Category Archives: Libya

My First Mosque-take

Whilst living in Tripoli, Libya I would occasionally struggle for things to do on my days off due to various restrictions imposed on me. These restrictions were in place to ensure I was as safe as I could be in an inherently unstable country. Being a little bit dense, I’d often completely ignore whatever the state/school/common sense told me and swanned off regardless. This is one such example (originally written on 16 June 2014):

I went to a Mosque today at the bequest of a friend. He knows I’m not a Muslim but he just wanted to show me his ways and beliefs.

Since I’m hadn’t been allowed to drink for a good few weeks, and religion is considered an opium of sorts, I thought the idea couldn’t hurt. Something new and different at the very least.

After a short and typically frenetic car journey, I following Abdelrahime into his mosque. We did all the usual prep – shoes off, ritual cleansing and the like – before my friend asked me to mimic his movements and join him in prayer. He patted a patch of carpet next to him in invitation.

I had no problem with this. I’m an agnostic-atheist but I’d like to consider myself fairly broad-minded. I’ve bowed my head at a Christian prayer, padded about in a skull cap and chanted with Thai monks so why not add a little Islam to my celestial armoury? Anyway, keen to embrace another culture and spiritually enrich myself, I followed my friend’s instructions and crouched haphazardly beside him and spent the next few minutes following his prayer routine.

My abiding memory is that of agony. My knees just won’t let me kneel comfortably which has always curtailed any bids for religious enlightenment or, indeed, a career as a male prostitute. A cross – to stretch the religious theme – I’ve borne all my life.

After we’d finished (mercifully), Abdelrahime asked me how I felt as he manfully tried to pull me upright. Pausing briefly as the white flashes of pain behind my eyes faded away, I eventually whispered ‘peaceful’ but I guess my weak, wincing half-crouch probably told a different story.

As I recovered and offered a genuine prayer of thanks that my kneecaps hadn’t burst, my friend wandered off to speak to his some of his other friends and suggested I take the chance to have a look around.

I was soon approached by a crowd of curious but sceptical Libyans – sceptical of me, not any benevolent power – including the Mosque’s Imam. They asked why I was there. I said I was interested in religion. They’re eyes lit up. ‘Every religion’ I hastily added. I was only there to observe passively if that was all OK with them.

Ten bewildering minutes later, I was sat in a circle looking frantically around for my mate who’d apparently naffed off without me. I was surrounded by a group of very serious, but friendly looking, faithfuls who began to ardently explain the virtues of their belief system to me (which predominantly meant shitting on Christianity it seems). The discussion went on for a fair spell, with people increasingly shouting over others and pointing at me, before I was eventually asked by one of the senior figures to repeat something in Arabic after him. The sentence, I was informed, loosely translated as:

‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed (pbuh) is his messenger.’

Lightly sweating and a trifle concerned, I politely asked why he wanted me to repeat his words back to him. The circle surrounding me was probably three deep now and everyone was leaning in a little too urgently and a little too keenly for my liking.

‘It shows respect for us, our mosque and Allah’, the Mosque official informed me.

‘Oh… Okey dokey then,’ I said, not really knowing what else to do. I then proceeded to stumble through a deliberately garbled attempt at these undoubtedly powerful words. Allah alone knows what I said but it certainly wasn’t what was expected of me.

Regardless, everyone seemed very pleased and any hint of tension that may have arisen had passed. A few more minutes slipped away quite happily before Abdelrahime – my evangelical escort – plucked me from the crowds that were drawn to the curious looking, pasty chap.

We were leaving the mosque with a series of cheerful – and I’ll be honest, fairly relieved – waves when the evening call for prayer kicks in.

‘Can I stay and pray Alex? Would you like to pray too?’, Abdelrahime suggests.

‘Of course mate, I’m entirely in your hands,’ I replied. Who was I to stop the guy praying? 

So as the religious ceremony began in earnest, I went off to find a little corner to perform some stretches in, all in the spirit of solidarity. Just as I’m about to begin the Imam approaches me, takes my hand, and leads me to the front of dozens – maybe hundreds – of bemused Muslims, all craning to have a look at me. My friend, nudging people out of the way to get to the front of the crowd, asks the mosque leader what’s going on. Some Arabic happens. Quite a lot actually.

