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Sahara

Day 82: Benghazi

Benghazi, Libya 
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Sweeping gaze. Plenty of brushes, but where are all the people?
Michael Palin - SaharaAbdul and Mohammed collect me in their car. Abdul is our chief minder from the Government Media Department, while Mohammed, slimmer, younger and already a father of five, is an air-traffic controller in Benghazi. This, apparently, is not a full-time job; he's also a plumber and a painter.

'One thousand, nine hundred kilometre beach begin here,' announces Abdul, waving his arm at a flat milky-green wasteland studded with cones of freshly tipped rubbish. I'm taken to meet a friend of theirs who runs a tourist village. Photographs are taken. Along another meaningless swirl of motorway into the centre of the city. A number of Italian colonial buildings remain, including a Venetian-style governor's residence, now the headquarters of the local committee. It's a Friday and there aren't many people in the streets. Those that are about seem to favour Western dress. There are more sharp, Italian-style suits than there are tarbooshes and djellabas.

Lunch is long and formal. The tables are big enough for a peace conference, and conversation is in the polite international style, with bursts of animated misunderstanding punctuated by longer periods of silence. Afterwards we prowl around two good-looking mosques, and a small square dominated by a classical copper-domed cathedral, now also a mosque. I climb the wide stone steps that lead to the portico, only to find the massive west door bricked up. Perhaps anxious to correct any bad impression we might have got from the boarded-up cathedral, Abdul takes us to a Catholic church and mission run by Franciscans, closed in the early years of the revolution and reopened in 1976 after a Catholic-Islamic pact was signed in Tripoli. Seven priests and thirty-five nuns keep it open all week, and offer mass in five languages, Arabic, English, Italian, Polish and Korean.

The bishop of Cyrenaica, a short, genial Maltese, explained this eclectic mix. Poles work on a lot of the urban construction projects and the Koreans on the Great Manmade River Project, Gaddafi's epic scheme to bring fresh water from underground aquifers thousands of feet below the desert to irrigate the coast. At one time the project used Filipinos, very good Catholics.

'There were thousands of them,' sighed the bishop, wistfully.
Benghazi, Libya 
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The mosque of Jami' Osman, with Ottoman-style dome is one of the few old buildings left in Benghazi, which was heavily bombed in the Second World War.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 82
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Benghazi
  • Book page no: 220

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