I had been travelling for months; months of infrequently laundered clothes, muddied boots, lousy diet, bug-ridden solitary beds, communication misunderstandings in unfamiliar languages. It was two weeks to Christmas. Determined to make it home, I had a flight booked from Cairo. I was in Gaddafi’s Libya; a woman alone bearing an expensively-procured, illicit visa, braving dust and desert, heat, drunken evenings with riggers recounting tales of Dick Cheney and like-minded players whose fingers were in every oil-slicked pie.
I love Libya, with its stupendous Roman ruins where barely a soul visits, its sweeping red-earthed landscapes, its ancient Greek and Italian footprints, its epic desert roads and cave art, its slow-moving people who did not wave inanely, but watched me - a European woman swathed awkwardly in black scarves - with deep-eyed silent suspicion. Exhausted as I was, I was enjoying my quest. My father had been in Benghazi during Word War II entertaining Royal Air Force troops. This was a magical land from my childhood, painted with my father’s vivid stories. Now, I was discovering the reality, savouring its extraordinary delights while mourning its simmering desperations.
And then, one hot windy afternoon somewhere along the east coast, some distance from Egypt, while exiting a Roman site, I was stopped by a swarthy bureaucrat who ordered me to sign the Visitors Book. I hesitated. The fellow insisted. Instinct told me this was risky. At no other national monument had such a request been made. I considered a false name but the official demanded my passport. I scribbled an illegible autograph, hurriedly retrieved my travel document, strode to the car, slid into the passenger seat and instructed my driver, Ahmed, to put his foot on it. Glancing back, the administrator was on the telephone, dictating our license plate.
Trouble was brewing.
Half an hour closer to the border, while I was making notes, Ahmed clocked a car on our tail, gaining ground.
Without another word, he slammed the pedal, screeched off the main trajectory, sharp left, right again and on until we found ourselves cruising a forgotten beachfront, passing through a wind-bitten ghost town where every habitation was boarded up. Not a soul in sight. Ahmed informed me of underground aqueducts hereabouts.
I followed the direction of his pointed finger. On the sandy hillside dotted with yellow flowers and fallen ruins, a solitary Bedouin in long brown robes mingled with his sheep. Their bells tinkled in the wind. The hooded shepherd, hungry for diversion, waved me over. Ahmed urged me to go.
‘In two hours, police have given up.’
It was an amiable interlude of waterwheels and qanats, stilted conversation and stunning, blustery views over the Mediterranean.
Back on our route, we continued east. Within no time, the law reappeared.
Sweat broke out on Ahmed’s forehead. ‘Are you criminal?’ he snapped. ‘If you are, I kick you out. Ahmed wants no trouble.’
I calmed him. We proceeded. The police maintained their distance.
Dusk was falling as we reached Susa. My hotel overlooked the ancient Greek harbour. I hurried to the site. A ticket collector gestured me into the grounds as iron gates closed fast behind me. Two men now flanked the gatekeeper. Secret service. Heart thudding, I nodded and proceeded to the quays where I stood face to the wind, the crashing waves, picturing stevedore-slaves loading amphorae aboard ships bound for Rome. From behind me in the village, the muezzin’s tinny call erupted. I spun round and caught sight of a thick-set gentleman who slid behind a broad column. During fifteen minutes at the site, I counted six men lurking in the shadows.
I was locked in. Would they arrest me, throw my body to the fish. Camera in hand, could I swim for it?
It was so dark, I could barely find the exit. As I climbed, stones rolled and clattered while the figures shadowed me.
I reached the gates and faced a quartet approaching from different directions.
‘We are police.’
‘Why you, Libya?’
I outlined my quest.
‘Many years prison. When you go?’
‘Tomorrow,’ I promised. ‘As long as it takes to reach the border.’
They studied me with uncertain eyes, the whites glowing in the night. Then one nodded for the gate to be unlocked. No more was said. I departed. The following dawn, Ahmed banged on my door.
He had received a phone call. Orders to transport me to the border. We were silently escorted to Egypt.
I would be home for Christmas.
copyright Longshot Pictures 2013