Thursday, June 06, 2013


By now most everyone has figured it out, but I left Libya a month early to take an extra-long vacation before I start my next job here in Washington.  It was a quick decision, and once I made it I was out of the country in under two weeks.  I flew out of Tripoli on 3 May, got home on the 4th, and I don't start work for another ten days.  In the last month, I've relaxed, visited family, helped set up the new house, played with our kitties, and reconnected with Eric - silly as it sounds, we are learning how to live together and to live like normal adults again, after a year of being apart and in successive short-term apartments.

It was not an easy decision to leave early.  As I've said before, I love Libya - I love its people and their passion for debate, I love the country and its wobbly trajectory of freedom, I love the work I was doing.  But the accumulated stress and grief since September combined and weighed me down so much that I was doing no good to anyone, certainly myself, by staying the extra month in Tripoli.  My productivity at work was down, and I found myself hiding in my room staring at a wall when I wasn't at my desk, trying to work.

It wasn't a sense of danger that caused me to leave, although the 23 May bombing of the French Embassy in Tripoli certainly increased my conviction.  In my last ten days in Libya I vacillated between elation (going home to my family!) and guilt (how can I give up on something and leave my coworkers and friends in the lurch here?).  I still feel a substantial amount of guilt for leaving, but there's also a lot of relief.  Being home has made me a healthier, happier person, and while I'm still Not Right (my family would question whether I ever was to begin with), I can feel myself growing stronger.  I have days when there are setbacks, but I'm getting better.

In this job, where you move every one to three years to start an entirely new position in a new place, learning how to let go of your previous portfolio and hand it over to your successor is a hard but vital lesson to learn.  You have to know the art of the hand-off: how to hand over your contacts, passions, accumulated knowledge, and experience to a stranger and not spend too much time worrying if he'll do the job with as much love as you did (or, conversely, if he'll do it better than you).  By leaving early, I created a bit of a gap before the arrival of my successor, but I have hope that he'll jump into the job feet-first and love the work.  We've been talking via email since he bid on this position last summer, and he is enthusiastic and far more knowledgeable about Libya than I was when I arrived.  He'll be great, so that assuages one side of the equation.

On the other hand, because I left so quickly, I didn't get to say goodbye to the Libyans and internationals that I'd worked with and come to know during my time in Tripoli.  Most of all, I didn't have time (due to a few local holidays) to say goodbye to most of the Libyan local staff at the Embassy who have been such good friends and coworkers to me during my year there.  I miss them, and I worry about them every day.  I feel ashamed for leaving like that.

I miss Libya.  I keep up with its news much as I used to do when I was there, talking to people on Twitter, reading the papers, and asking questions, but since I'm not there, it doesn't have the sense of immediacy it used to.  I've become a foreign observer, instead of someone in the thick of things.  It sucks.  I've sulked a little bit and have been slow to respond to emails from some of my Libyan friends since I got back, which is entirely my fault and due largely to my conflicted emotions about how I left.

This is my goodbye-for-now letter to Libya - I say for now, because I'm determined to return in the future for another tour, in better times and when my family can come with me.  I want to visit Ghadames and see the famous warren of earthen houses.  I want to go to Tobruk and see the Allied cemetery from World War II.  I want to visit Leptis Magna and Sabratha (and don't even ask why I never went to them, it's a pathetic story).  I want to go to Sabha and Marzuq and Ghat and meet people there.  I want to visit the famous rock carvings in southern Libya that represent some of the earliest human settlements.  I want to visit Benghazi and lay flowers at the site where my friends were killed, and then I want to go to Freedom Square and celebrate Libya's rebirth in freedom.

To my Libyan friends, thank you.  Thank you for taking me under your wing and explaining to me what was going on.  Thank you for trusting me enough to talk to me, in public and in private, about your hopes, fears, and goals for your country.  Many of you I never met in person - after Benghazi, I had to rely on nontraditional means to connect with Libyans, and you welcomed me to your online discussions.  When I come back, I hope we can meet again in better times.  Please know that my home is always open to you, wherever I may be in the world.  Just send me a DM!