Travels in Libya

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Libyans and Americans visit each others' countries more freely now, and trade is bringing in ads for Coke and Sony. But Libya remains a police state. Historian and columnist Victor Davis Hanson describes his experiences in Libya, which include Roman ruins, modern-day politics and his emergency appendectomy in Libya without painkillers.


And we turn now to another country with a history of hostility to the United States and whose leader claims to be changing his tune. Since 2003, Libya's Colonel Moammar al-Gaddafi has asked the United States to help destroy his country's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and has brokered an agreement that would allow Libyans and Americans to visit each others' countries more freely.

Trade is bringing in ads for Coke and Sony, but Libya remains a police state. And just as ubiquitous as those Coke ads are over-sized posters of the country's leader. Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who visited Libya several months ago, and it was a strange experience indeed. He joins us now from his home in Huntington Lake, California. Victor, good to speak with you again.

Professor VICTOR DAVIS HANSON (Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution at Stanford University; Historian; Columnist and Classicist): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: First of all, why did you go to Libya?

Prof. HANSON: I went for two reasons. I wanted to see the country, and it had just opened and was issuing visas, and I was invited to lecture on the Roman antiquities because they had just allowed some ships to dock at the coast, and then I would fly to Tripoli and meet them and talk about the lost cities in the desert at Sabratha and Leptis Magna.

CONAN: And these are - Victor Davis Hanson, also a classicist, a professor of classics for many years, and so this must have been fascinating to you.

Prof. HANSON: It was. I think they're the most impressive extent ruins of the Roman Empire. They're comparable to something in Miletus or Ephesus, or Pompeii, even, and they've been essentially untouched since the Italian archeologists vacated with the rise of al-Gaddafi in the late 1960s.

CONAN: So these are preserved by the temperatures in the sand?

Prof. HANSON: By the temperatures in the sand and the lack of archeological upkeep so that the sand has encroached on a lot of the acreage. There are vast acreages of municipal core, but the irony of it is simply because al-Gaddafi did not allow European archeologists to keep up the daily exploration, it's almost as is true with his oil reserves, he's allowed the sand to cover them, and now they're in pretty good condition to be looked at or exploited again.

CONAN: Well, let's get on to more modern issues, then. Tell us what the streets are like. It's an enormously poor country, despite its oil wealth.

Prof. HANSON: It's a baffling phenomenon. A country that exports almost 1.5 million, and has in the past 3 million, barrels of oil doesn't seem to be able to pave their own streets in any successful fashion. There's potholes the size of, you know, two or three feet that you have to watch out for. Some of the poor suburbs of Tripoli aren't paved. And there's a growing sense that the Libyans are rediscovering the world through new cell phones and satellite dishes and the Internet, but they have sort of been off the bus of history and that this enormous wealth has been used to subsidize revolutionary movements in Africa and South America and the Middle East, but not to give them the standard of living that their oil reserves might otherwise suggest they could have.

CONAN: Was there any evidence, aside from the occasional billboard, that the outside world is investing in Libyan markets, free trade?

Prof. HANSON: There is. It's just beginning, a fascinating development. They have given sort of five acres right on the most choice real estate in Tripoli for a Maltese company to build a Corinthian hotel, which is a five-star facility comparable to something in New York or Dubai, for example, and it's an oasis in an otherwise Stalinist architecture. It has no infrastructure, and he's trying to - the government is trying to encourage such investment, and with unlimited amounts of oil and antiquities and untapped and unspoiled Mediterranean shoreline right across from Europe, you can see the development interest will be there.

CONAN: And you also, amongst the Libyans that you spoke to on this visit, found a real sense of optimism.

Prof. HANSON: I did. I was very surprised that they have to pick their words very carefully, because it is a North Korean police state in some sense, but they've crafted a very strange exegesis. It's sort of like the following: Well, maybe we should've pumped more oil, and maybe we should've had foreigners exploit it for us, and maybe we should've kept up the antiquities, but we didn't, and they're still there - and maybe it was sort of a strategic archeological or petroleum reserve that we just waited to the opportune moment - and now in the age of globalization, we have location, location, location next to Europe, we've got good climate, we've got the sea and sand, we've got the antiquities, we've got the oil, the natural gas, and it's all here undeveloped, and we're going to develop it at premium prices in 2007.

