The opening shot for my first morning in Libya was provided by an apparent school teacher called Kerala. Actually there were two shots, one in the air from his pistol, the other of him from my DV camcorder. Actually, even that is not fully true. There were more shots. And I was responsible.
The first shot was delivered by Kerala. After he finished sliding around the reception sofa to find the ammunition he had lost underneath he loaded his gun, cranked up a mental re-run of the The Greatest American hero and strode purposefully towards the hotel door. Firing me a means-business look he took 10 paces and then reached upwards and shot a small projectile that may have produced an Arabic ouch on its return.
I was on the other sofa where I had been pondering what to do on Friday in an Islamic country when the promised breakfast appears to have been suspended due to war, and perhaps also for the fact that I seemed to be the only guest bar one possibility. Still, I had my camera so I blurred the line between reporting and directing by asking Kerala if he could repeat his actions with camera rolling.
To make up for the fact that my earlier footage of his sofa fumblings had not recorded on my dodgy camera he strode with deadly earnestness, this time appearing to have forgotten to release the safety catch, despite hurried instructions at the door by a man who said he was on the Libyan Olympic Committee. Kerala shot me a second look, more of concern that maybe I had by now escaped for coffee. And then his presumed daily ritual came to an end with a bang. He returned to the sofa while eying my sunglasses then sprang up once or was it twice again to deliver a third and maybe fourth shot. My camera was off. I absolved myself of manufacturing reality…or at least re-shooting it.
Another problem presented itself. Kerala had developed the idea that he would look even more like a member of a revolutionary committee if could do his cloud-shooting routine while wearing my Decathlon sunglasses. I stalled for time by plucking phrases from my LP Arabic phrasebook. But holding my glasses after appreciative examination and pointing to himself did not leave much room for misunderstanding. I did the unthinkable, I told him a fib, and indicated they were glasses specially for my eyes.
Kerala displayed puppy-dog disappointment. I kept thinking of coffee. And then Kerala hit on a new idea.
"Nope, I don t have any". The truth was easy. But Kerala was going puppyish again.
"Okay, I've got some cigarillos" I went to my backpack to retrieve one of the small gift packets of 5. Kerala came over and observed with an unrestrained noseyness that made me think he just might be a school teacher after all.
I started opening a tin but he indicated it was not necessary, he would have the tin instead. He was getting the upper hand. I caved in but took one cigarillo back and smoked it to reduce his booty by 20 percent. Satisfied, Kerala disappeared and I made my own strides to the decent cafe I had found last night. It was closed.
I had found there a banker named Mohammad who said he had just been down to Ras Lanuf in a small group that included an engineer and a teacher. They were civilians who had become citizen-soldiers. He said he had young kids, a good apartment and a wife - something a lot of middle-aged Libyan men without prospects lacked. They went down for two days, then two days back. It was war in shifts, fought by duty-driven professional types and young hotheads without direction. I later read a Time article in which I recognized Mohammad. He was described as advancing in the conflict zone steadily but not rashly as younger co-fighters were inclined to do.
UN Resolution 1973 - Protect civilians. It didn't take a lawyer to argue that many of those fighting were civilians or part-time civilians anyhow.
Mohammad had offered to come to my hotel that morning and take me to one of the WW 2 cemeteries nearby. So I hung about hoping Kerala would not return anytime soon. Mohammad did not turn up but then there was a war to fight. Another man did appear and he was bearing a small cup of coffee which he brought straight to me. There was an Allah. Two coffees so far and money was out of the question. It was clear that in this part of Libya it was going to be a tough job exchanging money for this substance.
I was told that a friend or relation of my New Zealand contact in Benghazi, Ali, had called by last night and offered to take me to Benghazi. I hung around reception some more. Another man appeared with a huge bowl of steaming lunch. The owner sought a smaller bowl and admitted me to the empty restaurant. I was treated to large intestine soup with bread.
I strolled over to the seating area in Tobruk square to argue with my camcorder and watch some kids playing on top of the gutted "Security" headquarters that took up half of the sea-side of the main square. They were scampering over the roof, doing some flag waving and throwing some objects into the square. When the now evaporated security forces failed to respond with bursts of machine gun fire they came down and converged on me instead. They were quite polite and my Arabic phrase book was passed around for general inspection. It was impossible for me to appreciate fully but actually just by talking to me they were doing something that could have earned them as adults 3 years incarceration just a month or so earlier. They showed me a now Youtubed video of Qaddafi barking, on a mobile phone, but then as it was Qaddafi or his son who cut the two mobile networks I guess he had to expect they would find other uses for their phones.
I returned to the hotel reception with the sinking realization that it could not be long before Kerala with his flowing "Free Libya" cape was back, and worse I might still be there for the tour he had promised me. But the 1pm prayers were coming up and I was told things might get interesting. I headed out but they were still warming up for the 4pm prayers.
And just before 4pm Kerala came back, his desert storm uniform still looking fresh. I was assured that Kerala didn't drive but being stuck with him in a taxi while visiting these historical cemeteries had no great allure either. As it turned out, the cemetery tour, was an idea only I seemed to be harbouring. "Mia Mia" (My friend, my friend, as far as I could figure out) he announced and prayers over he took my arm. The tour was of the square and he planned to do with a protective arm around me and repititions of "Ok, Ok" when the celebratory gunfire got particularly intense. I managed to get his arm off and he disappeared from sight.
Back to reception where the man in the dry-cleaning shop beside showed great interest in my plans. I sketched crosses and said I wanted to find the cemeteries. Amazed that I was in Tobruk without a tourist agency he announced he could do "the job".
"No, not a job, I need directions"
"What job do you want? To be honest I need the work"
"I want to see dead soldiers"
"Dig them up?"
I guess that explained why he wanted to do the "job" for around €200.
I had to leave. I took the nearest alley away from the square and set out to find a cemetery, assailing the first man I saw with a last ditch effort for information. He spoke no English.
I walked on but then he caught up with me and handed me his phone. On the end was Anwar Hassan, his brother-and-law, who had studied in the US. I had not escaped. He was nearby and the only meeting place I knew was the hotel reception. But my wish had been granted.
We got in Mohammad's ute and in 10 minutes we were at the cemetery.
Click on Tagestappen for each of the seven days.