In 2010, while I was still in my final year at Durham University reading Arabic and Islamic Studies, I received an email from the Arabic department with a job advertisement attached. It was from a British company, called
OpenCities, seeking recent graduates of Arabic to teach English in Libya.
I was very interested in the offer and the prospect of living in Libya was particularly appealing. I knew that it would be a unique experience and a great opportunity to continue my Arabic. Although I had not yet graduated, I was able to work for the company during my Easter vacation. I spent three weeks in Libya helping with the creation of their English teaching material. I was assigned with the task of writing one of the six grammar manuals, which would come to be used as supplemental material to the core textbooks. I was also able to do a bit of sightseeing while I was there and visited the famous Roman ruins in the ancient city of Leptis Magna, just a couple hours by car East of Tripoli.
Although Libya is more than 90% Muslim, Christians are allowed to worship freely and so Easter Sunday I was able to attend church.
I thoroughly enjoyed the short time I spent in Libya that Easter and was very keen to return, so I decided I would accept a position as an English teacher with the company.
After graduation in July I spent some time at home visiting family in America. Then, I moved to Bournemouth for the month of August, where I attended a teacher-training course.
There I obtained the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults), a TEFL qualification issued by Cambridge University, which is very often a requirement for teaching English abroad. Not only was the CELTA course extremely interesting and useful for future employment, but also with this qualification, I would be given a position in the company as a “Senior Tutor” with increased pay.
After the course, I needed to visit the Libyan embassy in London a couple times in order to obtain my Libyan visa. I used the time between trips to the embassy to visit my brother Brian in London and also my brother Gordon and his wife Marta and kids in Cardiff. Before too long I was on my way to Libya again. I landed in Tripoli September 10th 2010, where I would be based for the next six months.
Life in Libya, however, was never too much of a culture shock for me since I had already spent a significant amount of time in the Arab world. Part of my degree course at Durham University was a year abroad in an Arabic-speaking country. So for my year abroad, 2008-2009, I chose to live in Syria and study at the University of Damascus.
That year I also had a go at teaching English and quickly discovered how much I enjoy it. Initially I started out tutoring private lessons but soon took on classroom teaching.
After the academic year had finished I decided to return to Syria for the summer and teach English full time.
My teaching role in Libya was slightly different. I was delivering in-house English language training in different branches of the country’s largest national bank. I taught not only employees, but also directors from every major department. It was a tremendous experience. I learnt a great deal about the structure of banks in Libya and their working environment. I also made a huge number of friends from both my students and others working at the bank.
After a successful start in the company, I moved from “Senior Tutor” to “Engagement Manager” in charge of a project. As well as teaching, I was now responsible for a team of tutors. The project was delivering English language training to staff in the administration department of a commercial skyscraper, called Burj Al-Fateh, which had recently been built in central Tripoli. My role included tutoring the directors and general manager of the department.
In December the director of our company selected me to head up the establishment of our first branch, which was to be based in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, around 1000km to the East.
I was due to move there and set up shop in January 2011, but the move was delayed as our company waited on contracts from various projects to be finalised and signed. In the meantime, I was put in charge of a brand new project teaching English in an insurance company. This time the project was a one-man job; I was both delivering the English language training to almost 50 members of staff as well as providing their head of training with a weekly progress report. I was just five weeks into the training syllabus and things were going enormously well, when the political unrest in Libya began.
Even after witnessing the events in Tunisia, then Egypt and other countries on television, few people in Tripoli thought the same populous driven movement would spread and flare up in Libya. Soon after the fall of Mubarek, we had heard that protests were being planned for February 17th and rumour had it that Gaddafi intended to hijack them and turn them into pro-government demonstrations.
