Mediterranean Cycopaths

Benghazi: Bad Boyz & Bootleg Booze

10th February 2007

Our arrival in Benghazi was a watershed moment of the trip – the conquering of the Gulf of Sirte – and we were glad to get here. It also heralded the transition from the well-educated, well-dressed and well-spoken middle-aged ‘minders’ of Tripoli to a younger, hipper and more westernised outfit.

The undoubted leader of this pack was the levi-toting, mobile wielding, handsome and charismatic Hamdi*, a former cycling star (a fact he patiently waited 45 seconds to divulge). Hamdi acted like a magnet for a whole raft of impressionable young men, and of this entourage his most constant companion was a solid unit with a gruff voice by the name of Abdullah*.

It was this duo who greeted us in order to provide a motorised escort into the city and subsequently turned what should of been a straighforward spin into a real life smash-up derby. Before our unbelieving eyes Abdullah proceeded to slam his car into multi-lane roundabouts, block slip-lane entrances to motorways and skid to a halt across the path of oncoming traffic. This insane performance, enacted to provide us with a safe and clear passage downtown, merely resulted in wildly unpredictable traffic movement – the fact that a wing mirror and front fender were the only victims of the ensuing chaos was surely the Middle East’s latest miracle.

For our remaining 2 and a half days in Benghazi, Hamdi and Abdullah orchestrated a ‘tagging’ performance that would have made Tony Libretore (former Australian Rules Footballer) proud. Whilst Team Cycopath is not usually dismissive of undue attention, the constant prescence of these two attempting to impose their “programme” upon us was a source of intense frustration. They would pop up unexpectedly – to the extent that I was surprised not to find one of them proffering the toilet paper on visits to the bathroom – and insist that we were safer locked inside Abdullah’s deathtrap than walking the streets alone. The irony was not lost on us.

Neither was the irony that when travelling with Abdullah we were hurtled forward at dangerously high velocities to get nowhere in particular (perhaps Abdullah subscribed to the belief that it is the journey rather than the destination…). Indeed Abdullah’s favourite pastime appeared to be gunning his car for small children standing in the street – I couldn’t help imagine another hobby being pulling the wings off defenceless insects. Our multi-lingual requests to slow down (the instinct for survival improving our Arabic dramatically) were invariably met with a manic laugh and the cranking of Bon Jovi’s early 90’s hits to well beyond industrial decibel limits.

Meanwhile, with a decent grasp of the English language, Hamdi’s communication difficulties were not so much lingual as the fact that the bloke never bloody listened. So instead we were fettered with an incessant smattering of “No problem,” “Don’t worry,” and our personal favourite “Small time” which could involve anywhere between 5 minutes and 5 hours of standing around listening to other people’s animated Arabic conversations**. When we did manage to slip their net and meet some real Libyans down at the local souq or felafel stand the relief was sheer bliss.

The culmination of these shenanigans occurred after visiting a hotel when Hamdi asked us if we would like to drink (alcohol). We duly replied that we understood alcohol was prohibited in Libya and didn’t need a drink; we duly added that of course if there were drinks on offer we would happily accept – as long as no-one was going out or their way or would get into trouble; Hamdi, of course, replied with the standard “No problem – Don’t worry”. Plans were set for the following evening and I went to sleep fascinated by the intricacies of a bootleg alcohol supply in Libya and, even more so, excited at the opportunity to reveal these intricacies to the scores of you at home pondering this very same conundrum.

I should’ve known better.

On the night in question Abdullah was in fine form, brushing 150kph in 50kph zones – this is no exaggeration, I was stealing glimpses at the speedo as I contorted my body behind him, attempting to adopt the best position to use this lunatic as a human airbag. On the outskirts of town we picked up two more passengers: Yousef* (who would have looked more at home in an Oxford schoolboy choir than in the badlands of Benghazi) who seemed to not only be organising events but also to have already performed some quality assurance on whatever viscious, home-brewed rocket fuel we were about to sample. The other was a shadowy figure referred to only as “Commandere” – a Kyrgistani pilot who when he (rarely) spoke did so with all the stereotypical tonal dread of Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV).

Over the next hour or so we were propelled in our sardine-tin-rocket from derelict warehouse to high-walled estate as Yousef employed phone calls, horn toots, secret knocks and even jumping to what I thought was certain death, over a wall to waiting canine howls; all events unfolding as Jon and I sat munching chips in the relative safety of Abdullah’s temporarily stationary vehicle. As timelines continued to be put back we decided that even for our “journalisitc purposes” enough was enough and requested to be returned to the hostel. Yousef’s enthusiasm failed to be quelled however and we left with his parting word’s ringing in our ears “Call back in half an hour. I’ll get girls as well. We’re all guys right?”

And so it was with a feeling of liberation that I took my first pedal strokes out of Benghazi (after we firmly asserted that another motorised escort was not required). In the delusional joy with which I headed east my mind interpreted the arabic road signs as the literal translation of my very own thoughts:

“Benghazi: Glad to get here; Ecstatic to leave.”


* Names altered to protect identities
** I figure the ratio of time required to say anything as 1:5 english:arabic



February 12, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Always entertaining stories !! Guys, I dedicate you one of my favorite quotation from P. Coelho: “Every search starts with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”
    Keep going !

    Comment by audrey | February 13, 2007 | Reply

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