Yesterday I had a fantastic day – thanks everyone for your birthday wishes! This was my fourth birthday in a row in the Arab world – first two were in Syria, the third in Libya, and the fourth here in Saudi Arabia!
Since my birthday fell on a Thursday (which is during the weekend over here), I was able to relax at the compound. It was another gorgeous day – sunny skies, 100 degrees – we played some pool volleyball in the afternoon, then had a BBQ in the evening.
Local Saudis, at least in this part of the country, don’t actually celebrate birthdays. In fact, here it’s considered “haram” or shameful. So much so that even the word ‘birthday’ in our English textbooks has been blacked out! Here is a photo of a page from our course book:
Life on the compound, however, is rather different… it’s a small western bubble in the middle of the desert – and we put on a great party! There was plenty of food, friends, music and even some dancing by the end of the night! There was even a cake (…which I made!) – Betty Crocker’s super moist chocolate cake – only just the best cake mix mankind has ever created!
Here are a few photos from the party. I’ve posted more on my “photos” page… just click here. Enjoy!
Normally the weekend here is just Thursday and Friday, but this weekend we also have Saturday off, as it’s the country’s “National Day” (al-yawm al-watny). It couldn’t have come at a better time – the first week teaching at the university was a lot of work! I’m sure next week will be a lot easier though, since everything will be familiar this time round and I’ll know what to expect. Plus – as predicted, the teaching hours have been reduced! I’ll still be teaching three lessons a day, but now they’re only going to be an hour and a half long, instead of an hour and forty-five minutes. Moreover, they’re still rounded up to two hours – so we will still be getting paid overtime hours. Not bad!
So I teach three lessons a day; one in the morning (8:00-9:30) and two in the afternoon (1:00-2:30, 3:00-4:30). That means I get a comfortable three and a half hours break for lunch! The company policy on how you spend your office hours when not teaching is very flexible. We can pretty much spend it however we like, as long as we are reachable by phone and can be back at the school within ten minutes. So far I’ve been going out for an early lunch with my colleagues at 11:00 and coming back at around 12:00. There are also plenty of shops nearby to explore. One of my favourites is the “5 Riyal Store” (their equivalent of a dollar store, but even better value for money). They have two of them near the school and one is absolutely massive! I enjoy practicing my Arabic there too and the shopkeepers get a real kick out of a westerner speaking their language!
I teach two groups of 22 students. One group I teach both in the morning and afternoon and the other I teach only in the afternoon, while another teacher takes them in the morning. Overall, they are a very pleasant bunch of students. It’s immediately obvious the difference between the keen, inquisitive students sitting at the front and the lazier, dozy students sitting at the back – with a gradient of ability in between! So I’m thinking I might try to mix things up a bit and move some students around!
Instead of shared tables, the students have individual desk-chairs, which are nowhere big enough for all their books and notes. Also, the current seating arrangement is rather rigid and ineffective, as it is simply four rows of chairs, lecture room style, heading to the back of a long, narrow classroom. It’s not very well suited for group discussion, so I might also move chairs around to make it more “participation-friendly”. I mentioned this to the “Academic Supervisor” (our immediate boss) and he said that he encourages all teachers to be as creative as possible with the classroom set-up. Apparently the guy who last taught in my classroom was famous for occasionally standing on his desk to address the students! So who knows what I’ll do to top that… I feel an “Oh captain, my captain!” moment coming on!
There is one slight hitch, however ,with being too creative in the classroom. Most classes, including my one, have a CCTV camera installed! The footage is constantly monitored by the management on a computer screen upstairs. The camera itself is positioned above the whiteboard, facing the students, so it doesn’t actually pick up the teacher at the front of the class. Really, it’s primary purpose is to monitor the students – to make sure, for example, that the students are in the class when they are supposed to be and they look like they are working. We’ve been told that one of the worst things you can get caught doing is letting students out of class early, even if it’s just five minutes early. Apparently, some teachers have actually had their pay docked for doing this, so I’ve been very careful not to do the same!
Oh! A mosquito just landed on my laptop! That’s not very encouraging! I haven’t really seen any until now, but apparently we’ll see more the closer we get to winter. Fortunately, Malaria is not a problem in this country, but I think I’m going to have to stock up on some more insect repellant, in addition to the ant-killing powder I already purchased for the ants in our villa.
