Libya

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Awbari (Sahara), Libya, November 1998.

To anybody, I would tell, “Go to Libya,” to see incredible desert scenes, more beautiful than in any other Sahara country, more majestic than Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum where Lawrence of Arabia roamed. The Awbari Sahra is as if an extra-terrestrial had poured a giant bowl of sand on a flat, rocky place, and, bored, had left it to the winds to give it its rippled form.

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Awbari (Sahara), Libya, November 1998.

The inversed “bowl” contains even lakes, some dried some with water and palm trees, exactly as you see on an exotic tourist poster, like Mandara (top), Um el May (the Mother of Water), and Gabraoun in which a 130 meter high dune plunges. And with the passing of the day, the color of the sand changes dramatically, from light beige to orange to burned red.

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Awbari (Sahara), Libya, November 1998.

The desert, the best place to achieve “a fusion with the Universe, which carries away the whole being and puts him face to face with the absolute. Make the experience. In the middle of the desert, in the middle of the night […] face the stars, standing on this plateau without relief, covered with pebbles till the horizon. Nothing lives but you. And the mute dialogue sets in between you and the stars, those you see, by the thousands, and those, by billions, that you guess at, too far for your eyes but that you feel present as kind counterparts”.

Le désert, le meilleur endroit pour réaliser “une fusion avec l’Univers, qui emporte tout l’être et le met face un absolu. Faites-en l’expérience. Au milieu du désert, au coeur de la nuit […] faites face aux étoiles, debout sur ce plateau sans relief, couvert de cailloux jusqu’à l’horizon. Rien ne vit sinon vous. Et le dialogue muet s’instaure entre vous et les étoiles, celles que vous voyez, par milliers, et celles, par milliards, que vous devinez, trop éloignées pour vos yeux mais que vous sentez présentes comme des interlocutrices bienveillantes”,

Albert Jacquard, La légende de la vie, Paris, 1999.

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Khoms (Leptis Magna), Libya, November 1998.

Next, I would compel you to see Leptis Magna, the vast Phoenician-turned-Roman city which ruins are being washed by the Mediterranean. What makes the birthplace of Roman emperor Septimus Severus more grandiose is that you are virtually alone in a sea of streets, columns, arcades, theaters, temples, baths, an underground water system, and a harbor, for Leptis Magna stood for over a millenium and a half at the end of an active trade route crossing the Sahara. Indeed, no one else was there the whole day, although Libya is trying to develop tourism as an alternative source of income. “Reserves of oil will be finished in 25 years! We are in the phase of injecting water in the fields to get the most out of what’s left,” said the manager of the town’s cooperative hotel.

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Khoms (Leptis Magna), Libya, November 1998.

We left the archaeological site through the back door and were offered tea and fish in a beach hut by a Syrian immigrant. For dessert, we entered a bakery where an all-smiling Sudanese customer bought us cookies (above). Tea saw us in a local cafeteria, where a multitude was glued to a double TV screen, one showing a soccer game, the other a subtitled Hong Kong karate movie, all served by a congenial and very busy Egyptian waiter.

“Please don’t go out after 6 pm. Libyan people are good. But there are many foreigners: from Egypt, Chad, Niger” Tobruk’s very active chief policeman had told us without any trace of irony. Actually, the only nuisance came from a Libyan who molested my companion — maybe because her hair was not covered. After all, we have never seen women, all women, as fully draped (in bedsheet white), nor elicited such morbid looks, as in Libya. No wonder the Syrian fisherman told us he was heading back home to his ten sons, five daughters, and two wives, because “Libya, no good.” Still, let us not fall into any of these stereotypes. We were correctly treated throughout our stay in the Great Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah.

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Tobruk, Libya, November 1998. Orange colors the Western-made taxis, and green the houses, the color of Islam. Les Peugeots, seul moyen de transport collectif dans les coins retirés.

To travel off the main bus routes, you will have to use Peugeot taxis (the company was expelled but car owners get their spare parts through Tunisia) which run at 140 km/hour, or whatever highest speed the driver can achieve on the long, straight, flat desert roads. That was our first encounter with Libya right off the container-housed, Amsaad customs where an official peering from a high-placed window, with a disapproving look and not a word, had handed us the disembarkation form in Arabic. But much more work involved the ensuing bargaining with the taxi driver for the 15-km ride to Al-burdi which took much longer than the actual trip — I thought at one point he would push a button, unfold wings and fly straight to Tobruk.

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