It is dawn in the hibernal darkness of December.

My grandmother Maria has been trying to wake me up for a while now, but I just slump over and fall asleep again.

I am a little under six years old and I am sleeping on the extra cot in my grandparents’ bedroom. The fire in the stove is throwing ghostly orange shadows on the walls and it is warm and dreamy and waking up is the hardest thing to do.

My grandmother’s frustrated attempts to put my stockings on are woefully comical and fruitless- she keeps getting both legs in one side and pushes and pulls, until she realizes her error in the semi-darkness and starts again. My grandfather Alexander frets anxiously around us but doesn’t interfere. She had always scared him.

I am so sleepy, but I must wake up.
Today is my first flight on an airplane. Today is my first flight and I will fly alone. 

I am flying to my mother in Tripoli, Libya, on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Today is my first flight and it is to another continent.

The airport is enveloped in thick grayish fog as we pull up.

It has snowed heavily a few days ago and stoves everywhere are billowing smoke in the crisp morning air.

My dad parks the car and lets me out.

I step out in my patent leather Mary Janes – white woolen stockings successfully put on and wearing my red tartan wool dress, dad’s present from a recent Austrian trip – one tiny traveller in the breaking daylight.

Decked in wool and winter, I get on the first flight of my life all alone.

My Dad, Angel, drops me off at the airport in this cold European city, my mom picks me up at the airport in Tripoli. That is the arrangement.

It is the the early 80s.

My world is safe.


It is safe here, in the South of Europe, where a hard socialist government has clamped down on life and it is safe in Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi is keeping extremists of all stripes out of business.

On that cold winter morning I am too young to know this. All I know is that am flying to my mother Nellie, who waits for me on the African coast.

My flight feels long. The motion makes me sick and the pretty stewardess, who is watching over me, gets me a paper bag. I am never sick and I am clumsy and I manage to miss the bag entirely. She smiles patiently, cleans me up and I fall asleep.

The Tripoli Airport is bustling. I hear languages I do not understand, spoken by people I have never seen. Everyone is a stranger. I am lost and disoriented in a cacophony of voices and sounds and faces and colors and voices, but most importantly- I am burning up!

My woolen dress, my woolen stockings and my red patent leather shoes- the ensemble my dad and my grandmother orchestrated so lovingly for me in the frosty European night- is ill-fitted for the African sun and billowing desert air. I am sweating prickly misery in my woolens splendor.

As my stewardess drags me through the packed halls, I see my mother in the waiting crowds. She is far, but I spot her right away. My mother, just like in her pictures- in her folksy linen shirt, her bell-bottomed white jeans, her platforms and her loose blonde bouffant. My mother, who doesn’t see me or doesn’t recognize me- it has been many months since she saw me last. I yell at her but my voice is drowned in the ruckus of the crowds.

The stewardess drags me just past my mom, through customs and long lines and turns me to a strange man in floating white robes and flip-flops. He doesn’t speak a word to me, but he has my little ladybug-colored suitcase. He grabs my hand and again I speed up through endless corridors to an outside of bright afternoon sun and slowly waving palm trees and into my mother’s arms…

Our van bobs violently across the many potholes on the road to Tripoli. My mother is chatting with her driver in Arabic, they look at me and they laugh.


I am disoriented and tired, but I grin happily. My mother has stripped me down to my undies and I am free from my woolen torment. She has bought me Nutella and Prince cookies and dates and oranges. Life here is good, I decide right then and there. 

My long day ends on the softest bedding in the whole world, in Hotel Nassr on Shara Omar Mukhtar right where it meets Shara Istiqlal.

It is hot, but I sleep well. The night wind blows from the scorching Sahara, so my mom has bought a pale green table fan for me. It hums as it turns and it cools us both.

We still have that fan and it still hums just as did back then. It is our ‘Libyan fan’.

A fan. And a fan.

I am to this day a fan of my Libyan life and so are all those I met and lived with there. Libya is (was) the real country of my childhood.

That Libya of sea and sand and safety and happy life does not exist anymore. It is buried in war, in misery and in violence. Buried (mostly) by the country of my adulthood, the United States.
My adulthood destroyed my childhood.

In the Libya of my childhood, life is prosperous for all.


It is prosperous, it is calm and it is safe and any kid like me can have everything she wants.

My favorites are Kinder eggs. My mom buys full trays – 24 eggs – and I break them by the dozens at once to pull the toys out. I cannot wait.

I love Bounty bars and wondrous American orange juice in small paper boxes. 

