When you visit another country, it’s hard to get a feel for what it’s actually like until you leave your hotel room, go for a walk, take a look around, and hang out while soaking it in. Not so in Libya. All you have to do there is show up. It will impose itself on you at once.
My Air Afriquiya flight touched down on the runway next to a junkyard of filthy, gutted and broken-down aircraft in an airport otherwise empty of planes. When I stepped out of the hatch into the jetway, I came face to face with three uniformed military goons who scrutinized me and everyone else from behind reflective oversize sunglasses.
Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, mastermind of the 1969 Al-Fateh Revolution (a euphemism for his military coup), Brother Leader of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, greeted arrivals in the passport-control room from a menacing, almost snarling, gold-gilded portrait. A translated overhead sign (rare in Libya) said “Partners Not Wage Earners.” In other words: Don’t expect to be paid.
A bored official glanced at my visa, rubbed his face, stamped my passport and pointed me toward my first Libyan checkpoint. A man in an untucked button-up shirt, with a cigarette jutting out the side of his mouth, waved me toward a metal detector. He hadn’t shaved in two days. I walked through. The alarm screamed and I braced for a pat-down. He just stood there, took a long drag on his cigarette and stared bleary-eyed into space over my shoulder. I guessed that meant I could go. So I did.
There were no other planes coming or going, so it was easy to find my ride. His name was Abdul. He wore a snazzy black-leather jacket and a Western-style goatee.