Diane and John Forasté
Peace Corps Volunteers | Libya | North Africa | 1968-1969
Written October 2017
We taught English as a Second Language in Sabratha, a beautiful little town right on the Libyan coast, about 60 kilometers west of Tripoli. Diane taught 5th grade girls and John taught boys at a teachers training college. But, what ended up being far more important was what Sabratha taught us.
I once observed a Libyan colleague’s classroom as a small girl stood at the front of the class pointing with a stick at Arabic script on a chalkboard as she, the teacher, and all the other girls in the class chanted in a formal, rote way.
Meanwhile in my 5th grade classroom, I was preparing a short play about the marketplace. We cut out black paper moustaches for some of the girls and used real props of potatoes, onions and baskets. The girls loved practicing and did a wonderful job. But another teacher complained to the head teacher (who was acting as principal since the male principal was rarely in the building) that my girls were laughing and making too much noise. She came to see what I was doing. Thankfully, she recognized the learning that was going on and supported me. But she also made me aware of the complaint.
This was the very first exposure to English for these girls. Nonetheless, our program was premised on using English only in the classroom. I often used hand drawn pictures to help illustrate the words I was trying to teach the girls. Although I had been assigned to teach English in both the girls’ and boys’ schools, I was never allowed in the boys’ school, nor to meet with my male colleague there. I was asked, however, to share my pictures and did this willingly. I offered to help him, but that simply never happened.
Girls in rows.
The girls in my classroom were arranged in rows with the brightest and youngest (about 9 years old) students in the front, graduating back to the slowest and oldest (about 15) in the back. I would walk up and down the middle aisle to be sure I touched base with all the girls, but realized what a struggle it was for those older girls. One of the girls 3/4ths of the way back (about 13 years old) was to be married at the end of the school year and would not be returning to school. I gave her a small gift (talcum powder and lotion) and asked her how she felt about the marriage. She only looked at me, shrugged and looked down. I still remember those eyes.
The acting head teacher was an incredible woman, young by my standards (early 30s) but probably old by theirs. She was unmarried, unusual for a Libyan her age. She was a good teacher who understood the strengths and weaknesses of her colleagues and gave good council to everyone, including me. One day I shared with her a problem I was having with one of my girls. She called the girl into her small office and had me stand there as she hit the girl several times, very hard, on the knuckles. I was horrified! The girl bravely accepted the punishment. And I liked this girl. From that time on, I realized I would have to solve my own discipline problems.
In a taxi on our way into Tripoli, we saw a billboard advertising Coca-Cola. A beautiful woman with long blonde hair gently blowing in the breeze was drinking a coke. I thought that was incongruous and insensitive to the local people who had thick, wavy, dark hair.
One day, as I walked up the center aisle of my classroom, the girls’ hands reached out and stroked my fine, soft, straight, brown, waist-length hair. They meant no disrespect. They were just curious about the feel of hair unlike theirs and made sounds I couldn’t translate, but understood as approving.
The chickens and the donkey.
When we first arrived in Sabratha, we lived in a deserted World War II encampment building until we could find housing of our own. I would leave each morning and walk alone a short way to my school. One morning, some grazing chickens started to chase me. I screamed and ran, much to the amusement of those watching. There was also a donkey in town which would open its mouth very, very wide and loudly bray as I passed. Scary, but luckily he was chained to a post. Libyans did not have pets. Their animals were functional: chickens, goats, donkeys and camels.
The newborn goat.
Stepping out the front door of our small 3 room cinderblock home and turning left, it was about a 15 minute walk across the open sand to the Mediterranean Sea. There were no homes or people, just occasional children tending goats. One day, as my husband and I passed 2 small children with their goat, we noticed a baby goat had just been born and was struggling to stand up. I watched in awe.
On one of these walks, I noticed a small rock which turned out to be a piece of beautiful Roman mosaic - a chunk of hardened sand with 4 small 2-cm square stones, 3 white and 1 black. I picked it up and tucked it into my pocket. I had seen this design at the Roman Ruins at the end of the narrow road that ran from town to the Ruins. There, among Roman baths and columns was a large breathtaking mosaic floor made of small black and white tiles, which was open to the elements - that greatly surprised me. It is now a World Heritage site. We keep that small stone on our living room windowsill, a connection to our life there nearly 50 years ago.
Across from our house was a small encampment of tents where one of my students lived. They cooked on a fire in front of their tent. Women and girls wore long garments which covered them, but not the barracans which they wore when outside their encampment. Men wore either cotton baggy pants and a top or a long cotton garment, which resembled a nightdress. It was actually very comfortable, John wore one too at home. Many men wore western style clothes where he taught.
The girls at my school all wore black dresses over their own clothes so that all the girls would look alike. The women had to don a western style green uniform (like a maid) over their dresses to insure we all looked alike. This seemed like an attempt to erase class divisions, but, to show their individuality, some of the girls also added white lace or plastic collars, and some of the women jewelry.
As a newly married couple, I was also new to cooking. The choices in the Libyan market were limited and I had to explain to John what to get since women did not shop. Having one hot plate, and later a small countertop stove with 2 burners (powered by a portable container of propane gas referred to as a bomba), I often had to improvise.
