Libya is a place where there is every likelihood that everywhere you go and with everyone you meet you will be greeted warmly, treated generously, welcomed with a smile or a thumbs up. It is also a place where very bad things happen to nice people—where things can go very, very wrong in a heartbeat.
While we were there, the close associate of one of our interview subjects was kidnapped. In Misrata, a popular elected official was assassinated with a silenced pistol. In Benghazi, the British Embassy was telling its citizens to leave. Generally speaking, highly trained security dudes do not want to even consider taking their idiotic on-camera “talent” charges anywhere near weapons—much less imagine the possibility of their operating one.
I’d like to underline that none of the stress, the heightened security measures, the omnipresence of weapons meant that anything bad happened to any of us. There were NO near-death experiences. No close calls. Everywhere WE went, people were, more often than not, lovely to us. In Misrata, the overwhelming concern of the various “militias” seemed to be to keep us safe, to keep order, to not let their city—for which they’d fought so hard—slide back into chaos. Even the Tripoli militia—who you’ll see shutting us down while we were trying to shoot in the ruins of Moammar Gadhafi’s palace complex—they weren’t overtly hostile per se. It was more an armed version of a bureaucratic squabble over jurisdiction. These things happen when you’re talking about a “new” nation emerging from 40 years of maniacal autocracy. There is not, currently, much of a government. Order, to a great extent, is a DIY affair, maintained on what one might call a volunteer basis.
What will stick with me about Libya, however, is not the tension or all the things that might have gone wrong but didn’t. What will stick with me is the faces of the people we met, most of them very young. Young people in their 20s who only a few weeks before the rebellion were playing PS2, studying medicine, working abroad, learning to skateboard—who then rushed to fight. Again and again, these young people looked at our cameras and, in answer to simple questions, told us extraordinary things.
A version of this field note was published on Bourdain’s Tumblr feed on May 17, 2013.