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My story is a non-fictional account that frequently reads like bizarre fiction of the two years I spent in Libya, 1993-95. At this time of extreme political tension I accepted a teaching post in Tripoli. A month after my arrival the UN renewed and tightened sanctions, an attempt was made to unseat Gaddafi and political turmoil infiltrated daily life. Under suspicion of working for the CIA, I was arrested, interrogated and eventually released to be kept under surveillance both in the environs of Tripoli where I lived and on my travels.
The underlying reason for accepting a contract in Libya was my keen interest in exploring a country that at that time was virtually impossible to get into. A residency was a passport to travel. Although at the start, my story includes aspects of daily life and the policies and politics that governed it, the focus is on travel. This is my passion. Libya has magnificent Roman sites overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as well as ancient tribal cities connecting trans-Saharan trading routes deep into the Sahara. What it did not have was tourism.
It remained achingly unspoiled and waiting to be explored! What I didn't know at the time was that any form of travel was actively discouraged. Attempts to do so independently were regarded with deep suspicion. Expatriates were expected to stay on the compounds when not at work. The majority did so. For the few of us who remained intent on travel, the authority's efforts to prevent it became an incentive and challenge to do so. Wherever I went I was followed, hotel rooms were bugged and, in distant places security officers doubled as tour guides.
On-site museums were closed; authentic guides and guide-books were difficult to get hold of! In spite of this, I travelled independently to visit the Graeco-Roman sites from Sabratha in the west to Cyrene in the east; then south into the Sahara to the desert city of Ghadames and through the chain of oases crossing the Fezzan from Sabha to Ghat - once ruled by the powerful and warring Garamantes tribe - to see Tuareg rock-art in the Akakus Mountains.
My final sojourn in Libya was as an English Language instructor at the isolated desert oil-site at Marsa el Brega. My final exit: deportation. Libya 2003, the year that Libya opened its doors to the outside world, created a turning point for tourism. Purpose-built tourist hotels have continued to sprout along the coastal strip while campsites and tour groups continue to proliferate in the Fezzan. Although the dawn of the era of mass tourism has arrived in Libya it is still in its infancy and highly controlled. Visitors must travel in groups with approved tour companies and Libyan guides/minders - stay in purpose-built or approved tourist hotels or camp-sites and see only what the authorities want them to see.
My story takes readers to the real world behind the facade. The essential Libya hidden from today's tourists did not change overnight. While Gaddafi continues to hold centre stage and has made a number of commendable political changes, behind the scenes members of the revolutionary committee and security forces still hold sway. A great deal of the Libya I experienced may be out of sight but still exists. Findings of the 2006 Amnesty International Rights Group make this clear.