Libya 1980

I left the bearded stranger trying to squeeze himself into the gap between two tombs. It didn’t look as though he’d make it through to the other end. He was a bastard.

I’d encouraged him to do it after telling him there were a number of local traditions concerning these tombs. The five of them stand in the desert outside my home town of Zawilah, and they’ve been there over a thousand years. They are square, with small domes; no entrances, but a few arched windows allow us to enter. They were very weather-worn until last year's restoration..

Zawilah, the tombs

Zawilah, the tombs

While he was looking around, perhaps even squeezing through the gap, I dug away some of the sand which had built up against the walls. After taking him to see the school where I taught (the girls just giggled!) we had gone to the old fort, which the Italian imperialists had built over 50 years before. I had shown him the prisons and the camel quarters - and we had climbed one of the intact turrets. I showed him the pile of ancient spades which the Italians had forced us Libyans to build the road with – and brought one with me to dig away sand.


After a short while he came back to me and asked about the tombs and their traditions. Locals believed, I told him, that the Second Caliph (following the Prophet Mohammed – pbuh –‘s death), Omar Ibn al-Khattab, was buried here. Another of the traditions was that, for a good marriage, local men rode their camels (or, now, drove their cars) three times around the tombs. Finally, I asked him whether he had succeeded in squeezing through the gap. He hadn’t: this meant, according to local lore, that he was a bastard.