On Thursday our company put on a trip for us to some local tourist sites in Dawmat Al-Jandal, a small town about 30 minutes East of the compound by bus. A bunch of us went, including some of the bilingual Arabic-English teachers from Sudan – a jovial crowd – that made the bus ride over there a lot of fun! As usual I took the opportunity to practice some of my Arabic, which they got a kick out of. The mother of one of the Sudanese teachers also came on the trip and she insisted on calling me Prince William! I think it must be the thinning hair!
Our first stop was Dawmat Al-Jandal Lake. That’s right – a lake in the middle of the desert! It’s not much of an oasis though, as the lake is rather salty and apparently man-made. There were no boats, it was just a body of water surrounded by rocky dunes, and although there were no birds in sight, along the shore were hundreds of tiny bird footprints dotted on the sand. We went down to have a wade and, stepping into the cool water, I almost lost one of my sandals as my foot sank into the sand at the bottom of the lake.
It was a funny sight to see the female teachers, dressed in their black abayas flapping in the wind, giggling while struggling to climb down the hill to reach the lake. One of the male teachers, a fellow from South Africa, stretched out his arm to help one of them. She happened to be one of the more conservative Muslim teachers, however, and although she was dangerously close to slipping, refused his help, being unwilling to touch the hand of a man! Fortunately she managed to reach the shore without tumbling head first into the water!
After taking plenty of photos we got back on the bus and headed for our next stop; Marid Castle, an ancient sandstone structure preserved in the dry heat of the desert since the third century AD (long before the dawn of Islam in the seventh century). Rather primitive in form (I don’t claim to be an archeologist!), it basically looked like a huge sandcastle made from a giant bucket and spade!
It reminded me of a family holiday in Washington State a few summers back, when we went to the beach on the Pacific Ocean and made a huge sandcastle over a period of days!
After climbing up to the top of the castle, we admired the view all around. Next to the castle we could see the “Umar Ibn Kattab Mosque” amongst a complex of ancient walls and the remains of buildings.
Since most of the time we are either at the university or in the compound, it made a nice change to get out and about and see some of the local sites. I look forward to the next trip!
Be sure to check out my other pictures from the trip… just click here!
After much waiting at the hotel for news, I finally had a meeting with the company yesterday and was told where I am being sent… I’m going to be teaching in Sakaka, Al-Jouf.
It’s a small city in the northern part of Saudi Arabia, close to the borders of Jordan and Iraq. Teachers are housed in a residential complex reserved for expats, which is generally referred to as a ‘compound’ (don’t worry – nothing to do with concentration camps!). In fact, apparently it’s quite luxurious, with a villa for every two teachers, and each villa has its own swimming pool! I’ll be sure to post some photos once I have arrived.
Al-Jouf is a ‘university project’, as opposed to the ‘centre’ in Riyadh, which means I will be teaching university students around 18-21 years old. Apparently the work hours are very good there, with only one shift a day instead of two like at the centre here in Riyadh.
Several other teachers here at the hotel will also be going to Al-Jouf. So we’ll be traveling up together, scheduled to fly on Saturday (although – having seen the organisation here, it could be any day!). The company still hasn’t taken me to have the medical done. One teacher already left for Al-Jouf a couple days ago, before having his medical, so I may end up just having it done over there instead.
Also, during my meeting with the company yesterday, they were very happy to give an advance on the salary, which most teachers request for their first month in the country.
Since my last post, I’ve managed to meet several more teachers, some of which have been working here for up to two years already. It’s been very helpful to hear about their experience working with Al-Khaleej and to get lots of useful advice before setting out for Al-Jouf. It’s encouraging to discover that many of them have decided to continue working in Saudi Arabia and will be renewing their contract with Al-Khaleej. On the whole, it seems as though their experience has been very positive.
So far, things have been pretty chilled out. My arrival date in Saudi Arabia was good timing, as it’s still a holiday here until Monday (normally the working week would begin on Saturday). So until Monday, all I can do is wait and relax at the hotel.
I have already bumped into some of the other teachers working for Al-Khaleej, who are also staying at the hotel. There’s one guy from England, two from Canada, and one Syrian who just arrived a few hours ago. Several other teachers will be arriving over the next week, including four from Sudan, who are arriving later today. So it turns out not all of the English teachers working for Al-Khaleej are native English speakers; some are (near) bilingual in Arabic and English.
I’ve heard that the new academic year begins sometime around the 15th of September, so the company is bringing in as many new teachers as possible before then. There’s still no news as to where I will be going, but I should find out soon, perhaps Monday.