I waited awkwardly to one side, occasionally throwing a half-smile to the waiting mass of people before me. Abdelrahime turned to face me,

‘Alex, did you say you would lead the prayers?, he asks me a touch hotly.

‘Uhm, did I?’

‘Yes’

‘Ah. Er, it’s probably best if I don’t’

‘Yes’

A little more Arabic occurs before I’m led to the relative safety of the far wall (which is still pretty visible to everyone present). I’m now responsible for holding up quite a lot of people’s religious duty and I’m attracting a few furrowed brows.

Feeling massively self-conscious, the prayers begin in earnest and I hesitantly follow along like a shit back-up dancer, a second or two behind everyone else.

We leave quite quickly after prayers are concluded. Abdelrahime almost dragging me behind him.

(PS; apropos of nothing, a quick note to say I finished that night sucking some petrol through a hose (that’s neither a euphemism nor religious cliche.))

Mexican’t Food

The day started off as you might have expected. Another ten-hour day haphazardly teaching my Libyan students the fundamentals of the English language. I had been officially teaching for a couple of weeks by then and I had got used to the routine, I would teach my first class at 10am and then repeat that same two-hour lesson four times in a row with varying levels of enthusiasm. Sometimes I would have a class of three, on other occasions I would be teaching thirty or forty students all in the same classroom. Attendance very much depended on the temperature, the availability of fuel and whether or not the roads into Tripoli were blockaded by militia.

As it was Wednesday, it was the end of my working week (As Friday is the Islamic holy day, my ‘weekend’ would always begin on Thursday). By 6pm I had watched the first hour of Wreck it Ralph four times in eight hours without ever getting to see the second half of the film. In between screenings, I pranced around pretending to be more of an authority than I actually was and conducted the odd vocab test. I found out that day that an alarming percentage of my pupils could not, or would not, spell ‘count’ correctly.

It was all very typical.

Then, idly scrolling through my emails as Ralph got up to his usual destructive shenanigans on screen,  I spied an email from my school. It was entitled ‘…emulsion gunrifle colleagues. Can be fun!’. There was no other text.

After an understandably cautious reply, I was able to deduce that there was a paintball event on that Friday and that I was invited. Getting shot at to relax from, well, being shot at, struck me as a fairly odd idea. Still, the option was there and it was as good an excuse as any to shoot my new boss in the face. Who was I to say no?

As I was pondering just how close I could get to my boss’ face and still claim it was an accident, a cry went up and I saw Ralph conducting a weird sort of BeeGee’s jig on the old cathrode ray tube TV. The (copied) DVDs in the school were well-used and it was not uncommon for them to freeze every now and again. I dreamily strolled over to the DVD player and, still lost in my paint-splattered reveries,  quickly came to after it became apparent my tummy was being tickled by a middle-aged Arabian man.

The DVD player – containing the juddering disc – was about seven and a half feet off the floor which meant I had to stretch over a few pupils’ heads to reach it. As I did so, I could not help but display a tantalising band of doughy-white, Welsh flesh. Evidently overcome with powerful emotion, the 45-year-old Arabian man had quickly decided that the only course of action available to him was to reach under my untucked shirt and gently caress me, startling me, delighting him and bemusing everybody else. I hastily fixed the DVD and scuttled back to the safety of my desk.

Anyway, after successfully negotiating the rest of the day tickle-free, it was time to go home. One of my students had recommended a little Mexican takeaway quite close to my flat so I asked my driver Abdul to drop me there so I could pick up a takeaway. I had seen the place whilst scooting around the city and it was no further than five minutes away through streets I was relatively familiar with.

After we dropped my housemate off at our apartment complex, Abdul surprised me by driving off in a new and unexpected direction.

‘Must be a shortcut’, I thought, distracted by what sort of burrito Africa might serve up and whether I would be allowed to eat it in the car.

