazy pit shop. Mohammed jogged ahead of us around a corner and out of sight. Utman told us to wait.

Eventually a woman emerged, dressed in the traditional colors of the Berbers, the nomads of the desert. She beckoned to us, and we followed her. We walked over a barren hillside, until she suddenly stopped and pointed. In front of us the ground disappeared. I looked over the ledge and saw a huge circular courtyard sunk into the ground. There were doorways and windows carved into the earth, all underground.

I stared. My mind couldn't make sense of the scene before me. Children ran in and out of the doorways. A goat tugged at its chain. People called to each other from inside dark windows underground. It was a sunken village. My father had read about these places and told me it was a troglodyte village, built to disappear when invaders came marauding over the plains. Mohammed peeked out from a doorway and beckoned to us. We trotted down some stairs and into an underground room, carpeted with mismatched rugs.

"This my friend," he said, and he introduced me to a bearded, bespectacled man in traditional robes who spoke near perfect English. I introduced myself. Mohammed explained his friend was a local economics professor who moonlighted as a tribesman.

"This is, in fact, my family cave," the professor said gesturing at the room. His wife and children knelt beside him. "We've lived here for generations."

Mohammed grinned at me, and I grinned back.

"Ask him your questions," he said, then gathered together the woman, children, and Utman, and left the room.

The professor offered me tea. I sipped it, and we chatted cordially about our trip.

"So Mohammed says you have important questions," said the professor, kindly.

I looked at my father kneeling next to me. He nodded.

"What happened to the Jews of Libya?" I asked.

"The Jews left because of the British soldiers."

"The British?" I said, nervously. "You're kidding!"

He nodded. "After the Second World War, the international community awarded Libya to the British as a temporary protectorate. The British wanted Libya to become a permanent part of the Empire, so they tried to prove Libya was unfit to govern itself. British officers came up with a plan. The proposed creation of Israel was starting to create racial unrest between Jews and Arabs across North Africa, and if the British could provoke the Libyans to act, and the Libyans attacked the Jews, the international community would be outraged.

"So the British prepared ships in the harbor, and told militant youth leaders they had three days to do what they wished to the Jews. Those Jews who fled could board the British ships. After three days, the British would ring a bell on the ship and the violence would have to stop. The ships would move out to Israel/Palestine."

I'd never heard or read anything like that, and told him so, but the professor was adamant that his story was correct.


On the way back, Mohammed asked me why I was so quiet. I apologized. I was quiet because I was thinking of a story my great aunt Dina once told me. A story I'd never quite understood:

On November 4, 1945, Dina Haggiag was 23 years old. She told me she was having dinner in a café with two Italian friends, and an old neighbor rushed up to her table and told her to go home. People were writing "Jew," "Arab," or "Italian" in white chalk on all of the storefronts. Those marked as Jewish were being looted. Dina laughed. What a ludicrous idea! Nothing like this had happened in Tripoli before, not even during the war years.

But Dina's friend said she had read in the newspaper that anti-Semitic riots had begun in Alexandria and Cairo the day before. Arabs looted Jewish stores and beat Jewish traders in response to news about Jewish violence against Arabs in Palestine.

Dina rushed home, and on the corner of Via Bastione she ran into a group of Arab teenagers circling a skinny Jewish boy, who looked about eight years old. They held wooden bats.

"Dina!" cried Palmyra, who was watching her from the window looking onto the street. "Get inside!"

One of the boys whipped around and stared at Dina, who felt rooted to the spot. They eyed each other, as the Jewish child stood shrieking and crying. Dina says she told herself to run inside, but she couldn't. She threw herself at the child, waiting for the bats to slam down on her head and neck as she wrapped herself around his skinny arms. When they didn't, she yelled in an imperious voice, "This is illegal! You must stop!"

The boys froze. Dina drew herself up to her full five feet three inches, adjusted her glasses, and patted her frizzy hair. She hauled the boy to his feet. Keeping her chin high, she walked him into her house.

By the time Dina slammed the door behind her, the teenagers realized their mistake. They beat on the door, while Palmyra dragged Dina into the kitchen.

Seconds later, Dina's older brother, Ever Haggiag, and his wife, Elsa, came hurrying toward the house, chased by a gang of men shouting insults and grabbing at Elsa's skirt. Before they could reach the house, one of them threw a stone at Ever, which hit him on the back. Palmyra swung the door open and they skidded inside.

Now, with seven of her children gathered around her, Palmyra stood at the window and prayed. Dina saw the next mob arrive on the corner. They gathered at the end of the street with what looked like soaking rags in their hands. She held her mother and felt Palmyra's whole body tremble. Palmyra cried out at the first orange flare. Everyone watched in horror as the men started throwing flaming rags at the house.

Smoke began to fill the room, and so windows were thrown open. But through the smoke, Dina could see British troops arriving from the direction of the port. Everyone rushed to the window and yelled and waved their arms, but the British troops didn't see them. They stopped, only meters from the house, and stood still, their guns at their sides, while the house burned.

The flames grew higher and Palmyra started to wheeze. Ever opened the front door as another group of soldiers arrived alongside the British. Their uniforms looked the same, but they wore a Star of David insignia. The Palestine Brigade. Ever shouted for their attention and when they heard him, they broke ranks and ran to get supplies and extinguish the flames.