I discovered yesterday that the hotel has a pool, so I’ve been taking full advantage of that! The weather is so hot over here (42° C/108° F today!) that it’s really refreshing to take a swim. It’s interesting to see how there is a giant wall surrounding the pool area, so as to block the view from any surrounding buildings. Also, apparently the hotel tries not to put anyone in the rooms that overlook the pool, especially any female guests. The segregation here is very obvious. At the shawerma place, for example, which is a pretty big restaurant, it was packed full of customers, but there was not a single woman to be found anywhere.
For dinner last night, two of the other teachers and I went out to an Indian restaurant, just a five minute walk down the main road. The food was delicious and they had an open kitchen, so you could watch as your order was being prepared.
In fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the huge variety of foods available here – everything from the West to the East that you can think of. They’ve got McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dominoes, Subway and every kind of national food, from Mexican to Chinese! I even spotted a Krispy Kreme shop!
Today I had dinner with Osama and the new teacher from Syria. This time it was Jordanian, which Osama wanted to introduce to us as he is originally from Amman, Jordan. We ate something called “Al-Mansaf”, which was lamb on yellow rice and bread, over which you poured a watery yoghurt sauce, called “leban”. Along with soup and salad, the portion sizes were immense and none of us could finish all of it!
The hotel where I’m staying has Wi-Fi, so you might be able to catch me online at somepoint. The time difference here is two hours ahead of London. I’ll try to write some more over the next few days. In the meantime, I think I’m off to the pool again…
…Oh and here are a few photos from the hotel – 10 points for spotting the Mountain Dew!
Here’s the update you’ve all been waiting for… I’ve finally arrived in Saudi Arabia! It’s been a very long day of traveling and needless to say I’m pretty exhausted. Although it’s already approaching 2:00am local time (midnight in London) and I’m shattered, I decided I’d stay up a bit longer and update my blog to let all of you know I have arrived safely. Even though I have only just arrived, I’ve already had some very interesting experiences, and I’m sure they will be the first of many more to come.
Starting in Cardiff, my journey took three flights in total, first to Amsterdam, then to Dammam (in Saudi Arabia), and finally to Riyadh. To and from Amsterdam I was on Royal Dutch Airlines and then Saudi Arabian Airlines to Riyadh. There was a very noticeable difference between the airlines. There was, of course, no alcohol on the Saudi Arabian Airlines flight. Moreover, however, I noticed the air hostess assisted in seating each passenger so as to segregate single men from the women. In the row of three adjacent to me, for example, a male passenger was asked to move from the window to the aisle in order to allow a woman to sit by the window, with her husband acting as a buffer between her and the male passenger.
The next remarkable thing was when the overhead TVs played the usual safety video and then – a prayer for the safety of the flight! Can you imagine something like that on an airline in America? The video explained that this particular prayer was said to have been used by Mohammed when embarking on a journey. The equivalent would be if, on United Airlines for instance, they presented the safety video and then… “And now a prayer to Jesus for a safe flight…” Pretty hard to imagine, but clearly over here this sort of thing is taken for granted.
I was pleased not to have encountered any issues getting through immigration. It was just a twenty-minute wait or so. Then, before stamping my passport and letting me on through, they scanned my fingerprints and also took a photo for their records.
I then picked up my luggage from the baggage claim. On Royal Dutch Airlines I was only allowed one check-in bag, weighing no more than 23kg (50.5 lb). I just barely made it under the limit, that is, after removing all of my books and carrying them in a separate plastic bag! There was no problem, however, in carrying these on the plane in addition to my laptop bag.
Next was the meet and greet and thankfully a member of staff from Al-Khaleej was waiting there for me as promised, holding up a sign with my name on it – just like in the movies. After a prompt “assalumu alaykum!” (peace be upon you) and an enthusiastic shaking of hands, he introduced himself; “Hello, I am Osama…”
He was of course very welcoming and I was not surprised at all to receive such warm hospitality, which Arabs are particularly known for, and which I have experienced many times across the Arab World. So far, coming back to the Arab World hasn’t been too much of a culture shock; rather, it feels like I’ve returned to my home away from home! I look forward to getting more settled in over the coming months. I still don’t know where I will be based more permanently, but will apparently find out on Monday, when I am meeting up with another member of staff from Al-Khaleej who is involved in the placement process.
In the meantime, I’ve been told that I will likely be based in Riyadh at least until Monday. With it being Eid (at the end of Ramadan), things are rather slow at the moment. On the plus side, it means I will have some time to chill out here at the hotel for a while and also get to know some of the other new arrivals who are coming in this week. Apparently there are already a few other teachers here in the hotel. I’ll have to look out for them tomorrow – I have a feeling they will be pretty easy to spot!
