How things change on the road from Egypt to Libya

Libya, May 5, 2011

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It was early in the morning, when the Imams had just finished their morning calls to prayer. Our driver, Raffa — wearing a smile on his face — waited in front of the apartment building where I was staying in Cairo, Egypt to start the 900-mile-long road trip to Benghazi, Libya.

Struggling with turning the few words I knew of Arabic into sentences, we managed to exchange greetings. It was then when I realized that the Arabic that I knew — limited to reading the Quran and reciting the prayers that my mother had taught me — was not quite helpful in the conversation!

"How is it getting across the border, Raffa?" I asked.

"Americans are welcomed here, they are great, no problem at all," he answered. "You give me your passport, and I will take care of everything."

He was used to traveling with a dozen of my American colleagues over the last few weeks and — with my Banana Republic t-shirt and Columbia brand vest with Mercy Corps’ logo — he had concluded that I was also an American. I held my breath for a while and said, "Well, I live in the U.S., but I don’t have an American passport — in fact, I am an Afghan."

"Oh, Afghani, ok, ok, ok," Raffa muttered. There was silence for a while and then, as we rumbled over rough patches in the road, he said, "It will be fine, Inshallah."

"Yes, I hope so too," I said. "But I have a U.S Government-issued travel document as well. It looks like a passport."

Raffa flipped through the pages — yes, while driving — and said, "Well, this is good. Let’s use this one." I agreed that it might make things easier than using my hand-written Afghan passport.

The border looked much more organized than I had expected — certainly so much better than the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Chaman that I used to cross every two weeks when I started working for Mercy Corps in 2002. Having experienced the worst proved to be of help here: this border would feel like no hassle.

We drove into the immigration area on the Egyptian side of the border — a place packed with tents and plastic-sheet structures that were being used as shelters by migrant workers who had been sitting for months, waiting to cross the border into Egypt. It took us about an hour to get an exit stamp on my Afghan passport.

"This passport now goes into your backpack — please take out the American document for Libya," Raffa suggested. I immediately followed his orders.

Getting entry into Libya was not a problem; the volunteers taking care of the immigration process flipped through my travel document and offered me a “welcome to Libya” with the few English words that I heard spoken. We crossed through about four checkpoints in a couple of miles after the border area. Each time, I heard Raffa repeating “American, journalist!” and getting a “welcome, welcome” in response every time.

Being an Afghan, I probably have a different perspective of the conflict — but nothing I saw in Libya along the way from the Egyptian border indicated any absence of the law enforcement. I give the credit to the passionate youth who are volunteering to pick up the slack in civil services, making sure things keep functioning as best they can. They are doing their jobs — mostly unpaid — with great pride, open arms and respect for the international community’s support.

After our overnight layover in the coastal town of Tobruk — and a four-hour drive through very scenic parts of Libya —we arrived in Benghazi, the country's second-largest city. There were large number of vehicles on the crowded streets and traffic intersections manned by volunteers to help direct the traffic.

Two young boys in one intersection had given up trying to facilitate traffic and were sitting on the side of the road. Raffa shouted some words through the window, presumably asking them what was going on. They seemed to be complaining that the people wouldn’t listen and follow their traffic instructions. In retrospect, they probably looked too young and innocent for the job, especially compared to their mustached predecessors.

When we finally arrived, it felt nice and relieving to be welcomed by my Mercy Corps colleagues at the front gate of the hotel where we are staying — but my hotel room would offer more than just a place to sleep. Its mirror is being used as a whiteboard, the closet as a filling cabinet and the luggage rack as a desk.

This room will be the operations office for our Emergency Response Program here in Libya for the foreseeable future — and I am glad to be here.