Villa Kismet," "Villa Sindbad," "Villa Andalusia," The names, evoking an exotic mixture of Iberian and Arab reverie, crack or peel off the walls and gateposts of the seaside quarter of Tripoli, known 10 years ago for oil company Chevrolets, trellises laden with grapes and genteel views of the Mediterranean.

Today, the quarter is crowded with squat villas and apartment blocks that leave no room for the bougainvillea, lantana and scented eucalyptus of the old gardens. Dusty lots and half-finished concrete frames testify to the ambitions of the Libyan middle class frozen here in mid-creation, when the supply of Egyptian laborers stopped after the July 1977 war, and after May 6, 1978, when Col. Muammar Qaddafi decreed the economic demise of Landlords and ordered the transfer of houses and apartments of families with more than one to those with none at all.

The fading pink and blue Italian villas still permit the casual stroller glimpses of the inner courtyards and living rooms of Libyan family life, but in the new structures these are rigorously screened off behind 10-foot masonry walls, drawn shutters and electrical bell-and-lock systems. The symbol of wealth are visible -- Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota Crown have replaced the Chevrolets of a decade ago -- but the public signs of life are missing.

Those signs are to be found at the Beach Hotel, a nondescript building on the beachfront, decked with faded bunting and political banners and surrounded by cars and nests of mangy cats. Unless you are a visiting head of state whose rank or physical insecurity requires the more secluded and esthetic accommondations of the official villa on the other side of Tripoli, it is to the Beach Hotel that you go. Until the reconstruction of the Grand Hotel is completed in the center of the city, the Beach Hotel remains the place to observe the Libyans, young and old, on their nights off, at parties and celebrations. If you want to see how the private wealth is spent, you can watch it at wedding celebrations, where the bride and her woman friends display their gold-encrusted evening gowns and jewelry, and where the older women in striped silks of their national costume dance with containers of hot coals on their heads to drive away the evil spirits.

If you want to know how much water there is under the Libyan desert, you can find out from a drill equipment salesman from Texas who has been sitting in the hotel lobby for days waiting to sign his contract. If you are curious about Col. Qaddafi's reputation among his African neighbors, you ask the Chadian who makes your bed, the Tunisian maitre d'hotel in the dining room or the Sudanese porter. If you are interested in Libya's relations with Romania, or what American pilots are doing, or how a Swedish port pilot spends his day, they are all there for the asking. And if you want to know what is going on in the minds of the dark tousled Libyan men who sit every evening with their expressos, sweet Arabic tea and cigarettes, you ask Ahmed, one of the Beach Hotel regulars.

"I wish the oil would stop," Ahmed said wistfully one evening. He isn't forgetting the poverty in which he grew up in a village not far from where the hotel now stands. "We were so poor we didn't even have candles. I learned to write by scratching on a wooden board. But now I would be happier on the farm, with good fresh fruit and meat -- not this Bulgarian meat you have to saw like wood."

At 50, his hands callused, work clothes crumpled and face carved into a network of trenches by the sun, Ahmed is, he admits, a very rich man. Most of the money has come from selling land to those whose cash has come from Libya's oil. In his work shirt pocket, he carries a wad of dinar notes worth between $500 and $1,000. He has three cars -- "so that there will always be one that works." His wife and five daughters have "more gold bracelets than their arms are long." His four sons watch color television and video sets in their bedrooms. He himself flies to Malta for weekends whenever he feels like it, or to London, Rome, Istanbul, Zagreb, Budapest, and Athens, where he stays "always in the best hotels, and," he adds with a friendly touch on my knee, "with the best women -- like you, madame."

In conversation Ahmed watches you like a falcon, pausing the moment you try to probe his political feelings. "I'm just a mule from North Africa," he grins. He prefers to dicuss his sexual adventures abroad. He knows that playing Don Juan is made possible only by the dinars in his pocket. And yet he's unhappy with what wealth has done to the life around him, to Libya.