A good few minutes later – after several lawless junctions and a degree of violent swerving – we arrived at a dilapidated shed with a donkey skull outside. On top of the grinning equine cranium sat an sympathetically battered sombrero which had slipped and caught at a jaunty angle. A tattered Mexican flag fluttered half-heartedly in the warm evening breeze next to it.

Abdul, my driver, smiled encouragingly.

I got out of the car. I am not sure why.

‘I’ll only be a minute Abdul’

He beamed and knocked on his indicator, ‘Ok, see you Mr Alex!’.

‘Oh, he’s leaving me here’, I mused.

A thoughtful pause.

‘Shit, he’s leaving me here!’

‘Abdul!’, I flung myself at the side of his car and grabbed hold of the door handle, ‘where are you going?’

‘Pick teacher up, you walk back ok?’, he casually flung a hand in the direction we had just come from.

On no account could I let him leave without me. It was dark, I had no idea where I was and there was a dead rat on the floor next to a half-nibbled taco.

On absolutely no account could Abdul leave.

‘Yeah, no problem, see you around man’, I heard myself confidently say despite my inner howls of anguish.

Abdul smiled again and pulled out directly in front of a four-tonne truck swaying under a massive load of concrete breezeblocks. I watched Abdul’s enthusiastic hand waving all the way down the street, accompanied by a long meaningful honk from the lorry driver.

At least I think Abdul was waving.

Anyway, lost and afraid, a malevolent – yet festive – donkey head beckoned me forward. I crept in to the Mexican shack.

The proprietor was almost as surprised as I was to see me in his restaurant. He handed me an Arabic menu and I pointed politely at something costing 7 dinar. I was hoping it would be some sort of wrap but given my luck with other purchases, it could just as easily have been a novelty, Mexico-inspired teatowel.

I inanely sat and stared about me for a while as you do whilst you are waiting for your food in a takeaway. A few minutes later, I was handed a pizza box with ‘bon appetit’ emblazoned across it. It certainly did not feel like a burrito, a little too weighty, but I decided to wait until I got home to investigate my Mexican fiesta and properly start my weekend. Who knows I thought, I might need the box for warmth and shelter should I get hopelessly lost.

I took a hesistant left out of the shack and started to wander aimlessly towards the last vestiges of daylight. I began to realise just how particularly futile my position was.

I had no idea where I was and I was not able to ask directions because:

1) I don’t speak Arabic
2) I was a genuine kidnap threat over there
3) I had no idea what my apartment complex was called

I pensively trudged a bit further.

The streets were starting to get much darker and dingier as I blindly walked on. I began to consider how I could utilise a lukewarm, grease-stained pizza box in combat should the situation call for it. Three sloping, whispering kids had started following me and I seemed to be attracting more and more suspicious glances from people as I walked by. It was as if I was some sort of pizza-wielding Pied Piper.

Hoping for inspiration, I wandered into a street drifting competition, not an uncommon occurrence in Tripoli. I immediately stole focus. Even the twirling, smoking BMW came sliding towards me to see the wide-eyed Brit with the death wish.

Parting the crowds and hastening my step somewhat, I strode on clutching my soggy cardboard close to my chest. By some miracle, I somehow glimpsed a shop I faintly recognised and, like a desperate man shambling towards a desert oasis,  veered off down a blind alley.

Once I was through the dank, puddle-strewn alleyway, negotiating my way past ominously rattling dumpsters, it slowly dawned on me that I had been walking adjacent to my own street for quite some time. I happened to be remarkably close to my apartment, completely through luck and absolutely no judgement.  Sheer relief.

I got home.

My pizza was Mediterranean. Not even a stray Jalapeno. It was delicious.

Into the frying pan…

A few days after I first moved to Libya it became pretty clear that I was going to face a few problems whilst living in north Africa. At the time, and perhaps a little naively in hindsight, I thought the bulk of those little set backs would concern a lack of booze or perhaps my less than adequate training as an English teacher.

How wrong I turned out to be.

