~G is for Gaddafi – of course!~
The world's second most famous Colonel (the other is the one with the 'special blend of herbs and spices') became the leader of Libya at the age of just 27, after a coup in 1969. This means he's been around for the same length of time as Sesame Street. The man nicknamed 'Mad Dog Gaddafi' (I think it was by Ronald Reagan, ever the diplomat) is a Bedouin by birth who likes to sleep in a tent and doesn't really like cities. However, despite his tent-dwelling origins, if you are a Libyan and you need somewhere to live, he'll give you a house or an apartment. If you have children he'll provide them with schooling, university places and scholarships to go abroad if they are really clever – all free of charge. Hospitals likewise are free and pretty good unless you are a Bulgarian nurse ridiculously accused of infecting children with HIV, in which case you might wish you'd stayed at home. If you can live with being run by a military dictatorship, there are some pretty substantial benefits to living under Colonel G.
On the other hand, you might find it difficult to keep a straight face about Gaddafi and his jet black hair (he's the same age as Paul McCartney and the dye does neither any favours) and what appears to be a face enhanced by David Guest's favourite plastic surgeon. He is – shame on me and I hope the Libyan secret service don't read this – a funny looking bloke.
~H is for Headscarves and Health~
Great news for the ladies; you don't HAVE to wear a headscarf in Libya, unless of course you want to go into a mosque. You should dress modestly and neither men nor women can really get away with shorts or vest tops, but on the whole, there aren't too many restrictions. We did get quite a lot of curious attention in a few places outside the big cities (mostly people taking photos) but no aggression or unpleasantness.
With regards to travel health, Libya has no malaria and requires no special inoculations which is very good news. Nobody told us not to drink the water though we assumed that would be the case and bottled water wasn't expensive and was readily available. Nobody got sick on our trip (or at least if they did, we didn't hear about it) and there were plenty of small pharmacies around for any travel medicines you might have forgotten to pack.
~ I is for Italians ~
On 26th October 1911 Italy invaded Libya and the day became known as the Black Day, a national day of mourning that's still observed by Libyans. The invasion was 'spun' by the Italians as an attempt to 'liberate' the country from the Ottomans but lead to several decades of rather brutal rule with some reports claiming almost 1 million Libyans died during the 33 years of Italian rule. Considering the current population is a modest 6 million, that's a lot of dead Libyans to account for. Resistance fighters were rounded up and killed, concentration camps were set up in the heat of the desert and poor farmers from southern Italy were shipped over to Libya and a lot of the best farmland was confiscated from local farmers and given to the immigrants. Despite all this, the current relationship between the two countries is still quite strong and Italy still has strong trading links with Libya.
~ J is for Jamahiriya ~
Libya is officially called the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya so it's easy to see why we just call it Libya. The word Jamahiriya is one that was 'invented' by Gaddafi and it translates as something like 'republic ruled by the masses' or 'people's republic'. So now you know!
~K is for Kebabs and Kissing~
Like most of North Africa and the Middle East, kebabs are very popular. However, since I don't eat meat, I have absolutely no idea whether they are any good or not.
Kissing relates to an incident that happened to us in a park opposite the National Museum in central Tripoli. My husband was approached by a young boy aged around 9 or 10 years old. The boy ignored me and the other two women with us and strode up to Tony waving a small book at him. As it was written entirely in Arabic, it was pretty daft to think that we might want to buy it but as Tony tried to gesture that he wasn't really in the market for a small book of 'whatever it was' the boy planted a big loud kiss on his cheek. As the boy puckered up and leaned in for another go, Tony grabbed his wallet and gave the kid a dinar (about 50p) to get rid of him. So much for 'don't talk to strangers' – this kid's mum clearly hadn't given him any advice.
~ L is for Leptis Magna ~
Libya is full of world-class UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the most famous (and most visited) of the lot is Leptis Magna. The first city on the site was founded in 1100 BC by the Phoenicians but it's predominantly known for its Roman architecture. The Romans took over around 200 BC and was at its strongest during the reign of local-boy Septimus Severus who became emperor in 193 and whose arch stands at the entrance to the city. Highlights of the city include an enormous forum, a massive basilica, a fabulous theatre and a rather spooky amphitheatre for feeding Christians to the lions. The bath house is also an amazing place to see – an enormous complex with hot rooms, cold plunge pools, massage areas and dressing rooms. And once you've sweated out all the toxins, where better to head than the communal toilets to relax and read the latest best-selling scroll? Leptis Magna is an incredible place to visit, whether you're an archaeology buff or just a half-interested amateur.
~M is for Museums~
We saw a LOT of museums in Libya and to be honest, I was getting pretty weary of them by the end of the week. The problem is that most of them have a rule that you have to go round with a local guide and some of those guys really don't know when to stop. There's also a serious problem with lighting in some of the museums. I could understand if these places were full of delicate light-sensitive things that needed to be protected but 2000 year old artifacts that survived being buried, got through earthquakes and survived the worst abuse of some very naïve archaeological digs (dynamite – really good stuff for clearing the ground if you're a French archaeologist apparently). The museum at Leptis Magna was the worst for this – it was like trying to go round a museum with your sunglasses on. The other problem was labeling – most of the museums don't have English (or any other European language) labels.
~ N is for No Booze ~
Libya is dry so you need to be happy with spending your holiday totally sober. You can get alcohol free beer and it's not a bad quality – they even import Becks alcohol-free beer all the way from Bremen and can still sell it for less than you'll pay half a mile from the brewery. I really enjoyed my first glass of wine on the flight home!