Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
Horrors in Libya
The pride of Tripoli is the spacious, palm-fringed boulevard that runs along her beach-studded harbor. It is one of the most impressive streets in the world, built by the Italians as a grandiose showplace and lined with magnificent hotels, apartment buildings, arcades, public squares, and hospitals. When Libya was their colony, the Italians called it the Boulevard Lungomare; when she became independent, the Libyans renamed it Sharia Adrian Pelt in honor of the United Nations statesman who prepared them for self-government.
Sharia Adrian Pelt also housed the headquarters of Soussi Brothers, the only Toyota distributor in North Africa. We’d alerted them from New York about our trip, telling them to expect us in mid-April. It was now June. When we walked into the Soussi office they looked as if they were seeing ghosts; they had thought we’d turned back or perished on the desert.
We were introduced to Mohammed Soussi, the young English-educated heir to the Soussi enterprises, which are introducing to Libya the products of the modern world. Everything from autos to office equipment, from washers to water pumps, is imported, distributed, manufactured, serviced, rented, sold, leased, contracted for, or represented by Soussi Brothers. With somewhat of a shock, we found that Madison Avenue had also moved to Libya, a country that 50 years ago hadn’t even heard of New York. In seconds, Mohammed was on the phone, calling his press agent, Publilibya, ringing up newspapers, inviting ministers, reserving rooms; in minutes he had arranged a press conference, a banquet in our honor, and a demonstration of our Land Cruiser for the most important people in the city.
The Soussis insisted we be their guests until Manu was well enough to travel. They wouldn’t hear of our living in the camper; so they moved us to a hotel where we slept between sheets for the first time since the Queen Elizabeth, had our first haircuts since Jerez, and our first hot showers since Algiers. Our prospects seemed suddenly brighter.
The next day, headlines proclaimed our arrival in Arabic, Italian, and English, and the newspapers devoted so much space to our trip that one would have thought that Columbus, Magellan, and Kim Novak all rode in our Land Cruiser. The papers announced we would demonstrate our car under rough conditions at the Underwater Sports Club for a select assemblage of dignitaries, including Libya’s Minister of Transportation, his three top assistants, the general in charge of the Quartermaster Corps of the Libyan Army, and his aides, and the purchasing agents of every major oil company operating in the Kingdom.
Later that morning, before these distinguished guests gathered for the banquet, the Soussis and Al, who was to do the driving, went through a clandestine rehearsal, running the Land Cruiser through soft sand, over jagged rocks, across barbed wire, into the ocean up over its hubcaps, up a slippery hill, and through ditches and depressions, until they knew just exactly how to take the car to the brink and how to make it appear to attempt the impossible yet barrel through with flying colors.
There were so many titles and decorations at the banquet that it seemed more like a meeting of the Libyan cabinet than an automobile promotion, save for the Soussi crew spotted among the guests, exchanging polite conversation and now and then slipping in a plug for the Land Cruiser, which was the perfect vehicle, they explained, (depending on whom they were talking to) for surveyors, soldiers, postmen, engineers, or geologists.
When the big demonstration came, Al was so stuffed he could barely squeeze behind the wheel. He safety-belted himself in with mock severity, raced the engine, and roared off along the course he and the Soussis had secretly laid out that morning. The crowd had its heart in its mouth (indeed, there was little room for it anywhere else after that meal) as Al plunged into the Mediterranean and seemed about to float away. The water was over the tops of the tires and the tailpipe sounded like an outboard engine about to give up the ghost; but he pulled it through, and roared to the crest of a rocky escarpment bounding the sea, charging up a stone hill so steep and slippery you’d have sworn he was going to fall over backwards and crash into the ocean. This was followed by a flat-out run across the open ground, churning through sand, bouncing over rocks, leaping across ditches. It was a hell of a way to treat a car that was supposed to take us the rest of the way around the world. For an impromptu grande finale, Al charged a gaping trench that had not been on his practice run. It was six feet deep and sheer as a cliff, but Al charged it anyway. The crowd gasped, I gulped, and the Soussis held their breath as the front of the Land Cruiser went crashing straight down to the bottom of the trench-and stayed there.
It was the worst hangup I’ve ever seen. The front wheels barely rested on the bottom of the trench and the back wheels were suspended from the upper edge, leaving the car almost straight up and down. There was no room to maneuver and no direction to maneuver in. Al sweated and swore and shifted gears and ground into reverse, but nothing worked; a tank couldn’t have gotten out. By now all the dignitaries had gathered on the rim of the trench; it reminded me of a funeral.
After half an hour, Al had to submit to the final indignity:
I rumbled over in my old Jeep, threw a winch around the Land
Cruiser’s rear end, and hauled it out of the hole.