However, three days after I arrived in Tripoli and was introduced to my new colleagues and housemates, there were three main reasons I thought my stay in the country would eventually lead to my slow demise:

1) It was already topping 40 degrees and we were not even close to the ‘hot months’ of July and August.  Any time I was further than four metres from an industrial air conditioner, I would spend my time bouncing around like a befuddled toddler who had recently lost their mum. That or gently sizzling.  Occasionally both.

2) After my new school posted a particularly smug photo of me on their Facebook page introducing their latest teacher, one of the foremost comments stated:”Welcome to your grave”.

My school quickly proceeded to ‘Like’ it.

As did half a dozen other kind souls.

3) I couldn’t read Arabic. As such, on the second morning I managed to rinse my mouth out with anti-septic disinfectant. After a few swishes back and fore thinking ‘gosh, there’s a bit of a kick to this’ and wondering what other avenues Dettol might have branched out into, it dawned on me that something might be up.

It took the best part of ten days for any sense of taste to reappear.

No hint of gum disease to this day though.

A close shave

After finishing School for the day, I was pottering about my flat aimlessly when the electricity went out.  Rolling blackouts are very much the norm in Tripoli throughout the summer and – as frustrating as they are – you quickly learn to just get on with things as much as you can. Today however, rather than just sitting about waiting for my Candy Crush lives to regenerate – which happens more than I’d like to admit – I decided to pop out for a stroll and see what’s about.

Now considering it’s Ramadan, everything either shuts very early (2pm) or opens very late (10pm) so I wasn’t expecting very much. I grabbed my tablet – with its vital English-Arabic translation tool – but spotted that it wasn’t working properly. After shaking it a little and turning it off and on, my tablet awoke and decided it was now 2am on Monday, the 1st of January, 1970. As such, after a degree of existential doubt, my Kindle deduced it hadn’t been invented yet and so pointblank refused to function. I shrugged my shoulders, placed it back on the shelf and went for a wander regardless.

Although it was early evening, the heat was still sweltering. I meandered a few blocks going nowhere in particular when I noticed a shop that was open. A cool, air-conditioned shop which seemed to beckon me in with its frosty promise.

It was a barbers.

I paused to look at myself in the reflection of an empty bakery next door. My sweaty, knotted hair hadn’t been cut in a couple of months and my ginger speckled beard was starting to look a little unprofessional for a teacher. In fact, the harder I looked the more I appeared to look like a weary Jamie Oliver on the wrong side of a hostage ordeal.

On impulse, I strolled over to the barbers and began rummaging around in my bag for my tablet in preparation for the inevitable translation issues. It wasn’t there, It was back in my room sulking after its temporal tantrum. I would just have to wing it, no other option.

‘Salam-alaikum!’, I said, using up approximately 10% of my Arabic language skills in one fell swoop. My cheery wave was returned by a portly, middle-aged man with a tight perm and a garish shirt. He looked like the token foreigner from a bawdy 70’s sitcom. I should have brought my retro Kindle along I thought, they would have gotten on famously. I immediately christened the man ‘Donny’ in my head.

He pointed to a seat, sat me down and started fussing around me. First, he turned my collar inside out and tucking it into my shirt. Then he wrapped a sort of white gauze tightly around my neck before chucking a black apron around me and folding the gauze down over it. It looked the world like I’d involuntarily taken the cloth. It was an unsettling image.

After this little warm up act, the barber stood behind me, laid his hands upon my shoulders and then said something in Arabic.

I apologised for not speaking Arabic and made a few ‘scissor’ motions around my head and face to try and explain what I wanted to happen. The shaving gesture was easy and we soon understood each other (‘Mouss!’) but ‘a general tidy-up on top’ was much harder to convey. I pulled my hair a little and made a cutting gesture.

Donny blinked a couple of times and half-heartedly repeated my actions with his fingers.

I tried ‘schweir’ (little) but then panicked that he’d only leave a little hair left. I settled for ‘nusf’ (half) which seemed to work (either that or he just got bored of watching me point fruitlessly at my head).

He slid a little headrest up from somewhere and pushed my head back on it and then began to drop little splashes of something onto the cleft of my chin. It smelt strongly like cleaning alcohol. After a few more careful daubs, he forced the headrest forward so I ended up staring at my own crotch. Then Donny left.

