Monday, 1 July 2013

A POPE FROM LIBYA ? A COUNTRY YOU DON'T KNOW..

Yes , the same Libya the whole world had focused a year back , following 'Arab Spring'  . Libya is a known name since ancient past . But the details are not known to the rest of the world the way neighboring country Egypt is . In the current world it is an oil producing country , rich and a new political system is in place . But what I want to introduce is a Libya which I knew first hand about thirty six years back which presumably most of you did not know.
I was working as a project engineer in Kerala State Construction Corporation in their overseas project in Libya . That was in 1977 and I was 27.



How it got kicked off....
Nebu , my friend and I had been for one of our routine weekend evening film shows in 1977, they call it first show in Kerala, at Menaka movie house at Kochi . At the interval recess time as we were walking to have  'a tea and a smoke'  towards the door  that I got a call by name from the back. It was none other than Mr.CM Antony , MD of the Construction Corporation, one of the dynamic personalities I have met during my young professional days . "Chacko ,Congratulations". May be seeing my perplexed face he continued "It seems that you do not know the news yet. You are selected to join our Libyan project pilot team. I have signed the orders today evening". It was a surprising news indeed although I knew that a pilot team had already left for the destination few weeks earlier. I and Nebu got out of the hall but instead of having tea went straight to a beer parlor which was close by to celebrate ! I was thrilled for sure.

Three weeks later when I took an Indian Airlines flight to Mumbai , it was not my maiden flight. It was my second time being air borne. The first was when my appa (father) took the whole family from Kochi to Trivandrum when I was four years old in 1954. When I look back now, I have to laud him for his foresight, making such a costly venture those days since it was a rarity to travel by air not only in India but in the whole world and he was not born with a golden spoon in the mouth.

Air India took us- me and few other colleagues- to Rome and an Alitalia plane finally to the destination -Tripoli. It was late evening when we reached there. Nobody was there to receive us in the airport due to some miscommunication! But with a bit difficulty we could find our headquarters in the city, may be because the taxi driver could identify us as Indians . Flow of Indians to Libya had not started then and it could have been easy for the driver to identify the few available.

The business side of it
National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC) , a Govt of India (Federal) undertaking got a contract of building massive housing complexes in Libya .Kerala State Construction Corporation (KSCC) , a Govt of Kerala(State) undertaking signed a sub contract with NBCC for few exclusive sites . I was on  secondment in KSCC from my parent dept which was PWD. Those days in India major  business houses including those in construction were fully owned by the Govt sector than in the private since a path of socialism , five year plans were the order of the time- a sort of erstwhile USSR style of development.

The contract was with Public Housing Corporation of Libya at Beniwalid, 80 kms away from Tripoli. Libya was in the initial phase of development since Col Gaddafi came to power . That was the time when Libya was officially known as Socialist Peoples' Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from Libyan Arabic Republic . Having generated billions of petro dollars the country was on the verge of  massive infrastructure projects it launched later .

Mr.James Paul was hand picked by the Govt of Kerala to be the CEO of the Project . He was known to be a honest, technically sound engineer who delivers quality projects in time . In fact KSCC was full of such professionals - senior and junior- in the initial years of existence and when in hindsight I look back now, they have been delivering the best in the industry but being honest settling for paltry salaries from the Govt. those years. I happened to work with him in one small project site at Kochi, directly reporting to him. That could be the only reason why I was selected in the team because I was too young then to show any professional talents anyway but I got the first boost in my professional career from him.

Mediterranean coast to Sahara desert
Tripoli (Terabulus in Arabic) ,capital of Libya is a port city on the Mediterranean coast. Most of the buildings being in white colour was a special treat to the eyes . My mind is still fully reminiscent of the sea side boulevard  lined with tall orderly palm trees , the main city square painted green on the cemented floor - it was called Green Square then (Could be Martys' Square now), Shops full of Italian,Greek and Maltese goods, a 'cathedral mosque'- mosque converted from a church  right in the city centre. Cars mostly were French Peugeot for some reason .
As one move out of the city , one could see massive olive plantations being made out of the barren lands which was very common.



