“You remember the advertisement?” he said. “ ‘You can check in, but you can’t check out.’ That is us.”
In recent months, the dueling capitals of Libya have traded places. Tripoli, held by leader Moammar Gaddafi, is now in worse shape than rebel-held Benghazi.
Life in Benghazi gets slightly better every day: Police officers dressed as admirals at least pretend to direct traffic, an exhibit of once-forbidden art has opened in the new Gaddafi Crimes Museum, and the schools are scheduled to start again in September.
“The city feels safe. Things work,” said Abed Dada of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who has spent the past few weeks in Benghazi.
The bakeries are turning out special pastries again. A tank of gas costs $4, less than before the revolution. Cellphone calls are free.
Asked to compare the rival cities of east and west, which were traditional adversaries even before the uprising, one young merchant notes with pride that the price of a chicken in Tripoli is $12, whereas in Benghazi, a bird (imported from Egypt) will set you back $3.
The conditions of daily life in the de facto rebel capital — and the perceptions of its citizens — are important clues to how a post-Gaddafi Libya might function. The evidence in August suggests here would be a fractious, opaque government of well-meaning amateurs who care enough to try to keep the lights on.
When Saadi Gaddafi, one of the Brother Leader’s sons, came to Benghazi in February to try to cool the revolutionary fever, he famously told the angry residents that if they would only calm down and go home, “I will turn Benghazi into San Diego, I promise you.”
No worries, San Diego.
Benghazi could be lovely, it is true — it is on the Mediterranean and has lagoons and a zoo. But the sea is too dirty to swim in, the lakes are turgid waste pits, and the lion pacing his cage will break your heart.
Saadi Gaddafi admitted, after having had a brief look around, that Benghazi needed sprucing up. “There were a lot of mistakes,” the former professional soccer player and film producer said.
If Benghazi has a signature architectural motif, it is the half-completed construction site. Nothing was ever finished. The previous government appears to have erected scaffolding and then left town. Vast tracts of the city suggest a Florida real estate scam, nothing but signage and swamp. Construction of the government’s “One Thousand Two Hundred Bed Hospital” began in 1973. The first of three planned towers was finally opened last year.
Benghazi wags like to say that the entire emirate city-state of Dubai, one of the modern wonders of the Arab world, in the United Arab Emirates, was built from scratch in the time it took to build one 400-bed hospital here.