The first thing of consequence upon my arrival in Tripoli was that I was told my phone would be bugged or tapped or whatever term one prefers to use when the government listens to your call, but you can’t hear them listening. They’d record everything I said on the phone in my $300-a-night room; the Corinthian was a gilded palace of a hotel in a city that didn’t have much gilding. I was scared out of my mind.
It was 2004. Libya had just paid restitution to the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing; in return, the U.S. State Department lifted its travel ban so Americans could visit. Not that it was easy. It had taken more than six months to get a journalist visa to enter the country—a dry (as in arid), dry (as in no alcohol allowed), Muslim, Mediterranean nation I knew almost nothing about.
The second thing of consequence upon my arrival was a phone call on that not-private phone line. It was a man I didn’t know who spoke quickly and urgently. Was I ready for my interview? I’m sorry, which interview are you talking about? The interview with Mr. Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi? Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi was the son of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the man President Ronald Reagan once called the Mad Dog of the Middle East. I had been trying to confirm this interview for far longer than I had tried to get a visa, and now, 15 minutes after I checked into my hotel, mere hours after stepping foot in Libya, I was invited to it. And could I please be downstairs in two minutes? There will be a gentleman with a car. He would take me to the Qaddafi family tiger farm outside of Tripoli.
So that’s how my month in Libya unfolded: drinking mint tea with Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, known as the Flying Sword of Islam, as he stood next to a massive stuffed white tiger and explained that Libya was on the path to free elections and becoming a proper democratic republic. History, of course, would have other ideas.
We spoke about Tripoli and I mentioned that, in my brief time in the city, I had noticed that there were no women anywhere. The plazas and cafés were full of men, but where were the women? “I think they are at their homes doing projects,” he said. I had a fleeting image of legions of Libyan women with poster boards and pipe cleaners and Elmer’s glue. It was hardly an answer, but then he changed the subject and told me about a place in Tripoli I should absolutely visit: a golf course right on the coast.
A few days later, I met a brilliant photojournalist named Jason Florio and told him about this golf course. I’d never held a club in my life, but a golf course in Tripoli seemed like something we shouldn’t miss.
Nine holes on a giant sand trap: That was the only way to describe it. But it did come with a pro of sorts, and we spent the morning focused on my swing. An elderly Libyan man with a nonstop grin and easy demeanor, he told me to wrap the pinky finger of my right hand over the thumb of my left hand. This cannot possibly be right, I thought. And yet as soon as I tried this cockamamie grip, bam. I actually hit a golf ball for the first time in my life.
There were a few people around the course, but no one played much that day; it was another crazy-windy afternoon. The flags in the holes were worn and tattered. The course had the air of a place that had been forgotten a long time ago.
After we left, I wondered why the Mad Dog’s son urged me to go to this deserted place. It occurred to me that maybe the course wasn’t forgotten. There may have been only a few dozen regular players who made use of it, but to them, it was an escape. Libya was a hard place to live—a place where everyone had a picture of Qaddafi in their home whether they wanted to or not; a place where people learned from a young age to stay in line; a place where secrecy and fear permeated every facet of life. So maybe this course, this sad little course without a blade of grass, was what golf can be for every player: a small respite from the rest of their world.
Danielle Pergament has written for GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic, Allure, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit and others. She has been a contributor to The New York Times travel section for 15 years. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kids.