Those were the 'Green Book' days , the book Col Gaddafi has written to explain how to run a country politically. There was no freedom of press .TV was in black with boring Govt sponsored programs exclusively. But that was better than in India- we did not have TV at all  those days! We were told not to mention Col Gaddafi's name in public , not even in a taxi, even if you are speaking in any foreign language , forget about any criticism of him ! Hence we have been using the term 'payyan'  പയ്യൻ meaning 'kid' in Malayalam whenever we want to talk about him!
 
Baniwalid is a town situated on the banks of a valley but our project site was further 15 kms in the country side in the villages towards Sahara desert. In fact it was then I have learned that in Arabic , word for desert is Sahra and that could be the reason behind why 'Sahara' is known for the largest desert in the world. Climate was very hot in summer and very cold in winter. Like anywhere in the world villagers of Libya were more friendlier than those from the capital. I still remember one Ali who was a  primary school teacher who used to spend a lot of time with us in our house especially on weekends . People in general were not friendly towards foreigners residing in the country , may be they have been living in closed societies over the last few decades , if not centuries.

Historic past..A pope from Libya?

                                                                         Roman ruins

Mediterranean Coastal land of Libya had an exciting past . May be the strategic location ancient Libya invited Roman and Greek occupation. As the name itself suggests 'Tripolis' means three cities, comprising of Oea (Tripoli), Leptis Magna and Sabratha . Libya was under Roman rule between 186 BC and 670 AD. Leptis Magna was the capital  of the province of Tripolitania under their rule. One can find a lot of Roman ruins of the past town still preserved for the visitors. There was a reason for the extensive magnificent structures being built in Libya . The Roman emperor Septimus Severus was born in Leptis Magna in Libya. He made his home town remarkable once he came to power in Rome , rivaling Carthage (present Tunis) and Alexandria (Egypt). Libya remained Christian and Jewish till 642 AD when Arabs conquered it to be followed by Ottoman empire. It remained so till Italians made it a colony of theirs in 1864.

I do not think that the fact that one of the popes of Roman catholic church- Pope Victor1(189 AD-199 AD) was born in Libya (Leptis Magna) is known to many !!!



                                                                        Pope Victor
 

Anecdotes ..
I was in the execution team of the project which spread to 3 villages around Baniwalid  . Among the team ,I was one of the youngest and bachelor among all the engineers . These days in Libya gave me a preliminary exposure to more mechanized way of construction than manual which was prevalent in India those days . Jack hammers, power tools , hollow block making machines , concrete trucks and pumps , steel scaffolds , concrete vibrators, dumpers and pneumatic mobile mixers, caterpillar trucks were all seen with a pinch of surprise by us because of the paucity of such equipments in India . 25 years later India started manufacturing and exporting these machines world over is another matter.

                                                    Typical old  village around Baniwalid

There was a Libyan Supervisor representing his  Housing ministry who used to visit our sites very often . I do not think that he has gone to a proper school but he was the boss, might have got the position with political connections, with Palestinian, Egyptian, Tunisian, Romanian, Hungarian engineers under him  !!He did not know a single word of English while we were fully ignorant of Arabic made an uneasy situation for communication . Plus the fellow was very moody, within seconds he was capable of changing from smile to rage and vice versa ! The problem was tamed by deputizing one senior engineer among us who had a knack of getting along with all sorts of people . Like Col Gaddafi , we nick named the supervisor as സ്വർനപല്ലൻ ,   the person with golden tooth since he had one !!

The house where we stayed was full of fun once we get back from the sites. In spite of many practical difficulties , we could enjoy the stay which was reminiscent of old hostel days in the engineering college .
Alcohol was banned in Libya strictly . I still remember one of our engineers who used to brew alcohol once in a while from fruits . The 'technology' he used was simple. A lot of mixed fruits were cut to smaller pieces . Yeast and water is added to that until fermented which takes few days . Then the same was transferred to a pressure cooker and slow fired . The outlet of the cooker is connected with a hose which is passed through cold water for condensation. Alcohol starts coming out of the hose in drops !
There were some practical problems . The stage of  fermented fruits brings a peculiar smell which can be identified miles away. We were afraid  Ali , the friendly Libyan who used to visit our home regularly . The problem was solved since an air tight cup board with blocked key holes was used for the purpose while the fruits being fermented! Another problem was too much demand which out beat the supply esp. since the whole process was very slow !! This we could not solve till we departed the country!

