Tales of the Typist From Tacoma

Remembering Benghazi — Part 1

Libya was my first Foreign Service assignment. It was 1954 and I was 21 when I arrived in Benghazi after several months training in Washington, D.C. For most of the two years I lived there, I was the only single American girl in a 650 mile radius. There were three men and their wives and children assigned to the Legation, a dozen or so Americans and their families with the Agency for International Development and US Information Agency and a few miles outside of town a detachment of about 65 Air Force men from Wheelus Field Air Force Base in Tripoli living in tents.

My old passport shows an entry date of Sept. 30, 1954 – an interesting time to arrive in this ancient land with the new name of Libya. On Christmas Eve 1951 – less than three years before, the United Nations had declared Libya an independent country. Henry S. Villard, the first U.S. Minister to Libya (1952-54) in his fascinating book Libya, the New Arab Kingdom of North Africa, reveals some interesting background and much of what I will share here comes from that source.

Prior to WWII, Cyrenaica - the province in which Benghazi is located - was occupied by the Italians who were attempting to colonize that part of North Africa. After the war it was unthinkable to hand Libya back to the losers. According to The Treaty of Peace with Italy, they were required to “renounce all right and title to the Italian territorial possessions in Africa, i.e. Libya, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland”. The British didn’t want the burden: They were pulling back the borders of their far flung empire and certainly didn’t see any advantage to taking it on. The U.S. didn’t want it either so the United Nations decided to declare Libya an independent country. Who would possibly ever want to govern such poor country? Their main export was esparto grass used by the British to make bank notes! Little did anyone know that Libya sat on an underground lake of oil that would be discovered in1956.

Libya was literally constructed out of three separate provinces: Cyrenaica, 330,000 square miles of land bordering the Mediterranean on the north and Egypt on the east; Tripolitania (with Tripoli as its major city) with its 106,500 square miles located along the Mediterranean and bordering Algeria and Tunisia; and The Fezzan a landlocked quarter of a million square miles bordering Algeria on the west and the Sahara dessert on the south. To quote from Mr. Villard “As a colony under Mussolini’s government, Libya did not acquire any experience in self-government. Many towns were ravaged by the bombs of the Second World War; per capita income was about thirty dollars a year; disease was rife; almost no industries existed, and the scant grain crops could not be depended upon to feed its million and a quarter people. In all of Libya there were only sixteen university-trained citizens.”

On the other hand the strategic position of this country made it an ideal site for various military interests and that was obviously one of the reasons both the British and the Americans had established bases there.

Imagine only “16 university-trained citizens” when Libya was established by the UN! That necessitated the new government hiring lots of foreigners for important jobs which made for some strange results. For instance, according to a story that went around town, the Libyan Director of Health had a German woman doctor on his staff who dealt with the problems of women's health. Once, upon returning from home leave, she found a Libyan man, apparently one of the Director's cronies, occupying her office. She was furious, stormed into the Director’s office and demanded to know what was going on. Rumor had it she told him: “I was appointed Head Gynecologist and now you have appointed some man to that position.” He was said to have responded: "No problem. You can be Head Gynecologist for the women and he’ll be Head Gynecologist for the men." I don’t claim that story is true, by the way.

Benghazi was a peaceful, typical Arab town typical of the times with tiny twisting streets and lovely views of the Mediterranean. It had been badly damaged during the war but I’ll let Mr. Villard describe it: “During the two years that the British Eighth Army and Rommel’s Afrika Korps seesawed across the coastal belt of Cyrenaica, Benghazi underwent more than a thousand air raids. Afterward, every seaside city of the Western Desert was in ruins, and Benghazi was a choice example. Its gaping wounds are unhealed, and funds are lacking for rehabilitation. Shattered homes, hollow shells of buildings, piles of rubble in empty lots are grim testimonials to the bombardment from Axis and Allies alike.”

The main business of the Embassy was taken care of by the staff in Tripoli and our office in Benghazi was referred to as the Legation. I was told The Libyan Government had moved its whole operation from Benghazi to Tripoli shortly before I arrived. It must have been quite a sight: Donkey carts piled high with desks, chairs, and filing cabinets carried out of the Government’s offices just down the street from the Embassy on the first leg of their seven hundred mile journey across the dessert. Because of the immense rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi, this shift took place every two years. Taking turns hosting the capitol was one way of keeping peace between these two factions. It also sewed deep seeds of conflict between the two areas.

