No. 15 Ghaddafi
ONE FRAME SCENARIOS
GHADDAFI - My part in his Downfall.
I nearly wrote Muammar Ghaddafi's official biography. The only time in my life I was pretty sure I was going to die sooner rather than later was one midsummers night in Libya in 1988
I was being driven in a jeep by a soldier, a cousin of Colonel Ghaddafi, across theLibyan desert to meet the Great Man. It was dark, we had turned left off the tarmacadamed main Benghazi - Tripoli road and were bumping over scrub and dunes on an invisible track when it dawned on me.
The convivial chat amongst my companions - an Irishman, an Englishman and my Arab interpreter - dried up and silence filled the jeep.It was suddenly quite clear. We were being brought out here to be shot.
I knew the Englishman had lied about his Public school background. Had Ghaddafi found this out and deduced he was a spy for the Brits?. This was around the period Libya was supplying arms to the IRA.
I was mixing in strange company but my excuse was scholarship: my Atlantean films on the Ireland/North Africa connection had brought me to their attention as a person sympathetic to Islam who might also be sympathetic to Libya and its Leader.
My interpreter was a Senoussi whose family had lost all its wealth in theGhaddafi coup against King Idris in 1969. He told me that twelve months previously he had turned down the offer of a job as Minister for Information.
˜You don't say no to this man, but how could I work for the regime, having seen my friends hung in the public square?'.
He too had good reason to be nervous. He was the one who introduced me to the concept: Bone in My Meal -meaning there's a fly in the ointmentor, life is great except for this one tiny thing.
We two Irishmen could not think of any reason why they should try to get rid of us except as awkward witnesses.On the other hand maybe we had corrupted his aides by persuading them to smuggle our hard liquor into this strictly dry country. Worse, I had allowed one of them to polish off my vodka. He explained that Vodka didn't leave a smell on his breath.Were they suspicious because I wrote my daily notes in the Irish language and their regular surveillance of my room frustratingly divulged nothing? One morning when I cried off an excursion I answered a knock on the door of my Benghazi hotel room to find three burly and surprised men.They carried one towel between them and pretended that was the purpose of their visit.They entered, installed the towel and departed sheepishly.
Perhaps I had not shown sufficient enthusiasm in the discussions about my writing the Leader's biography. This was an exploratory visit. In preparation I had read most of the existing accounts of the man.The indigenous works were grossly sycophantic, the foreign ones mostly antagonistic,many written in British tabloid style. Apart from a few objective demographic and economic descriptions of the country, I found only one, ˜Ghadaffi's Libya," by Jonathan Bearman, with a preface by Claudia Wright, which struck me as a fairminded piece of writing.
Perhaps I had insulted the Great Man at our first meeting when I spoke in Irish to him and left him and the interpreters upstaged until I translated my own words. I knew I was privileged. Five years earlier Kenneth Clarke, a minister for health representing the Thatcher Government had hoped to meet Ghaddafi and had failed, fobbed off with functionaries.My guides said the access granted to me was unparallelled in their experience. But I already knew that flattery is the lingua franca of North Africa.
There again, it might have been my first direct question to Ghaddafi:
˜How, sir, with the absolute power at your disposal, have you not become corrupt?'
Could the interpreter have translated that as an accusation?. No, not likely, becauseGhaddafi replied: 'I do not have absolute power. The People have it'.
Hence the nervous silence as the jeep groaned and bucked all over the place.The miltary man seemed unsure of his path: he constantly peered around into the blackness and occasionally up into the dark sky. I followed his glances into the dark and thought: Yes, this would be a handy spot to lose four bodies. I had already seen the Kalashnikov resting handily on the floor beside him.
The driver suddenly jammed on the brakes.This is it, I thought. But all he did was get on the radio and ask for directions.
We resumed our helter skelter ride and a bumpy hour later saw lights across the scrub.A circle of car headlamps greeted us. Should we be relieved or was this to be some kind of show trial and execution?
At the far side of the circle stood a figure straight out of Sigmund Romberg's˜Desert Song": a tall sheikh in flowing robes.
The real Sheikh who again faced me was was Ghaddafi . I realised this was his answer to my question about avoidance of corruption. The implication was that he was at heart a Bedouin, a man of the desert.The utter cleanliness of the desert kept man pure.
He answered my first question - about Bedouin incorruptibility - by handing me a jackrabbit and a pigeon which, to judge by their warmth and the tiny pulse I could still feel in the rabbit, were only recently sacrificed. These gifts did not reassure me.
I thought I might as well get a photographand asked his permission. He gestured to his bedouin costume and half-grinned: If they see me dressed like this they will certainly say I am a terrorist.
