Into the Desert

Today’s slide show: Into the Desert.

The lobby of the Corinthian Bab

We’re staying at the spanking, year-old $125 million Corinthian Bab at the western end of Tripoli’s corniche, the only five-star hotel in Libya. With two soaring crescent towers, it looks like a Buck Rogers intergalactic version of a hotel, featuring Kenny G Musak in the elevators and Buffy on the television. It has all the accoutrements of a resort—heated pools, spas, vast buffets—but at the various lobby bars and restaurants, you cannot order a whiskey or rye—only tea, instant coffee, soft drinks, nonalcoholic beer, and “mocktails.”

The hotel is just yards from the Barbary Coast, where freebooters looted commercial ships in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1805, Thomas Jefferson sent American Marines across the desert from Egypt to this coast, giving rise to the line in the Marine anthem, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

We first explore the adjacent medina, the old section of the city, and, down a serpentine passage hissing with intrigue, I exchange U.S. dollars for dinar, the local currency. Every few minutes there is a popping sound, like gunfire, and I instinctively look for a place to duck and hide. But these are just firecrackers, set off by children at play. The Prophet Mohammed’s birthday is in a few days: The streets snap and smoke with fireworks, and this is just a preview.

Later, we make the 90-minute bus ride east to Leptis Magna, the ancient port city that kept Rome supplied with slaves for its gladiator arenas, wild animals for circuses, and women for harems. Under Lucius Septimus Severus, who ruled the empire from A.D. 193 to 211, the three great cities of the Libyan coast—Leptis Magna, Oea (now Tripoli), and Sabratha to the west—rivaled Rome in splendor, architecture, wealth, and decadence. Sacked after the Romans withdrew in the 7th century, Leptis Magna was abandoned then buried under the sands until the early part of the 20th century.

We wind along the coast down a wide road financed by petrodollars, first passing rows of Soviet-style apartment buildings, each with an oversized satellite dish attached to a window or porch, then orchards of olive trees, date palms, and orange groves. We’re stopped a few times at security checkpoints, but once presented with our heavily stamped paperwork, we’re nonchalantly waved through. There are no English signs—Qaddafi banned them in 1970, along with all Italians, Jews, and the American Wheelus Air Base, then the largest in the world outside the United States. We see only one Western logo in the journey—the red, white, and blue Pepsi swirl, but without a word of English.

At an inconspicuous driveway we turn in, park, and file into the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins outside Italy, perhaps most remarkable for the absence of hawkers, freelance guides, beggars, and American cruise ship tourists. Leptis Magna lived under the shadow of Carthage until the Romans transformed the modest trading port into a pageant of imperial magnificence, prodigiously endowing the city with steam baths, forums, theaters, villas, basilicas, lighthouses, markets, marble toilets, triumphal arches, and an amphitheater that could seat 20,000. One colonnaded street, marked by a bas-relief penis, led to the Roman version of the red light district. As we wander the cobbled streets and pose by marble monuments, we revel in the Trumpness of it all.

For dinner we head to Al Murjan (Red Coral), themed with anchors and sails and an oil of Qaddafi dressed in a white captain’s uniform. Between courses of shwarmas and squid, we swill Beck’s nonalcoholic beer and bitters, toasting Solieman for his visa sorcery. We end with rich espressos, legacies of a colonial misadventure that began in 1911 when Italy “liberated” Libya from Ottoman rule and ended with the liberators’ defeat by the Allied Forces in 1943. During the occupation, almost half the indigenous population was killed, including Qaddafi’s grandfather, as Italy attempted to tame its “fourth shore.”

We make the long walk back to the hotel after dinner, through the night market, past hundreds of vendors along a crowded Omar al-Mukhtar Street. Outside, speakers blare 50 Cent and Sting, and the great garage of Libya is for sale, from Qaddafi watches to little live gazelles to pre-strung polyvinyl chloride Christmas trees. A series of tiny shops sell foot-high hamburgers, and when a couple of meat vendors discover I’m an American, they give a thumbs up. Things have changed since the 1986 U.S. bombing of Qaddafi’s residence, which killed his infant daughter, when he declared it was legal to eat American soldiers since they had been revealed to be animals. Last year Libya chaired the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

The next morning, we meet our lead French guide, Bastien Stieltjes, a Hank Azaria-as-Claude in Along Came Polly ringer. Bastien sports sun-streaked hair down to his shoulders, a Hawaiian shirt fashionably ripped across the back, and a desert finish from a season guiding in Algeria. But, as we learn, this is his first time in Libya. His assistant, Ludovic Bousquet, has been to Libya before but never on this itinerary, so this is indeed an exploration as nobody has seen this route through the Akakus Massif. We’re also joined by Al Mabrouk Ali-Alzalet, a taciturn shadow from the Department of Security. We’re not sure if he is with us to ensure our safety or to spy on us.

