Charlie Waite and Sophie McBain's Libyan entourage. Khaled, their guide, is on the left. Photo: Charlie Waite Photography
Show Hide image

Shooting the great sand sea: a mysterious mission across Libya

On the eve of revolution, Sophie McBain accompanied the photographer Charlie Waite across the North African nation. Now she tells her story.

The brutalist architecture of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank makes it an unexpected setting for Charlie Waite’s photography. On the bare concrete walls hang pictures of mist-filled valleys in the golden dawn light, tree-lined avenues as peaceful as the naves of cathedrals, fields of lavender and oilseed rape. Each photo captures a fleeting moment – the second the clouds are aligned just so, a bird takes off, a herd of cows fall into single file under a heavy sky.

You would never guess it from the images but Waite’s landscapes of Libya depict a country on the cusp of war. Days after he took his photos, Libyans in the east rose up against their government. These demonstrations and the violence that followed led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi, who had ruled the country and crushed all dissent for over 41 years.

“I still feel horribly guilty about our project,” I end up blurting out when I spot Charlie in the corner of the gallery. I feel relieved by his surprise.

We first met in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in January 2011. I had been living in the city since 2008, working for the United Nations Development Programme and later for the African Development Bank. Charlie was visiting to take photographs for a coffee-table book on Libya’s tourist attractions commissioned by a Malta-based media company on behalf of a mystery VIP client. I was writing the accompanying text.

It was his first night in the country so I invited him for dinner at a restaurant next to Marcus Aurelius Arch. The Roman triumphal monument once formed the entrance to Oea, the city that later became Tripoli. Today, it is squeezed between the Ottoman old medina and the busy coastal road. We sat outside, surrounded by very few diners and dozens of street cats. The restaurant specialised in a dish called al-jarra, which it described as “baby camel cooked in a pot”.

Charlie looked up from the menu. The whole set-up of the trip seemed odd, he told me – the brief was strangely broad, the organisation chaotic. The client had insisted that he return to the UK by 16 February, which would give him little time. Did I know, he asked, who the client was? I didn’t then feel able to talk to him about my concerns – having lived in Libya for more than two years, I was instinctively guarded. Yet it had occurred to me that whoever had commissioned the book was very high up in government and, in Gaddafi’s Libya, that could only mean one thing: if it wasn’t Muammar, it was most likely his son Saif al-Islam.

I should never have accepted the job but it was offered to me by someone I knew and I was flattered and intrigued. There were perks, too. I was given unusual access to some of Gaddafi’s closest advisers. Most finished the interview by giving me a copy of the Green Book, in which the “Brother Leader” outlined his views on everything from democracy to football and menstruation.

Other parts of the job worried me. I was assigned a “guide” – a squat, short-tempered chain-smoker named Khaled – to monitor my work. Khaled had business interests everywhere: for years, he had traded camels from Sudan to Libya, transporting them on foot across the Sahara. Later, he had worked for an export company in the Midlands. Most days, I’d spend hours sitting in his car while he picked up thick wads of cash and delivered them to different people. Once, he turned up with two black eyes, saying he’d been in a crash. Another time, we bumped into a friend of mine – let’s call him Ahmed – who introduced himself.

“I know your name, Ahmed. I am glad you’re showing Sophia a good side to Libya,” Khaled said. My friend shrank back. No one in Libya wants a government spy to know who they are. I had also started to receive emails from the media company we were working for, with new instructions on facts I could not mention and political details I must include. By the time Charlie arrived, I was feeling trapped: what would I end up putting my name to?

Still, on the road with Charlie, it was almost impossible not to share his enthusiasm. We travelled to the east of the country to the Greek ruins of Cyrene and Apollonia, where shards of ancient pottery crunched under our feet and we could clamber over fallen colonnades and explore empty amphitheatres entirely undisturbed.

“No one was there. It was as if there had been an exodus,” Charlie remembers today, as we look through the photographs on his laptop. This was not unusual; Libya’s classical sites were almost always deserted. Even so, the mood in the country was shifting. To the west, Tunisia’s dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had stepped down following popular protests earlier that month. To the east, Egyptians were risking their lives in demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak’s police state. Our guide seemed agitated.

A few days in to our trip, Charlie asked to photograph a newly completed housing pro­ject on the road to Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. We noticed the police first and then a small, ragged group of men waving banners and shouting slogans about government corruption. Khaled quickly herded us away from the scene.

