Libya, 1980

43 copies of the UK’s Daily Mail come into my office every morning and today they are piled up in front of my colleague Ali. Hundreds of magazines and newspapers arrive from elsewhere in the world: it happened to be the Mail which Ali was working on when the bearded stranger visited. Libya’s censorship office is not a place expatriates look forward to visiting, but they don’t get their permission to transfer funds abroad from their bank accounts, or to freight out their goods, unless they do.

He came in with lists of books and audiotapes he wanted to export. They had been correctly stamped by the crippled old haj in the three-wheeler who sat outside the Ministry helping people filling in official forms: he’d have charged the stranger double I had no doubt. I borrowed Ali's pen to mark the ones I needed him to bring in: they shouldn’t be in the country. Two tapes were made by RCA which is a blacklisted company here in Libya. Another mark went next to Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’: ‘This is all about Israel,’ I told him, ‘from A to X and Y to Z.’ I saw the stranger looking at the piles of confiscated books on our shelves as I moved my attention to his books list. On the pile were Wilbur Smith, books about Russia, even an English-language teaching aid called English In Situations. I confess that when I learnt English at the school here in Tripoli I had been taught from that book. But it’s a prohibited text, so we take all copies. The stranger’s list of books was clear, nothing we didn’t permit.

I handed him back the lists: he’d surrender the three tapes to me tomorrow and I’d sign him off. I gave the black marker pen back to Ali: he needed to continue with his task of colouring in the cleavages of women advertising holidays or modelling clothes in 43 copies of the Daily Mail.