Mohammed Younis, a neighbor and friend, showed us how to cook cauliflower in a batter with turmeric and rice until a "fork stood up in it." One night, he took John out to find a bird sleeping in a small tree. Shining a flashlight into the bird’s eyes, temporarily stunned it. Mohammed used a slingshot to kill the bird. John said he could still feel its warmth when he picked it up. They plucked the feathers and brought it home to fry in a pan. The bird, perhaps a sparrow, was so tiny that it hardly offered any meat, but Mohammed chewed on the bones as well. It seemed better to me to have left that little bird to sing another day, but we realized that this was a special treat offered to us in friendship.
There were worms in the flour. I had trouble getting used to that. It took forever to sift them out with our small hand sifter (usually used for tea). So I asked my colleagues about this and was relieved to be told about a large sifter, called a hebel, which sifted them out. But to my dismay, it only sifted out the 1 inch or larger worms, not the tiny ones. We learned to accept these tiny ones, but were sure to thoroughly cook the dish. However, I never could accept them in the fresh oranges (an unusual treat) which, when cut in half, were swarming with tiny worms inside.
I did learn how to make sharba (a thin, spicy tomato soup) and couscous, to which we sometimes added potatoes and lamb. It was very good.
The first Libyan woman I met was Ayisha, a trainer in our Peace Corps program in Arizona. She had graduated from the Libyan University and spoke very good English. She was friendly, outgoing, curious and an excellent teacher. Libya had been an Italian colony until (King) Idris helped liberate it. Most Libyans, especially the girls, had not gone past 6th grade. Ayisha was an exception.
When we arrived in Libya, we saw, as we already knew, that women were not on the same footing as men. Most stayed at home. When Libyans visited, the men went in one room and the women in another. Because we were in a town that had a teachers’ training college, I met non-Libyan expatriate women from different Arab nations whose husbands taught at the college. I began to recognize differences in the women’s perspectives. The Palestinian women were very political and outspoken. They spoke English and were well educated. I was woefully unaware of the Palestinian history and perspective. These women took every opportunity to educate me.
Our next-door neighbor was Palestinian, but had recently married a Jordanian woman through an arranged marriage. One day we were invited to visit them. As we sat together in their kitchen, she watched us. She did not speak or understand English, so he had to translate. She was beautiful and had charcoal eyeliner. She laughed and seemed very comfortable with her husband. A month later, they sent over a small plate of stuffed cabbage with a tiny piece of meat inside each roll. There was a small note attached that said Happy Christmas. He laughed and said his wife was still a new cook. Like me!
Barca was the principal of our school and Fatma a teacher - the only 2 Libyans at the school. The others were Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Tunisian and an Italian who taught sewing. I liked Barca and Fatma very much. They were straightforward and unpretentious.
They invited me to a gathering of women at Fatma’s house where we all sat around a common bowl of food, each with a spoon to sip the soup. When I did, tears immediately sprang to my eyes. I was not used to such hot, spicy food. The next time, I took only a half spoonful, nonetheless the tears started rolling down my cheeks. They laughed good-naturedly while Fatma disappeared, returning with a boiled potato for me. I later enjoyed couscous with them. After that, they asked me to teach them The Twist - pretty hard with Arabic music. But there was one song that had a good twist beat for the first few measures, so we played that part over and over while everyone tried twisting. It was wonderful to be part of this happy group and share time together away from school.
Sometimes John would meet me after school and we would walk home together. We were always respectful of local customs. I wore long sleeves, a long skirt and a head scarf. We never held hands, but walked side by side and chatted. The little girls followed us and giggled. I was hopeful that they would remember this, another way of relating, as they grew up. Teaching can take many forms, some of them quite subtle.
A Palestinian colleague invited me to her house for tea. I did not like or trust her, but it seemed wrong to decline. And so I went. There was another Palestinian teacher there as well as a Tunisian woman whom I didn’t know. As soon as the tea was served, they asked me about birth control. The Tunisian woman had a young teenage daughter who was about to be married and she didn’t want her to get pregnant at such a young age. I didn’t know how to respond. My hostess didn’t know the word for pill, so kept trying to explain it to me by holding her fingers close together to give me the idea of something very small. I grew increasingly uncomfortable and pretended not to understand. So they finally they gave up.
It was a fair and simple question, yet complicated. I was caught between 2 worlds: a western culture where you could request and receive birth control pills and a Muslim culture where that was just not an option. Here we were, two women: a western woman who knew about, had access to and used birth control and a Muslim woman who wanted information on how to access it for her daughter. We might have had an open conversation if it were not for the presence of this colleague whom I didn’t trust. Based on other experiences, telling her would have been like telling the whole town and I wasn’t prepared to do that.
I wish I could have helped, but I didn’t know how.
I loved our small house. We were very lucky to find it. When first in Sabratha, we had to live for a couple of weeks in a deserted British Army barracks, not a place to call home. Our new little house was on the end of a row of similar houses, all attached. As you entered
the front door (without a lock), there was a tiled hallway that led to a tiny courtyard with a fig tree in the back. Off to the left was a very small kitchen
with clean running water and a marble countertop, to the right a narrow bathroom (with a toilet, a real luxury), then a living room and farther down the hall, a bedroom. The windows had green shutters, but no glass; the walls were white stucco.
