Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
More Horrors in Tunisia
When we reached the Tunisian border, we had trouble: The guards wouldn’t believe we had crossed the entire width of their country without Tunisian money. We had no documents crediting us with official exchange, and our sale of the cigarettes was illegal under Tunisian customs regulations and couldn’t be mentioned. Only after an hour of interrogation did we convince them we carried enough food and gas to get us anywhere, a bald-faced lie since our stomachs and gas tank were both back on empty after their insufficient refill in Gabes. By then the border was closed for the night.
The guards raised the barrier the next morning and we headed toward Libya. We had come to Tunisia to see the ancient Carthage and the modern Tunis, the forest-covered hills and the beautiful coast, the unveiled women and the march of Moslem democracy. We had instead seen a desert, a dried lake, a first-aid station, the inside of three shops, the customs office, and a mirage.
We hoped for better luck in Libya, another land with an amazing story to tell. Seldom has there been a country which joined the family of nations with heavier burdens on her back. Fourteen years before, her assets were nil, her liabilities immense. Her per capita income was 30 dollars. Her proven natural resources were negligible. Her major industries were the selling of salt from the ocean and the collection of scrap metal from the war wreckage that littered her devastated countryside. Most of her towns were in ruins. Five million land mines lay buried beneath her sand along with thousands of unexploded shells and grenades. Disease was widespread: Three out of every ten babies died at birth, and those who survived were subject to cholera, smallpox, plague, and the dreaded trachoma. Most of the natives subsisted on 1,600 calories a day. In a territory of 680,000 square miles, nearly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, there were less than 1,250,000 people, sixteen of them with university degrees. Cut off from European influence during a thousand years of Arab rule, and taught little by her 20th century Italian conquerors, she was one of the most backward countries on earth. She wasn’t even a country in the true sense of the word. Her people had no common identity, no feeling of nationalism, regarding themselves as Tripolitanians, or Cyrenaicians, or Fezzanians, or just plain nomads. There were nothing but camel routes linking the settlements, and only one paved road in the whole vast region. Libya as a nation was more a notion than a reality.
Yet it was this poor, backward, diseased, disunited, and war-torn land that was to emerge as one of the most successful experiments of the United Nations. It was on this inhospitable soil that the pioneering UN created the first newly independent country in all of Africa after the war, and it is to the credit of whatever god’s rule the destinies of men and the flow of oil beneath the desert sands that the experiment worked as well as it did.
It worked so well that I found myself looking into the gold inlays of a Libyan customs officer who’d come back from his inspection of our cars smirking as if he’d trapped an arch criminal. In the flickering glow of the kerosene lantern he looked absolutely sinister as he reread our entry declaration, his finger pointing to the part where we’d sworn we had no guns with us.
“Have you guns?” he asked, with what must have been his favorite English phrase.
“No,” I replied, for there was nothing else I could say. It was too late to confess that I had a pistol hidden under the seat. It had proven so useful in driving off the Algerian robbers that I was determined to take it with us, however many countries it meant smuggling it into and whatever the risks involved.
“No guns? No guns! Vien!” He led us into the courtyard where we’d parked and where the other three officers, two holding rifles, were standing guard over our Land Cruiser. If he had found the pistol, we’d be in serious trouble.
“No guns?” he asked, pointing to the Land Cruiser, giving us more than enough rope to hang ourselves.
“No, no guns.”
The officer flung open the door of the Land Cruiser and pointed inside. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and went closer. He was pointing up, up to the three long leather cases we carried strapped to the underside of the roof and which he thought held rifles.
I unzipped the cases and pulled out our hunting bows. The officer was shattered; his gun runner was a mirage. Then he started smiling, and soon he and his men were laughing and roaring: “Pow! Pow! You cowboy and Indian, like American movie. Haaah, haaah. Bang! Bang! Sssshhhttt. Sssshhhttt.”
