CAMELS, DONKEYS & THE SUEZ CRISIS

Americans living in Libya in the 1950s didn’t forget their normal holiday celebrations. For the Christmas pageant, there was the added novelty of local animals. The three wise men could ride real camels and Joseph could lead his Mary actually seated on a donkey.

The Fourth of July celebration had its own unique touch; four American Marines serving on the ships sent by President Thomas Jefferson had died in 1805 fighting the infamous Barbary pirates. The Barbary Pirate fort still stands facing Tripoli Harbor and the four long-dead Marines are buried in Tripoli. Americans familiar with the Marine Corps Hymn remember the well-known words, “From the Hall of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

The huge Fourth of July celebration I remember was held west of Tripoli at Thirteen Kilometer Beach, named appropriately for its distance from the city. Besides American food, fireworks and three-legged races, there were camel and donkey rides.

I looked forward to my first camel ride. Onto a makeshift seat that rested upon the camel’s sole hump, I climbed, grateful that the irritable, growling camel was muzzled. The camel’s legs were folded under him, but at his Arab handler’s insistence, the back legs unfolded first and I swayed, rump first, into the air. The front legs swung up and suddenly I was sitting above everyone with a view of the beach and the 1,000 or so celebrants. The handler led his camel slowly around a circle, and I enjoyed the swaying back as the animal crunched along on the heavy beach sand. It was a brief thrill and remembered again not long ago when I saw the second Sex and the City movie, filmed in Morocco, which featured the four heroines riding camels.

My friend Karen shows off her camel-riding skills!

The donkey I chose for my next excursion proved too much for my limited bareback equestrian talents. After meekly walking around a circle, the animal decided I was a pushover, and off he went up a small adjacent hill in search of grass. I shouted for help, concerned partially for my bare feet, but my friends thought I was having fun and waved at me happily. When the beast found his grass, he stopped and I gratefully jumped off, feeling foolish that I hadn’t done it sooner.

We were not immune from the world’s volatile situations; Libya was, after all, in the Middle East. At the end of October, 1956, we were plunged right into the middle of the Suez Crisis. One morning in Tripoli, the school busses didn’t arrive. After an hour of waiting, we learned the Libyan drivers had gone on strike, and many small riots had started. An ideal way to get out of school!

Nasser, then President of Egypt, had taken control of the Suez Canal. Why should Britain and France control the canal that ran through Egypt, he reasoned? He wanted the tolls to help Egypt build the Aswan High Dam. It marked the spread of Arab nationalism, though Libya was late to that game, and Gaddafi didn’t seize power until 1969. According to some reports, the young Gadddafi took part in the riots. Good practice for his takeover later?

Gamel Abdul Nasser, President of Egypt

Riots took place in front of the French and British embassies, and a couple of small bombs a day were set off in various areas of the city. It wasn’t a full-scale insurrection, but with the heat on, the British evacuated their women and children, flying them home to England.

Americans within Tripoli were put on a 6 p.m. nightly curfew and were told to have a bag with the barest necessities packed in case of evacuation. Gates and doors were to be locked and shades pulled down. We were all instructed not to venture into the old city. My mother got caught on the edges of a small demonstration near a friend’s house several blocks away. It scared her, but she was in our car and managed to leave without incident.

When you’re young, political situations don’t seem to matter. It was all just extra excitement and a chance to miss a couple of days of school. The curfew was moved to 9 p.m. within a week, and several weeks later, as things cooled off, life was back to normal. British families, however, did not return for several months.

The U.S. and USSR had put pressure on the U.N.,  and there was a cease fire by November 6. Egypt had scored a political victory. I had seen a preview of Nasser’s growing power when I’d spied on the party held at the Egyptian Ambassador’s residence across the street from me. Almost like a drive-in movie, there was Nasser enthusiastically holding forth on a large screen, and the sheiks in attendance were a captive audience.

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  11. Ernie says:

    I missed the Suez Crisis in Tripoli by a year. I was ensconsed in a Scottish school by then, and living within a stones throw of the Bridge over The Doon River made famous in “Brigadoon”. Our fuel costs climbed dramatically to over $4 a gallon, and we were rationed to six gallons a week. Our vehicle at the time was a mild mannered and economical Mercedes Benz 180. It boasted an 1,800 cc engine and well under a hundred horsepower. Gas mileage was tremendous, and six gallons got us way over a hundred fifty miles. Since Scotland is so tiny compared to the ZI (USA) we were able to continue our “normal” ex-patriot lives. My old man was deeply involved in Prestwick AFB politics, and I was happy to roam unhindered on public transportation. My Mom frequently visited Glasgow or Edinborough for “shopping trips” that usually resulted in little being purchased, but ladies from the base enjoying the hospitality of the finer thirst quenching establishments in those towns. The train ran both directions, and fare was low for the most luxurious seats. Driving while under the influence was an unheard of violation simply because only a few drove. It seemed everyone drank however. I learned at an early age to know the better places to purchase Scotch, and which pubs served an honest “half and half”.

    Frankly, I wish I had been able to endure the “Crisis” in Tripoli. In 1956 I was a “junior” by American ranking, but was a sixteen year old by Scottish standards. What that meant in the fifties in Scotland was that almost all my contemporaries had left school the prior year at age fifteen. The Scots set no store by July 4th, and considered our celebrations to be more foolishness. I would have rather had camel rides and even a donky ride! We quietly hid our celebration at the base, and tried not to offend.

  12. Heather Vesterfelt says:

    “When you’re young, political situations don’t seem to matter” Isn’t that the truth! Now that I am chronilogically gifted, they matter to me, yet it feels like I am standing in quick sand in terms of taking serious action. Guess I need to pick a sure footed critter to pull me out.

    I enjoy your wrting and thank you for sharing Victoria.

    Hugs,
    Heather

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