Fleeing the Hot Breath of the Desert

Today’s slide show: Ghat and Tripoli.

Marching home: the last legs of the trip

For six hours we grind toward Ghat in the midst of a harmattan, a wind the Tuareg call the “hot breath of the desert.” Sand beats on the car with a sound like heavy rain. It’s too hot to close the windows, but with them open it feels as though a row of hairdryers on full blast is pointed at us. Along with a little teddy bear, a prayer from the Quran asking for safe travel hangs from the rearview mirror, and Hapip fingers it throughout our journey. Nevertheless, we have a flat tire, and the spark plugs begin to misfire. Finally, the car conks out, and we switch to another, limping into Ghat in the late afternoon.

We check into the flat-roofed Ghat Hotel, an unlovely affair with a gleaming cappuccino machine that belongs in a Paul Bowles novel. Out back is a mud-walled camel stable with a very low door, making it difficult for camels to wander out. For a thousand years, these low doors have been called “needle’s eyes,” explaining why it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. We first call to check on Frank, and learn he had not one, but two kidney stones, both of which passed without incident. So, we celebrate with potato chips and guava juice. Then, after spraying our beds for bugs and kneeling to shower under feeble hoses, we head down the street to a hookah bar, where we smoke ornate, waist-high nargilahs, puffing fruit-flavored tobacco through long flexible hoses, and watch Pan Arabic Idol on television until 2 a.m.

Back in Tripoli, we are invited to a farewell dinner hosted by a prominent Libyan businessman. We are ushered into a living room, where a local Berber band dressed in black fezzes, red sashes, and white skirts performs a wide whirling-dervishlike performance—spinning about the house; leaping on furniture; balancing vases, apples, and bottles on their heads; and bending over guests like lap dancers so that dinar can be stuffed into their hats. One band member plays an oboe-like gheeta, another a drum made of skin stretched over a mortar (a tende), a third a flute called a nay, and the last a reed and goatskin bagpipe called a zukra. The music is called mriskaawi and is performed mostly for weddings. This evening, our host explains, is a marriage of east and west. Then, as a plate of fried camel is passed, to our surprise, our host offers us his version of “home-brewed tequila,” or bokha. This is a very dry country, and we’re a bit shocked, wondering if this might be some sort of setup. But the band members are knocking back shot glasses of this juice, as are friends of the host, so, we give it try. It tastes like a combination of bad grappa, anise, and arak. Then someone appears with a couple of bottles of Tunisian wine, and someone else produces a bottle of Beefeater, and then a bottle of Ballantine’s. We pause when our security guy, Mabrouk, walks in—certainly he will arrest us depraved unbelievers. But he steps over to the table with the growing stash of alcohol and asks for a sip, confessing he has never tried it. He then proceeds to swizzle back several glasses of wine, then some scotch, then gin—then he starts mixing wine and whisky in the same glass. After a time, he is up dancing around the room with the band, a college kid at his first frat party. Finally, we feed him into a taxi and send him to a hotel—not to his family home—where he sleeps off the night.

On our last morning, Solieman Abboud arranges for an interview with the minister of tourism, Ammare Mabrouk Eltayef, who has been in the post for about 18 months and is keenly concerned with protocol and sending the message that Libya is ripe for tourism investment—from hotels to golf courses to beach resorts. He blames our visa imbroglio on the U.S. government, saying that if America had allowed a Libyan Embassy in Washington, we would not have had our problems. He also tells us that the new tourism initiatives come from the top, from Qaddafi himself.

As the last of us file down the walkway to the plane back to London, a beaming Solieman Abboud wishes us goodbye. “Can you return the favor,” he asks. “I would like to be the first Libyan tourist to America.”