CHRISTMAS IN LIBYA – first published in New Panorama in Nerja, Malaga, Spain in December 1988.
The Christmas Story
The usual festivities of Xmas eve – carol singing, mince pies, hot toddies. The scene is set – the Christmas tree in place (obtained from the Jabel in an illegal raid), glittery decorations hanging in loops, cards festooned around the walls. People gathered – drinks in hand – large glasses of brown liquid to soothe throats after the singing (the Presbyterians of Ulster would be horrified!). Some red stuff too. Beda wine – this year’s or last year’s vintage. Who cares by midnight anyway. We are all in the rosy glow added to by the festive season. The expatriates are in good form. It’s a happy band not at all intimidated by the rigors of the world outside the large wooden doors and high walls around the villa. The weather is reasonable. Perhaps a little windy. This sends a chill through our bones as we step outside. It’s all relative though – summer is about 40 degrees centigrade and the temperatures at this time of the year seldom fall below 15 degrees.
So where are we? Benghazi, Libya, easy of Tripoli by about 1000 kms – a seven hour drive to the Egyptian border – Rommel country in WWII – the Desert Fox. It is 13 hours to Crete by boat, and, according to Adrian Keane’s book “Walking on Water – my escape from Ghadaffi’s Libya” landing on the Greek island of Gavdhos which is served by a ferryboat from Crete twice weekly during the summer season. Xmas Eve is spent pretty much the same as it is all over the world, oblivious of world opinion about the hotspot often discussed at length in the media. Where is the problem? The only disadvantage about spending Christmas in Libya is the shortage of foodstuffs. This seems strange at first, not being able to nip down to Sainsbury’s and buy a bottle of Xmas brandy, Christmas Day and a hangover (my apologies to my Presbyterian friends). It’s just like home. Hangovers are the same anywhere. However, we struggle bravely on. Drinks around 10am kick off the day to a good start. Then we pile in the cars and go down to the Mediterranean for the obligatory Xmas swim. It’s still a little windy but not devastatingly so. The road is dry and the sun is out. In fact, the weather could be described as “crisp” but certainly not cold. The particular beach we choose is 40 kms out of town to the south. We frequent the beach often in the summer, those halcyon days of sun and sea, ah, we await their inevitable return. It’s a different scene than in the summer. What is normally a gentle lull of waves on the shore is now a crashing maelstrom of water. There has been a storm out at sea. The greenery around encouraged by the rains which started in October are a far cry from the dust and yellowness of the summer.
We plunge into the Med. Somebody says something about brass monkeys. It’s not that bad! Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve is much worse! Who said you need a wetsuit? Five minutes in is long enough though and we emerge, shivering mainly from the wind, and quickly dry ourselves off and dress in sweaters and jeans. The flask comes out – black coffee with a drop of the hard stuff – flash, the illegal spirit brewed by the hardy Polish expatriates, including big Stan whose shorts never quite fit. I digress. The drink warms all the necessary parts beautifully and we sit and chat in the cars before driving back to Benghazi for lunch.
The table is laden with goodies – you could be in Europe! Roast turkey, locally grown, bought as soon as they appear in the shops and frozen. You never know when they are going to disappear from the market again. Except ours is fresh. It is bought in the mountains from an Arab farmer and brought home in a sack. The guys who fetched it had a problem with a road block. The Army fancied the turkeys and nicked one for themselves. It was only Mick’s quick thinking that stopped them nicking both of them. However, that story is not for delicate ears. It spent a week running round the kitchen in Mick’s flat before we could find anyone to kill it. I digress again. I wish I would stop doing that. Nasty habit. Vegetables are potatoes, carrots and beans. We have been storing them in the freezer for months. Probably more months than we should. However, playing things by the book in Libya may mean we don’t have any vegetables at all! The rest is flown in by us. Xmas puddings, mince meat, cranberry jelly, bacon (tut tut – offending Islam now) and other trimmings have to be brought from overseas. Hams, port (contraband of course), Christmas crackers, yule logs. The customs men would have had a heart attack if he had seen all of these goodies. Fortunately most of are adept at distracting them when going through customs. As for me, I am cute with blonde hair and blue eyes, and very petite. Just the sort the Arabs like. It is my job to distract them while Brian pushes the trolley through customs. Here I go again. Digressing. Sorry chaps.
We sit down to a massive feast and pull cracker and wear silly hats, drink the illegal brew. It always tastes better when its illegal. Wine, beer and other concoctions. Then we crash out in front of the video. No circus on the box here, but films carefully chosen for “the day”.
It’s 8pm. There’s a choice between going visiting or watching more videos and topping up our intake of alcohol. We feel mellow, so we reach for the wine bottle. The wine has been carefully nurtured and stored after bringing hundreds of kilos of grapes from the Green Mountain. We clutch the bottle in hand and don’t let go until it’s empty. Then we collapse into bed, tipsy but happy and look forward to the New Year festivities. Libyan is supposedly a dry country but today we have consumed more alcohol than we would have if we had been at home. It’s a tough life in Ghadhaffi’s country.