Saturday 10 March 2018

Approaching Africa

by Robert Ferguson

mint tea

Flat sea, clear sky and the sun setting on our right as the port ahead took detailed shape. Hot and humid, even while we were still at sea. There were palm trees, real palm trees! along the Promenade. One knew of them intellectually, but here was the experiential, visual proof that they exist! And an orange sandstone castle, not complexly decorated, but with clearly solid walls, and gun-ports – empty - commanding a harbour built of even more solid grey stone. Tripoli. Tarabulus, the excited locals around me on the ferry’s bow, were calling it. They were nearly home.

I, on the other hand, was nearing the real beginning of my first solo adventure, my first time abroad on my own. I had only the barest idea of what awaited me, and knew it. All I could do was to lock down my fears, never question that everything would be fine, and keep a weather eye out for impending storms. In Africa! As my musical friends always said, “It’ll be all right on the night”. And it nearly was night, as I and my bulging rucksack passed through Immigration and Customs – tough-looking men with powerful-looking side-arms – into a town the like of which I had never seen before.

I had wanted to return to my beloved Arctic (another story), but couldn’t raise the funds. So, instead, I turned South via Thomas Cook in Oxford Street to find a hot desert to study at a price I could find from my skimpy savings. “Train to Paris, Florence, Rome, Naples and then, I suppose, a ferry to Libya for a two-month stay. Then, train to Tunis and Algiers, ‘plane to Spain and back home. Can you give me an estimate, please?” “Not straight away, Sir”, they said, “We’ll ‘phone.” In those days 50 years ago, travel agents really did plan Phileas Fogg-like travels, and call you “Sir”, not just offer take-it-or-leave-it packages and quote what the computer said. And when they did ‘phone me, they said “£45” and I, unbelieving, said “Yes”.

So I began to plan my “expedition”, along the lines of the much more complex one I had joined the previous year. I gathered food, packed it into several boxes and sent it all off to a shipping agent for collection when I got to Tripoli. I badgered the U.S. Embassy for maps, and they came up with “quarter inch-to-the mile” road maps based on their universal air-photograph records (I didn’t ask why they had taken universal air photographs). I got jabs beyond number, and I sat
my final examinations, and took the train from London to Dover, totally scared out of my wits.

All this in the middle of a national dock strike! And, by the time I got to a “Camping” outside Boulogne (not Calais, but there was a dock strike) it was raining. But it got better as the journey progressed; and friends made along the way helped. I found this was typical of the English traveller’s experience. Caravanners in France helped to erect my tent. Italian friends showed me bus-stops into Florence. Roman café proprietors introduced me to Italian menus, Neapolitans to their famous (real) pizzas – at one in the morning; and a wonderful English couple took me, in their ageing Morris Minor convertible, to the crater of Mount Vesuvius. All they asked in return was help to push the car clear of the traffic when the engine took a siesta on a roundabout in the middle of Naples. By the time I had reached Tripoli, I knew I could overcome anything life had to throw at me – there would always be someone to help.

The first thing they had to help with was the adjustment to North African time. Slow, slow, slow. And the first thing that was slow was the arrival of my food boxes, caught in the British dock strike. The local shipping agent was so comfortingly just like a garage mechanic at home faced with a marginal MOT result. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he said, sucking his teeth, and raising his eyebrows almost out of sight into his hair. “Call back in a few days.”

None of the trio who seemed to spend all day sitting in the shade outside the front door of the dock-side hotel – who needs more than a bed and a sink, especially in a North African summer? – were surprised at my prolonged stay. We drank mint tea together, with and without peanuts, whichever the eight-year-old tea vendor happened to be carrying, and one taught me words of Arabic which the others suggested, though, from their giggles, I suspected that his English translations of some of the words were, at best, euphemisms. And I wandered the town built by, and still occupied by, the children of 1930’s Italian settlers, the souk built by the Arab invaders of the eighth century and still occupied by their craftsmen and shopkeeper descendants, the castle and museum (feature exhibit, a two-headed goat), and Garden City, the very twentieth century suburb of villas and flats occupied by the more wealthy and fortunate inhabitants.

And having absorbed the city, I spread my wings a little. At the bus station, I discovered that there was a service to the nearest substantial (a relative term) town, Gharyan. It wasn’t clear when it would leave or when - if? – it would get there, but… I waited and, when there was a full load inside and on top, we left. Sensible, no? Certainly African.

