“How long have you been waiting?” smiles Sayed, our contact man in the Libyan embassy. “Only three-and-a-half hours – no problem,” we smile back. “Three-and-a-half weeks,” we think and try not to let the tension show. Sayed then produces our passports and incredulously, we stare at the 10–day transit Libyan visa!
“At most we will give you five days!” he had said almost four weeks ago, when we handed in our visa application. Since then, we have time and again come back to Zamalek, a leafy island on the Nile in the centre of Cairo, where the Libyan embassy is situated. It has neither a sign in English nor does it show the Libyan flag, and we recognized it only thanks to the posters of Colonel Kaddafi with his characteristic old-fashioned sunglasses.
Two pharaonic guardsmen in short blue-golden skirts stand at the entrance of a building society next to the Libyan embassy. Both are made from plaster, and one is facing backwards, towards the wall. The real guards are drinking tea. We have decided to ask our own embassy for a note verbale (a letter of recommendation) to increase our chances of getting a visa, and now we are back to re-enforce our application. “Come back in two weeks!” Sayed doesn’t even imply that we might get a visa then. In fact, he never implies anything.
Waiting time in Cairo
Two weeks later, no answer has been received from Tripoli yet regarding our admittance. This is obviously not a good sign, but is it necessarily a bad one? At least we could obtain a mobile phone number along with the permission to call again the day after tomorrow. On the way back to our hotel in downtown Cairo we pass the Opera House and on a whim buy tickets for the evening performance: “Zenobia, Queen of the Desert” staged by a Syrian dance company. The story of the two-hour ballet is quite difficult to follow, even with an English synopsis, but we feel tremendously metropolitan. Afterwards there is a buffet reception. Eating our way through potato pies and toxic-looking green meringues we watch the Cairene elite. Ladies in elegant costumes try not to spoil their fur jackets while dipping strawberries and marshmallows into the chocolate fountain that has been set up in the lobby. Although we know nobody in Cairo we move through the crowd eagerly looking for acquaintances, as everybody does, hoping that our traveller trousers and faded shirts will not stick out too much.
Since we have ample of time we visit a lot of mosques and madrasas. At the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, two veiled women take photos of each other with their mobile phones. They have climbed over the chains fencing off the Qibla wall and are posing in front of the carved wooden Minbar. A young man is lying on the carpet in the middle of the mosque, trying to photograph the green and golden dome and the hundreds of lamps. Outside, groups of schoolchildren are marched to the next attractions on the citadel hill: The carriage museum and the mamluk An-Nasim Mosque.
Waiting time in Alexandria
Two days later still no news from Tripoli. On the verge of a nervous breakdown we consider flying straight to Tunis. An employee at Utopia Travel suggests the cheap “Mother’s Day Special tomorrow – just two seats left!“ But instead we take a bus to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.
“I’m sorry, the system seems to be down,” apologises the young woman at the help desk, where we enquire after books about Libya. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina aspires, in memory of the ancient library of Alexandria, to become one of the leading libraries in the region, if possible in the world. Most of the shelves are still empty, and the handful of readers sitting at the pleasantly arranged reading desks are far outnumbered by tourists who are led to the best viewpoints on level F2.
And finally the Libyan Visa!
A few days later, when we call the Libyan embassy, Sayed is in high spirits: “Natascha, how are you? We received invitation from Tripoli! Bring your passport!” Again we rush back to Cairo. This time we are even allowed to pay the Libyan visa fees and leave the embassy, moderately hopeful, with a tiny slip of paper that seems to be our receipt for the passports and visa fees.
Two more days in Cairo. Time to visit more museums, mosques and bookshops and to feel the pulse of this large city. At night, the streets of downtown that were just stinking thoroughfares for ramshackle taxis during the day liven up. Families, gangs of young men, and groups of giggling girls push each other between the T-Shirt and underwear stalls that have been set up at dusk. Droves of people gather around the street window of the famous Kuweider bakery, everyone holding up their receipts and shouting their favourite ice-cream flavour at the shop assistants: “Mango and Cassata! Vanilla and Hazelnut!” All around, satisfied customers are smiling and obliviously licking their ice-cream. Then they return to shopping.
When we returned to the Libyan embassy we finally got our Libyan visas. We are now at Marsah Matruh near the border and plan to enter Libya tomorrow.