I was left in that rather uncomfortable position for quite a while. Occasionally, Donny would wander past, use his finger to scoop up some of the liquid that was now pooling around my navel and returning it to my chin. This continued for a solid 15 minutes.

Soon I was getting very stiff and my feet were beginning to tingle disconcertingly. I stretched my neck back, only to be swiftly grabbed by Donny and the solution wiped from my chin. It dawned on me I was probably meant to sit back earlier. No wonder he looked a bit impatient. It’s a ritual I’ve never experienced before or since.

Anyway, no sooner had blood started venturing to my extremities again, Donny had forced my head forward and I helplessly began to inspect my crotch all over again. I heard the clippers buzz into life. A short ‘whirr’ later and two things strike me.

1) A distressingly large clump of my hair tumbling to the floor.

2) A sharp pain where I’m pretty certain I used to have a protruding mole.

Metaphorically touching the cloth I unexpectedly received earlier, I tried to mumble my discord but Donny carried on like a man possessed, ignoring my feeble protestations. A minute later, I’m dragged upright to witness a very proud Donny showcasing his handiwork.

It’s short, very short. But the thing that immediately draws my attention is that – for no clear reason – I now have a 2 inch curly fringe slathered across my forehead.

Donny smiles at me encouragingly.

‘Uh… cut?’, I finger-scissor my baffling wall of forehead hair.

‘La, la quase! (No, no, it’s fine!)’, protests Donny.

I make some more adamant cutting gestures.

‘La!’

‘Arjouk (please) Donny? Arjouk?’, I beg.

With a pained look, he eventually lops off my fringe, muttering disconsolately as he does so. I notice later he left a wee tuft as a tribute to his lost art.

The shave is less harrowing. Well, save for the one occasion he began arguing with a customer who came in. As their discussion got louder, Donny absent-mindedly started pressing a cut-throat razor firmly into my neck and possibly would’ve drawn blood/decapitated me if it wasn’t for an urgent, nervous cough. Oh and the fact we started the whole process by both saying ‘Bismillah’ (please God) at Donny’s request. That was a little worrying too.

As he scraped the last ginger scrap away with one hand, he pulled the robe clear with the other rather flamboyantly, making me spin around in the chair involuntarily. The gauze caught and choked me a tad. As the paper collar came loose and flittered to the floor, I couldn’t help but notice quite a lot of blood and went to touch the spot where my mole sits (sat). Before I could do so, Donny had grabbed me and splashed firey, liquid death across my face. I have no idea what it was but by Christ, it had a kick.

After paying a princely 4 quid to Donny and promising to come back if my hair recovered, I stumbled out and weaved my way home. My housemate screamed a little when she saw the little trickle of blood down my neck. She rushed me into the bathroom and doused my wound in something equally painful.

I spent the rest of the night trying to scrub off my dried blood by candlelight. The next day my colleague remarks that I should’ve kept the fringe.

The start of my Libyan adventure

This year (2014) I moved to Africa to teach English in Libya’s capital city, Tripoli. I lasted about three months before the country descended into (further) chaos and the British government suggested that I possibly might like to evacuate.  During my time there, I wrote a few stories and kept a little Facebook blog of what I was doing.  Over the next few weeks I’ll transfer over a few bits and pieces – old and new – onto ajsadventureblog.

This was my very first post on Libyan soil – thanks for reading.

Things I’ve done so far in Africa:

1) Got lost at the very first possible opportunity.
2) Appraised a patio.
3) Offended approximately 75% of people I’ve met by consistently pronouncing their name wrong.
4) Been sprayed with aftershave by a concerned bystander.
5) Picked up a live bullet (and placed it on my dresser).
6) Moved in with 2 women (more to follow).
7) Almost died in at least 14 times in road traffic accidents.
8) Made a friend who has lived in Llanelli for several years.
9) Witnessed 2 spectacular sunsets.
10) Relentlessly brought up Gaddaffi against all sage advice

So far so good.