Tuesday, July 05, 2005

so long, and thanks for all the cake

I said farewell to my class this morning, and it was a surprisingly emotional affair. There is usually a ‘party’ at the end of each cycle, where one gets a wee present and there are sticky cakes packed with sugar and chemicals, and pop, ditto. Today was similar, but there were some proper Libyan sweets, one of which had the texture of a miniature caramel-filled shredded wheat, and was delicious. We parted from the norm when one of the students, wee Youcef, made a halting but apparently sincere speech, thanking me for my lessons and expressing the hope that I would return to Libya one day. I responded in kind, thanking them as students and as men. The present is one of those framed efforts showing nautical knots. It’s the thought that counts.

They’re not as green as they’re cabbage looking, mind. They organised the whole affair to take place after the first break, at 10.45. We could hardly return to studying thereafter, being claggy from the cakes and lumpy throated from the words, as they had no doubt divined, so the morning finished rather earlier than I’d intended – particularly as I don’t want to hand over the class to my ‘colleagues’ in anything like a state of unpreparedness for the remainder of the course… But bollocks; an hour or two won’t make any difference. My only regret is the flat batteries in my camera this morning.

Few Europeans know anything about this country, beyond the fact that it’s been run for a long time by the same Colonel, that its nationals were responsible for the daylight murder of a London policewoman, and for the murder of hundreds when a plane blew up over Lockerbie. (I lived in Carlisle at that time. Mike Broadis, a close friend of mine and a freelance journalist, was one of the first on the scene. Mike’s a right gobshite, but will always clam up if asked about Lockerbie).

As they would say in Carlisle, Libya's a queer spot. There’s a road runs across North Africa, mostly on the coast, from Egypt to Tunisia. Essentially, that road IS Libya, the rest of this vast country is desert. And that’s where the oil is. It’s the country, we’re told, with the 11th greatest oil deposits in the world. Petrol is literally cheaper than water.

Despite Col Mustard’s being an heir to Nasser’s kind of Soviet leaning socialism and Arab nationalism, this remains a genuinely conservative Islamic society. There’s none of that poker-up-the-arse misery of the Wahabees in Saudi. The call to prayer here, for example, is often sung in angelic tones; (in the Magic Kingdom, I’m told, it’s always delivered in a deliberately off-key, rasping voice).

Twice during the last eight weeks we’ve had to have our telly mended, and twice we’ve ended up with a neighbour, the actual repair man, and one or two associated fellas, in the sitting room watching porn with the delight of twelve year olds. There’s a paradoxical co-existence of the bawdy and the pious here. The first time I became aware of that I was strongly put in mind of Chaucer. I was then irked by the hypocrisy of it, but that’s not tenable, because I admire Chaucer’s ability to put heartfelt prayers alongside dirty stories. You could call it a tension; or it could be a balance.

Likewise Libyans’ attitudes to westerners, to us, to me. Sometimes, men in the street will regard me with what I can only describe as hatred. Nothing’s said, but there’s no mistaking that look of murder in the eyes. Usually this will come from a beardy-weirdy, who would no doubt regard himself as very pious. At other times, and most painfully to a working class bloke like me, it comes from men in working clothes, clearly on their way home from work. Maybe that’s how anger is channelled: if you’ve been taking shit all day, it must be the fault of that foreigner in the street. To be positive, this could be seen as highly educational, to know how it feels to be in the wrong colour skin.

Most people are inscrutable. I’m always being stared at in the street, and the streets have many small groups of guys just hanging around. But as a former colleague put it, they look at you the way cows do if you’re crossing their field: a look that falls somewhere between vacuous and curious.

A big minority are genuinely friendly and courteous; shopkeepers, for example – though that might have a professional element. And bonds of something approaching affection generally grow over the weeks between teacher and students. Mine have written this morning on the scrolling marquee screensaver:

can you come back to libya? (welcome to libya)

Which is nice, though I’d have liked it better if they’d absorbed my teaching about capitalisation; and where did the brackets come from?

That whole episode's about over. The transport's arranged and Padraig and I will be in Blighty tomorrow, inshallah.