It was cozy. John made a low table for the living room where we ate, sitting on cushions, as was the custom. No chairs. We washed our clothes in the tub using a plunger and strung a clothesline in our little courtyard where we could hang the clothes to dry. John also built a small ironing board attached to the inside of the kitchen door. It was hinged so that when closed it hung against the door and, when down, rested on a single leg which was also hinged. We had woven straw mats on the floor, which would often grow mildew underneath due to the dampness of the newly built house, so we put them on the roof from time to time to bleach them in the sun. At first, we kept our clothes in our Peace Corps trunks in the bedroom. Later, John built some open shelves. No excess furniture!
Five times a day, we heard the call to prayer from the local minaret. We grew to love that sound, as well as the Arabic music we heard from our neighbors’ places. We loved our little house and beautiful little town. We were comfortable, safe and welcomed. I wonder about Sabratha today, given the ISIS presence. A very different place, I’m afraid.
Why did I swallow the fly?
This requires some background.
I taught at the Men’s Teachers Training College. College? Not really. While it was indeed a school that trained boys to teach, the students ranged widely in ability and were generally at a high school level. I was attracted to the idea of teaching students who would in turn teach others so as to have the greatest possible impact. Diane, on the other hand, taught 5th grade girls English for the first time. You would think, then, that I had made the best decision concerning impact. Not true. Diane is a gifted teacher and she reached her students far more effectively than I. And her take off point was the wonderful contemporary book by the Libyan Minister of Education, Mustafa Guzbi, peopled with real life Libyan characters like Muhammad and Fatma, rather than the text I had to use, Around the World in 80 Days, by the late 19th century Frenchman Jules Verne.
We were in Libya shortly after the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The US backed Israel. Our Libyan hosts and expatriate Arab teacher colleagues backed the Arabs - firmly and vocally. Wheelus, a US Air Force base, was in Tripoli about 60 kilometers away. US fighter pilots in training would roar along the coast (our coast) from time to time. So, we and they were both involved in training, but not for the same thing.
Now back to the fly. As an American plane roared (!) just above us, a small seemingly insignificant fly flew around our little classroom. I, the American teacher who looked more like 16 than 22, stood in front of the class that was made up of boys (really boys far more than men) sitting traditionally in rows of desks. I had even struggled to grow a mustache (schna/boo) to fit into the culture while also trying to look older. I was aware of how things appeared to them, but tried to compose myself in a professional manner. Then came the fly - right for me - and flew into my mouth as I was speaking. What could I do? Only one thing. I swallowed it whole, mid sentence. And I did it without letting on to my extreme embarrassment. If the students knew, they didn’t let on either. And I wasn’t about to give up what little control I had of the class.
What a convergence of events. That was some 50 years ago and I, with my terrible memory, remember it so well.
Contributing to Al Fatah?
At our school, all of the teachers, Libyan and expatriate Arabs, contributed to Al Fatah, the Palestinian military group fighting against Israel. (This group was formerly known as the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, aka PLO.) It was for them like giving to the United Fund was for us - though far more immediate. We teachers received our pay weekly (as I remember) in cash by lining up and having the headmaster hand it to us one by one. Our Peace Corps program was distinguished as the first in which we volunteers were placed and employed directly by the host country. So, like my colleagues, I was in that line to receive the pay we had to live on. It was customary (my recollection is that everyone without exception did it) to receive the pay and immediately, then and there, hand 20% (as I remember) back as a contribution to Al Fatah. But I couldn’t do it. Yet, could I not?
In truth, I supported neither side in the Arab/Israeli conflict. Aside from the violence of one people against another, I believed then, as I do now, that this wasn’t going to be resolved by war. That was an easy position to take when back in the states, but not so when standing in line in Libya with my colleagues. I not only didn’t take sides in this ongoing conflict, but was actively struggling on a personal level with whether or not I could be involved in any conflict or war - I was working on my Conscientious Objector application.
So, there I was standing in this line with all of this running through my head.
I can’t remember if the first time, not prepared for what was about to happen, I unwarily made the customary contribution too. But I do know that I soon came up with a plan, a meaningful plan, to deal with this dilemma. I said I would make my contribution to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. And I did. The Fund was started after World War II from the need to assist children in developing countries. And the work continues today (since the need unfortunately continues). As best as I could tell, this was only begrudgingly accepted by my skeptical colleagues.
Israeli Prime Minister killed by Al Fatah?
The way we heard it in our small town of Sabratha was that the Israeli Prime Minister had been killed by Al Fatah. We were told this by our colleagues and neighbors who were celebrating the news. We were as alarmed as they were happy, but kept our concerns to ourselves. And we had no reason to doubt the news we heard until about a week later when, visiting Tripoli, we read in Newsweek magazine that Levi Eshkol had died of a heart attack. We did a double take. We honestly didn't know which account to believe. We suddenly realized not only how our news sources had changed, but how fundamentally different our sources had always been and how utterly dependent our world view was - is - because of that. And that also meant that everyone’s world view was formed by their news sources. What a simple, but profound truth.
Diane, hot soup and barracan.
