National Geographic : 2000 Nov
water and the people, or at least all the government workers, from Tripoli to Surt, which was hardly more than a desert village before." It didn't work. Surt has indeed sprouted into a concrete landscape of apartment buildings and vast government office buildings, with an occasional weather-beaten cafe or tire-repair shop serving as a reminder of its former role as a stop-off on the coast highway. But the city is strangely empty. The vast mass of bureaucrats found excuses to delay their departure from Tripoli or, if forced to move, left their wives and families behind and return at every opportunity. Exploring the sterile expanses of Surt one day, I came upon two offi cials whiling away the time in a hotel coffee shop. One of them had been summoned from Tripoli to meet with the Leader, who at the last minute had decided to go to Egypt instead. Condemned to a wasted day, this official had persuaded his friend, who held a post in the foreign min istry, to postpone his own return to Tripoli. As we chatted, the friend's cell phone kept ringing with desperate phone calls from foreign envoys in Tripoli (none of the embassies have moved) requesting urgent meetings. "I am so sorry," he would reply smoothly. "I am detained in Surt on important business. I will contact you immediately when I return." Today, on Green Square in Tripoli, a coffee shop stands on the site once occupied by a fine turn-of-the-century Italian palazzo. "That used to be the office of the Libyan prime minister," explained Mustafa, the professor. "Then one day the Leader noticed that every time he phoned the prime minister's office in Surt, he was told that the prime minister was visiting Tripoli for the day. When he discovered that the prime min ister had never moved to Surt at all, making only quick trips there when he had to, Qaddafi ordered up the bulldozers and had the place Photographer Reza describes demolished that afternoon." this story as his most "diffi In his collection of stories and essays, cult field assignment ever." Escape to Hell and Other Stories, Qaddafi con- Why? Find out at national veys his deep distaste for cities and other geographic.com/ngm/0011.