Travel in Post-Gaddafi Libya

Johnny West is an award-winning former Reuters Middle East foreign correspondent who is fluent in Arabic. During the months of the Arab Spring he spent time in the cafés, homes and meeting places at the heart of the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, getting a street-level, intimate perspective of this unique moment in modern history.

He speaks to Wanderlust about the rebel victory in Libya and what it means for travellers.

How do you see post-Gaddafi Libya panning out? Is there going to be a smooth transition? Or do you think various factions will now fight for control?

I don’t know but I’m also pretty sure nobody knows. Beware of false expertise on this. A lot of analysis of “tribalism” and bloodshed has been very loose. For at least the last 30 years Libya has been an urbanised oil state with people living in concrete prefabs, not tents, driving cars not riding camels. Yes those affiliations count for something but I defy anybody to confidently say what. There’s been a lot of lazy-think.

Of course the transition won’t be smooth! But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be disastrous. Real transformation to open societies takes four or five elections and the best part of 20 years, we know that from Eastern Europe and Latin America. Why would the Middle East be different? But what we’re seeing is the start…

Do you think travellers will be able to go back any time soon?

Absolutely. Eastern Libya is already perfectly safe, with the most amazing fertile belt behind Benghazi. It’s like 150 miles of Italy over there, a little Calabria with nobody in it – olive groves and meadows and pine forest. On the road to Benghazi I counted on the car trip meter about 25 miles of white, sandy Med beaches beyond tufted dunes with not a single soul on them.

Syria has always been a very popular destination for Wanderlust readers. How do you see the situation unfolding there?

Grimly, until the Assads go. And they are even more ensconced than Gaddafi was. It’s too early to tell what could happen after. The Syrians, though, as anyone who has been there will know, are very proud of their role in history and aware of their place in the world. And this revolution is very much about the young seeking to make that a reality in their daily lives. So I would expect people to continue to be massively friendly to visitors when they go again. If I were looking for safe adventure, I’d watch for the first time when it was safe to go to Syria again – I expect even the normal hospitality to go through the roof. But that won’t be until the Assads go.

The Arab Spring seems to have gone off the boil in Egypt. Is the revolution there and in Tunisia complete? Do you think this is a danger that Presidents may go but things stay fundamentally the same?

Yes, it’s got messy in Egypt. And yes, in both Egypt and Tunisia the semi-constitutional nature of the “revolutions” – in the end, the armies of both countries held the ring – means they could indeed lose impetus. The biggest issue I see is continued mass unemployment. That’s the real difference between life being crap and boring for most young Arabs, or not. And there’s depressingly little movement on that.

The leaders deposed by popular uprisings have been supported by western governments. Do you think the future will see a new transparency in political relationships between the West and North Africa?

Yes. And what a good thing that will be. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently wrote that the Arab Spring was a political Black Swan. Policy makers were seduced for decades by some concept of “stability” that in the end turned out to be little more than a mirage in the sand. There, an Oriental cliché!

How is the uprising different in Libya? Would it have happened without NATO involvement?

Well it did happen without NATO. The no-fly came when Gaddafi’s forces were on the edge of Benghazi and the East had risen up against the regime for a full month. I don’t believe the rebels would ever have given up.

There’s a common sentiment I’ve been hearing from protesters across the region, including in Syria. I asked one man how he reconciled risking his life in the protests with being a father of four. What about his responsibilities? He replied that yes, that was a normal calculation and how he had lived all his life. But there just comes a moment, maybe by chance or something entirely spontaneous, when you realise that there is no going back. You just have to do the right thing and have faith in destiny. I think the last time we felt that kind of thing was the Second World War.

That said, the outcome would have been drastically different without NATO of course. The rebels would have had to retreat to mountain areas, there would have been massive repression, and Gaddafi might have lasted another decade or more.

Johnny West was a Reuters correspondent in the Middle East and has run a digital news agency in the area for the past decade. His book, Karama: Journeys through the Arab Spring, is available on Amazon now.

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“Neither swept along by naive optimism nor spouting the tired cynicism of a burnt-out hack, West’s book, Karama! … offers some sober – and sobering – analysis of the Arab Spring.” – Wanderlust Magazine Issue 122

Johnny West spoke to Wanderlust at length about the Arab Spring, about meeting Islamist rappers and ‘Facebook lads’ and about what the changes in the region mean to the world at large. You’ll find our in-depth interview here

Libya travel guide | Destinations… More

From the Editor: The best from myWanderlust this week

Last week it all got a bit psychedelic on myWanderlust. This week things got a little dark and moody. Sergeant Pluck kicked off things by pondering the rise of Dark Tourism – both amongst the myWanderlust experiences and in the world at large.

“Is this a ghoulish fascination?” he asks. “A celebrity fashion? A pilgrimage? A exercise in educating oneself beyond the normal aesthetic experiences in travelling? Do you think opening up such sites is inappropriate, or an absolute necessity?” The responses have been illuminating. You can add yours here.

Elsewhere, Roovilla asks her fellow myWanderlusters where they’d like to have their ashes scattered. Morbid? Not so, judging by the responses. Roovilla nominates Island Djerba in Tunisia. Treacleminer wants to be scattered in the stream at the bottom of her garden. Ttbko took it up a notch by saying she wanted a sky burial. Her partner isn’t keen on having to stump up the airfare to transport her remains to Tibet. Make sure you tell us where you want to go when you go.

