We don’t like to admit defeat, but we have to in this case.
Libya simply wouldn’t budge, and we could not get into the country. Without telling the entire saga, Ill include some details for the curious,(most people seem to be curious about Libya, as we were) interspersed with pictures from the magical Ksour of Tunisia for those with short attention spans.
We began our efforts to get into Libya in February. The usual way to go is with a tour agency—officially, no tourists are allowed without one. It was going to cost more than we hoped, but we figured how many chances to you get to check out the amazing desert and ruins of Libya. Several agencies wrote back, saying the government had put a freeze of visas to Americans (not officially, but they just wouldn’t issue them), one guy offered to do it for $900, which was just too much.
Then we found Libyan friends of friends in Granada, who really tried to help us and hook us up with good folks back in Tripoli, (thanks Matug and Hussein) but their connections petered out after a while, saying for Americans it was just too difficult…
Then we heard about the transit visa option, where you just get a one week visa to cross the country(either from Egypt to Tunisia or the other way around). I had read about lots of foreigners doing this, but not Americans. We applied at the consulate in both Cairo and Tunis, but week after week they would tell us “call back next week” they were very nice, and said our papers were in order; they even said that Americans are sometimes granted visas, but alas, for us it never happened.
Last week—Last chance. We were in southern Tunisia, two hours from the border, staying in Tataouine (the area where these pics of ruined ancient hilltop berber villages and grain storage ksour are from) We decided to just head for the border and try to talk our way in. We got past several levels of security, filled out the Libyan customs form, passed by the enourmous 70s style mural of Qadaffi, and were officially on Libyan soil, but then we were called into the office. An hour debating with some guy called ‘the general’ and other officers, and they said it was simply impossible for us to enter without a visa, and Tripoli wouldn’t give them the ok to issue us one. They were very nice, and seemed like they wanted to help, but their highups in the capital wouldn’t allow it.
So now were back in Cairo, after flying over Libya –‘the forbidden land’. I could wax philosophical about how we now better understand how arab people feel, when the American government refuses to allow them into the US for no good reason, but instead, ill field a question from a betweenthelands reader, and intersperse the answers with pics from Cairo—‘the mother of the world’ as its known.
A reader asked us to answer the following on the blog.
“I’m curious and perhaps other folks are too who are reading it. How has the safety/security situation been? As a tourist and/or as an American?”
Ill answer first. In general, the bottom line is—we all know how wrong our (westerners) perceptions are about the Arab world, but its one thing to know it, and another to experience the reality. It’s hard to exaggerate how kind and generous people have to been to us. While of course there are scam artists here and there(just like in NYC), the majority of people are much more quick to share food, water, help you if you are lost, etc. than people in the US or Europe are.
When we say we are American, there are a range of responses. Some people are simply still in love with the ideals America stands for on paper. Others make jokes about Bush, ask if we like him, or ask why Americans elected him. Others, say ‘America, oh…” and the conversation moves on to other topics.
I’ve never felt unsafe being a foreigner or an American. The only threatening words I’ve heard were in Constantine, Algeria, when a group of 9 year olds were talking to us for a while, and then one said in broken English and hand gestures that al-Qaeda was going to slit our throats. I can only assume it was because a few months earlier, there was a bomb in that city, and im sure the kids have heard a lot of ridiculous things about ‘Al Qaeda’ (the same type of absurdity we all hear). There were adults nearby who were embarrassed, and told the kids to stop bothering us.
The only place we were advised by some people not to go was Tizi Ouzou, in Algeria–theres been some problems there recently,(bombs, kidnappings) and people were telling us its a few crazy people who like blowing themselves or others up–kind of like whats happening all over the world. Regardless–we didnt go.
If there are radical isolationist fundamentalists in our midst, they haven’t made themselves known to us. Overall, the people of the Arab world are upset not only because the misperceptions of them are making their lives harder(eg. they cant study or visit relatives in the US and Europe, etc), but its hurt the tourism industry, which is one of the most important, especially in countries like Egypt. So they are economically suffering, because people are afraid to come visit their countries.
Andrew & I are greeted daily with cries of ‘Welcome!’ from random passers-by in the street. People have been overwhelmingly considerate and kind. Folks will lead you to your destination when you simply ask for directions. A couple times a complete stranger in the same coffee shop or sandwich shop has actually paid our bill, without having spoken to us, for the simple reason of hospitality!
Everybody asks “Where are you from?” I’m usually embarrassed to answer, but I never try to lie. Most folks politely say how great America is, perhaps even out of courtesy? Other folks will ask you frankly, but not harshly, “Why do the Americans allow this war to continue, killing babies and innocent victims?” When a beautiful, articulate and sensitive 14-yr old young lady tells you glumly, she knows why – “it’s because Americans think we (her brothers, friends, her people) are all terrorists”, believe me, this is hard to respond to! She is right – my people have an irrational fear of her people, whipped up by political and economic manipulation. And as I walk the streets of Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Amman, looking into the smiling, tired, laughing, or wary eyes of other ordinary folks, as they walk by skinny, fat, wearing dorky glasses, or as suave as an Arabian prince, I see just how irrational and ridiculous that fear is. ‘They’ are just like ‘us’, except perhaps a bit kinder to strangers. And they wear more clothes in hot weather.
The one bit of culture shock that I continue to have trouble with is the rigid gender-roles and separation. Girls and Boys (of all ages) simply do not mix here the way they do back home. Girls hang out away from the public eye, together, and Boys hang out EVERYWHERE, together. Girls are quiet and gentle, and Boys are rowdy. Boys are free and Girls are under control, or that’s how it looks to me. This bugs me every day. I was a tomboy. I wouldn’t be caught DEAD in a dress until my late teens. What would life have been like for me as a tomboy in Egypt? I just don’t know.
Okay so we both veered off topic a bit, but hopefully some of the question was answered. I like to stay away from this preachy stuff, and simply use pictures to show you what its like, but im sure many people have been wondering the same thing so its worth a few paragraphs. Wed love to answer any other questions people have—either post them here, or email us individually. Well try to keep it short.
Back to reality, were headed to the sinai peninsula tomorrow, to climb Mt Sinai, and then go swim in the red sea before we head on back to Jordan. Were happy to be back in the land of fresh fruit juice,(Egypt) but we must continue on…