King Idris preferred to live in Benghazi, but he also spent time during the hot weather in Tobruk, a seaside village near the Egyptian border. However, most of the Libyan Government officials (and all of the diplomatic community) really preferred to live in the far more modern and less war damaged city of Tripoli. They were happy when the Government moved there.

Pictures of King Idris, the first King of Libya, depict him as an elderly, frail man. Born in 1890 in the remote Cyrenaican oasis of Jaghbub, he was the head of the Senussi religious order, a title he inherited from his grandfather who founded this very strict Muslim order. King Idris was greatly venerated especially in Cyrenaica and, although exiled for 20 years, his name was a rallying cry for the guerrillas during the Italian occupation as well as during the war. Because of his status he was the natural choice for King when the UN created Libya.

His fourth wife Queen Fatima, twenty years his junior, was a charming and intelligent women. However, the great tragedy of her life was that she had not yet produced an heir. This was a very serious problem as the King had no living offspring from any of his previous marriages - all of them having died in infancy. The King’s heir was his brother, Sayed Mohamed el-Rida el-Senussi. In the summer of 1955 this brother died under somewhat mysterious circumstances and I remember rumors flew about that the Queen’s nephew was somehow involved. This was later to be proven false but eventually the King took another wife, the daughter of an Egyptian Bedouin chief. I don’t recall if that wife ever had any children.

By far the largest group of foreigners was British. Some 3000 troops were still stationed in Libya, mostly in Benghazi. The Fifth Tanks were in Derna, a small RAF Detachment was at the Barche Aerodrome outside Tobruk. The British become even more British when they’re abroad - sort of a colonial throwback. In Benghazi this took the form of formal "dos" on the weekends involving lots of drinking and dancing. Since there were very few western women around namely me, two secretaries at the British Embassy, the teenage daughter of the Italian Ambassador, and several British NAFE girls, who ran canteens and commissaries at the various bases, we were greatly in demand as dancing partners.

Being unaccustomed to British manners, I was considered a rather strange "bird." While it seemed perfectly natural to take off my shoes at the end of a long evening or while jitterbugging, this was considered particularly inappropriate behavior. My sense of humor also seemed quite different not to mention my manners, my eating habits, and my language: You name it. I was teased a lot.

There were lots of young German men there as well: men who had been captured during the war and had elected to stay. Most worked for the British Army as mechanics repairing tanks and trucks or doing other skilled and semi-skilled jobs for which the Libyans were not trained. Benny, the Secretary at the British Embassy dated a German named Karl Heinz. For awhile I dated his friend Peter and we four would pack picnics and go swimming at the beach. Benny and Karl Heinz liked to joke about her standing on the White Cliffs of Dover in her WAF uniform looking through her binoculars while he steered his U-boat down the English Channel. She had, in fact, been a WAF but I never believed his story that he had been a U-boat Captain. Eventually, they married and the last I heard they were living in South Africa.

Travels In Country

My social life consisted mostly of picnics at the swimming club, parties with young officers of the British Fifth Tanks at their various clubs, and movies with the AF guys. Early on I learned from my pal Benny how to make proper tea. First you “hot the pot” and you always use loose tea. She learned to make do with tea bags when she came to my place.

Now and again there were adventures such as the time Benny and I took a week-end motor trip to El Alamein with Mr. Stait-Gardner, the head of the local telephone and telegraph system. Mr. Stait-Gardner had come to North Africa with Montgomery’s Eighth Army during the war. As we drove along the highway, he would point out the sites of famous battle fields in which he had participated. "Here in Wadi Kufra is where Rommel had us holed up” and then he would describe what it was like under fire. Benny and I were fascinated.

History came alive for me when we drove through El Alamain and I saw the markers for the Allied Front and the German Front. We had been warned to stay on the road in those areas. There were landmines everywhere that had yet to be defused. In fact, in those days landmine explosions were a big problem for the nomads and frequently their children were brought into the hospital with feet or legs blown off.

On that trip Benny and I shared a room at a small, hotel in Derna. Down below was a tea house where the men gathered at night to have tea and chat. Arab music played until quite late and there was lots of talking and laughing. Drinking tiny cups of sticky sweet, mint tea is the national pastime and much of the men’s time is spent in those tea houses. Women were not allowed, of course.