Experiences this week has been dominated by entries for our mini travel writing competition. It seems you have taken to our theme of Arrival. Snowkaz writes of arriving at the Tokyo Metro, jetlagged from a long haul flight. LEMEZ, at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan. Cycleeast, the Taj Mahal. joannesensei, Mount Bromo. Ichand, the Eiffel Tower by bike. Bryan Hyman, Machu Picchu. Over forty entries about arriving that just make me want to grab my pack and go!

Somehow Liz Cleere has managed to squeeze in and leave some experiences about recent trips to Egypt and Southern India. She tells how Tut brought her to tears and takes UNESCO to task for dragging their heels over Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace. As she so eloquently puts it: “OI! UNESCO World Heritage! What are you waiting for?”

Just Back From continues to inform and delight. Ninaola just got back from The Gambia and recommends visiting a local fishing village and avoiding the bumsters.She didn’t elaborate as to what a bumster was – I thought she was referring to low slung hipster jeans which I could see would be a problem in tropical climes, what with getting sand in places you shouldn’t and exposing so much skin to so much sunshine. Gambian bumsters, it turns, out are touts, fixers, chancers, gigolos and wheeler-dealers. An altogether more troublesome proposition than a pair of jeans that reveal too much builder’s cleavage.

Andy Morris just got back from Tunisia and it seems now is the time to go. “Go now while it’s relatively quiet,” says Andy. “The country needs tourism and great sites like El Djem are less busy than usual. Tunisians are very welcoming.”

ElliFry just got back from Rome and recommends a day trip to the beach at Nettuno, about an hour South by train from Termini. “Beautiful beach (though very “Italian” and therefore organised), tiny medieval town, with a couple of great trattorie serving excellent fresh seafood. (Take whatever the waiter recommends!)”

Elsewhere Beccs gives us the rub on arranging last minute accommodation on Poros Island in Greece. (Warning: her definition of last minute is “on the ferry going over”!) And Hideo has some tips on making a weekend in Dublin one you’ll have trouble remembering.

To the galleries and Travmaz has put up a selection of fine shots from a visit to Libya. The ones from Leptis Magna are stunning but it’s the one of mannequin heads in the old town in Tripoli that haunts. Young, expressionless faces peering into the distance, each wearing jarringly bright headscarfs. A kind of Libyan version of The Village of the Damned. Check it out.

I’m also loving Rhoda1’s images from Indonesia. The one of the tofu maker is stunning. And the Bells of Borobudur had me reminiscing about my first trip to Indonesia, first year at uni and still wet behind the ears. Check out her Sumatra gallery as well.

Satkinson has whacked up some photos from Vancouver Island.One question: How much did she have to pay to get that Bald Eagle to pose so perfectly?

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Johnny West on the Arab Spring

Dom Joly

Mountain/desert/ocean/jungle… which are you?

Desert. I was brought up in Lebanon and made regular trips into the Syrian desert. I feel incredibly at peace there, I’m not quite sure why.

What was your first great travel experience?

I love road trips – driving from Dallas to New York in search of assassination sites for the book was awesome.

Which are your top five places worldwide?

Muskoka, Canada; Palmyra, Syria; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; northern California, USA; Coln Valley, Gloucestershire.

Which passport stamp are you proudest of?

Probably my North Korean one, for bragging rights.

Which passport stamp would you most like to have?

Libya, but they’ve banned me: I’ve supposedly written something that annoyed them. If Gaddafi (or whoever is in charge) is reading this, come on, let me in…

Where or what is your guilty travel pleasure?

Hotel laundry. When I come home I want my wife to present my pants wrapped in muslin paper, in a basket. It never goes down well.

Ideal travelling companion?

I like travelling on my own. I know that sounds really terrible but I’m very selfish when I travel. Sometimes I spend five hours doing something and sometimes I can spend one minute. I like to travel on a whim.

Worst travelling companion?

The kind of person that doesn’t think shit smells outside of England and that everywhere you travel is all mystical and fantastic.

Worst meal?

Turd-shaped omelettes in North Korea. I had a bet with my wife that I could be a vegetarian for a year and unfortunately that coincided with going to North Korea where their idea of vegetarian was omelette. It was a fairly decent omelette but it was just every single day.

Most memorable meal?

Ginseng chicken, in North Korea again. It was set on a whole table with loads and loads of gold cups and in the middle there was this slightly mangy looking chicken that had been boiled in ginseng. The chicken itself was very horrible but all this stuff around it was the most opulent thing I’d seen in all of North Korea. Because I’d been so starved of colour and opulence it was amazing, it was like a feast.

Who or what inspired you to travel?

Probably my parents. Every three months we’d go on a horse back expedition across the mountains of Lebanon or exploring caves in Syria. As a kid it was so exciting to be exposed to those kinds of things. Very Boy’s Own.

What do you always pack?

My iPhone and computer are the main thing. But I’m old enough now to visit Millets and I found these t-shirts that are synthetic and don’t sweat. You can just scrumple them up and chuck them in your pack.

Is there a song that reminds you a particular time and place?

The Cure – who I really love – now remind me of North Korea. I had a really weird evening where there was a power cut. Someone in the group had little mini-speakers and we ended up playing The Cure in darkness. I guess there’s a slightly similar aesthetic of Goth and North Korea!

What inspires you to visit a particular place?

Usually From Our Own Correspondent on the BBC World Service. I listen to it when I’m walking my dog. You always hear stuff from really odd parts of the world. Once the guy in Saigon said that when he first visited it was a city of bicycles, and now, three years later it was a city of mopeds. He said, literally, within the next three years it’s going to be a city of cars, like all other cities. Literally, I went there a week later!

Want to read more from Dom Joly? Read Peter Moore’s interview with him about Dark Tourism here