Lock the Casbah 

Oakland's Heavenly States set out to be the first American band ever to rock Libya. But making history is never that easy.

Page 4 of 8

The next morning Eugene gets us a flight -- with EgyptAir, whose employees just yesterday suggested he go back to Australia. It leaves tonight at 1 a.m. Two days late. We'll have three days in Libya. Not ideal, but salvageable.

The mood is jovial as we wait for a cab outside our hotel. Our hotel bellhop ascertains that we're American. "Why you go Iraq?" he demands.

"We didn't go," Ted replies, gesturing to the band.

Before long Genevieve is sitting in the airport gate lobby, our tickets safely confirmed, quietly explaining why we're doing all this in the first place. For one thing, she'd like to prove her parents' fears unwarranted. The American view of Africa is "an insane delirium," she says. "We don't think this place is inhabited by humans."

She's midway through a Ph.D in literature, but doesn't know if she'll finish. Self-satisfied academia feels irrelevant in the presence of a trailblazing rock band. "This is my philosophical choice," Genevieve says. "This is my education."

Her aim in Libya is relatively humble. "I hope I get to talk to people who aren't wealthy," she says. "That's a priority. and I hope that it just opens up some kind of channel for people to talk, over the Internet, whatever. Just to de-demonize this place. And I hope to pick up some great tapes."

She has no idea what Libya will feel like, or how Libyans will react. "I'm just curious what they'll think. I'm sure -- I hope -- we'll have a lot of curious encounters. When they hear this music, what are they gonna say? Whatever it is, it's okay."

Five hours later, we're in Tripoli's airport. The passport control booths are far less intimidating -- open-faced, no tinted glass. Abdu, our official guide, meets us, collects our passports, and gets us shuffled through security without incident. As we wait, though, Eugene informs me that if asked, I'm not a journalist -- I write children's books. I mentally sketch out a couple plots.

No one asks. We pile into another bus at 5:30 a.m. local time, Libyan pop star Mohamed Hassan blaring in the tour bus. Everyone looks exhausted and elated, absorbing the shock of a place that looks and feels truly foreign. The landscape is rugged, barren, eerily deserted, strangely beautiful. Occasionally we pass official portraits of Gadhafi. Sometimes he resembles Lou Reed, at other times Tommy Lee Jones.

The Souk

"Welcome home," our tour guide keeps saying. Abdu smiles easily, with a neat gray beard and a deadpan demeanor. He studied aviation in Texas, Mississippi, and Sacramento, where he met with Ronald Reagan at an exchange student meet-and-greet, back when Ronnie was governor.

Jamal, the driver, gets multiple cell-phone calls. His ringtone is "The Entertainer."

Our Tripoli hotel resembles Grandma's house: green, pastoral, tiny, frigid. We arrive around 6 a.m., sleep for four hours, then get back on the bus.

We exchange dollars for dinar -- one Libyan dinar is worth roughly 75 cents -- and mill around the city a bit. It's oddly Oaklandish, dusty and gritty and occasionally muddy, but somehow still vibrant. A demolished station wagon is raised on a pedestal at a crowded street corner, evidently to deter reckless driving. No dice.

We visit the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, a 2nd-century monument. The cafe adjacent is piping in "Hotel California."

We wander into the souk, an open-air market spread over a labyrinthine series of side roads and alleyways, peddling everything from Gadhafi watches to wedding dresses to kitsch jewelry to purses to socks. After a brief cafe lunch (chicken or lamb, nothing exotic), the band mills about, and encounters a man selling drums, authentic-looking handmade jobs you sling over your shoulder and stroll around with, hands free. Jeremy pounds on a few, chats up the guy, asks him to tighten one drum in particular, and eventually buys it for 57 dinar. So now he's wandering through the souk with a drum, sticks in hand. Curious people pass by and bat at the drum good-naturedly. They ask his name, where he's from. "California dreams!" one exclaims.

Eventually, a group of about ten dudes corners Jeremy and asks him to play it. So he does, briefly, for twenty seconds or so. More folks gather, and suddenly we've got a minor hootenanny, 25 guys laughing and pointing. Jeremy hands the drum off to someone, who gives it a few tentative whacks, then tries to force it on his friend, who smiles and refuses. They wrestle a bit. More people gather, along with a few more instruments. For about 45 seconds they jokingly flail about, shaking tambourines, pounding out a boozy rhythm, as the crowd -- including the beyond-elated band -- claps along.

There's a policeman in the street, on a motorbike, regarding this scene with interest. But he just putts away.

Eventually the hootenanny dissipates. Every drum save Jeremy's disappears -- the local guys all smile and walk slowly on. The band stands there for a minute, dazed, before rushing back to the tour van as high as kites.

"God, that was so cool," Ted cries. "It was like people in the West crowded around a fight. There were that many people crowded around the music."


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