Libya

The corniche, once one of the most scenic and elegant on the Mediterranean, is cracked, pitted with the powdery sand that cakes the oleander blossoms along the waterfront. Beyond it are rows of tractor-trailers and the battered hulks of abandoned Mercedes and Fiat sedans.

"it is one of our big mistakes," says Mohammed Jernay, reflecting on the government's quick-fix decision a few years ago to dredge in the harbor along the corniche. While the dredging slashed the waiting time for ships to unload and saved millions of dollars in fees, it was one of countless decisions here where aesthetics have lost out in Libya's mulitibillion-dollar rush to development.

Next year, perhaps, Jernay says, Tripoli can begin reclaiming its historic waterfront, and replanting the lush seaside gardens.

At JERNAY'S seaside Libyan Studies Center, however, the focus is on Libya's past, not its future.

Jernay, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin, heads an historical research center funded by the government that, in his own words, is "decolonizing Libya's history."

Jernay has 16 teams of U.S.-trianed historians fanned out across Libya collecting oral history about the Italian occupation, which lasted from 1911 to 1943. In addition he has teams of researchers combining European repositories for manuscripts, maps diaries and other scrips to flesh out Libyan history.

"It's essential for us to understand this -- our past, our heritage as Libyans and Arabs -- and not merely depend on accounts from the Italians, the French, or the British," Jernay said.

A MORE GRANDIOSE effort to plumb Libyan history is taking shape in the desert south of Benghazi where Moustapha Akkad, producer of "The Messenger," the controversial film life of Mohammed the prophet, is filming the life of Omar Muktar.

Anthony Quinn plays Muktar, the legendary Libyan sheik who led a nine-year guerrilla war against the Italians. Oliver Reed plays the Italian general who out-gunned and out-manned Muktar, captured and hanged him in 1931. The Libyan government is playing the part of theatrical benefactor.

While staunchly Islamic, Col Muammer Qaddafi, Libya's strongman, obviously does not take as narrow a view of movies as the Saudis and Kuwaitis do. They have banned public movie theaters.

QADDAFI HAS, HOWEVER, banned drinking and closed the night-clubs favored a decade ago by the thousands of American servicemen at Wheelus Air Force Base outside of Tripoli until it too was shutdown.

Libyans who can afford it slake their thirsts with home-brewed beer -- yeast and instructions are available over the counter at some food stores -- or look to the black market where a fifth of Johnny Walker costs $80 to $90.

Some Libyans accept the social restrictions here, saying they are good for the country. Others, such as Libya's leading cartoonist Axawi, look to the ban on drinking for satiric relief.

THE SPECTACULAR RUINS croping out along the 1,200-mile Mediterranean coastline are among the things that have shown little change in the new Libya.

Unlike the Greek Acropolis -- parts of which are best seen at the British Museum -- or Egypt's Nile Valley or Iraq's Babylon, whose treasures dot Europe's museums, Libya has retained most ot its Roman, Ottman, and even most of its Roman, Ottoman, and even Greek remains.

"The reason we weren't robbed," says one Libyan intellectual, "was that we were colonized by the Italians, who felt that the Roman ruins here added to their claims."

"Besides, he added, "they already had their own ruins."

Libyan families enjoy picnics at shaded parks near Sabbratha and Lepits Magna, two of Libya's most exquisite gatherings of Roman ruins, staring at the few European tourists who drive from Tripoli to visit the site.

Driving back from Sabbratha along a modern four-lane freeway, bordered by cypress trees and olive groves, a recent visitor stopped to photograph a Tuareg tribesman leading a file of 18 camels along the highway shoulder. The camels string -- an increasingly rare sight here -- is one of the few reminders a visitor sees of the great trade caravans that once traversed the desert, bringing oriental and African goods to Europeans parts.

Just as the first pictures were snapped, a Mercedes 300 SL pulled to the side of the road, out stepped a smartly dressed Libyan.

He reached back into his car, then pulled out a camera, and began taking pictures, too.