Weapons out at Tripoli's rubbish-strewn pet market

Birds for sale in Tripoli market

There are signs in Libya that life is beginning to return to normal but serious problems remain. It isn't just warring factions and an over-abundance of guns the new leaders have to contend with. One symbol of the difficulties they face is the amount of rubbish still to be found on many streets, even in the capital Tripoli.

Libya is still in an early stage of its wobbly trajectory from dictatorship through revolutionary chaos to whatever comes next so they probably have not got round to appointing any animal welfare office just yet.

But when they do, there is a mountain of paperwork waiting for them at the pet market on the city ring-road near the old Gaddafi compound.

There are places where the phrase "mountain of paperwork" is just a figure of speech like "soul of discretion" or "hive of activity".

But in Tripoli there really are mountains of paperwork building up along the sides of some major roads where the householders of Libya's free capital city have taken to dumping household rubbish in higgledy-piggledy foothills of food tins and fetid waste.

Now and then the rubbish appears to ripple as a sleek and lustrous rat slithers through, graceful as an otter in a highland stream.

Libya is a country intoxicated with the poetry of nation-building - forming parties, holding elections and bedding in the principles of democracy.

The prose of governing - emptying bins or preventing motorists from speeding for example - is dull stuff by comparison. So no-one really does it.

The pet market would gladden the heart of anyone elsewhere in the world who feels that business is mired in pettifogging bureaucracy.

It is a spontaneous weekly gathering of animal traders who park their cars along either side of one section of a busy main road.

So light is the new government's touch on the tiller of regulation that the road is not even closed and pedestrian browsers pick their way through a steady stream of ill-tempered drivers nudging through the crowds.

Caged birds are the big sellers here, but if you are an animal lover, look away now.

It is not just the budgies with no room to budge and finches without the space to flinch.

There is a species of tiny African bird so light and delicate that when a hand reaches into the crowded cage to scoop one out, dozens of others swirl furiously and helplessly like leaves in a sudden breeze.

There is an African grey parrot too - blinking solemnly out from behind the bars of a tiny cage.

He has an air of affronted dignity - as though the only reason he's not speaking is because he refuses to lower himself to the vulgarity of showmanship. But surely he is an endangered species.

He is at any rate an expensive species on sale for $1,000 - about half of what the Libyan government paid unmarried revolutionaries for last year's fighting.

The distinction between pet and pot is uncomfortably blurred - and not just because of the tortoises which look like ambulant but lethargic meat pies.

One man has two boxes of rabbits - the slightly cuter, sleeker ones on the right with velvety ears and brown button noses are destined for hearth and hutch. The ones on the left are heading for casserole country.

The rabbit seller has a keen sense of what foreign visitors want to hear.

Under Gaddafi, he assures me unconvincingly, only the ruling elite were allowed to keep rabbits. Now everyone can. Or at least everyone who can afford to spend half a week's wages on a £25 ($40) carrot burner.

The market does work - testament to how the instinct to trade can flicker like a pilot light in the heart over decades of totalitarianism and then burst into life with the smallest encouragement.

Anyone in Tripoli with a picnic table and a camping gas ring can set up a roadside omelette stall... and of course the surrounding mountains of rubbish provide somewhere convenient to throw anything left over.

The market is laid out like a kind of food chain starting with tiny birds whose wings beat like batted eyelids and working up to the larger, lairier members of the canine kingdom.

Every so often a big hound is led through the crowds which prudently part to let them past. Some have the ripped ears and dull-eyed aggression of the fighting dog.

But we never reach the dog department... there is a sudden sound of gunfire - regular and rhythmic at first like the sound of target practice or a seller showing off to a prospective buyer.

But there is something more to this - it sends a pulse of aggression runs through the crowd like electricity and a breakaway group spills through the fetid foothills of garbage and across a dried up river bed which lies beside it.

One young man scampers clear of the scene before turning to gesture aggressively towards the group from which he had run away, the universal sign of beckoning hands which means "come on then", and which is nearly always made from a safe distance.

Eventually the trouble is broken up by a group of rebel fighters who emerge from a neighbouring barracks with slightly heavier weapons - including a flashy, nickel-plated machine gun - to restore order.

They stalk through the crowds warning that the pet market has to stop and that if it re-appears next week there will be trouble.

Somewhere in those edgy moments are traces of many of the problems and opportunities that post-Gaddafi Libya faces - the unlicensed traders, the unregulated firearms, uncollected rubbish.

All sorts of impulses are contending uneasily but unmistakably for power in uncertain times here. No wonder no-one's got round to appointing an animal welfare officer just yet.

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