Before then, I had only once seen anyone publicly criticise the government. A wild-eyed man had burst into the café in Tripoli where I was having lunch with a colleague and shouted: “Someone give me a gun so I can kill that Gaddafi dog.” He ran desperately from table to table, begging for a weapon. In retrospect, I think he was a victim of torture who had lost his mind. Like everyone else, I stared at my plate, too afraid to look up, and it was a shock to realise how quickly I had learned to keep quiet.

We didn’t mention the demonstration to Khaled again but that evening he banned us from leaving our hotel. Charlie took no pictures of Benghazi.

In hindsight, I should have realised the significance of that day. But it’s still hard to imagine that a powerful dictatorship could prove so brittle. When we returned to Tripoli, I found it unchanged and soon we headed south, deep into Libya’s desert interior, where politics felt far away. Charlie and I explored the oasis town of Ghat and the ruins of Germa, once the capital city of the Garamantes, who controlled areas of northern Africa that the Romans could not penetrate. In the Acacus Mountains, we saw paintings and rock carvings of giraffes, elephants and crocodiles dating back to when the Sahara was still green. We drove through the “great sand sea” to find the salt lakes of Ubari. One of the pictures in Charlie’s exhibition is from that day: a cluster of palm huts in the desert, their walls sagging with age and mirroring the curves of the dunes beyond.

It surprises me that Charlie could have taken such a serene image on such a fraught trip. He likes to spend hours, sometimes days, or longer, waiting for the right light, but our schedule was too tight. We drove up to 600 kilometres a day to meet the client’s requirements and tempers frayed.

One afternoon I fell out with Khaled. We had been travelling for eight hours and I refused to sit in the car for another two to drop Charlie off at his hotel and accompany Khaled to his office. Instead, I flagged down a taxi home. Disobeying my guide proved a big mistake.

Within a few hours, Khaled had lodged an official complaint against me and I was asked to report to the ministry of foreign affairs. Abdel Majeed al-Dursi, the head of the foreign media corporation, was sitting behind a huge wooden desk. His office smelled of cigarette smoke and pine air freshener. I noticed a switch that allowed him to lock his metal-reinforced office door. He did so and said, “Sophia. Khaled says you are very difficult to work with. You spend all your evenings crying about how much you miss your boyfriend. You are a grown woman now and you have to understand, we all need to make sacrifices for work.”

At first I was too surprised and embarrassed to speak. In a little over a week, al-Dursi would have to negotiate with the crowds of war correspondents arriving to cover Libya’s uprising. But that evening, he played the kindly headmaster. He nodded patiently as I tried to defend myself against Khaled’s lies but nevertheless insisted I say sorry to Khaled in person. In an instant I was five years old again, trying to formulate that magical apology that was just about sincere enough to meet grown-up approval, while still maintaining some degree of dignity and conveying the implicit threat of future retaliation.

The project went ahead. Charlie, Khaled and I travelled through the Nafusa Mountains and to the picturesque town of Ghadames, an old oasis settlement. The only hint of the violence that would break out within days was a government order that we were not to visit Nalut, a town historically opposed to Gaddafi’s rule.

Charlie left as planned, a day before the revolution began. He wonders now if this is why our client was so insistent that he leave by 16 February. Four days later, I also left Libya on one of the last commercial flights out of the country as the violence spread to the capital. I packed up a few belongings in under half an hour and had no time to say goodbye. Both of us were paid half of our fees upfront and the second instalment never arrived. The book was cancelled, one piece of news that I could greet with relief.

Today, we flick through more photographs on his laptop. They are, above all, beautiful. “It’s lovely for people not to have to question – and for there to be a direct and silent exchange between the viewer and what they’re looking at,” he says at one point. How funny that a photographer who dislikes “statement” art should have captured such a precious political moment.

I try to fill him in on more news. Did he know that those cities in the east are largely under militant Islamist control now? That someone earlier this year defaced the rock paintings in the Acacus Mountains?

“It’s so sad. They are such great people,” Charlie says. “I travel a lot and I don’t ever meet unpleasant people.” I don’t agree with him. A dictatorship relies on some doing evil and the majority being too passive or scared to resist.

Charlie asks what happened to Khaled. Ahmed saw him in Tripoli when the city was celebrating its liberation. Khaled shook his hand and gave him a business card, telling him to get in touch if he ever needed help in Libya al-Hurra, Free Libya.

Sophie McBain is assistant editor of the NS

“Silent Exchange: the Landscape Photography of Charlie Waite” will be on display in the Lyttelton Exhibition Space, National Theatre, London SE1, until 20 September

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

A still from Genius
Show Hide image

Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.