I pick out my dresses from an elderly Italian merchant in the old Souk and my mom and I become his repeat customers. I go for whimsical cotton princess dresses; my mom buys a lot of jeans and a bright blue turban. It becomes her favorite accessory besides the long beaded necklace with the ivory crucifix- because, she laughs, it scares all the communist vampires. This she only shares with her Libyan friends. To say it in front of our countrymen would be incredibly dangerous, she tells me, asking for my silent complicity.


My mom and I take trips to the Mediterranean shores every weekend.

Wandering through Leptis Magna and Sabrata fills our Fridays and our Saturdays with joy. I develop mad love for these Roman ruins and no time spent there is ever enough for me. I roam the streets, I sit on the edges of the pools and I climb every fallen column, Kinder eggs and fancy toys forgotten.

We go alone or we go with friends, but we go all the time. 


My mom’s favorite beach is Tajura, just outside Tripoli, but I love Garabuli- a magical stretch of golden sand and the bluest Mediterranean waves, farther down the road to Benghazi. To Garabuli we go with the hospital chief, Ali- my mom’s boss, her ‘mudir’- and his family. We travel in a wild Bedouin-like caravan- four or five Land Rovers tightly packed with giant pots and pans, and utensils, and glasses, and spices, and tents, and teacups with teapots, and rugs, and pillows, and bedding, and food, and drink, and kids, and cousins, and toys, moms and dads.

Once we get to the beach the men will set up the tents and start the fires and put on the teapots. The women will cook the lamb and rice.

My mom and I are guests- she dons her bathing suit, straps on mine and we go swimming in the clearest, gentlest seawater in the world.

Tajura Beach, July 29, 2006

Sometimes the ladies join us. They are comical in their white flowing farashias swelling up in the water like giant mushrooms, but they cannot quite muster the courage to take them off on a public beach. Gaddafi has been advocating emancipation and Western wear, but old traditions die hard. 

The ladies admire my mom’s bathing suit and no one asks her to cover up- they understand her culture and they respect her traditions.

They trip over in the waves and the floating fabric and they laugh.

We eat. We swim. The kids and I fall asleep fast, tired from the sun and water and full of warm homemade food. The adults talk. We stay late.

Tired and content in the salty darkness, the caravan weaves down the roads back to Tripoli.

My mom Nellie and I are an unusual pair in tribal Bedouin Libya.

She is tall, blue eyed and dark blonde. She is 36 years old and she is a woman alone in Tripoli. We are alone in Tripoli, until my dad joins us, months later.

Gregarious, open-minded and a fearless Arabic speaker, my mom had made a lot of Libyan friends, unlike her compatriots at the hospital.

Her closest are Suni and his wife Halima. Suni had been my mom’s patient and she had become fast friends with him and his two wives- Barka and Halima. Barka is the mother of his many kids, ages 6 to 22, and Halima is the younger one, close to my mother’s age.

Once a week we have dinner at Suni’s house.

He picks us up in his cherished green Chevy Eldorado. He loves that car. He will not let my mom flick her cigarettes out the window, because, he says, it will surely fly into his gas tank and ‘Boom!’ we go.

I am six years old. I sit in the back seat, leaning my skinny elbow on the window as the warm desert air rushes past me, and I wonder just how would my mom’s cigarettes fly in thought that gas-cap he so cautiously locks…

We fly on the crazy busy roads to Suni’s house.


Like most Libyan drivers, Suni does not heed speed limits or road signs. In this young, sparsely populated country life is so laissez-faire that no one follows the rules much. And besides, it is exhaustingly hot. Cops pull us over, but they are nice. They scold, they lecture, they do not ticket.

In Suni’s house, ruckus awaits us. The kids are running around, playing. I join in immediately. The wives are cooking and my mom sets the table. One table. I sit with the other kids on the floor, around a huge silver tray, laden with too much food. A lot of breads and pasta, a lot of tomato sauce, a lot of tuna, all spiced with harissa. 

Back in Europe, my dad had spent months teaching me how to eat properly, like a lady. With a firm word and even firmer hand, I am trained to eat with a fork and a knife, napkin on my knees, elbows off the table.

In this strange and busy house I am hungry and quite lost- there is no fork, there is no knife, no napkin on my knee and certainly no table for my elbows to be off of. The kids are jostling around me, grabbing what they want and I stare them down indignantly. My mom, sitting at the only real table with the parents, is chuckling with them at my inadaptability.

