TRIPOLI, Libya — At first, the changes were easy to ignore. Military roadblocks on the long, sun-scalded highways out of town melted away. Pious Muslim men were allowed to grow beards again. Libyans were permitted to carry a second passport after years as pariah travelers. Things like that; little things, one after the next.
Improbably, Moammar Kadafi stopped cursing America and the West, and the mercurial Libyan leader took to the national airwaves to hail a "new era." Libyan officials began reminding anybody who cared to listen that this sandy Mediterranean nation issued one of the first arrest warrants for Osama bin Laden.
Then, this spring, Kadafi brought in a sharp-tongued, American-educated oil specialist and handed him unlikely instructions: Reform a system engineered by Kadafi himself. Under that newcomer, Prime Minister Shukri Mohammed Ghanim, Libya is undergoing a massive privatization of its socialist economy.
"It's trying to become more democratic -- quote, unquote," a European diplomat here said. "It will be easier for the West to stomach."
Beneath its virgin beaches and its crumbling troves of Roman ruins, Libya is still a shadowy place. After more than three decades of capricious, ironfisted rule by the man known as "The Revolution Leader," or simply "The Leader," most people are afraid to speak with journalists, and international human rights groups are kept away. Allegations of arrests, disappearances and killings continue to darken Kadafi's regime, along with suspicions that Libya is trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Nevertheless, long-standing U.N. sanctions were lifted this fall, and hopeful, fearful Libyans are now blinking about like a people slowly waking from collective slumber. They are telling themselves, as one government official says quietly over a cup of coffee, glancing over both shoulders to see who might be near: "We can be a normal country, even with Kadafi."
In a tumbledown neighborhood by the beach, a boy leans against a metal doorframe and lists his stock of illegal liquor. His jeans are bleached and tight; his undershirt old and frayed. "White Horse," he says quietly. "Sixty-nine."
This clutch of low houses is one of Tripoli's black markets, and they say you can get just about anything here for a price -- whiskey or wine; hashish or heroin. The streets are garbage-strewn: margarine tubs, Pepsi cans, tattered plastic bags. The rust from the salt air spreads like a rash over the cars and motorbikes.
The men tinker beneath open hoods and lift their eyes to inspect passing cars, waiting to be summoned. The doors on the houses creak open and close fast, cracks of light split the edges of drawn curtains.
On paper, Libyans are entitled to a job, free school, free medicine and a house. But it hasn't worked out that way. "We tried to take care of everybody, but we ended up standing on long queues in the black market," Ghanim says.
One of Kadafi's pet slogans is "Partners, not wage workers" -- but many Libyans can't even claim the latter distinction. Unemployment is estimated at between 10% and 30%, but it's hard to measure: No Libyan official has been so audacious as to tally the jobless.
And with oil production down and the economy in tatters, salaries are falling. In 1980, oil workers earned about $590 a month. These days, the average pay is $130 a month; the minimum wage is $89.
In the heat of afternoon, listless men line the cornice down by the water to stare off over the Mediterranean. Their clothes flap like rags in the wind. The country's poor are wandering the streets. "If you come to my house for two hours," a local oil company employee said, "you will answer the door to 12, 14 beggars."
In this dingy neighborhood there is a street nicknamed Colombia -- that's where the drugs come from. "Wine and drugs are total destruction weapons," warns a missive painted prominently at the airport. "Hash is like the bacterial and chemical weapons and the atomic bomb." The warning is signed, "The Revolution Leader."
But many of Libya's youth have no work, and nothing but drugs to do. A few years ago, the government built its first drug rehabilitation clinic in the abandoned British military barracks near the ocean, out by the prison and the fading tourist bungalows that rent for $10 a day.
Like Tripoli itself -- gaudy with strings of light, a city whose shop windows are thick with glittering party dresses -- the clinic is half-masked by whimsy: The drab wall facing the street is vibrant with painted flowers and birds.