Outside the city, my first sand-desert began. Straight as a musket-barrel, the concrete road arrowed into the Sahara, past the vast US airbase and the smaller Idris International Airport, named for the post-war king whom the British had installed after their North African victory, and who would be replaced by Colonel Gaddafi three years later. Some 60 miles South, a huge cliff rose 1,000 feet before us, the escarpment of the Jebel Nefusa, which was to be my study-ground for the next 12 months. I had really arrived!

The beautifully engineered Italian road climbed the Jebel in a series of hairpin bends so tight that our ancient bus had to take many of them in 10 or 12-point turns, often with the long rear-end of the bus - where I was sitting to be inconspicuous: fat chance! - stuck out over hundreds of feet of vertical drops. No-one but me seemed concerned. The women in their encompassing white robes, headcloths gripped firmly between their teeth even when talking or eating, continued to gossip, and the chickens in the coops on their laps continued to cluck and flutter. And, quite suddenly, the road flattened out and we were in the centre of Gharyan.

The status of Gharyan as the administrative centre of the central Jebel was marked by an hotel – with curtains, the last I was to see until I returned to Tripoli – and an imposing police station with a very tall flag pole. I was soon directed here for an interview with the Police Chief, an equally imposing man in a shiny black cap, shiny brown riding-boots, an impeccably cut and pressed uniform, and an even more imposing revolver. The interview was quite short, largely because neither he nor his assistants seemed to have any more English than I had Arabic. Curiosity rather than security seemed to dominate their interest in me. However, although my passport puzzled them all as much as my presence, confident smiles and friendly handshakes seemed to satisfy them, and I was quickly accepted into his territory.

Gharyan stands at the Western end of what had been the Italian settlers’ farming region. Outside the town, there were numerous pretty villas painted pastel pink or yellow, with wide, shady verandas below arched porticos opening onto deep, cool rooms within. Further out, below the top of the Jebel-cliff, were the troglodyte dwellings, ages-old 30-feet deep pits some 15 feet, across dropped into the loess which the elements have gathered below the summit of the hills, with rooms opening off the bottom of each pit. These were the homes of the local Berber people, a proudly separate race whom the Arabs had displaced from the coast into the Jebel during the Muslim drive through North Africa to al-Andaluce, 1200 years before; and they still stood apart from the Arab-dominated coast, with their separate language and customs, though both are fervent Muslims to a man.

The Jebel Nefusa curves protectively around the coastal plain I had crossed on my journey to Gharyan. It begins in the East in real sea-cliffs between Homs (al Khums) and Misrata before swinging Westward to Gharyan and on at gradually descending altitudes past the villages of Jafren, Giardo and Nalut, where the road along the Jebel crest crosses the ages old route from the South to the coast at Zuara, now infamous as the base of people-traffickers into – the term is used advisedly - the Mediterranean. Beyond, Nalut, now reminiscent in height and shape of the English Downs, the Jebel crosses the Tunisian border and swings North as that country’s low spine, towards Tunis.

I did not stay long in Gharyan. Having finally collected my delayed supplies, I hitch-hiked on to the West. Hitch-hiking was easy in Libya  then, and had to be. Beyond Gharyan, the road was a sand-track, and there was no public transport. Everybody simply waved down the next passing vehicle – and on occasion there could be several hours to wait, of course – which always stopped, whether it had an unoccupied seat or the new passenger simply climbed onto the load in the back. Ex-British Army Landrovers of dubious roadworthiness were ubiquitous (I drove several later in my stay, often without a handbrake, or absent a crucial gear), as were heavily battered but immensely tough Peugeot 405’s imported from neighbouring Tunisia or Algeria.

By the time I reached Jafren, the architecture had totally changed. Here, the village was a true rabbit-warren. Mud-brick house clambered over mud-brick house, in a riot of structures which looked like a heap of children who had simply leaped on top of one another in a school playground. Windows were few, and none pierced the curved house-walls which barricaded the outer, down-slope edge of the village, presenting a totally blank orange face to invaders from beyond. In Giardo, which was of a similar appearance, I recruited a couple of young men who were students at the University in Tripoli, and were home for the summer. They were willing to act as my linksmen and facilitators as I surveyed and mapped the village for a paper which very nearly obtained me a job later in my career.

And finally I reached Nalut, having passed wide stretches of sand and occasional tree-marked oases in wadis where the erosion of the surface had cut down aeons before to the water-table, and where villagers could broadcast their seed to obtain a sparse crop of grain.  From the Turkish castle, so similar to the one above Tripoli harbour, I looked down the road South to Ghadames, Timbuktu and the ancient Empire of Benin, and longed for that journey … but, no, perhaps next time. Though I never did.

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