Nader smiled at me from the front of the bus. He was young, about 25 and infinitely excited about his first busload of tourists, necks craning to look out the windows of the ancient bus that was carting us, at a rickety snail pace, up the side of a mountain to Gasr- Al Haj.
Nadar has singled me out earlier on in the journey – curious as to what a young Australian girl was doing in the middle of the Libyan desert with a hoard of elderly British tourists. I had to admit – I was intensely out of place. If it wasn’t evident in the juxtaposition of my youthful 19 years, it was painfully obvious in my bright blonde hair – that stood out like a sore thumb amongst the locals in the Western Mountain Region. Tourists were a rarity here. Young, single, female tourists? Unheard of.
I’d come to Libya on an expedition with my Grandfather, a war historian and lecturer who had been hired by a small cruise liner to guide talks on area. The ship was charting old Roman civilisations across the coastline, and I had found myself in a place of great privilege – escorting tours off the ship into the (basically) untouched Libyan wilderness. I was young, curious, excited and absolutely fucking terrified. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t.
We went everywhere with police escorts.
Strange, stoic individuals who said nothing and wore dark sunglasses that hid their expressions. They scared me more than the reason they were paid to be there. Nothing unnerves me more than not being able to see a mans eyes. On this particularly rough journey up a mountainside, we had two policeman with us. One sat up the front of the bus, chatting animatedly to Nadar in Arabic, holding on for dear life as the bus jumped and lurched it’s way around potholes. The other, sat behind me. Relentlessly boring a hole into the back of my head, that was more uncomfortable that the hot leather seat I kept getting stuck to.
I looked back to Nadar again, willing him to come and talk to me. At least Isomewhat knew this man, who had talked wistfully about his dreams of bringing tourism to Libya. He smiled at me again, but he continued his conversation with the Policeman.
At Gasr-Al Haj we exited the bus and I ran ahead, eager both to put distance between myself and the police guard and to start snapping away. In my haste to photograph, I didn’t listen to a word said about the beautiful round structure I was standing in. It seemed infinite and strong – mythical and ancient. We were led into rooms used to store grain and oils. It smelt musty and disused. Like i am forever guilty of doing, I wandered off – wanting to see more of the village – and found myself in the presence of an old man, dressed head to toe in white cloth. He stared, curiously. I suppose I was to him, as unusual and surprising as he was to me. He did not smile, but I was enchanted by his face. Weathered and tan, his expression betraying nothing. I smiled timidly and continued on, weaving my way out of the structure and into the village. I saw no women.