When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and…a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods … Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover.
Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage.
Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product…is, inexplicably, corn oil.
The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.
Soon after arriving, along with three other journalists and one academic, we are…to meet the first group of terrorists recently released from Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. All are former members of the Al Qaeda farm team known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) … With every conversation, they sound more and more like the Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps of Al Qaeda.