 Libya was undergoing a transition of 'rags to riches' those days and hence many unique situations had to be confronted. For having a personal bank account in a bank, which are all Govt controlled, an expatriate had to wait for ages, forget about sending money abroad ! This situation unknown in India created a lot of friction among staff and workers. Getting letters by post to and fro India used to take weeks .All essential commodities were imported and due to reasons unknown there were severe shortages at times. I still remember a period of a week having food without salt!!In the whole country salt had vanished ! Since we were new to the country we were caught unaware. Then only we knew that all others used to hoard the essentials in the house!

The return..
When we returned to India in early 1979 after the strange experiences we had to face there- professionally and otherwise- it was not with a good feeling . Unfortunately we all thought the whole middle east including gulf states were from similar stock . It may be for this reason that none of others in the group never ventured again out of India. But I did in 1984. After getting ascertained from one of my cousins who was in a gulf state for few years that the scenario in the gulf states is quite different , I took up an opportunity to go to Qatar . It was a difficult decision to make ,to leave the 'comforts' of being in a Govt service esp. since I would have ended up in a position of Chief Engineer in PWD in the fag end of my service . But I decided differently to try my talents, what ever I have, in private sector management than the Govt service. That is probably the best decision I could make in my personal professional career life. Still going strong with my career at the age of 63!

Photos :courtesy Google images.
 

6 comments:









  1. Ajeesh Jim Jose interesting travelogue...

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  2. Sir,
    I comprehend the write up fully! I was in Lybia for 14months from Dec. 2004 till early 2006. The one major change I note, among many, is that General public are more friendly by 2005. I worked in Mellitah, 130km From Tarabulus, on the Internatioanal highway leading to Tunisia. Sabratha was our weekly destination to make phone calls home! Those days, Lybia was jumping from land lines directly to Blue tooth camera phones :D Still, each sim card cost approx. 1100USD at that time, and not available to non Lybians, which was reduced to USD 80, by early 2006. So, we had to depend on the satellite communication available in the camp office, which costs 3.5-5USD per min or travel 50km to Sabratha to wait for 2-3hrs for an internet call. Again, most Thursdays, lines were busy.. So, by 11.30 there, we will hang up.. my parents waiting for my call till next week. But there were internet cafes. The Olive orchards were still there nicely preserved. and Dates too. But, public transportation was a nightmare. To make Lybians find a job, Col. aka Payyan ordered that no expats shall drive vehicles on Lybian roads or inside any camp. Sometimes, Military will raid our site, and arrest all expat drivers.. 2-3hours suspense drama. Finally, the project manager of Hyundai will call his counterparts in consultant and client side, who will negotiate with military to release all..! And the total cost of it - a few cups of Good brewed coffee :D. Commodity scarcity is still there.. but it changed face. Every vegetable is costlier. Imagine you have to opt between 60 lit of petrol and a pineapple, both cost 10 Lybian Dinars! Liquor was still prohibited, with exception to European / US citizens. But, it was locally available.. :D When you wrote 36yrs, it reminds me of the hoardings put up all across Lybia in 2005 - a large "36" Indicating 36 years of Gaddafi's reign. Thank you for reminding the name of the country. He changed the name of the country again to "Great Socialist People's Lybian Arab Jamahyria" - GSPLAJ in short form was appearing in all our construction drawings. In total, I felt life of common public was very hard.. and I was not wrong. Payyan was thrown out of power for all his 'work' there.

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  3. Dear Jaison,
    Thank you for taking me to the good old days of seventies.... friday cinemas and home away from home - Malabar House.It was interesting to read your Libyan experiance.
    NEBU

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  4. Sir,
    Thanks for sharing this piece from your life journey. You've taken readers for an interesting and historical journey of Libya, an ancient libya with limited freedom and its transformation, even the old names of libya are hard to remember though. Ironically, i was not much aware of such Govt. of Kerala initiatives, undertaking international construction projects that too during those days.

    Also, liked the way you all addressed col. as payyan :-) after all if someone can't utter the real name, people will have to derive an alternate one and you got one real good one.

    I most usually skip anything historical but sir, i would like to mention that you've got this remarkable talent of writing historical facts especially a reminiscent history of your experiences, so well that the reader is never bored.

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