It was an adventure and privilege for Diane to be invited to a neighbor’s home to share a meal. And she was the guest of honor in a circle of other women. All women. As is tradition, they all shared sharba, a hot (spicy!) tomato soup, and a common bowl of couscous. When Diane’s tears streamed uncontrollably, they giggled and laughed. Such simple fun to see another good-naturedly struggle with a cultural custom. Her hostess hurriedly brought her a plain boiled potato to ease the discomfort.
Then, for the fun of it, they dressed Diane up in a traditional Libyan dress and barracan with only one eye exposed. They then lead her out the door to walk alone to our house - to surprise me. And a surprise it was! A man only looked at a woman fully covered with, shall we say, great discretion. To do otherwise would be scandalous. So what was I to do with this unannounced woman knocking on the front door where everyone in our new little world could and would witness the event - and certainly report on it? It wasn’t until I heard a plea of "It’s me, Diane" that I quickly opened the door. It was as hilarious as it was potentially scandalous. But we somehow survived unscathed.
And then there were the giggling barracans. Diane’s elementary school was all girls. That’s the way it was. All girl students. All women teachers. There was only one man there on a daily basis, a small cordial old man who guarded the entrance to the school which was surrounded by a stone wall topped with glass shards. The only other man connected to the school was the principal, but he was rarely there. The head teacher, a woman whom Diane greatly respected, ran the school day to day. Diane walked to and from school, dressed in western clothes, but always modestly. It was a pleasant walk. This one day, for reasons I can’t remember, I met her at the gate to accompany her home. Unlike Libyan couples where the woman walked a few steps behind the man, we walked together. Simply together, side by side. This was not scandalous, but certainly unusual and, like everything in our small town, didn’t go unnoticed - especially by Diane’s 5th grade girl students. While in class, all of the girls were uncovered. But outside, some had started to wear the full barracan. There was no transitional dress for these young girls. So, on this day, some 30 feet or so behind us were 3 barracans, 3 eyes, keeping pace. And we heard their giggles. Just delightful, innocent, playful little girl giggles from these seemingly women-to-be. Incongruous, crazy, funny. Beyond the amusement, we had also hoped that their eyes might open to another more egalitarian way for men and women to relate.
Holding Muhammad's hand.
Though not entirely uncommon in that culture, it was uncomfortable for me - very uncomfortable. Here was my colleague, who was also a neighbor, and I chatting in our neighborhood while holding hands. He was a very friendly Palestinian - a hefty guy with very big hands I might add - with a large family and especially proud that his oldest son, a teenager, would soon be going off to fight with Al Fatah. How can you make up a story like that? I wish I knew what came of the son and the rest of the family.
It’s as clear as yesterday. We had just arrived in Zawia, the big town (small city) en route from Tripoli to our new home in little Sabratha farther down the Coastal Road. We volunteers, who would continue on after leaving off our fellow volunteers about to take up residence and work in Zawia, were milling around the bus. We attracted a small crowd of curious children. It was hot and there were lots and lots of flies which we instinctively swatted away from our faces. But not the little children. The flies landed and lingered around their eyes. And there were mothers holding babies with flies sitting on their closed eyelids and around their mouths. But this was all ignored by both the babies and their mothers. They didn’t swat them away. They seemed oblivious to them. I couldn’t comprehend how that was possible and never learned to accept it.
It was Peace Corps philosophy and policy that volunteers find and negotiate their own housing. But, where to stay until then? We two were the only US volunteers in our village, though there were 2 young Frenchmen volunteering in a program similar to ours. Like us, they were housed in one of many deserted buildings that had housed British troops during the earlier occupation of Libya. (But, unlike me who had to struggle with my own government to be allowed to do this service of as much benefit to the American government as to the Libyan government, the Frenchmen simply chose this as alternative service and wouldn't have to worry about military service upon returning home.) The buildings were sound and not entirely unattractive, but swarming with cockroaches, giant (!) cockroaches, that happily found homes in especially the bathrooms that still had running water.
I think it took us about 2 weeks to find our own housing. Meanwhile the empty barracks were our home. And using the outdoors for bathroom duty was not an option, even in the middle of the night. Not in this culture. Not in this town where we would be living for 2 years. So, when duty called, we would accompany each other and take a deep, very deep, breath and enter the bathroom with a flashlight to, not very successfully, shoo away as many of the swarming - yes swarming - giant insects as we could. It was a god awful experience, one I wish I wouldn’t be telling about here.
Newly weds. New house.
We married in December 1967. After a short time serving in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we entered Peace Corps training in Bisbee, Arizona. Then off to assignment in Libya. When first offered the assignment, we had to find it on a map to be sure we had the right country. (Remember, this is pre-Gaddafi Libya, before he single handedly put it on everyone’s map.)
We, young liberal arts graduates, had applied for family planning in India, believing that this would be the best way to have a positive impact on the world situation. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book Population Bomb was fresh in our minds and psyche. But, instead, the Peace Corps had offered us Teaching English as a Second Language in Libya. It was actually called Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) then. We were later grateful for the offer since it would not have been wise for this young (and very young looking) American couple to advocate family planning in India - or any other country. This pre-Gaddafi Libya seemed politically stable, even politically non-existent, at the time. So, not only because that was the offer, but also because we knew nothing about the Arab world, we accepted. We were looking for an adventure - and got one. It would be disingenuous not to say that we also saw this as a way to keep me out of the military, only if until returning from service 2 years later, still under 26 and, therefore, still eligible for the draft. Later, my struggle - yes struggle - with my Conscientious Objector status, took us down another road. Meanwhile . . .
