When running through our geographical resume, it's always the same country that evokes the most interest. When people ask where we were before Qatar, it's the same spiel "we moved to Perth, then Jakarta, then Kuala Lumpur then Libya..." this is when the conversation is always interrupted with a piqued interest, "Libya, what was THAT like?"
I think all expats leave a piece of their heart in each of their locations, you can't help it. We look back and remember the milestones, the birthdays, the corner store, the time the pipe burst and boiling water was shooting out of the wall, the time the enormous rat casually walked past us on its way to its fully furnished home inside our clothes dryer pipe. We think of the house that became a home, seeds that were planted in a garden. Did they grow? We think of the people we left behind. The teary goodbyes. The final trip to the airport.
When you arrive in Libya, it's highly likely the first thing you will see is Gaddafi. He's on billboards, murals, photographs, he is absolutely everywhere. It's law that he appear in every shop at every reception desk. He's looking down at you from every corner, he watches you pay for your groceries, go to the bank, drink a coffee. There's no doubt on who's running the show. With a timeline of over 40 years there is a huge variety of ages and stages. The early years, just after the bloodless coup of King Idris in 1969, show an extremely handsome Gadaffi, he's thin, usually in uniform with aviator glasses, it's his time as the Colonel. He stands out in a crowd of his peers, I can see how he convinced his fellow coup participants that he should be the team captain.
As the pictures continue through time it's a different story, he starts to add a few kilos, the uniform disappears, along come the costumes, my personal favourite is the camouflage safari suit with matching hat. The hair is questionably real, it's long, as are his jowls. He's highly conscious of the jowls, speak to anyone who has shared a room with Gaddafi and they'll tell you how he quickly he can find a camera pointed in his direction, he'll often turn his chin sideways and towards the sky for a better shot, giving you his 'best angle'.
When people think of Libya they usually think of the headlines, The Berlin bombing, the subsequent attack by Reagan, Lockerbie, US embargoes, a home for a hiding terrorist, the occasional weapon of mass destruction. They're all part of Gadaffi's repertoire.
It wasn't the Libya I experienced.
The Libya I experienced was a school bus driver who would notice my child had fallen asleep on the trip home and insist on carrying her inside to the couch. It was a the man at the corner shop who gave our children free sweets on every visit and chased my parents half way down the street because they had forgotten their 5 cents in change. It is the people at the Medina who didn't know me at all, but when I didn't have enough money to pay for something said "just bring it next time you come", they never questioned that they didn't have my address or phone number.
Then there's the untold stories of those people. The stories that are whispered and only shared after true friendships have been made. The School bus driver didn't see his father for 14 years, he went to work one morning and never came back. After 14 years when they told him he could go home, he wasn't given a reason for either the arrest or the release. The man at the corner store, he too was waiting patiently to see members of his family that had disappeared. When I asked why they were in jail, I was told "They said too much".
You have to acquire patience when moving to Libya. The power goes out, the phone stops working, the internet is a distant memory. Just remain patient, try not to think too much about it. Don't start asking questions. Don't start doing the math. Don't think about the fact that Libya has huge oil reserves. Don't make the comparisons, that Libya has more oil than any other country in Africa, more oil than the US or China.
Don't think about the fact that Libya has serious wealth.
So why are there potholes all over the road? Where are the street lights? Why does every building look like it needs a new coat of paint? Why is it such a mess? Where's the infrastructure? Where has the money gone?
How long will you be patient?
When I look around Qatar I can't help but think about how Libya might have been. Qatar is a country rich in resources and full of promise for its people. Universities have been built, there are Film Festivals, Museums, world class sporting venues, cultural villages, TED events, conferences. Major sporting events have been held and there's more to come. Sure, there's been hiccups and I'm sure they'll be more, but there is no denying that Qatar is developing at a rapid speed.
In the past 24 hours I've been unable to contact friends in Libya. It's been reported that Facebook and Twitter have been shut down. It appears that no one is entirely sure of Gadaffi's plans or how far the protesters have traveled. Gadaffi has never been a fan of the press and it's not often they get invited for a visit. You can hear the frustration in the voices of those at Al Jazeera and the BBC as they speak to yet another person who shouts at them over the phone. We wait for the next update.
Here's a clip of Gadaffi at the 2009 UN General Assembly. It appears that the Botox may be leaking in to his brain. What do you think?