If when you come back here, you find only me sitting drinking my coffee, you'll know that the oil has stopped. Look at all these people here, 154 nationalities! And what for? Just for the oil! What can I offer you in this hotel that is from Libya? The meat is from somewhere else. The fruit and vegetables are from somewhere. There is little from Libya anymore. And now, why do you have 800,000 Libyian boys in the army? To go to Chad? Or this place or that? Why do we need that? For more than a year now, I don't read the newspaper or listen to the radio. Just music, soft music, no news. I'm fed up with politics."

Esthetically, if not in any other respect, Tripoli was in its prime 400 years before Ahmed's real estate amounted to anything more than ragged pasture. That was when Leo Africanus, a Moor who lived and wrote in Grenada, recorded that opinion that -- compared with Tunis or Fez -- Tripoli was the most beautiful of the North African Arab cities. From then on, it has been steadily downhill into decrepitude and poverty, as the slave trade failed, the Barbary Wars put an end to income from piracy, and the Ottoman Empire and the Italians put the city and the surrounding region under heel. Then came the devastation of the North African war.

Despite Libya's oil fortune, the crowded oil quarter of Tripoli continues to tumble down. More than half the stalls and shops of the souk (market) are shuttered, as the economy shifts to state-owned suprmarkets and department stores. The old esplanade, which the Italians laid out straight, formal and elegant with palms, marble seawalk and decorative street lamps, has been forced to give way to the demands of the crowded port and suburban commuters. Even the Red Castle itself, the once forbidding seat of the bey (sultan) of Tripoli, has been marooned on the edge of a vast tarmac that is the city square, and of a dusty tract, reclaimed from the sea, that is permanently occupied by hundreds of rows of automobiles, trucks, cement-mixers and other cargo just unloaded from every corner of the earth.

There is plainly no lack of trade, power and wealth these days to save the city, but even the newest office buildings and apartment blocks appear unable to resist the march toward disintegration. In part, this is because it's the conscious policy of the government to put money into housing, schools, hospitals, factories, agricultural equipment and arms, and to leave the future to take care of preserving the past.

But there's another reason. Libya needs slaves -- though not necessarily the black or Christian ones that kept the cities spick-and-span in Leo Africanus' time -- because Libyans themselves abhor most forms of manual labor, other than farming, and are indifferent to the forms of cities. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century historian of these parts, blamed the poor planning and impermanence he observed in the North African cities on the fact that "the Arabs have no interest in these things. They only see to it that they have pastures for their camels. At the fist intimations of the disintegration of Arab power, those cities fall prey to ruin and disintegration and were as if they had never been."

Libya's population has grown at a phenomenal rate -- the total is now at least 3.2 million, twice the 1964 total -- and cities like Tripoli have grown even faster, as have the numbers of foreigners needed to operate the economy, in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs just as much as in technical or professional ones. Today, more than 500,000 imported workers are still not enough to take care of the refuse that piles up in the streets: not poisonous, health-threatening garbage that municipal sanitation trucks carry off efficiently, but the plastic, chrome-plated and chipboard flotsam and jetsam of an affluent society in the act of consuming everything that money can buy.

Cramped housing -- the result of urban migration and large families -- puts a premium on private space, so it is inevitable that the public domain is treated as a dump. Shortage of skilled mechanics and maintenance workers -- a problem all over the oil-rich world -- also means impossible delays in repairing tractors, cars and other equipment, whose operators, are likely to abandon them wherever they stop.

Taher Gosbaidat, an interpreter at a government ministry, looks at the Western face across the table at a restaurant and says it is inconceivable to him that a person could live without believing in God.

He pulls a five-dinar note from his pocket. "You see, I put this on the table. Maybe I forgot it here and go away. If there is no God, then perhaps you will put it in your own pocket. For us, it is a duty to return it."

Libyan folklore is filled with tales of Moslem mystics and of the power of the Senoussi brotherhood, the ascetic fundamentalist movement that began in the eastern half of Lybia last century and led the resistance to Italian colonization. But the religion of the modern Libyans is down-to-earth and uncomplicated. Like the Puritans who established the first American settlements, they reject the clerical trappings of religion. On that score, their support for the revolution in Iran isn't an expression of confidence in Ayatollah Khoumeni or the Iranian mullahs. To the average Libyan, a man's relationship with his God is personal and direct and needs no intermediaries, clergymen, scholastic interpreters, martyrs or saints.