Counseled by my colleagues at the Teachers Training College, we decided to live in a nice new small house on the edge of town. It was actually the latest house added on to a long row of attached houses. We later learned that this was essentially the Palestinian neighborhood. This cinder/earthen block house was finished immediately before we moved in. Newly weds in a brand new house? Perfect? Not exactly. We later learned the wise expression: First year give it to your enemy, second to a friend, third to yourself. Why? The house was damp. And it took all this time for a new earthen block house to dry out. The dampness was actually quite nice in the midday heat of the desert. But at night? It was freezing. We had to preheat the bedroom with a small hot plate in order to even tolerate getting into bed at night. Still, no regrets. We have fond memories of the one bedroom house with our simple handmade furniture, the hot plate in the kitchen later replaced by a 2 burner countertop stove hooked to a small propane tank (bomba), Libyan scarf hung on the small living room wall as local artwork (to the amusement of others), the neighbor’s often braying donkey just outside and the tiny courtyard with the small fig tree that occupied nearly all of the limited space. It was our home!
What to do with the toilet paper?
We had the luxury of a western toilet. And we enjoyed the luxury of toilet paper. But we didn’t know if the plumbing could handle it - and didn’t want to experiment. It was easy to get used to putting the used paper in a bag next to the toilet, but we didn’t want to place it in the open neighborhood trash pit. So what then? No problem. After dark, I, not unlike many of our neighbors, would rather ceremoniously (to myself) start a fire in a metal bucket just outside our house - until the time I was visited half way through my ritual by friendly neighbors. They didn’t seem to notice the toilet paper - nor my great embarrassment - only the warmth any fire brings to a conversation.
Camels on the Coastal Road.
We lived only a couple of minutes from the Coastal Road. This was a 2 lane (one narrow lane in each direction) road that transported everything - everything - from Tripoli to neighboring Tunisia. It was paved. It was the only paved road. You might even say it was the only road, period, since (other than a narrow road to the Ruins) anything else was a foot path. We loved approaching town from the east as we passed through a special landscape of trees, bushes, small mounded banks on both sides of the road and open space beyond. In rural Virginia, a section of Plank Road that approaches the entrance to Bundoran Farm where we now live, fondly reminds us of this. Different, but reminiscent. So, the Coastal Road carried taxis, trucks of all sizes, carts pulled by donkeys and the camel caravans that came from west of us, through Sabratha, and continued east to the camel market in Zawia. Camels are large animals, especially up close. But they are quiet, very quiet, on their padded feet as they travel along munching on cactus-like, thorned, prickly pear bushes lining the roadside. I never could figure out how they could do that. The thorns are seriously dangerous. We had lots of this distinctive bush lining the road by us.
On this one day, Diane and I were strolling on the road, seemingly alone. But then, out of nowhere, came a caravan of camels immediately behind us. We hadn’t heard them approaching. It was very startling. We were in no danger, but certainly amused. Only a few boys with sticks traveled with the 30 or so camels to keep them moving along the road.
A stroll with no particular destination or purpose is called a dow/wha. Diane and I still fondly use that term. In a small town like Sabratha, this was a delight. Only minutes from our home, there was a small distinctly Libyan neighborhood we would wander through. Unlike our mostly Palestinian neighborhood which was flat desert, it was a wonderful oasis of sorts with trees and a rolling sandy terrain. We were considering moving there had our tour of duty not been cut short.
Beyond that was wide open space to the Mediterranean. Sand and sky! It was about 15 minutes from our home. En route, in the sand, we often found bits of mosaic from the old ruins nearby. Sabratha is now a UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site: A Phoenician trading-post that served as an outlet for the products of the African hinterland, Sabratha was part of the short-lived Numidian Kingdom of Massinissa before being Romanized and rebuilt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/184).
By 19 August 2011, the site was at risk: Libya rebels claim Roman city of Sabratha from regime . . . Anti-Gaddafi forces take perfectly preserved ancient marvel, saying that regime cared little for people or heritage . . .
Back to our dow/wha. When it took us to the beach, we would find it deserted. Libyans, with their strict dress code, at least then, did not take advantage of the beautiful open water. While we couldn’t swim for the same reason, we could and did enjoy strolling along the unspoiled beach. It was priceless.
Millac or Miranda?
We were very fortunate to have good water in our town. This was most often not the case in Libya. Many of our fellow volunteers succumbed to the convenience of bottled soda. Miranda was the most common and their teeth paid the price. A Peace Corps friend, who made Miranda her staple, had 35 cavaties upon returning to the states. I didn’t even know that was possible. We rather acquired a taste for Millac, the British powdered milk. We didn't even have to boil the water we mixed it in. We were fine. No cavities. Very fortunate.
I don’t remember them being regularly available in the market. But this day I saw the wonderful green vegetables. I happily bought a handful home that we boiled for dinner. But they were very uncharacteristically tough. We then sheepishly realized that what we took for beans were actually peapods. Next time, we opened the fresh pods, cooked the peas and enjoyed the treat. It was a reward after spending a considerable amount of time opening the pods. I think of this now and then (with a smile) when enjoying delicious and convenient frozen peas.
