6 Apr 2011

On buying a watch in Tripoli

This bright spring morning in Tripoli I set myself the challenge of buying a watch with Colonel Gaddafi’s face on it. My departing producer had acquired several as souvenirs for friends back home.

A Gaddafi watch might make a novelty Christmas present, perhaps. It might even become a collectors’ item, if Libya’s rebels fulfil their dream of removing the man after 41 years in power.

Buying a watch is easy in most places, but not if you are a foreign journalist in Tripoli. If we try to walk to the corner shop across the road from our hotel, hotel guards accost us and frequently turn us back. Unscheduled travel is disapproved of.

Who knows, somebody might say something controversial to us about the Gaddafi regime – and that would never do, would it?

The way round this is to ask our government minders, sipping coffee in the hotel lobby, to lay on a bus into town, which they agree to do.

Once this is arranged, several other journalists frantically climb aboard. They know we are only going shopping, and that the minders are watching our every move, but they are as desperate as we are to get out of this claustrophobic hotel.

We drive past giant images of Colonel Gaddafi plastered on the sides of buildings. But there are even taller shapes silhouetted against the blue Tripoli sky which tell a different story: the building cranes, looming large on silent construction sites. Libya’s building boom has ground to a standstill. Thousands of foreign construction workers have fled the country.

The word on the lips of the first Tripolitanian I meet in the street is “sad”. In fact, there is sadness in the faces of everyone I meet. And here’s why: in 2003, Libya agreed to abandon its weapons of mass destruction. The Americans lifted sanctions, and the Gaddafi regime came in from the cold.

Yet the last few years of economic expansion have been reversed in the space of just a few tumultuous weeks. It is not just the air strikes which feel like a re-run of history. Libyans have been plunged back into an isolationist past they would rather forget.

In downtown Tripoli, many of the shops have their green shutters down, and those that are open often close early.

“Nobody has any work,” says one man. “We have had enough,” says another. “We all want the regime to change.”

We have not filmed these interviews. We cannot do so out of consideration for the safety of these passers-by. And anyway, if we pulled the camera out, I think they would run a mile.

“We cannot speak because they are watching us,” says one man, lifting an eyebrow. Everyone is friendly, and everyone seems to know we are cooped up in a luxury hotel. It seems as if our presence as impartial observers in Tripoli is something of a local joke, given that nobody can talk to us and we can’t talk to them.

I find a watch shop, and the government minder accompanies us in. The shopkeeper has a sheet of paper with about twenty pictures of Colonel Gaddafi on it, all in little watch-sized circles which he can cut out and add to the face of any watch I choose.

Such choice! Do I want Gaddafi in kaftan and sunglasses or wearing a military sash?  Do I want him looking straight at me, or staring mystically at the heavens at around eleven o’clock?

The watch face I choose has it all. The numbers are in green, the colour of Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution. Gaddafi is in sunglasses, his jaw firmly set, while next to him is a map of Africa, all in green again. The sun is rising out of the top of the map, where Libya is, at about five to twelve, and beneath the sun is the number 41, recording Gaddafi’s 41 years at Libya’s helm.

The shopkeeper takes the Chinese-made watch apart and adds my chosen face. All this for about five British pounds. The cost depends on the strength of the Libyan dinar, and at the time of writing the local currency is rising.

Ten days ago my watch would have been even cheaper. When the rebels were advancing westwards and cruise missiles were falling around Tripoli, the dinar was in freefall.

Now it has stabilised: the civil war is at a stalemate, Nato airstrikes have not decisively tilted the balance, and  Libyans have stopped betting on their leader’s imminent departure. Still, I have my watch, even if Gaddafi’s time isn’t up yet.