It would probably be stretching the truth a little to say that the British prime minister runs Allah a close second when it comes to expressions of gratitude at checkpoints on the way into Tripoli
from the Tunisian border, but there’s no doubting his popularity.
“David Cameron, veery, veeeery good!” is a typical reaction to the discovery that a vehicle is carrying a British journalist. “The Brits are number one among all the expat Libyans
who’ve come back to join the revolution,” says Ahmed, recently returned from San Antonio.
Although a Guards officer might raise an eyebrow at the ragtag lack of uniforms – hastily printed V for victory T-shirts are a favourite among the volunteers, often sported in combination
with a back-to-front baseball hat in the pre- and post-Gaddafi tricolour – the discipline is good and the welcome a joy to behold. Libyans do greetings like no one else.
As the English explorer George Francis Lyon wrote of Tripolines in 1818, “Very intimate acquaintances mutually lift their joined right hand, repeating with the greatest rapidity,
‘How are you? Well, how are you? Thank God, how are you? God bless you, how are you?’ which compliments in a well bred man never last less than ten minutes; and whatever may be the
occasion afterwards, it is a mark of great good breeding occasionally to interrupt it, bowing solemnly and asking, ‘How are you?’ though an answer to the question is by no means
considered necessary, as he who asks it is perhaps looking another way, and thinking of something else.”
For the past 41 years, 1 September has meant state-orchestrated charades of revolutionary celebration to mark the day Gaddafi seized power from the late King Idris. That sort of thing wears off
after a while. “Today is the first time in my life I can celebrate on 1 September,” says Ahmed, manning a checkpoint on the outskirts of Tripoli, as celebratory fire rifles skywards
behind him. “But I’m thinking of 17 February, the day freedom came to Libya. Welcome to my city.”
Justin Marozzi is in TripoliTags: Britain, David Cameron, Democracy, Gaddafi, International politics, Libya