Tripoli rebels sport Hollywood looks despite the chaos
- 5 September 2011
- From the section Magazine
Rebel fighters in Tripoli are enjoying their moment in the limelight, and are not forgetting to look good for the cameras. But it takes more than a shopping trip to a local boutique to acquire their slim-hipped, muscle-rippling style.
The young shop assistant sucked in his cheeks thoughtfully as though he hoped the gesture might somehow make me thinner.
This is a very slimming pattern, he said reassuringly, patting the sleeve of the shirt I was struggling to fit into.
I pointed out that the minor optical illusions vertical stripes produce are cancelled out if the threads holding the buttons are stretched tighter than harp strings.
I had not, of course, meant to go shopping for clothes as the rebel army which toppled Muammar Gaddafi consolidated its grip on his old capital.
But Libya in August is brutally hot and with my baggage lost in one of the dreary little desert staging posts along our route into Tripoli, I eventually found myself with no choice.
It was late when we set out into the inky, humid night.
Libyans normally drive as though they were competing at the advanced stages of a motor-racing video game, but we made our way sedately along the seafront.
It was as though the reckless, showy driving of the past had been all along a subtle form of insurrection, born of a feeling that it is hard to care even about good laws in a bad system.
There were checkpoints every few hundred metres. At the first, a tired young fighter peered in through the open window.
"Just making sure you don't have Gaddafi in the trunk," he said cheerfully.
He slammed the boot of the car shut after finding it full of our flak jackets and flight cases.
"No room for him in there with his big, frizzy head," he grinned.
At another roadblock a group of young fighters had an old official portrait of Gaddafi, torn from a government office, perched high on a huge wheely-bin.
When one of them spotted a photographer riding on the back of an old pick-up truck, he unslung his Kalashnikov and loosed off a single round towards the poster.
It missed, but he turned and raised the gun above his head in a clenched fist. You might have seen the picture in your newspaper - a dramatic but not inaccurate snapshot of life here and now.
Real-life rebels these days take their look from rebels they have seen in Hollywood films.
They like sunglasses with reflective lenses and bandanas and they bind magazines of bullets together with brightly coloured masking tape so that they can carry on firing for longer in battle.
And here they have about them an air of jubilant satisfaction - a sense that when history came calling at a dangerous and exciting time they were not found wanting.
After history is made
The shop that we finally found to be open was beside a major checkpoint near the seafront, where the rebels had parked a huge mobile anti-aircraft gun.
Every so often they fired it in celebration with a chattering metallic clatter that made it feel as though the fabric of the night was being torn. Even the spent shell-casings landing on the ground sounded like cracked dinner gongs being struck by a hammer.
Gradually the shop assistant and I made ourselves understood above the racket.
We established that I needed a shirt that had no epaulettes, shoes without tassels and shorts I would be able to fasten up with no-one to help me. And no slogans. So not the slinky muscle shirt with the words "sexy skier" emblazoned across the chest.
Eventually we just settled on the biggest shirt to be found on rails which normally catered for Tripoli's snake-hipped fashionistas.
It was still a little snug, but we had a deal.
Now, would I like a pair of boat shoes?
The shop assistant was surprised when I said the price was more than I would be prepared to pay for an actual boat.
I was worried I was a disappointment. He looked as though he was wondering what the point of joining the free world might be if my modest tastes and moderate spending power were all it had to offer.
But then he cheered up.
He was glad, he told me, that he decided to open his shop after all. He had not been sure if it was the right thing to do. But, as he said, there is no point in being free to do what you want unless you go ahead and do what you want.
On the day Gaddafi fell he had gone out and celebrated, but on the days afterward it was hard to know what to do.
I think that may often be the case on the day after history is made. People sometimes feel like actors in a great drama, waiting for an unseen director to tell them what to do next.
We chatted idly about the difficulties to come - shortages of water and electricity and, bizarrely, petroleum - in a country built on vast underground seas of the stuff. There is the future unity of the rebels to worry about too and the honesty and competence of whatever government is to come next.
As we talked, the huge machine gun outside opened up again, ripping into the night sky and drowning our idle small talk.
It was time to leave with that deafening reminder that for many Libyans the cares of the future are nothing when set aside the sheer joy of being here, now.
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4:
A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 1130.
Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only).
BBC World Service:
Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.