Eating in the market during Ramadan.
We were very sensitive to local customs. We knew Ramadan, the month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, was observed by all Muslims. While we didn’t fast at home, we knew not to eat outside the home or even talk about food.
But, on this one day, word spread quickly that I had been seen eating in the market. I wasn’t asked if it was me, I was told it was me. My attempts to set the record straight were only partially successful. And I could only ask where the Jeep parked next to this foreign man had come from. While it was obvious to Diane and me that some clueless man was traveling the coastal road and breaking for lunch in our market, our account only got so far. It was our first they-all-look-alike experience. It made us think.
Taxi to Tripoli.
We didn't travel often to Tripoli, some 60 kilometers, but it was a treat when we did. Shared taxi was the public mode of transportation. I don’t remember any buses. Toyotas, now ubiquitous, were an oddity to us then. (So too were various things made in the People's Republic of China - better known to us then as Red China - like our wonderful and colorful floor mats and green metal tea kettle.) Nearly all the taxis were these small sedans designed for 6 passengers, 3 in the front and 3 in the back though, not infrequently, filled with more. Everyone just piled in. And most often the radio was played loudly with distinctly Arab music. Our western ears were not accustomed to this, but quickly found it not so foreign and, in fact, welcoming, communal and engaging. We associated it fondly with our taxi rides.
And, en route, when the call to prayer was sounded from a nearby mosque, the taxi would stop, everyone would get out and, next to the car, pray to Mecca. No one seemed to mind us waiting quietly in the car.
One time, the taxi stopped and a man came begging. All of our fellow passengers gave him coins. We did too. I still remember them turning and looking to us with slightly surprised smiles.
Though only visited a few times, La Romagna, a very traditional Italian restaurant in Tripoli, was a delight for us. It sat on a small plaza in a beautiful old stone building with high ceilings. The small tables with white linen table clothes were a treat. And then there was deGaulle. That’s what we secretly named our waiter, a poised, tall, rather formal, but somehow friendly, old man. I don’t remember the prices, but they couldn’t have been exorbitant since, had they been, we wouldn’t have been able to eat there on our teachers’ salaries.
Small town then, city now.
Our Sabratha was a small town by any standard. There was a small friendly market, a few rows of very small attached shops, one the same as the next. The shops had garage style pull down doors that were closed at night. Most shops had the same limited goods: spaghetti and sauce, flour, couscous and (surprisingly) swiss chocolate bars. Fish and produce (mostly onions and potatoes) were in an open market in the center. When buying flour, the shopkeeper would scoop it from a large burlap bag and wrap it in a torn piece of brown paper (aka recycled) formed into a funnel that he twisted to close it up. So much for packaging. It worked well and didn’t leak.
On the way home from school, I would stop by one of the small bakeries and pick up fresh (!) bread, hot (!) out of the big oven. Simple, but delicious, fresh, crusty Italian style bread. And the meat, mostly camel meat, was cut from an unrefrigerated carcass hanging on a hook at the front of the shop. Whatever section you pointed to was yours, all for the same price. I tried my best to select a good piece, but was unfamiliar with cuts of meat and found it little more than a guessing game. (If only I could have googled cuts of meat and printed an image to point to in the market!) Of course, the meat too was wrapped in brown paper which I put in my satchel. Today we think we’re so conscientious when bringing a reusable bag to the supermarket. Then, in the Sabratha market, that was the only way to do it.
Our house was about a 10 minute walk from the market. Daily shopping, necessary to get fresh bread and meat, especially until we got a small refrigerator (a luxury), was a pleasant task. Like most things, it was for men only.
One of the shops was that of an old man called a shabani (a respectful term). He had a handsome white shnaboo (moustache) and rode to market every day on his donkey, teetering along, bobbing up and down, dressed in his handsome white wrap. Often, just outside his shop, a small circle of men would sit around a pot of tea brewing on a small open fire. It brewed with ample sugar (as was custom) already in the wonderful little blue kettle. Actually, it was more like sugar with tea than tea with sugar, astoundingly sweet. No wonder people’s teeth were not in the best of shape. The sitting was done by resting one’s rear end on the backs of one’s feet. Only the feet touched the ground. It took getting used to, but then worked very well. I could do it then, but no longer at my age. Yet, the shabani did it along with the others.
A New York Times article on 20 February 2016 prompted me to look at Sabratha again: American warplanes bombed a seaside town in Libya . . . aiming to kill a militant commander linked to attacks on Western tourists. But the mission also highlighted the widening gap between American military operations and diplomatic efforts to bring peace and stability to a tumultuous region. The airstrikes on a training camp in Sabratha . . . did demonstrate the United States’ growing concern over Libya as a new base for the Islamic State . . .
Military operations v. diplomatic efforts? An all too familiar schism.
Here’s another account from then: 24 February 2016. The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) briefly took control of the western Libyan city of Sabratha, beheading 12 members of security forces before being pushed back by local troops . . . U.S. air force targeted an ISIS training camp in an air strike near the city, killing dozens of the group’s militants . . . ISIS established training camps near the city in early 2015, leading to fears for its ancient heritage - the city has two museums storing coins and mosaics from the Byzantine era and statues from the Roman period . . . ISIS has capitalized on the security vacuum in Libya since the NATO-led overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011.
