Published in The Express Tribune (Partner with International Herald Tribune), Sunday Magazine, June 26th, 2011.
When my parents arrived in Tripoli, in early 1969, Libya’s economy was thriving. The kingdom was known for its riches, particularly oil. Every necessity was readily available, people were allowed to voice their opinions, and education was at its peak.
International relations with other countries and with their preceding colonial rulers were credible. Historical landmarks made by the Greek, Roman, Arab and Ottoman Empires — that had taken over the region at one time — reminded people of the ties their culture had with the rest of the world.
In its own way, Tripoli was to Libya what Dubai is to the UAE. There was law and order and the constitution maintained human rights similar to Europe and North America, but by declaring Islam as the religion, Libya fell short of being a secular state. At the same time, the constitution emphasised equality in terms of civil and political obligations, opportunities and responsibility for every race and religion.
According to my mother’s recollection, the king had set up many contracts with countries that would import the best of the best to Libya. Argentina and Australia had contracts for halal meat; dairy came from Holland and Denmark; engineering contracts with Britain and the US arranged for arms. Libya’s oil and natural gas products ensured that the country did quite well.
Few Pakistanis lived in Libya back then. The Pakistani expat community in Libya actually swelled during Colonel Muammer Qaddafi’s rule. My parents had made friends with expat Yugoslavs, Britons and some of the locals. On occasion they would go sightseeing to Leptus Magna, on the outskirts of Tripoli, and enjoy the historical structures made by the Greek, Roman and some of the Arab and Ottoman Empires. My mother especially loved the fact that it was peaceful and secure enough for her to roam the streets whenever she wanted. At the same time though, Pan-Arabism was spreading to Libya and there were murmurs of King Idris stepping down. Apparently, a group of young army officers headed by Captain Qaddafi (ranked colonel right before the coup) were trying to overthrow the monarchy. Qaddafi’s main supporters were young men, who would roam the streets — including the one my parents lived on — playing his revolutionary songs and yelling “Atura! Atura!”. (Revolution! Revolution!)
The coup was bloodless. King Idris had decided to step down gracefully and the transfer of power was controlled and planned out. Overnight, Libya went from being a liberal, moderate kingdom to a police state. Qaddafi’s words were as good as carved in stone. The new head of the state wanted to rid the country of all western influence. He made most of the Europeans settled in Libya leave the country and cancelled the import contracts that the previous monarchy had made. But the desire to purge Libya of western influence rested on a weak foundation. Colonial influences pervaded the daily life of Libyans. The shurba or soup they ate had small, rice-like pasta; macaroona or macaroni formed part of their staple diet and the French bread, baget, was popular. Daily life in Libya was evocative of Italian, French and British culture — and so it remains, even to this day.
At the Friday sermons in our local mosque, my father used to have trouble understanding the preacher because of the dialect. Later he found out that there was a Green Book to teach locals about “one state” and how democracy was the devil. Libyans had no choice but to attend these sessions and follow what the leader said.
Around that time period, Pakistanis started coming to Libya to work. My mother’s cousin, who is a doctor, was sent through the Pakistan Army to Benghazi to practice medicine for a while. My father’s eldest brother, also a doctor, was posted at Benghazi and then Misrata, which, though called a developing town, was little more than a village at the time.
After living in Libya for about eight years, my father was posted to Kuwait for a few months and then to Egypt. Libya is the place where my family laid down its roots, at least for a while, the place where my two eldest sisters were born. Now, when news of turbulent times floods our television and newspapers, our hearts flood with memories and we say a prayer for the Libyan people.