For that reason, perhaps, a man negotiates directly with God over his sins -- and in Lybia, God is thought to be less puritanical than in other traditional Islamic regimes, and the faithful are a good deal less hypocritical about their waywardness. Officially, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden, but smuggled beer, wine and liquor are not too expensive or difficult to get.

Cencorship is strict, but more from bureaucratic zeal -- the true Lybian vice -- than from religious orthodoxy. Customs officers search luggage for printed material, rooting out every example of the Western press they can find. The Times of London, Newsweek, L'Express are all taken, recorded in a neat receipt for the visitor to present on the way out. But the very same papers and magazines are regularly on sale at street stalls and in hotels, and far more subversive thoughts stream into the country from radio stations abroad without interference.

A Libyan academic describes his brush with the bureaucracy after returning home recently from London. He was waiting in line at the airport just behind an Englishman who was an employee of one of the oil companies. The Englishman had been reading a translation of Col. Qaddafi's Green Book, the textbook of the revolution, and was amazed when the customs officer pulled it out of his briefcase and tossed it into the confiscation bin.

"Don't you know what this is?" he exclaimed. "This is the Green Book!"

The officer yelled back at him in Arabic, and the academic translated for him. "He is saying, "Green book or blue book, it's all the same to me. They told me take books, and that's exactly what I'm doing."

Liyan men outnumber women, mainly because, the experts think, malnutrition and poor medical care for female infants in male-centered homes produce a much higher mortality rate among female than male children. It is difficult for the young males to meet girlfriends who are without chaperones, and they can rarely afford the price of mahr, the dowry a bridegroom must pay for his bride. The going rate is about $10,000, and that isn't all: according to the marriage contract, the husband may be obliged to provide his wife with jewelry and a trousseau of clothes, and often a fully furnished apartment or house as well.

Marius and Mary Jane Deeb, two sociologists from American University in Beirut, have recently completed a study of Lybian society since the 1969 revolution (to be published this year by Praeger). They say that sexual assault and rape are among the most common of the serious crimes reported in the main cities, although significantly undercounted because rape of an unmarried woman is still a stigma not against the assailant so much as on the honor of the victim, her father, brothers and family. Vengeance and "honor" killings still occur from time to time.

What Libyan men lack in sexual opportunity, they compensate for on the road in their cars. As a result, in addition to the general litter, there are large numbers of auto carcasses to be seen, some still wrapped around posts and embankment fences where they've crashed at high speed.

In the street, you can't tell a poor man from a rich man. The traditional male dress of embroidered waistcoat, baggy pants and cloak covers the millionaire and the construction worker alike. Even in the Foreign Ministry -- unlike many others in the Arab world where Western pin stripes prevail -- the diplomats and staff wear safari suits, open-neck shirts and often sandals. In the traditional garb, there is the same quality of embroidery and cloth in the costume of the post office clerk as in that of "Brother" Qaddafi, as the Libyan leader is familiarly known.

Because virtually all Libyans now work for the state, and because wage levels are bureaucratically fixed, the gap between top and bottom isn't great. The top salary for the equivalent of a minister or a university professor is 450 dinars per month -- that's about $1,500. A schoolteacher starts at about 150 dinars ($500). But a sales clerk at one of the new supermarkets is being paid 390 dinars a month ($1,300) to put a premium on service and to keep the customers happy. Scarce skilled workers are also paid above scale to keep them on the job, and the military is pampered in the same way.

Lack of large income differences hasn't precluded those with inherited wealth or savings from the old days from spending their money, but the confiscation of the rental properties and second villas of the old middle class makes it unwise to gauge a family's social status from the quality of his house.

One reliable indicator of who's on top in Libya is the television antenna on the roof. Virtually every household in the country now owns a television set, as well as refrigerator and radio. Two-thirds own a car and washing machine. But television sets sell for prices ranging from 100 to 1,000 dinars, and those with the edge on others in Libyan society can be identified by the cost of their sets and by the fact that with a sophisticated antenna on the rooftop they can tune in Tunisia and, across the Mediterranean, Italy.