After the above news, I took to Google Earth to see what I could find of our home of some 50 years ago. I was shocked - yes shocked. Not so much by the training camp reported above - as shocking and ironic as that was - as by the satellite image showing what had happened to our pleasant little town. We never knew the population count of Sabratha, but only that it was a small town by anyone’s standards. Our little town with one 2 lane road running through its mid section, was (is) now a small city with a 4 lane divided highway running through. And that highway is in turn intersected by other paved roads, some 4 lane, some 2 lane. It has mushroomed. Where there were small houses scattered about the center of town, now there are what look like developments, clusters of houses along paved roads sprinkled with cars. And spreading out from there are what can only be described as suburbs. The coastline, which we so fondly knew as pristine and totally unspoiled, now shows some buildings and a highway hugging the coast.
(To view Sabratha, copy 32°47'18.08" N 12°29'20.96" E into Google Earth.)
Midst all of this development, I was unable to decipher where we used to live.
This account is not so much to romanticize our town and demonize this city, as to try to honestly describe the mindboggling increase in size of this one town, in this one country, on this one planet of ours. It’s about this one town, but also our one planet. It happened in some 50 years. Is that a long time? Yes and no. While most of my lifetime, that’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.
The population of Libya then (1969) was 2,025,000. It’s now (2017) 6,408,000. Sabratha itself is now 102,000. (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/libya-population/). I don’t know what Sabratha was when we were there, but it was nothing remotely close to 102,000. I find this scary, untenable and maddening. Without hyperbole, I don’t know how future generations of people will survive, much less thrive.
Vietnam and the draft.
Despite a couple of weeks remaining in the Libyan school year, Diane and I were already out of the country at the time of the coup. The reason? The Vietnam War and the draft. I had applied for a Peace Corps deferment while in the states. It was denied by my local draft board (Mount Vernon, New York) which I later learned had a national reputation for being tough and denying deferments. While still in the states, I appealed the local board’s decision to the state level. During our Peace Corps training, I received notice that that too had been denied. I informed the Peace Corps of this, but - knowing as we did that Peace Corps deferments, though optional, were almost always granted - they sent us to Libya nonetheless. Then (in Libya by this time) I appealed to the presidential level. I was also working on a Conscientious Objector (CO) application. Finally, with only a couple of weeks remaining in the Libyan school year, the presidential appeal for a Peace Corps deferment was denied and I was ordered to report for a physical exam at the nearest US Army base. That was in Livorno, Italy. For some reason, Wheelus Air Force Base in nearby Tripoli was not good enough to confirm my good physical health.
An added irony to my draft situation was that, even if they had granted me the Peace Corps deferment, I still would have been only 24 upon returning to the states and, therefore, still eligible for the draft until age 26.
When we had finally realized that our options had run out and that my draft status was going to force our early departure from Libya, Mustafa Guzbi, the Libyan Minister of Education, architect of the English as a Foreign Language program and author of our textbook, offered to deny us an exit visa. He was prepared to initiate what might have become an international incident in order to keep us there. We, not used to such high stakes, gratefully declined. At this time, while considering a fatherhood deferment, we also seriously considered moving to Canada, which we later decided against. With all this uncertainty, I only knew for certain that I could not and would not participate in the war. Diane supported me and was impacted just the same as I. (Her loving support continues to this day, as our 50th anniversary fast approaches.)
It was sad, maddening and ironic that the American government that had placed us in Libya also pulled us out - even before the end of the school year. Our Libyan teacher colleagues could not understand this any more than we. We were going back on our commitment to our schools. It was a terrible message and utterly shortsighted policy, negating the visionary policy of the Peace Corps.
After the physical in Italy, we headed back home for a hearing before my local board on the CO application I had submitted by then. Meanwhile, Diane became pregnant. At that time, a fatherhood deferment was mandatory (unlike Peace Corps or CO deferments which were discretionary.) So, instead of arguing my CO status, I presented the board with documentation of my wife’s pregnancy. The board, though far from happy, had to grant me the deferment - which they did. (I think the board asked me some questions about my CO application - moot at that point - but never ruled on it.)
Our Libya of 1968-1969 was apolitical, or so it seemed to us. Idris was king, but nobody seemed to talk politics. And Muammar Gaddafi? Who was he? As we saw it, the September 1969 coup of the 27 year old Colonel came out of nowhere.
It’s important to note that, while in Libya and struggling with the draft, Gadaffi was not yet on the radar. Yet, immediately after our exit from Libya due to the draft, our fellow volunteers were kicked out due to the coup. It was a shame. Our program (living in communities across Libya) was a good one. Our mission (teaching English as a Second Language so that Libyan boys and girls could better benefit their country while becoming part of the world community) was a sound one. Libya had chosen English as a second language to prepare their students to study abroad in graduate schools where most had English as their language. They wanted to grow a professional class of Libyans and not rely on expatriates. Our presence in our communities was a positive one for the Libyans, the expatriate Arabs, our country and - for sure - ourselves. It changed our lives. It gave us a world view that has remained a fundamental part of us to this day. It’s a shame Gaddafi threw that all out. (And we wonder about our visionary friend Mustafa Guzbi, but once we left Libya communication was no longer possible.)
