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Libya Is Ready for Visitors

Getting to Libya had not been easy. The trouble started when I announced myself at the Libyan Mission to the United Nations in New York as a freelance journalist on the “arts and culture” beat. That bit of honesty, the mother of all cover stories to the ears of a suspicious Libyan government, trapped me for a year in a revolving door of ministries, authorities, and press offices, none of which wanted to stick out their necks.

I got in touch with Issam Harous, who runs a private tour agency in Tripoli. “Why didn’t you apply for a simple tourist visa?” he asked. “I could have gotten it for you in two days.” Two weeks later I got a call from the Libyans in New York to come pick up my visa. Score one for Libya’s thriving private sector.

Libya’s many travel agencies already handle hordes of European tourists. Their favorite destinations are the Roman sites of Sabratha and Lepcis Magna, an hour’s drive on either side of Tripoli, and the Greek sites scattered in nearby Benghazi.

Libyans always and everywhere ask foreigners their impressions of the country, both the one they had before coming and after they had arrived. A good question, especially for Americans, who have been starved of non-terrorism-related reporting on Libya.

I thought Libya would be a dangerous place for an American to be, as I came at the height of the Israeli incursions into the West Bank. Wrong. Libya has stayed quiet, save for a carefully stage-managed street demonstration led by Qaddafi himself.

I thought Libyan security agents would be tracking my every move. Wrong. And after 20 years of traveling in the Middle East and North Africa, I know when I am being watched.

I thought Libyans would have no sense of irony. Wrong. One of my best meals was at Philadelphia Fried Chicken, named not after the City of Brotherly Love but rather the USS Philadelphia, a navy frigate that shelled Tripoli castle in 1803.

I thought Libyans would be naive about U.S. reporting of the Middle East conflict, claiming conspiracy and control by special interests, etc. Wrong. At least one person I talked with knew full well that Wolf Blitzer and Daffy Duck share equal billing as the top cash cows of the AOL-Time Warner corporation.

I thought Libyans would want to be over and done with all things Italian, given the Fascists’ brutal treatment of their country during its colonial years. Wrong. Espresso machines are everywhere, and Libya is the only place in the world where the Roman toga, here called the “jarid,” is still the dress of choice for distinguished older gentlemen.

At Lepcis Magna a group of 18 American tourists, visiting Libya in violation of the U.S. embargo on trade and travel, signed in just three days ahead of me. They represent the tip of a huge touristic iceberg.

If Americans go to Cuba for its sand, sun, and good rum, they are sure to prefer Libya for its sand, sun, and great Greco-Roman sites—the best-preserved ruins of the ancient world.

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