A newly arrived Bedouin family in Tripoli -- illiterate mother and grandfather, who don't work, six to 10 children in school, and father who drives a cement truck -- will put up a simple antenna with three or four cross-wires pointing in a fixed direction. But their social betters, who may live next door or in the apartment above will erect an aerial that is several feet higher and has two sets of struts -- one for Tunis, one for Italy -- and a small motor to drive the apparatus round to catch the strongest signal.

It is not that Tunisian telvision is less boring than Libyan. At least as much Tunisian TV time is consumed by the day's doings of President Habib Borguiba as Libya's is absorbed by those of Col. Qaddafi. But Tunisian TV shows Italian and French films, and Italian channels show naked women on film and in televised strip shows, which is what the Libyan middle class tunes in to watch.

Libyans can also buy -- though it is still too costly for most -- home video recorders that play cassette films. According to Lybian sociologists who have been surveying people's leisure habits, video pornography and overseas television are overwhelming other forms of recreation. The cafes are dying out, partly because the city center itself has been abandoned in the flight of families to the suburbs. Outside the family living room, there is not a great deal for young or old to do in their spare time, and people complain about boredom.

Marius and Mary Jane Deeb echo a judgment that is widespread in the older generation: "Restless, aimless teen-agers can become a serious problem." For many parents, Qaddafi's proposal for drawing young boys and girls into military training early in their adolescence is a good idea for keeping them off the streets.

There is a sense of social isolation and loneliness. Libyans cling tenaciously to the values of the traditional extended family, but so many of them have moved away from their birthplaces to cramped city apartments that it is difficult to preserve ties with relatives.

A university professor says trying to preserve the old links takes considerable daily effort. To visit his mother every day, as he does, he must drive to her apartment through heavy traffic at lunch hour, then back to his university office, and, after more commuting, home to his wife and children. Neither he nor his mother would think of using the telephone as a substitute.

In fact, according to a recent opinion poll, most Lybians don't own a telephone and don't want one. Lybians feel telephones could open a Pandora's box of traditional fears and threats. "What if someone calls my daughter and says nasty things to her?" asks one man. His view is not uncommon.

Rawhia has trained in Libya as a sociologist and social worker. She is in her mid-20s, married for three years, but as yet childless.

She explains: "You cannot talk about choosing not to be married. You are not allowed to express that you do not want to have children. My family and friends don't allow a choice. You have to have children, they say. You can't delay. Myself, I don't use contraceptives. So far I haven't become pregnant. If I do, well okay, but I'm not going to a doctor to seek treatment because I haven't."

Libyan society rmains mostly committed to the traditional roles for women. In a survey of the main towns recently, Mustafa Attir, a sociologist at the National Academy of Scientific Research, found that "the majority of married people, even among newlyweds, have no desire to resort to family planning techniques."

That certainly accords with Col. Qaddafi's views. "The mother who abandons her maternity contradicts her natural role in life," he writes in the Green Book. The result -- unique in the developing world -- is that as they acquire education, city habits, medical care and wealth, Libyan families continue to produce five to six children on the average and households of nine to 10 children are not uncommon.

The cab driver who has dozed all day at the hotel is unmoved by the appearance of a prospective rider. The meter doesn't work, and the fare is robbery -- five dinars ($17) for a 15-minute ride into the city, take it or leave it. The junior officials at the ministry offices sit with their feet on their desks, reading the day's foreign newspapers and fetching coffee or Pepsi. Arab music crackles through the hallways from transistor radios. The telex machines rattle out Arabic summaries of what New York, London, Paris and Rome are saying about Libya that day -- all are flung unread into a mountainous basket. Legions of subordinates disappear for the afternoon meal and don't return; their chiefs can't keep up with the volume of work and are inaccessible. A male secretary interrupts his chat with friends who have dropped by to sit in his office to assure me that I will see his boss, the secretary-general, but he can't say exactly when. "Why don't you come back this afternoon . . . We will call you at your hotel . . . I will send a driver to pick you up . . ."

"We have an unusual manpower problem," sighs an economist with a London accent. "It's not just that we received no education in the Italian period, and we've had to import most of our experts and skills since then. The revolution has done a good job of building schools and universities, but there's a limit to how fast you can train people to operate in the modern world. And the revolution has satisfied so many of the material needs, there isn't much incentive to concentrate or work harder any more."

