From Asian Mountain Ranges to the Astonishing Deserts of Africa

By Mahwah Tahir

Landing in Libya with my mother

Ami and I finally land at Tripoli Airport after an eventful flight via Turkey. Our plane had to make an emergency landing at Istanbul due to a technical fault, and it was snowing. This familiar sight made the 24-hour delay bearable. I have come to terms with the fact that I am not Persian, but anything that reminds me of my years in Iran is comforting. I have not yet been introduced to the astonishing deserts of North Africa.

  • astonishing deserts
  • Astonishing deserts
  • Astonishing deserts

Trouble at the immigration counter

Travelling around the world is nothing new, but being refused clearance by an immigration officer is a shock. I am nine and a half, and my passport was made 3 years ago. It is obvious that the officer thinks I don’t look like my passport photo. He says something in Libyan Arabic pointing to my long hair in the photo and my short hair in person. Ami is flustered and confused. She tries to explain that I am her daughter in the little bit of English she knows —she even uses Arabic. But the officer is adamant. We cannot speak his language, nor can he communicate much in English. The situation would be hilarious if it wasn’t for the fact I need to use the restroom. My biggest worry is how I will explain my urgency to the officer if he takes me away.

Astonishing deserts

Fortunately, a Pakistani “uncle” steps in and manages to convince the officer that the photo is a little old. The officer takes pity on us and we are soon cleared. But for my bladder, it felt like forever.

From lush green mountains to astonishing deserts

The flight from Tripoli to Abdul Nasir Airbase is uneventful, but at the end there is yet another shock in store for me. For all my nine and a half years, I have lived in green pastoral mountains and this is a desert. And being an Air Force base, it is isolated too. 

I am excited to be reunited with Daddy, but even more fascinated with the new vacuum cleaner. At the time, I don’t realize how vital this appliance will be for my new life in the desert.

astonishing deserts
Daddy and me

Gibli رياح القبلى, the Libyan sandstorm

Gibli رياح القبلى , the Libyan sandstorm, is my worst nightmare. It descends from the highlands of the country making its way to the Mediterranean. It covers everything in its path with a layer of fine red sand. Nothing can stop the sand from blowing into the house, neither shutters nor cardboard covers – nothing. This is the exact moment in my life when I develop a chronic aversion to the act of dusting. But, the Gibli does teach me patience.

astonishing deserts

Twice we’ve had to disembark from a domestic flight and cancel our vacation because of these unbelievably hot, blinding winds. Worst of all my school fellows made fun of me because I had left school so cheerfully.

Libyan celebrations and tensions on the border

At the Air Force Base, there are French, Pakistani, and Libyan officials. Being the family  of the only doctor here, means we are invited to all events, even those in Libyan households. They live simply, but their private celebrations, though segregated, are glamorous. The ladies wear huge gold necklaces, belts and a number of other accessories —all gold. Their dances and songs are loud and joyous. And at weddings, men accompany the groom on foot firing guns and firecrackers into the night sky.

There is always tension at the border with Egypt, so the sound of a firecracker invariably causes panic.

One afternoon, I step out of my house to visit my Pakistani friend across the dusty path when I hear gunshots. Terrified, I run back to my room. A few minutes later, we see a groom walk past the house surrounded by his friends who are firing away merrily.

The mysteries of Libyan Arabic

Going through my albums recently, I realize that in the first decade of my life I already knew much about the rich history of Libya. I also realize that I need to ask my friend, Google, a couple of questions: First, why, after all my effort and the little Arabic I already knew, wasn’t I able to learn Libyan Arabic? And secondly, why does Libyan Arabic have so many French and Italian words?

When travel restrictions end, I may return to Libya with my own daughter and discover things I didn’t have access to as a nine year old.


Click here for more of Mahwash Tahir’s ruminations: The 7-year-old ‘Persian’ who wanted to go home


Mashwash Tahir – through the eyes of her daughter

Amma says a lot of things, and sometimes I wonder if other mothers say the same things too- well they don’t and their expressions and attitude are never like those of my mother. My Amma says things in a way that make you smile, and she laughs along with you like a friend should, and she stands up for you like a father should. So, I don’t mind when she says things that I might not initially agree with because in the end I always return to her words and believe her.

Once when she told me to accept things not in my hands, I started to compromise and I understood not everyone is as sensitive as Amma and I. And she smiles when I laugh and says she loves it when I smile, so I start to smile more. I remember the time she hugged me when I came back from a flight —I didn’t want that hug to end. Amma says a lot of things and at times I don’t agree with her, but I hate it when she stops saying the things she says because that means she is hurt. So I hope she continues to say the things she does because they warm my heart and soul.

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    • Mahwash is writing another post. I’m excited to see what she writes about next. I’m glad you like this one. Thanks.

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