Few dinners later, I am cross-legged on the floor, as close as possible to that delicious tray of new foods. I do not remember what a knife or a fork is and I use my elbows only to push the other kids away from the spicy spaghetti I have grown to love so much. I sniffle from the hot harissa and I eat with my hand. I am happy and I am content.

Suni and Halima visit us all the time, especially after my dad arrives in Libya and we move from the hotel to a new, spacious apartment.

Suni and Halima love my dad Angel. They call him Ani. He is the heart of the company. He learns Arabic faster and better than my mom and he speaks it all the time.

He is funny and full of stories and anecdotes and they always stay late.

I fall asleep, hearing my dad talk and Suni and Halima’s roaring laughter in the living room.

Halima is beautiful and my dad always compliments her to her giggling delight. In our house she doesn’t wear her farashia. Both she and Suni think that European men do not look at women in the same way as Arab men do. Halima knows Gaddafi encourages women to uncover but, she jokingly winks as she says it, she is too old to change.

Our new apartment is cavernous four-bedroom wonder of balconies and marble clad walls and floors. It is in Gargaresh, one of Tripoli’s ancient neighborhoods, close to the sea. When the gibli, the hot sand winds from the Sahara, hit, we shutter all windows but the fine desert dust still coats the walls. All rooms have drains and my mother hoses down the marble back to a fresh glorious coolness.

My parents do not pay rent- housing is free in Libya. The brand new clinic where my mom works is also free, as is my school, and as are all schools and all hospitals.

My dad is looking for something to do, and my mom’s mudir, Ali, finds him a job. My dad will work with some of Ali’s oldest friends at a place called Sheriha Tibesti- a small auto parts import outfit. He soon becomes their favorite employee– the guys spend hours playing backgammon and taking me out to the neighborhood pastry shops. They work mostly for fun and to keep busy. In Libya oil-profit sharing provides for everyone and no one has to work unless they want to.

My dad often brings the guys home after work- they have cocktails and they talk politics. The cocktails and the talks are clandestine.

In Libya, a Muslim country, alcohol is banned. In Libya, the brand new Muslim socialist country, government criticism is not easily tolerated.

A doctor friend of my mom’s has figured out how to purify medical alcohol and the expats have been enjoying homemade ‘whisky’. The cocktails ease the conversation and the men talk about all that bothers them. Most liked the old king Idris and most are critical of Gaddafi. Gaddafi, a socialist, had nationalized the banks and the bigger companies and these men used to be in business.

And yet, they are all Arab nationalists and they choose Gaddafi over foreign meddling. They say they would always choose Gaddafi over arrogant American interference in Libyan affairs.


One night, shortly after my dad had come to Tripoli, we go out to an expat dinner party, not too far from our old hotel. I am long asleep when my parents pick me up and we all head home. It is 3am and the streets in Tripoli are desolate.

My head bobs rhythmically on my dad’s shoulder as he walks and chats with my mom. I drift in and out of sleep, listening to his footfalls as they turn street after street and then stop.

My mom is lost and she cannot find our way home. There is no one to ask. 

The houses behind the tall garden walls have sunk in night slumber, no cars zoom by – the city is silent, asleep. The dark sky hangs low.

We are lost in a foreign city in the in the middle of the night, but my mom doesn’t worry. There is no crime in Tripoli, she assures my dad.

After a while, I find our old hotel. The night porter knows us. He locks the hotel doors, we pile up in his car and he drives us the few blocks home.

The next day brings me an overwhelming experience.

My dad buys me a wondrous present- a giant talking doll. He buys her at the quaint store under the colonnade on Green Square. “Walkie Talkie…” sings the doll through a little record player built in her back, and walks as I hold her plastic hand.

We buy the doll and we go for sweets to Jusuf’s coffee shop. Jusuf’s is a good friend of my mom and dad. His café is in an old Italian colonial building off of Shara Istiqlal. Its’ black and white tiled atrium is lush with exotic trees and potted plants and ancient sculptures, all dwarfed by a magnificent Roman marble fountain. Plush red sofas are tucked among the old fluted columns and smoke and chatter drift towards us. Jusuf’s grey parrots watch the eternal backgammon players drinking their eternal sweet teas. 

I am a hero today. My dad tells everyone how I found the way home the night before and the men are charmed. I am a real Tripolitanian now, they say. All give me money for presents and I know- more talking dolls are in my future.

I play with my singing doll and I slurp the enormous ice cream Jusuf had served me. I am delighted and I am happy.

Life in Tripoli is bliss.


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