On February 15th I received a phone call from our company informing me that as a precautionary measure classes were to be cancelled on the 17th. I decided to send updates to my friends and family on Facebook, while internet in Libya was still working. February 15th:
‘Classes cancelled on Thursday due to scheduled protests!’ February 16th: ‘Just went out to get some kebab – witnessed some pro-regime demonstrations on Girgaresh Street – green flags waving and pics of the big G!’ February 18th: ‘Yesterday Tripoli streets were full of pro-regime supporters and even the big G made an appearance – saw it on TV – definitely wasn’t a “day of wrath” in Tripoli! Hopefully work will be back to normal on Sunday.’
Little did I know that our company would be fleeing the country only four days later.
Throughout Saturday night we could hear the sound of gunshots being fired in the neighbouring residential area. We heard mixed reports in the morning, with some saying the shots were celebratory and others saying they came from mercenaries firing on protestors on the main road, Girgaresh, which was just around the corner from our house.
From our balcony we observed a convoy of four Chinooks flying over the area. They made their way back and forth several times towards the city centre, presumably transporting soldiers to secure the Green Square where most of the events in Tripoli were said to be occurring.
On Sunday the 20th classes were cancelled again and we were told to stay at home. Our company director, who had been out of the country, flew back to Libya earlier than scheduled in order to assess the situation. We held a meeting to discuss our plan and decided to stick it out for the time being to see how things developed. That evening, however, things had gotten worse across the country, with reports of hundreds of protestors killed. At this point my colleagues and I decided to start making note of the events as they occurred. Here is an extract from that day:
‘Sunday 20th of February 20:35: We are not able to access the internet at all. We are at home and can smell gunpowder from our balcony. We have been asked by our landlord to double lock all doors and gates. We have also closed all shutters. We are occupying our time with television series, movies and Aljazeera. Mobile phones have started to have problems… We have heard that shops have begun securing their entrances with wood. Local shops are full of people stocking up on supplies. The FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) have asked that foreigners leave the country unless they have a ‘pressing reason’ to stay. Many companies, including the British embassy, have sent employees home. We have heard that there is a curfew in part of the city (Gurgi). 20:58 We hear what sounds like some sort of explosion in the distance.’
Finally, that night our company decided to postpone all projects indefinitely and begin booking our flights out. I was already booked for a flight on the 2nd of March, but this was moved to the earliest possible date; Wednesday the 23rd of February. All other flights had been fully booked for the next couple of days. Even though our flight was booked for Wednesday morning at 8:30am, my colleague and I decided we should go to the airport the evening before since it would be safer than traveling early in the morning.
The scariest moment was finally emerging from our house after barricading ourselves in for two days. Not knowing what to expect, my three colleagues and I went out as a group, thinking there would be safety in numbers. Our plan was to get to the main road and bring a taxi back to the house to pick up our luggage and take us to the airport.
We begin walking through the sandy back streets towards the main road. My colleagues are unusually quiet, with all of us understanding the seriousness of the situation; two of them light up cigarettes to calm their nerves. I tell everyone to keep alert and look out, especially for anyone on the rooftops, as that is where any shooters would likely be. We come to a turning and begin to hear the sound of a helicopter; a Chinook swoops overhead, even lower than we had seen the previous couple of days. We are all relieved to watch it fly away without pausing to get a closer look at this group of Westerners. We make a quick pit stop at a local shop and notice that Gaddafi is live on the television making his first speech. As we approach the main road we can hear the speech on every car radio that passes by. We make it to the main road and after a long few minutes we manage to hail a taxi.
After picking up our luggage and saying goodbye to two of our colleagues who didn’t have a flight until the day after, we were finally on our way to the airport. Traveling down the quiet roads, virtually empty, we soon discovered that our taxi driver, as he cheered along to the heated speech on the radio, was in fact pro-Gaddafi. This made things quite awkward as we passed by remnants of fires in the middle of the streets and anti-government graffiti along battered and scorched walls.
“It’s all just kids high on drugs! Libya is perfectly fine!” Exclaimed the taxi driver, “Don’t you think so?”