After getting our feet back on the ground, Diane went into teaching and I photography.
She taught pre-school special education, multi-age (grade 1-3) and then first grade for the rest of her long distinguished career. She always worked her hardest to individualize to each of her students while simultaneously building her classroom as a community of learners (as she often described them). She was a master teacher. I say that for sure, but so too did her colleagues who repeatedly recognized her work over the years. This included receiving her school department’s highest award shortly before her retiring at the age of 70. She went out on top.
Photography, especially documentary photography, was something I had always noticed and enjoyed, but didn't seriously think about until after Libya. I eased my way in through some schooling, but mostly self-experimentation. I became University Photographer at Brown University and worked there happily producing photography of all sorts for 23 years before freelancing for colleges, universities and publications. I then evolved into landscape photography and printmaking. For me, the greatest meaning and satisfaction have always been derived from searching for and making images which, while rooted in a specific time and place, speak beyond them in some special way, celebrating and giving voice to what might otherwise go unnoticed.
Having lived in New England most of our lives, we now live near our 2 children and 4 grandchildren in the rolling hills and woods of rural Central Virginia in a community on a beautiful working farm which is largely under conservation easement.
When home in Sabratha, the air - the clean air - seemed normal, nothing worthy of comment. It wasn’t until our return to the states that we realized just how clean the Sabratha air had been and how different things were at home. Shortly after retuning home, we were looking at the Manhattan skyline in NYC from the raised section of Bruckner Boulevard when we saw - and breathed - the thick, polluted air around us and were dumbfounded. Wow. What a shock.
There’s a parking space outside our Harris Teeter supermarket in Charlottesville. A sign displaying an American flag reads Reserved Veteran Parking. I don’t seek it out and have parked there only a few times, but I’m comfortable doing that. Diane not so.
Alex, Peace Corps 2001-2003.
Our son, Alex, also served in the Peace Corps, in Cameroon, West Africa. He was there in his small Muslim city on September 11, 2001 and kept safe by his friends and neighbors during that unsettling time. Unlike us, liberal arts students who entered as a couple, he was single with an engineering degree. His assignment was many times more difficult than ours, his job to help local communities build wells. He did this successfully while also helping a scattered mountain top community build a school that served girls as well as boys. This was not common practice. While living alone and transporting and boiling his own water was challenging, it forced him to engage with the community in which he lived. We had done that to some degree during our time in Libya, but not nearly so effectively as he during his full tour of duty. We visited him there and were very proud of him and his work.
(Our daughter, Kiersten, also worked abroad right after college, teaching English in Taipei, Taiwan for 2 years. She did this on her own, not with the Peace Corps. We visited her there and were fortunate to be able to witness her creative and dynamic teaching.)
Postscript | thoughts and lessons.
Our time in Sabratha was less than a school year, not very long. But, it is really still part of us, both individually and as a couple.
We were young, it was shortly after college, at the beginning of our marriage and at a time defined by Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. It was a special time. While we joined the Peace Corps and accepted the assignment in Libya (a place and culture of which we knew nothing) and, while we were simply young and looking for an adventure together and, while the hopes of a deferment to temporarily keep me out of the military and the war were all part of the mix, no one motivation dominated our decision. They all converged to form a new whole for us.
Our country was so very divided by the war. There were those in our country believing that everyone should either love it or leave it. And, many of those same people fervently believed, in today’s vernacular, that the US was exceptional and that America was and should remain first. Pride is healthy. Arrogance is not. We are a country of many peoples who make us special in many different ways. But that special quality does not make us exceptional at the expense of other countries and other peoples, as is so often implied by the use of that term.
The Libyans we knew in Sabratha were generally a simple people in the best sense of the word. We didn’t share their religion or many of their customs - especially their social structure of men over women - but appreciated and enjoyed the simplicity of their daily lives. The small walking town and its slow pace were very compatible with our spirit.
The expatriates, especially the Palestinians, were generally more educated than the Libyans and attracted to the teachers college. The Palestinians had a strong identity as Palestinians and an equally strong consciousness of our being Americans. Their extreme identity was largely forced upon them. Neighboring Arab countries would take them in, but not grant them citizenship. They were literally - at least then - a people without a country. Their lives, by design, were unsettled, leaving them with an insatiable longing to be settled. They were more complicated than the Libyans. (This sympathy for the Palestinians was not, is not, at the expense of the Israelis. Both need to compromise in order to craft a resolution to their perpetual conflict. The alternative makes no sense.)
Meanwhile, while our American identity and citizenships were in tact, we also identified as citizens of the world. We shared - and continue to share - Martin Luther King’s dream of living in a nation and world where we and our children judge and are judged by character, not appearances. We wanted to be open minded, not to have our vision constrained by culture, religion or unquestioned beliefs. We tried - and continue to try - to live by the utterly simple, but profound, philosophy of The Golden Rule: Treat others as you yourself wish to be treated.
This world view and philosophy didn’t start in Sabratha, but that little town was a critical part of our learning curve.