Walking through the dim, narrow mud-brick corridor that serves as an entrance to Qasr al-Hajj -- an 800-year-old fortified granary, a castle-like structure unique to the Berber community of Libya’s Nafusa Mountains -- one encounters a curious sight nestled among a number of traditional farm implements: A recently discovered large earthenware jar. After local revolutionaries found it concealed in one of the castle’s storage rooms in 2012, they cracked it open and uncovered golden heads of wheat that were harvested in the fall of 1968, roughly a year before Muammar Qadhafi and his Free Officers took power. The plump wheat grains remained unspoiled during the intervening years; after all of this time, they are still ready to be ground into flour and baked into bread.
Our guide, Ali al-Haji, a Berber man who helped protect Qasr al-Hajj from potential looters during the 2011 revolution and who continues to serve as the site’s custodian, seemed to think that Libya holds the same potential as the forgotten wheat. A year after the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, he dismissed concerns that Libya was experiencing a descent into violence or anarchy. “If there were half as many guns or released convicts on the streets of Cairo or Damascus, as we have in Libya, think of the chaos!” Our experience roughly mirrored al-Haji’s sanguine assessments of Libyans’ self-control and its fundamentally strong social and tribal system. Over the course of our journey southwestward from Tripoli into the mountains, we traveled hundreds of miles on main and local roads, were stuck in myriad traffic jams and never once saw armed men, militia vehicles, or spontaneous militia checkpoints. The checkpoints and the public display of artillery, which had characterized Tripoli and its environs in late 2011 and 2012, have simply disappeared. (But so have the police cars of the pre-revolutionary era.)