On a venerable Libyan Arab Airlines Fokker 27, we swoop southwest into the Fezzan, Libya’s great desert province, down toward the ancient entrepôt of Ghat near the Algerian border. Ghat (pronounced “rat” by Bastien) was a trading center for the great camel caravans of lore, bringing ivory, gold, salt, and slaves from the sub-Sahara—and rumors abound that its denizens still traffic in human contraband. It’s a long flight, almost three hours—Libya is larger than Alaska. As we begin the descent, I can see the sea of sand out the window, long ridges that butt and intersect and overlap in complex patterns, a network of ridges and dips, crescents, and curls that from above resemble the whorls of gigantic fingertips. In the distance are the Akakus mountains, which seem to have punctured the planet’s skin, leaving giant scars; and then there are the wadis, stony gashes snaking into hidden vaults.

At Ghat International we step off the plane into the Saharan sun. It is not as hot as anticipated, and a few in our group comment they can easily handle this temperature. To the south, we see the palisades of blue, blunt mountains, our destination. Certainly it will be cooler inside their rocky chambers.

In Ghat, a desultory and dusty way station, we pause for a brief wander of its labyrinthine medina, where, in a mud-and-dung alcove, souq merchants are hawking perfume, heavy filigree silver jewelry, and genuine desert tapestries with designs of grizzly bears and poker-playing dogs. I buy a pair of lightweight Tuareg pantaloon-type pants with brocaded hems (akerbai), thinking these must be the right desert attire, even if they are a tad on the small side.

At the Anay campsite just out of town, we slip under a palm-frond-roofed shelter  and sit cross-legged on Berber rugs. We sip mint tea from shooter glasses and munch on olives, dates, and tuna salad Niçoise, all under the watchful gaze of a watercolor Qaddafi in a camel-hair sash and oversized sunglasses. Here, the Tuareg host hands out long turbans—or sheshes—and shows us how to wrap them securely around our heads. Centuries ago, according to lore, the Tuareg tribesmen donned veils to trick their enemies into thinking they were women. Today, we’re told, the Tuareg women do not wear sheshes, though we can’t confirm this as we never see any local women. The other, more believable, theory is that the shesh humidifies the mouth and nose in the dry desert air and filters out blowing sand.

We pile into four Toyota Land Cruisers, one with Barbary sheep horns strapped to the front; two with goatskins bags, called guerbas, filled with fresh water hanging from the roof racks; and head into the heart of the world’s biggest desert toward a 120-mile-long basalt maze, the Jebel Akakus. When we reach our first sand dune, a sensually shaped honey-colored ridge, we pile out and leap around sand soft as talcum, as though in our first snow. The Tuareg scratch their sheshes in amusement.

At the eastern end of a giant crescent-shaped sand dune, in the belly of the Tadhintour Wadi, the Land Cruisers halt and Bastien announces camp, a sand spit called Tan Garaba. The cars will return to Ghat, leaving only camels as our conveyance for the next five days. We’re just three miles from the Algerian border, some 30 miles northeast from Djanet, where 32 European tourists were kidnapped last year by an Islamist group believed to have ties to al-Qaida. The camping gear is arranged in a giant U shape, pointing toward Algeria like a trench against invaders, including the Ghibli, the fierce blowing sands from the south.

Here we meet our Tuareg guides: the adogu, or leader, Mama Eshtawy, 41, black as a crow with gimlet eyes; Acrwof Adhan, 50, head cameleer with an enthusiastic personality and an Ed McMahon laugh; and Kadar, the steadfast cook, quiet as smoke in his gandoma, the long robe that sweeps the ground as he walks.

We have four women on the trip, and all are faced with a challenge as there are no trees or bushes near this camp—only the ruffles and flutes of sand dunes—and there is no toilet tent. Bastien warns the Tuareg are extremely conservative when it comes to showing skin, especially arms and legs, and we should avoid revealing our casings beyond hands, feet, neck, and face. In the 19th century, a young Dutchwoman, Alexine Tinne, exposed a bit too much, had her arm hacked off by one of her Tuareg escorts, and was left to bleed to death. So, the far slope of a dune marked with a water bottle becomes the sacred place. Until Mabrouk marches up the dune with his prayer rug to recite his nightly prayers.

We dine on liver wrapped around the suet of a freshly slaughtered goat cooked in its own fat and sip sugared tea into the night. Water is scarce, so no showers, and we wash our dishes with the fine Saharan sand. The Tuareg gather round a small campfire and chatter in Tamashek, a language that sounds like the squeaking of bats. Under the moonlight, the adjacent dune looks like sleek suede, the sort of storybook scene Antoine de Saint-Exupéry evoked. My altimeter shows we are at 2,913 feet, and it is still 87 degrees Fahrenheit at 11 p.m.