A researcher at Al-Fateh University, Tripoli, says his institute has all the computer machinery he needs, but he still prefers to send his research material to the United States to be key-punched and put on computer tape. An English computer company executive confirms the problem -- Libyan operators just don't care enough about the accuracy of their work.

"We are developing too fast," a well-known scientist suggests. "People are so used now to having what they want imported or handled by foreigners that they are losing their self-reliance. We need to become more selective about our needs, to develop more slowly, spend less on big projects. We don't need to produce so much oil for this."

A West European ambassador sees another side. "You've got to understand the Libyan pride. It is going to prove that it too can make the desert bloom. It is going to have modern industry. It is going to be a military power . . .In a generation these people will be a formidable power in this area."

At a tent camp pitched near the sea, east of Tripoli, university students talk about their feelings. They know what outsiders think about Libya; they listen to the BBC, Boice of America, Cairo radio. They aren't defensive. It is easy to explain, they say, "why Libya must help the Palestinians, the Chadians -- why the American people don't understand what is going on in the Middle East." They don't quarrel with the necessity of military training. But they know their parents are more skeptical.

"Chad is the first time we can show what modern Libya can do," a student dressed in fatigues suggests. But parents of boys his age worry that his career will be interrupted by military service. They don't want him sent to Chad or to southern Lebanon. Libya's prosperity is still too new; they haven't finished savoring their good fortune. They aren't ready for blood sacrifices -- except to defend the country from direct attack.

On the dais at what was once Wheelus Air Force Base, for the annual parade in honor of the withdrawal of American forces from Libya, there is an old man of 87. He is dressed in white robes, his wispy gray beard carefully washed and combed, and on his breast is pinned a large gold and green medal the size and brightness of a sunflower. That, he explains, signifies he is one of the original band that rode with Omar el-Mukhtar, the Libyan hero who led the guerrilla war against the Italians from 1912 to his death, by hanging, in 1931. There are not many such veterans still alive, and he is overjoyed when another old man in white robes comes on the platform to greet him. They kiss each other's hands.

The film "Lion of the Desert" has made the story of the Libyan war much better known in the West, and el-Mukhtar's name is familiar to all Libyan schoolchildren. The scorched-earth policies and concentration camps of the Italians killed so many thousands of Libyans that most families can recall a relative who died during that time. But the young know few of the details, either of that revolt or of the hundreds that history records of the Libyan tribes going back to the Garamantes, whose horsemanship and ferocity terrified Kroman legionaries 1,900 years ago.

I ask a group of journalism students visiting from Benghazi what they know of the Garamantes, and they turn up their hands. I ask what they have read about Hamid and Ali Qaramanli and their successors, who broke with the Turks in 1711 and established their own quasi-independent rule in Tripoli until 1835. It was against Yusuf Qaramanli that the U.S.S. Philadelphia fought -- was captured, then ransomed -- in the Tripolitan war of 1803-1805. Again, the students appeared not to know much of the detail. Perhaps they were more familiar with the independence era? Of that they knew the Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, but not the Algerian Ahmed Ben Bella. Who then is the most important figure in Libyan history? That is obvious, they reply: Brother Qaddafi.

The colonel had taken his seat on the dais for the Wheelus parade, but it wasn't his turn to speak. Overhead Mirage, Mig and Tupolev jets from the Libyan air force roared low over the airfield and climbed into the sky and out to sea, before swinging back for another pass. In front of the dais, 200 riders stood in the stirrups of richly caparisoned horses to cheer the aircraft above. Despite the clatter of helicopters and the detonations of the jets passing through the sound barrier, the horses never flinched.

There are parades like this several times a year -- one for the American withdrawal, one for the British, one for the end of the Italian occupation and one to celebrate Qaddafi's revolution. The ceremonies are largely the same, and though the content of Qaddafi's speeches varies from occasion to occasion, the essential ingredients of the ritual remain the same. The old veterans, the teen-age cadets, the middle-class, middle-aged town militiamen, the university trainees, the "nuns of the revolution" -- the graduates of the women's military college -- each of the elements of Libyan society turns out, shouldering the still alien symbols of a modern power they are loath to acquire, but determined not to lose.