Rod Nordland reports:
Frustrated by the gridlocked traffic, the young man in fatigues was leaning on the horn of his old Chevrolet Impala, the one with the front and rear windshields shot out. The shrillness of the pointless noise made a foreigner in the car next to him wince.
Then came one of those Free Libya moments.
“Sorry, sorry,” the horn-blower called apologetically, in English. The young man riding shotgun, also in fatigues and carrying a Kalashnikov, grinned sheepishly and apologized as well. Then he saluted, bringing his wounded right hand into view, a giant mitten of a bandage on it, blood soaking through in places.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said. “America No. 1.”
Americans and, for that matter, all Westerners are treated hereabouts with a warmth and gratitude rarely seen in any Muslim country — even those with 100,000 American troops — in probably half a century or more. People smile and go out of their way to say hello to them, and are almost shockingly courteous. It is that oddest of oddities, an Arab war zone where foreign joggers are regarded, not with hostility or even that sympathetic puzzlement reserved for the insane, but with a friendly wave or a toot on the horn.
Here, even taxi drivers do not rip off foreign visitors, and when a taxi cannot be found, some passing driver will soon volunteer a ride, and will be likely to refuse any offer of payment. A big problem for non-Arabic speaking journalists who visit is trying to find a translator who will accept payment for his or her services. The rebels’ press office has signed up all the English translators it could find, and ordered them to work for free.
In some restaurants, they seem almost reluctant to accept a foreigner’s money. It is a society chronically short of change, so a lot of the coffee bars will just say skip it, and serve up an espresso for whatever loose change is handy, if any. Espresso is one of the welcome surprises of Libya, and while no one would confuse it with Tre Scalini, it is pretty good for a region where the standard stuff is either instant Nescafe or Turkish coffee so thick that a toothpick is needed afterwards.
The pizza, too, is respectable, especially at Pisa Pizza in Benghazi, where the pies are about a yard in diameter. Proof that Italian colonialism accomplished something after all.
In other parts of the Mideast, one refrains from advertising American nationality, if only just in case. This is a part of the world where, other than outside American embassies, the Stars and Stripes are most often spotted ablaze and stomped upon.
Here, crowds of chanting youth fly it proudly, alongside their own new flag, a tricolor with red, black and green horizontal stripes and a crescent and star in the center. (It was widely and quickly adopted by the rebels to replace the Qaddafi government’s hated green flag, an unadorned panel so plain that it has been derided as a putting green.) What popular Arab street movement has ever flown the flags of not only the United States, but the European Union, NATO, Italy, France and Qatar, all at once?