In fact I never saw any other western women on these trips and practically no other women at all. Benny and I were always very circumspect and wore modest dresses with high necks, sleeves, and full skirts. Muslim women were never seen in public unless they wore a "baracaan", a huge, grey or white blanket-like garment worn over the head and shoulders with just a tiny hole to peak through. Extending down to their feet, they looked like walking haystacks. Luckily, we western women could shop alone in Benghazi.

Further inland from the coast is a low mountain range called Jebal Akdar or Green Mountain. The main road leads from the very dry main coastal area onto a beautiful fertile plateau. The Italian colonists mostly lived on small farms on this rather narrow plateau during the colonial period. Coming over the rise one could see in the distance dozens of small white houses dotting the landscape like tiny sail boats. The road connected a small chain of villages and towns along the Mediterranean between Benghazi and Tobruk. Above the Jebal Akdar, lies another low mountain range leading off into the dessert eventually merging with the Sahara.

A woman archeologist and scuba diver showed up one time as was part of a team exploring a sunken city on the seacoast just northeast of Benghazi. When she came to town for supplies, she would stop by my apartment to take a shower and clean up. Several times she invited me to come to their dig and watch them work. It was quite fun to see what they turned up. She told me she had worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was the first time I had ever head of them. As a result of my relationship with her, I got hooked on archeology! I wish I could remember that women’s name.

Some magnificent Greek and Roman statues are found at Cyrene nearer the Egyptian border as well as at Leptis Magna and Sabratha east of Tripoli. Italy has had thousands of years of connection to what is now known as Libya. Another fascination for me was the connection to ancient Greek and Roman myths and legends. For instance I remember going to a cavern just outside of town which was supposed to be the entrance to the River Lethe, or the river of forgetfulness. According to the Aeneid, the shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of the Lethe in order to forget their earthly life so that they could then be reincarnated.

Everyday Life

The Legation was in a two story, "L" shaped building with the entrance at the “V.” Between our building and the one next door, which housed the AID offices, was a large courtyard. Sheltered courtyards are an important feature of Arab homes. My apartment was on the second floor with windows overlooking the sea. On the other side was a long hallway with windows overlooking the courtyard. The one doorway on the courtyard side opened onto thin air! Before the war there had been a room there but it had been blown off by a bomb.

It was fascinating to walk the streets of Benghazi as there was so much war damage still visible. Whole walls were built of "jerry cans" (German gas cans) cemented together. Bullet holes were still to be seen in some of the walls and many buildings, like ours, had bomb-damage still in evidence.

The landscape along the sea front was lovely with oleander and bougainvillea everywhere. They say before the war Benghazi was particularly beautiful. Apparently the Berenici Hotel, located between the Legation and the Catholic Cathedral, had been quite the "watering spot" for European royalty. It was even rumored that the Duke of Windsor and Wallace Simpson had met there. The Cathedral had a huge double dome which American GIs refer to as “Mae West.” I lived in one of the nicest parts of town but just two or three blocks away the main part of the city, like most small Arab towns, was crowded and dusty.

Life was a very circumscribed for a young, single woman. There was one outdoor cinema showing mostly Arabic films and only once in awhile an English or American film. When it was an American film, several guys from the AF Detachment outside of town used to come in their truck and take me to the movies. That’s how I got my title of “Belle of Benghazi.”

Mohammed was my houseboy and he shopped, cooked, cleaned and did the laundry. I don’t know where he learned how to cook western style as he was very young - probably no more than 16. Since I had never had a servant before, there was a big learning curve for both of us. It’s impossible to live in a place like Benghazi without a servant especially if you work all day. As there were no supermarkets, shopping took a lot of time: Each separate stall specialized making it necessary to go from shop to shop and the language barrier was formidable as I didn’t speak Arabic or Italian.

I bought a car from another American when he transferred - an old Morris Minor convertible which I dubbed “Moore's Minor.” It was a great car for the beach. If it got stuck in the sand all I had to do was hop out, have my friends help me lift it up and move it onto firmer ground.

Thank goodness there were no restrictions on women driving such as there were in Saudi Arabia. However, it was not wise to travel alone across country. One day a young American woman showed up at the Embassy without any money. We were appalled to find out she had been hitchhiking across North Africa getting rides with truckers as there was no public transportation between Tripoli and Benghazi. I put her up for a week until she got some money from home. Sometimes an American in similar straights will come into the Embassy and throw themselves on the mercy of the staff. Usually we try to help but, since there’s no official funds allotted for this kind of problem, it depends upon an individual employee’s generosity. As I recall she left without even saying goodbye. Well, you win some and you lose some.