It’s a pretty decent hotel – with large rooms and much needed air-conditioning (albeit very loud). Yes – as expected, it’s very very hot over here! So much so, in fact, that at some restaurants where they have outdoor seating, there is piping overhead that sprays a mist of water over the guests to keep them (relatively) cool. After checking into the hotel, Osama took me to one such place, called “House of Shawerma”, where we picked up a couple chicken shawermas (wraps made with cuttings from the giant turning meats you see at kebab shops). I was very hungry – I just hope eating shawerma on an empty stomach doesn’t prove to be a bad choice! I also picked up some water and soft drinks for the fridge in my hotel room. As I write this, there is a 2 ¼ litre bottle of Mountain Dew by my bedside – am I in heaven?
I will keep you updated as things progress over the next week!
My flight to Saudi Arabia has finally been confirmed… for the 1st of September. So, with the start of a new month comes the beginning of a new adventure! In exactly one week, I shall be landing in the sandy kingdom… arriving in Dammam, then catching a short flight to Riyadh.
I’ve been informed that a member of staff from Al-Khaleej will be there for the meet and greet, and will take me to my hotel – all expenses paid. I expect I’ll be in Riyadh a couple days or so, while things are sorted out and arrangements are made for me to move to a more permanent location. As of yet, I still don’t know which city I will be based in, but I should find out within the next week, if not the next few days.
While in Riyadh, one of the things I will be doing is having another medical, even though I already had one a couple months ago for the visa application. Apparently it’s mandatory, either for working in Saudi Arabia or for obtaining a residency permit (“Iqaama”) – or both. I stumbled upon some details about the medical in a blog I’ve been reading written by another expat, who has been working for Al-Khaleej for over 6 months now. He said the medical not only requires a blood and urine sample, but also a stool sample! So I can’t say I’m looking forward to that!
I’ve also heard some very positive things about Al-Khaleej and, in particular, about getting its employees paid and on time. In fact, I read that the company begins the salary-month right from the first week we’re in the country, even if we haven’t started teaching. It’s nice to know a little bit about what I’m getting myself into and so far everything seems very positive.
I shall be sure to keep you updated on where exactly I am heading after Riyadh. Watch this space!
I began the snail-paced Saudi visa process all the way back on the 18th of May, 2011… Now, after three long months of gathering documents, playing email tennis and waiting around, I have finally received my visa!
Fortunately it’s come just in time for the start of the new academic year. I don’t have a flight date just yet, but it’s currently being organised by Al-Khaleej, the Saudi Arabian company I will be working for. They will also be paying for my flights, which is rather nice! I was informed that it would most likely be after Eid Al-Fitr (the festival at the end of Ramadan). So I’m expecting to leave some time early September. I’ve requested to fly out of Cardiff Airport, but if this isn’t possible, I will be flying out of London.
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.
The Arch of Septimus Severus, Leptis Magna, Libya – 27th March 2010 – Photo taken by me
Although Libya is more than 90% Muslim, Christians are allowed to worship freely and so Easter Sunday I was able to attend church.
Easter Sunday at the Anglican church in the Old City, Tripoli – 4th April 2010 – Photo taken by me
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.
Mother and I at graduation, Durham University – 2nd July 2010 – Photo taken by Brian Naumann
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.
Working hard on my CELTA at ITTC, Bournemouth – 27th August 2010
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.
View from my apartment roof in Damascus, Syria – 1st April 2009 – Photo taken by me
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.
My class and some staff at a language institute in Damascus, Syria – 24th May 2009
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.
My colleagues and I from OpenCities, and Horizons our partner company – 20th December 2010
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.
The skyscraper Burj Al-Fateh (centre left), Tripoli, Libya – 20th March 2010 – Photo taken by me
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.
Map of Libya showing the location of Benghazi in the East – Taken from the Internet
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.
Map of the region; countries in red had already had uprisings – Taken from the Internet
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.’
Pro-Gaddafi demonstrators – Taken from the Internet
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.
View from our apartment balcony – 18th March 2010 – Photo taken by me
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.
A Libyan Chinook – 21st January 2011
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.
Our street and house on the corner (right) – 26th March 2010 – Photo taken by me
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.
The masses of people trying to get into Tripoli Airport, Libya – Taken from the Internet
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!