We had to feign agreement and keep quiet, even though we wanted to wake him from this all-too-common brainwashed perspective, which many Libyans had inherited from over 41 years of government propaganda, fear and bribery. Fortunately we did not encounter any checkpoints on the way to the airport and the journey was relatively speedy.
We arrived at the airport to find it overwhelmed with people, a mass of bodies trying to get into the building. As the taxi driver steered us as close to the airport as he could go, he turned up the radio with Gaddafi’s speech raging out, in order to antagonise the people. Surprisingly the taxi driver did not overcharge us and we were happy to see him go, but now it was just us and the crowd in front. There were thousands packed so tightly that there was not even any room for luggage, so while some held their bags above their heads, others left theirs in a pile, forming a sea of suitcases around the crowd.
We looked around desperately for anyone who might be able to help and finally spotted a representative from the FCO in a luminous red jacket. My colleague stayed with our luggage as I ran to catch him. With a calm and refreshingly British tone, he informed us that no flights had left that day on the airline we were booked on and that there would be none until the afternoon of the next day at the very earliest. He apologised before rushing away, leaving us alone again wondering if we should stay and wait or retreat back to the house.
We decided to wait for our other colleagues who were also on their way to the airport from their house. We spotted one of them and once again I ran into the crowd. Shouting after him, I got his attention and he ran over. He informed me that several Westerners were gathered on the far side of the airport and that we ought to join them. Picking up our bags we followed our colleague who rushed on ahead. Almost leaving us behind, we called for him to slow down and at the same time we heard the honking of horns and airport security shouting for the crowd to part and let a convoy through. All of a sudden a pick-up truck burst through; there were three men in military camouflage standing on the back, wielding AK47s. Our colleague was about to step in front of its path and I thought to myself: if ever there was a time we might witness the shooting of Westerners, this was it. Fortunately the truck ignored us and without stopping whipped around the corner as the brief gap in the crowd caved in.
Finally, we met up with the other Westerners and the rest of our colleagues, who were receiving instructions from some more British staff in red luminous jackets. We were informed that a chartered plane might be coming to pick us up. One of the staff in red called out “Put up your hand if you are a British citizen”. One of our colleagues was an American citizen and asked, “What about me?” “Alright, you can join the flight, too.” Replied the lady in red. Next we were told to grab our things as quickly as possible and follow the staff. My colleagues scrambled for their luggage and decided there was not enough time to take the food they had brought for the wait. Following each other in a tight line, we made our way around the side of the airport where we were gathered with another group of Westerners waiting for this flight that was rumoured to be on its way.
Occasionally we would hear some commotion from the crowd up ahead and it would be difficult to know if what we were hearing was cheering or something more negative. It sounded like the kind of noise that might accompany a crowd circled around a fight or the overturning of a truck; we were unable to tell from where we were standing. We could begin to see, however, some trucks slowly emerging, stacked with people waving green flags and punching their fists into the air. One truck carried a tall picture of Gaddafi and it was clear that even among all this chaos we were witnessing pro-regime demonstrations. Fireworks burst into the sky, some into the crowd. Alongside cheering were pro-Gaddafi chants. For me, one of the most tragic moments was hearing a small little girl; maybe five years old, singing along to the chants, blissfully ignorant of the bloodshed that was being spilt across Libya. The demonstrations made no sense; the thousands there were fleeing because of Gaddafi and yet many from among the crowd were cheering in support of this propagandist farce.
After waiting in the growing cold for six hours and staring anxiously at the restless crowd, the sky began to drizzle and our group finally received confirmation over satellite phone that a plane had landed to take us away from this nightmare. We learnt that an oil company, which was seeing to the evacuation of its employees, had arranged a flight that would be flying to Amsterdam.
After having our names and passport numbers sent over the satellite phone to the check-in desk inside, we were hurried into a queue and after a quick headcount moved closer to the crowd. We heard rumour that a representative from the oil company was negotiating with the airport security to let us through the crowd, apparently offering a bribe. Someone mentioned a figure of around $7000. Finally, after another hour wait, still in our queue, we began to move. Calling for people to get out of the way, members of the airport security, some wielding batons or wooden sticks and others AK47’s, forced open a channel through the crowd. As we squeezed through the gap, all eyes were on us. I looked to the left and to the right, meeting the desperate eyes of individuals either side, their faces being etched into my memory forever. Finally we were inside the building.
