"Libya is difficult; it's not terrible," said a diplomat who has lived here for several years. He has made his own little world of books and music and videotapes in his apartment shuttered against the Mediterranean sun and the routine calls to prayer from a nearby mosque. "But the problem is that the desert is not physical: it's this dryness in the minds of people."
Tripoli is like a ghost town full of the living. At the busiest hours of the day, many of the shops are closed. Their foreign owners have left, and no Libyan has replaced them. Or there is nothing to sell since oil prices dropped and imports nearly ceased.
Television, radio, the Muzak in hotel elevators, all are an endless repetition of revolutionary songs, revolutionary oratory, even rock 'n' roll with a revolutionary message. The only respite comes on the shortwave or one of the AM radio stations on Malta. A tuned-in taxi passes playing Willie Nelson.
There are a few bookstores, but they carry only Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi's slim volume of ideology and philosophy, "The Green Book," which proclaims, among other things, that "democracy means popular rule, not popular expression," or commentaries on the book, or hagiographies of "The Leader."
From "The Green Book" and traditions of Islam come the green banners and the green paint that are pervasive here. The steel shutters, half-closed even on the open shops, are green. Matchbooks are green and minibuses are green. Signs, even those marking emergency exits, are green. The local television cameras are painted green.
QADDAFI LOVES television and watches himself closely on it. At a youth rally Wednesday night in the modern hall of the General People's Congress, he had three monitors set up near his podium so he could see each angle from which he was shown. Appearing on ABC's "Nightline" on Monday, Qaddafi -- not the show's producers -- directed the position of the cameras taping him. Yet his gestures and posturing before the cameras are often stylized in the overacted manner of old movies. Diplomats say his media adviser is East German. Qaddafi's style, suggested one, is "pure 1930s German expressionism" -- Eric von Stroheim with hair.
First a port for pirates, then a colony of Italy, Tripoli is a sunny seaside city that seems to beg for life -- sidewalk cafes and restaurants, kiosks and boutiques. But there is none of this. There are no bars; no alcohol at all except the grain alcohol called "flash" and home-brewed beer made by foreigners.
The winding alleys of the old casbah now are largely deserted. The old crafts markets are shut down. But unlike so much of the city, the casbah still has personality. It remains a place of beauty and sad little surprises. At one end, overlooking the harbor, is an enormous old fort now being converted into a museum. In places where cars trying to squeeze through the alleys have torn away the stucco, cornerstones of houses are revealed as Roman columns scavenged from Libya's ancient ruins.
Qaddafi wants to raze much of the area and build better housing for his people, according to one Culture Ministry official. Qaddafi, the official said, loves to be photographed on bulldozers.
But residents of the casbah have heard from friends about the high-rise apartments where the elevators don't work, becoming, in a few years, soulless slums. So, many of the casbah's residents have refused to leave. They build tile steps in front of their old, elegantly arched entrances to give them fresh dignity. They polish the battered brass handles on their carved wooden doors, even when the brass, through age and use, has worn away to shreds of metal.
The revolution, dull and tedious for many adults, is a source of both boredom and ecstatic frenzy for the youth. There are no discos, few coffee shops, not many movies. On any evening, street corners are full of young men with nothing to do but ogle passers-by. Some cruise in their cars.
But in this Islamic culture, young Libyan women are not often picked up, and the European women here, particularly the blond East Europeans, are too few to satisfy demand.
So a political youth rally like the one on Wednesday night can have the emotional impact of a rock concert in the Bible Belt. Two thousand young people filled the hall and an equal number waited outside as Qaddafi spoke. Revolutionary chants took on tribal rhythms. Girls, having made their way in through the jammed doors, giggled or in a few cases collapsed in floods of adolescent tears -- and watched the boys.
QADDAFI TALKS about liberating Libyan women and has made such important symbolic steps as bringing them into the Army. But they are still tied down by the traditions of their society. Many older ones have the tattooed chins of the Bedouin and cover themselves with long white cloaks when they walk in the streets, holding the cloth together in front of their faces with their teeth if their hands are not free.
Younger women are more likely to be dressed in khaki uniforms. At the 700-student Women's Military Academy, some of the more devout wear nets to cover their hair beneath their campaign hats during drills. But others, officer cadets, wear high-heeled pumps with net stockings showing beneath the cuffs of their trousers instead of regulation black hobnail boots. Earrings and pearls break the drabness of olive.
Those who can afford it -- and many still can -- get away as often as they can. Diplomats say that once Libyans have exit permits from their own government, they hate to wait even a day for visas to Europe. The amount of money one person can take out is limited by law to about $1,000. So Libyans try to travel with as many children as possible, as each one is worth another $1,000 in spending money abroad.
Since the border with westernized Tunisia was closed last year, Malta and Italy have become the shopping centers and watering holes of Libya, and returning travelers bring back everything from designer fashions to the basic foods that are so scarce here.
Travel has come to seem a revolutionary right to many Libyans. Of about 15 young members of a revolutionary committee at the university here, all but one or two said they had been to Europe -- some several times. Diplomats believe this is a vital safety valve for Qaddafi's subjects. But as Libyans find themselves more suspect abroad and visas harder to come by, and as further foreign exchange restrictions are anticipated, this escape valve may be shutting down.
For the true believers of Qaddafi's revolution who hold this country in their hands, it may not matter. They constantly repeat mind-numbing slogans. They mouth them in answer to any question: "The Libyan people are Muammar Qaddafi." "Those who are against us we will destroy." In the popular congresses, they shake their right arms aloft sometimes, one of them complained, until they ache.
The ideologues of the revolutionary committees and the agents of the secret police work together to forestall any overt signs of imagination, much less intellectual exploration.
"The Libyans are very much afraid," suggested one European diplomat. "A brother is afraid of another brother, the father is afraid of the son, because they can denounce you very easily for not having 'a revolutionary mind.' "
The true believers of "The Green Book" look at the world through the lens of their rhetoric, refusing to see it any other way. At one adult rally the other night, a committed Qaddafi supporter declared to western television cameras, switched off by their bored crews, that the United States opposed Qaddafi and Libya not because this country backs terrorists but because the Americans fear the world revolution Qaddafi has begun, a revolution of what this man saw as "true freedom."
"They are scared of change. They are afraid," said the speaker at the rally, "of the green mind."