The Soussis must have worked late that night: Next morning the newspapers only reported that “The car’s ability to negotiate sand, rock, and shallow water was clearly shown.” Mohammed Soussi gave us a farewell dinner, and after the other guests had gone we sat on a terrace overlooking the city and talked. Somehow the conversation turned to religion, and Mohammed gave me an insight into his. I had previously believed Islam was a religion of the masses, a dogmatic bunch of superstitious mumbo-jumbo in which only the uneducated could believe; but here was a very intelligent young man, who’d been schooled in England and who skillfully ran a modern business enterprise, telling me that:
“Islam gives meaning to my whole life. I could not live without it. It tells me everything I need to know and every way how to act. It is the greatest religion, the only true religion. I have studied your Catholicism, but it is a fairy tale with miracles and sons of God and Trinities. And your Protestantism has no meaning; you have Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans and fifty different denominations, each claiming to know best how to praise and obey God, and each doing things different. But with Islam there is only one God and he is all powerful. We grant that Moses and Jesus may have been prophets-but Mohammed was the final one. Mohammed is the true prophet of God, and his writings are the only way that the divine will can be learned. The Koran is the final revelation. We need look no farther and we need accept no other. The Koran tells us all we need to know about how to conduct our lives and how to submit to the will of God.”
“But surely, Mohammed, you cannot believe-“
“It is difficult to explain to you, for it is complicated, and you are of another world with different standards. I saw that world in London, but I am not a part of it. I am Muslim. All I can explain to you is what my belief does for me. I never worry. I never drink alcohol. I do not covet young girls, and I will make my marriage with the help of my father. I never think of suicide and I never think of taking drugs. I work hard-but I enjoy it. I don’t worry; I am not, like so many in the West, troubled by doubts and fears and neuroses. I know that Allah watches over everything we do, and that if we do everything as he has caused to be written in the Koran, we shall have our reward. I am serene and at peace with myself and the world. I am delighted with the sunrise, because it is the work of God, and with the sunset, because that is also his doing. And when I say my prayers and praise him, I am sure that he hears them, and that I need fear nothing. I do not mean to boast, and I know it is difficult for you to understand me, but our God gives me peace. Does yours?”
The next morning we were ready to leave Tripoli. Manu had recovered somewhat from his illness and Al from the news that he didn’t have a future as an automobile test pilot. The Soussis had shined and serviced our cars, and they’d found an Italian machinist named Guglielmo Scianno who, with loving care, had made a completely new axle and spindle for our little trailer, made them so well that we wouldn’t have a bit of trouble with them again. If you’re ever in Tripoli and need a new axle, look up Guglielmo Scianno.
As we were leaving town, Woodrow realized he still didn’t have his visa for Egypt; and no one knew if he could get one elsewhere in Libya, for its capital city keeps shifting with the seasons and the disposition of the King. The rest of us had gotten our Egyptian visas in New York or Algiers, but Woodrow had never been up to it.
Rather than hold up both cars while Woodrow went for his visa, I told Al to take off with Manu and Willy and I’d catch up with them. I could move faster with the little trailer than they could with the camper, and assumed I’d catch them by night. It took five hours for Woodrow to get his visa; so it was early afternoon before we left Tripoli for Benghazi, 660 desolate desert miles away.
In spite of the delay, I had to stop for a quick view of Leptis Magna, though I would have preferred to spend a week. Far bigger and more beautiful than Sabratha, Leptis had been one of the showplaces of the Roman Empire, a handsome city of colonnaded avenues, amphitheaters, meeting halls, fountains, baths, basilicas, forums, libraries, arches, and some 40 major buildings. Unlike Sabratha, which had been built from local limestone, Leptis was fashioned from beautiful multi-colored marble brought from Greece and Italy and Asia Minor and the far corners of the Empire, and its noble stone still stood as it had before the birth of Christ. After Leptis there was nothing save the tiniest of villages and the dullest of deserts. The road we followed was the Strada Imperial, built in the 1930’s by the Italian militarists. It still bore the scars of war where it had been chewed up by tanks and blasted by dive bombers. Land mines and artillery shells had also taken their toll on it. The craters were strategically spaced and impossible to avoid; if we swerved to miss a hole with our right wheel, our left got clobbered, and vice versa, really clobbered. The roadside was strewn with the carcasses of huge tires that had literally been torn to shreds by the potholes and the desert heat. Many of the devastated tires were three feet in diameter, and laced with metal mesh, so heavy the two of us couldn’t lift them; but the road had shattered them. The only thing in the road’s favor was that it was straight, arrowing across the desert, often going 30 or 40 miles without a turn or bend, as monotonous as the desert itself.