You know, it's a very strange way of looking at it. There's not a lot of recrimination about the past. I don't know whether that's the Libyan character or it's fear of government informers, but they're looking forward, especially toward renewed relations with the United States.

CONAN: It would be odd, though, to those who have studied the ideology of Moammar al-Gaddafi to think that the new slogan for the country is now ka-ching.

Prof. HANSON: Yeah, it is. And nobody - that's the $64,000 question, and every exegesis imaginable is offered by Libyans, from the influence of his Western-educated children, three of whom were educated in England and Italy, or his disappointment with his revolutionary movements that took cash and didn't show gratitude and have themselves cut deals with the United States and the West, or the fear of ending up like Saddam Hussein, which al-Gaddafi purportedly said to the Italian premier, afraid of ending up like that.

I think the best explanation is just simply that time caught up with this socialist, Stalinist, very bizarre mixture of nomadic, Berberism and Arabism, secularism in the 21st century, and people realized that they had a lot to offer the world and they could get a lot in exchange, and they gave up this animosity. And there was a few issues that were there, the WMD that you mentioned, and there was the problem with the Lockerby bombing, the problem with supporting terrorism, the problem of trying to overthrow governments. All of these now are on the agenda, and I wouldn't envy the State Department who would have to adjudicate those, and yet as part of the democratization policy and supporting this new reform in the Middle East, it's going to have to be very careful about dealing with somebody who still, for all purposes, is a dictator.

CONAN: We're speaking with classicist and historian and columnist Victor Davis Hanson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I have to ask you, though, about your personal experience while you were in Libya, and it involved a bellyache that got worse and worse.

Prof. HANSON: Yeah, it did. I had a bellyache, I though just a bellyache, and at various times, I'd gone into an emergency room for it because I had high fever, and it turned out to be a chronic appendix. And when I got to Libya, over the course of a week, it got worse and worse, and I woke up in the middle of the night with a ruptured appendix. It didn't really rupture that night, but had ruptured earlier, and that was very - nobody really knew anything about Libyan health care. The Libyans had only had 400 or 500 Americans in the last 30 years, and nobody really knew. And I was going short(unintelligible)…

CONAN: And you…

Prof. HANSON: So, I just got in the taxi with my Libyan minders, and the first thing we saw was a clinic, Red Crescent Clinic in a mosque, and they took me in there at 2 in the morning, and the next thing I knew, I was told I either had to have it out immediately or I'd be dead in a day. So, I had no choice.

CONAN: And this after one of your Libyan friends had noted that he had just returned from, I think, Morocco, to have a minor operation there.

Prof. HANSON: Yeah, and it was worse than that. The doctor himself told me that for minor surgeries, not ruptured appendix and the subsequent cleaning out of the abdomen, they go to Tunisia because the Libyan health care - I think it would be - a fair judgment is it's in shambles, it really is. I was very lucky.

CONAN: But I guess you had no choice, so you went ahead with it.

Prof. HANSON: Yeah. I really had no choice. I just remember going - they were desperately trying to find a surgeon who could clean up after a ruptured appendix in the middle of the night and also an anesthesiologist who could give me gas of some sort, and the last thing I can remember is looking out at the portrait of Moammar al-Gaddafi and a minaret and being told by a Pakistani nurse to pray to Allah if I was going to live. A very strange experience.

CONAN: Obviously, things have worked out pretty well.

Prof. HANSON: They did, and I have a lot of gratitude to the surgeon, who I thought did a heroic effort under trying circumstances, and then to the Libyans, who were very hospitable. One of the odd things about laying on your back, and there is no analgesics after surgery. He's banned all opiates or even things like codeine, so I was in kind of a lot of pain for that week, but I was able to talk to a lot of people in the Libyan government who came in to visit and just listen. So it turned out to have advantages that I didn't think would be there otherwise.

CONAN: So a neat journalistic trick: go someplace and get really, really sick.

Prof. HANSON: Yes, especially when I got the bill. I mean, in a socialist paradise like Libya, the janitor makes the same as the surgeon. The bill was $800 for removing an appendix and cleaning up the abdomen and the antibiotics, $800.

CONAN: We'll not tell the AMA any about this.

Prof. HANSON: I won't.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, we're glad you recovered.

Prof. HANSON: Thank you for having me again.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, joining us by phone from his home in Huntington Lake, California. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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