Inside the airport was like another world. Of course, compared to normal it was still very crowded, but was nothing like outside. The pace inside was quite different; no one appeared to be in a rush. To the people here, those outside were out of sight and out of mind. After checking in our luggage there was another period of waiting, which came as no surprise. A member of the FCO came round to all the Westerners, handing out water bottles. Our group also took this opportunity to have some of the food that we had packed and not left behind. I looked about at the families and crying children waiting sat on the floor all around us. They needed my water and bread more than me, so I gave them up.
Once again we were on the move, this time to immigration, where we would join another queue and wait for our passports to be stamped. As we stood waiting, we could hear some commotion from the crowd outside. All of a sudden, a group of airport staff burst into the room carrying the body of someone who had either been injured or killed; we could not tell. My colleague told me she saw blood running down his arm. They rushed the body up an escalator and less than a minute later the same group came rushing down the stairs and out of the room, this time without a body, only the look of rage in their eyes; we knew they were returning to take revenge. From that room we were unable to see outside and so we were left guessing as to what was happening as we heard yet more commotion from the crowds.
With our passports checked, stamped, rechecked and stamped again, we made our way up the escalator to our gate. After a few unsuccessful attempts I finally managed to get through to my mother on the phone and updated her on the situation. She was relieved to hear that I was about to get on a plane. We were put on a bus to take us from the terminal to our flight. While on the bus, I looked out in astonishment as we passed by dozens of planes that were sitting idly outside when they could have been loading people.
On the plane and in our seats, exhausted, we used the opportunity to rest our head and eyes. After perhaps an hour and a half the plane finally started to move and approach the runway. The captain apologised for the wait, explaining that there had been some sort of mix up with the destination and that the airport had mistakenly thought we were headed for London. Building up speed on the runway, we finally took off and everyone sighed in relief as our spirits lifted with the plane. Flying farther and farther away, we were leaving it all behind us, yet we knew that the experience would never leave us.
Upon arrival in Amsterdam we entered the terminal to find a number of policemen waiting in preparation to receive an onslaught of refugees. Instead, they greeted 79 or so Westerners, who were on their way to find a transit flight to their home country. After picking up our luggage we were approached by a local news crew, who asked us some quick questions about our experience. Later that day they broadcast an interview with one of our colleagues on Dutch television.
I decided to visit Amsterdam and fly to the UK the next day. After some much needed sleep I explored the local area and ate at McDonald’s, which I had begun to miss after six months! That night I decided to check out some of Amsterdam’s famous nightlife and although I was not in the mood for dancing I did enjoy having some cold beer off the tap, which I had also missed!
So the next day I returned to the UK. Since then I have been visiting family across the country, in London, Birmingham, Cambridge and now Cardiff. I also took the opportunity while in London to visit the Libyan embassy a couple times and join the demonstrations there to show my support for the Libyan people. I felt an enormous desire to join those at the embassy who had both friends and relatives caught up in the on-going crisis. I also wanted to share my experience and do what I could to help in furthering international concern about the situation in Libya.
Arriving at the crowd outside the Libyan embassy I approached a news reporter who had just finished an interview. I asked if I could say something, but the news reporter told me she was a little too busy for the time being. But when I mentioned that I had just come from Libya two days earlier, she called for her cameraman and began interviewing straightaway. After describing my experience for some minutes, almost without pausing for breath, she asked if I might be willing to speak on live television too.
If you would like to see the brief interview on Sky News, here is the clip:
I hope to return to Libya one day and be reunited with the many friends I made out there. But for the time being, as our company’s work is suspended indefinitely, I will have to explore another part of the world. Watch this space!