I'd never understood that story. Why were British soldiers there, and why hadn't they intervened? What was the Palestine Brigade doing in Libya? Could the Berber professor be right? I came here expecting to learn about Libya, and I learned more about Britain, my home country.


After speeding through the desert for a couple of hours, we arrived back at the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel in Tripoli, where we quickly showered and hurried off to visit the Turkish ambassador. The ambassador had invited us to dine because his daughter Nessi was a friend of my brother Adam. As we drank imported Champagne (the only legal alcohol in the whole country), Mrs. Erkemenoglu told me that she investigates Libyan history to keep herself entertained, or sane, actually, in a country where nobody drinks. She let me flip through her collection of Libyan books and artifacts. I found sources describing every era except the colonial period, and for that gap in her archives the ambassador's wife apologized.

She explained that books, art, anything from that period is extremely rare. The Italians want to forget that they were colonialists, and the Libyans would like to forget they were colonized. With the exception of a couple of eccentric academics, and perhaps a sprinkling of amateur historians (here she laughed and pointed to herself), no one is interested in bringing the colonial years back to life. I felt prickles go down my neck. No archives at all. The job of reconstructing my grandfather's Libya seemed to draw toward an invisible horizon.

Then the ambassador's wife gave me a wink and disappeared into her bedroom. She came back down with a collection of postcards, just snapshots of the city taken by Italian colonizers and sent back to their friends. There, in black-and-white or sepia, I could see the city of Tripoli as it was in the 1910s and '20s and '30s, familiar streets without that veil of dust and rubbish and decay. I could start to transpose clean, imperial images onto the chaotic street scenes I saw first-hand.

One postcard showed a building painted with the name "Miramare," a grand Moorish opera house with curlicues on the façade and peaked windows looking out over the sea. According to the inscription below, "The Miramare was built in the early 1930s as a tourist attraction, and it became a monument to Italian optimism at the beginning of the Fascist period." Reading that, I suspected it was also the sort of place my grandfather might have visited once in a while.

I called him from the Bab Africa, and I asked him if he remembered such a place. He seemed surprised to hear the name and was silent for so long I thought the line had gone dead. Then he told me. He not only went there often, he owned the building. It was his first big investment. He asked me if I saw it.

"Was it still there?" he asked, and his voice cracked.

I said, "No. I saw a postcard."

"Oh," he said.


The following morning, Mohammed escorted us to the airport. My father had some problems with his ticket, so Mohammed and I were left alone in a coffee shop. Mohammed told me again that he wished I had let him kiss me and I said I was sorry and asked him to understand. He nodded.

Then, in a rush, I told him I was Jewish. Or rather I'm not, but my family was Jewish. He didn't react. When he finally spoke, he asked why my grandfather didn't come back to Libya, the place he was born. I told him that some terrible things had happened to the family during the anti-Jewish riots and that the older generation will never come back.

Mohammed's smile withered. He looked down into his cup of cappuccino. He looked as though he would cry. Then he looked back into my eyes, searching to see if I was telling the truth. I looked straight into his eyes.

He said, "Tell your grandfather to come to Libya. I'll be his guide. Tell him to come. Please."

I shook my head. "He won't come back," I said.

"Then you have to come back," he replied.

My father reappeared with our tickets and escorted me through customs. Mohammed waved at us, but he didn't leave. He watched while I had my passport stamped and waited by the barrier dividing guests and travelers, and he watched me until my father and I passed through customs and disappeared up an escalator leading to our gate.

I received two emails and three postcards from him in the ten days after I got home, all asking me to send my grandfather home to Libya.


Three years later, my grandfather died. He never showed the slightest interest in going back to Libya. I got married and joined PBS as a news producer, and the chances of going back seemed to get more remote every year. But now, watching footage of the rebels, I feel a strong desire to return.

I've thought of Mohammed often this week. We are bombing Tripoli. What will we flatten? My rational mind says that's irrelevant. There's no better way to win the hearts of this new free Arab generation than to prove we care about their liberty beyond rhetoric. I get that. We have to protect the rebels from massacre. But today I feel the violence.

There is an account on the front page of the New York Times about four journalists who charged across the border, against a flood of migrants, rebels, and civilians rushing to exit before a bloodbath. The Western journalists were arrested and beaten, but survived and escaped, and told their tales from New York, or London. But not the Libyan guide whose name was Mohammed.

Mohammed has to be the most common name in that part of the world. It's Jack. It's Tom. But in their narrative he was a good and loyal guide, who, when they were captured, was almost certainly murdered.

Every few days I send Mohammed Facebook messages, but there is no response. I scroll through photos of him with Italian tourists. I look again and again at the snapshot of his little girl. Three years old.

I haven't seen him in five years, but in that time, we've often been in touch. On February 17, he said he was fine and had just welcomed some Americans at the airport. Since then, nothing.

Alexandra Dean is a TV producer and journalist. She produces a weekly show for Bloomberg called "Innovators." Previously, she worked on the public television show "NOW on PBS," where she won an Emmy for contributions to a show on poverty in Alabama and a Walter Cronkite Award for coverage of the 2008 presidential elections. Click images to enlarge.

Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Haggiag Dean

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