To make up for the delays, we drove until very late that night. When we’d been planning the trip, we’d figured on making camp every evening before sunset, but the farther behind schedule we got, the harder we pushed and the later we drove. In Europe, we rarely made camp after nine at night; in French North Africa, seldom before midnight; now we were sometimes pushing on until two in the morning, trying to make up for lost miles, trying to catch up to an impossible schedule that called for us to be clearing India.
But camping in the dead of night had its hazards, as we learned time and again. That first night in Libya we pulled beneath some trees to sleep, too exhausted to reconnoiter the area. In the morning we woke to find we’d camped in an olive grove; and the farmer, his children, and half the dogs in Tripolitania were there to see what we were up to. We apologized for trespassing and packed up quickly, but we couldn’t get out; we were stuck fast. The sand between the trees was as dry as talc, and our rough treads cut in like a trench-digging machine; in a minute we were in up to our axle. For three hot, sweaty hours we worked to free the equipment, deflating the tires, piling sticks and stones and blankets underneath, winching car against camper. In the direct heat of the sun and the humidity of the coastal region it was exhausting work, and we were dead tired and depressed when we finished.
Our spirit raiser was scheduled to be Sabratha, the unearthed Roman city on the shores of the sparkling Mediterranean, and it was there we headed after our extrication from the olive grove. Hardly had we gone five miles when our jinx struck again: The hitch snapped and the small trailer broke loose, bouncing and banging down the road until it lost a wheel and ground to a stop, its spindle broken, its axle bent far out of line. We had to empty the trailer and carry it by hand three miserable miles to a mechanic. Repairs would take all day.
- Photo caption on page 129 of the printed publication:
We reached Sabratha, a once-magnificant Roman metropolis on the Mediterranean coast of Lybia, now a graveyard of crumbling stone pillars.
We spent the day at the ruins of Sabratha. There all was still as the desert night, lifeless as the desert day, and sea wind and weather were threatening to reduce to limestone dust what had once been part of the glory of Rome.
We’re travelers, not philosophers, and we made this trip to see the world’s past and present, not to speculate about its future; but one must give rise to the other, and the thoughts forced themselves upon us. No one can visit the Roman ruins in Volubus or Sabratha or Leptis and not speculate about the destiny of nations; you can’t isolate them architecturally or artistically; you can’t come away thinking only of the spatial relation of the Forum to the baths or the proportions of the columns; you are compelled to think: This was once a living city in a mighty empire, a thriving city in a civilization that ruled most of the then known world for 800 years, a civilization that brought engineers and aqueducts and teachers and libraries to the most distant corners of the darkness-an empire measurably more powerful in its time than our own country in its, an empire whose enemies were just heathens on horseback and nomads on camels-yet an empire of which only these tombstones remain. And you can’t help but wonder what fate lies in store for your United States, a mere infant in only its second century of existence and its third decade of world leadership, but already besieged on all sides by powerful enemies, spending its youth and vigor on far-flung battle fields, and you wonder what lessons can be learned from these old Roman ruins on this forsaken desert-and you remember you’re a traveler, not a philosopher, so you push on.
It was too late to push farther that night; so we laid our sleeping bags among the ruins on the shores of the sea and slept to the gentle lapping of the waves. Toward midnight a new sound drowned out the waves and wakened us: Manu was groaning. He began tossing and turning, clutching his stomach in pain. He was running a high fever. We gave him aspirin and Enterovioform, but they did little good; the fever and pain grew worse. He had a bad case of dysentery. There was little more we could do than give him water to prevent dehydration as we rushed him to a doctor in Tripoli. The doctor insisted Manu needed at least three days in bed. Since he was thus confined, the rest of us set out to explore the city. We found it a delight, the Riviera blended with the casbahs of Africa. It had broad boulevards, spotless shops and sidewalks, a shady canopy of palm trees, a bazaar where the best gold and silverwork in Africa could be bought, and an ancient Moorish castle which looked out upon the harbor and which 160 years before had seen a young U.S. Navy lieutenant named Stephen Decatur slip under the noses of the Barbary pirates to burn and blow up one of their ships and put an end to their depredations on American merchantmen in what England’s Admiral Lord Nelson called “the most daring act of the age.”