Awakened at dawn by the nasally call to prayer crackling over the fuzzy loudspeaker of a nearby mosque, I slipped out of bed while Ismail slept, and greeted my sister-in-law in the hallway with my morning breath, my bed head and my frown lines. She handed me a tiny cup and saucer, the kind children use at tea parties, filled with a frothy concoction. None of my relatives drank coffee, but as a special treat for me, Fauziya had bought a small, expensive canister of Nescafé powder. I tilted the cup to my mouth, nearly emptying it in one gulp. Among my hosts there would be no coffee, no alcohol, no television or Internet—and as I quickly realized, no outdoor exercise, since I could not be on the streets without an escort and nearly all my skin covered. In Libya I would be cut off from all these addictions at once, cold turkey—and under the watchful eye of female relatives who scrutinized my every expression, trying to anticipate my every need.
After breakfast, seven of us piled into a car not much bigger than a golf cart and drove to the home of Ismail’s beloved aunt Fatama, swerving on dirt roads past towering piles of trash and potholes deep enough to swallow a tire. A lone Libyan flag flapped in the wind, as green and plain as the apron of a Starbucks employee, and in my mind’s eye I saw a barista offering me three sizes that started large and grew from there, saw myself cradling a paper cup filled with rich, dark brew. Folded onto Ismail’s lap in the backseat, my head brushing the torn vinyl ceiling, I whispered into his ear: “Is there a Starbucks on the way?” He chuckled, low and sympathetic, and squeezed me tighter. Behind a high concrete wall, his aunt Fatama squatted on her porch waiting for us. A round, beaming woman swaddled in a brightly colored cloth from head to toe, she greeted us with kisses, tears and prayers, then disappeared into her darkened home. She returned a moment later with a plate of french fries, which she served us at 9 AM. We ate in her courtyard, warming our faces in the weak morning sun as her cats threaded through our legs and her chickens pecked the dust.
There was no Starbucks to be found, but something equally appealing caught my eye as we drove past it a few days later: a small, hand-lettered sign that read INTERNET. I motioned to Ismail’s brother to stop the car, ducked into a small room lined with computers and sat down at a terminal beside a Libyan teen with stacks of textbooks and earplugs tucked beneath her head scarf. The sight of Google popping up on my screen was as comforting as a visit home. I could have sat there for hours checking news headlines, scanning the weather, e-mailing friends. Even checking work e-mail felt like a vacation. I wanted to climb inside the computer screen, hook myself to the Internet with an IV, numb myself from the unrelenting intimacy of this strange country. But my brother-in-law Hussein waited patiently in the car, and a houseful of relatives awaited my arrival at my mother-in-law’s. On previous travels, exhausted by foreign languages and unfamiliar customs, I’d withdrawn to hotels and bars filled with other travelers, all of us ready to commiserate about home and toast our adventures. For the next two weeks, however, there would be no respite from crowded, generous, broken, resilient Libya, which in 2005 was just emerging from 18 years of sanctions by the U.S. and its European allies.
In the United States I spent most daylight hours in an office, tapping on a keyboard until my wrists ached. I equated travel with being outside—surfing rolling waves, walking city streets, hiking narrow mountain paths—and I had looked forward to spending my vacation in the sun, exploring Libya. But nearly all my time was spent inside the crowded homes of women who called me sister and daughter. While other foreigners took guided tours of Roman ruins or were whisked into the desert on air-conditioned buses, snowboards (for flying down sand dunes) strapped on top, I sat thigh to thigh with these women at social gatherings that often lasted as long as an entire workday.