Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Travel Bug - An Oasis in Sahara

The year was 1985. US had just carried out air strikes in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Gaddafi had survived but there were rumours that one of his infant child had been killed. Gaddafi moved from one tent house to another in the desert in the dead of the night.

It was the time we had to go to Libya. My father was a surgeon in one of the provices there. The southern province, the capital of which is Sebha, is deep in the Libyan desert. Sebha is an Oasis. The first view of Sebha from the sky is something that has remained etched in my memory till date. An oasis of green in the midst of miles and miles of desert. I remember getting the impression that if the desert so decided, it could engulf the small city in one massive gust of sandy swirl. The city was encircled by rings of date palms which kept out the desert.

But more surprises were in store for us when we landed. Nothing had prepared me for the sheer modern-ness of the city. Clean wide expressways, with scores of new cars of all modern makes, a squeaky clean modern hospital, a beautiful stadium for the soccer mad town, etc. I never remotely expected to find it in the middle of the libyan desert! Not only were the roads a delight, the hotel where we stayed was most modern. And from the ninth floor (where we put up) one could see the palms that encricled the town and glimpses of the dunes of the desert beyond!

That was not the end of the surprises the small town casually tossed at us! What would you expect to find in a city in the middle of a desert ruled by a dictator in the Arabic world? Definitely not modern Arabic women (yes many jean clad girls going to college too!) with burkha only if they so desired. I even saw some ladies driving! And there seemed to be complete harmony between the black and white Arabs too. I really dont know what I expected after reading our culturally blind magazines and books so full of stereotypes, but I somehow expected the Blacks to be clad in rags and universally poor (I am just stating what myopic knowledge I had at 14 years of age!)...instead they were always well dressed, polite and educated!

The town of Sebha was where Colonel Qadaffi was born. So we were shown the hovel where he spent his youth, well preserved and in sharp contrast to the surroundings (yes it was a small mud house in a true concrete jungle, as if shouting - look this is the progress i have made for my country!). The town was football crazy..and there were plenty of street teams. But we never faced any problem moving around on the beautiful sidewalks, which is more than what I can say for the streets of New Delhi! The only signs of desert were on the outskirts of the city, where there were some mud houses and herds of camel (I guess this is what I had expected to find originally!)

Gadaffi was everywhere, smiling from billboards, parks, squares, stadiums...There was only one TV channel and it doesnt need brains to know what it showed! The supreme commander! He was on tractors in a farmland, or sailing, or on a motorbike, or jumping from a parachute or more importantly holding court...always smiling as if saying I am all yours!
Sahara: The Extraordinary History Of The World''s Largest Desert

I really dont know what is happening in Libya now. But old friends of my parents say it faced a lot of hard times because of almost a decade of embargo. Gaddafi is a much mellowed man (not that the world cares how he treats his subjects as long as there is no problem with the oil supply at low prices!) and the cities have somewhat lost their sheen. But whatever may have happened its difficult to forget the warmth showed by the locals in my short couple of months stay there.

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