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Surprisingly Normal

Amid an economic boom, Sabratha comes into its own.

5:20 PM, Apr 3, 2012 • By ANN MARLOWE
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On Friday, March 30, about a hundred Libyans strolled around the famous Roman ruins, but no foreigners. This isn’t a huge revenue loss to the town – even in the best of times, numbers of overseas visitors were small – but the local business community is trying to woo Libyan tourists. The tourist board is renovating the large four star Dar Tlil hotel on the beach to the west of Sabratha. It’s the biggest beach hotel between Tripoli and Tunisia, with a projected room rate of around $56 a night geared to Libyan budgets. The work is very much in the do it yourself spirit of the revolution. One prominent local businessman used his own large tractor to grade the beach in preparation for opening to the public this summer.

The Dar Tlil is unlikely to host many women bathers, however. While perhaps one in ten women on the street in November wore a face veil, perhaps as many as three in ten seemed to be covering their faces now. Maybe this is because more women are going out now, including more conservative women. I saw two different groups of four niqab-wearing women walking into two of the new restaurants that have sprung up since the revolution. Is it progress if women feel free to go out to eat, and have the money to do so, but feel obliged to veil their faces?

In evaluating Libya’s progress since the revolution, it’s important not to forget that at independence in 1951 this was one of the poorest and least educated countries in the world. Many of the streets in the outskirts of town aren’t paved, and people born before 1950 or so are likely to have had little or no formal education. Hassan al-Fathily’s 72-year-old mother, Shala, is case in point. She never went to school, and married a farmer at 13. But the mother of nine and grandmother of 40 has composed dozens of poems in Libyan dialect celebrating the revolution, which she can reel off eloquently at the drop of a hat. (I was told they are very beautiful, but no one felt up to translating them.) Her six sons are all educated. One grandson, Mahmoud, a tall, powerfully built 18-year-old revolutionary fighter, is about to start university. It’s his generation – a huge slice of Libya’s population – that will determine what Libya looks like in the next decades. For the moment, it looks as though Sabratha is becoming more Sabrathan. 

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