A rug was spread on which we sat, in front of a small fire. Our host lowered himselfonto a stool deftly slipped into place by an armed female bodyguard, one of his so-called ˜revolutionary nuns". He did not even glance behind him. Now that, I thought, is the confidence of power. She also draped a cloak around his shoulders and made sure we kept a respectful distance.Then, of all things, he poured us each a cup of tea.
In an effort to avoid staring I ventured that he must often, in his youth in the desert,have drunk tea round a fire like this. No, he said.We did not have tea in those days.
That put me in my rich western place. Conversation with this man had not been easy. Perhaps he just wanted to be stared at.
I had an inspiration. I remembered that the feast of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac was imminent. It had seemed to me that Ghaddafi's father was rarely mentioned in accounts of his life - even though the man lived to be ninety-five - whereas the Leader's mother was very prominent in despatches. Ah-ha, thought I, maybe there's something Oedipal in the background.
˜I wonder", I said, "about Abraham and Isaac and your relationship with your own father."
˜I share your wondering,"he said and refilled my cup. No more questions for the moment, your honour.
The Englishman referred to an alleged whipping episode of Arab boys by the Brits in Egypt .He asked whether this had fuelled the Leader's anger. ˜Not especially," Ghaddafi replied, ˜I saw all of humanity being whipped, I saw cruelty towards humanity everywhere."
I realised this man should have been a film director. He had financed the epic Lion of the Desert at a time when oil revenue was unparalleled. The elaborate scenario he had set up for us was a masterpiece of wide-screen cinema. Only the dialogue needed a little polishing. We were flattered at the show put on for us but were literally a captive audience out here in the desert.
There was a certain amount of polite conversation which did not last long.
I asked, fairly disingenuously, whether Mr. Ghaddafi saw himself as some kind of philosopher king, the Socratic ideal. I forget the answer, if he gave one at all.The conversation was, as the phrase has it, desultory.What must he have thought of these idiot Irishmen who spoke of literature and philosophy as if they were some kind of key to understanding life's great mysteries?
In a practical tone, Ghaddafi referred to a letter he had written to Kurt Waldheim about Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers. I mentioned the book, Ten Men Dead and he asked me to send him a copy .I never sent it.
After perhaps a half-hour he stood up.The conversation had petered out. He seemed to be satisfied he had made his general point, that the ascetic life of a desert Bedouin was the ideal on which to base one's life and society. Mind you, the fancy suit, possibly Armani, that peeped out from under his desert robes slightly undermined his homily.
A large dormobile drove up. TheLeader rose, shook hands, vanished into its interior and off it trundledinto the blackness. Our guide explained that the Leader suffered from some arthritic condition; hence the dormobile. I was assured that I would have at least sixteen meetings - a figure plucked out of the air - with the man and that if the biography was successful I would be commissioned to make a film of his life with an unlimited budget. With these dreams of grandeur we were left to face the uncomfortable ride home across the scrubland. At least we were still alive.
It wasn't the end.
On the way back a couple of jackrabbits were trapped in the corridor of our headlights. Our driver stopped the jeep suddenly, grabbed his rifle and leaped from the vehicle.Laughing, he began blasting away at the terrified animals. It was as if he was relieving the tension of the past few hours. He missed.I got out to stretch my legs and he offered me the rifle. I declined, much to his surprise.
We slept uncertainly that night wondering what other scenarios Mr. Ghaddafi had in store for us. I met him twice more in his tent/military compound in the desert. I told his minders I would write the biography, warts and all and give the original manuscript to them to publish if they so wished. I declined to participate in the discussions on my fee and insisted I be flown a day earlier than scheduled to Malta where I stayed overnight in a luxury hotel owned by Ghaddafi.
Some months later in the Crane Bar in Galway I met five American students who were due to fly to London to catch their PanAm plane back to New York and their University in Syracuse. I admit this may be hindsight but even in the presence of my lively two-year-old, they seemed to me to be unusually subdued for young people. I don't believe in premonitions. Maybe they were just worn out with travel.
A couple of days later I heard about the horror of the plane crash in Lockerbie, Scotland. The news said many of the passenger were students from Syracuse University in New York. When it emerged that a bomb was the cause, the finger was pointed at Libya. The year was 1988.
For years I never referred publicly to my encounters with Ghaddafi.I feared my musings might endanger the man who had confided in me the hell that was Libya - despite his urgings at the time to tell the world. I hope it is safe for him now if I mention that he brought me to a beach in Cyrenaica and said: ˜When you go home, tell the Americans that this is the best place to invade'. Not far away was a place called Tobruk which even I had heard of.
I heard nothing further about the biography.
My best experience in Libya was to see this 2nd century BC Hellenistic statue of the Three Graces in the ruins of Cyrenaica which is fortunately now in the area controlled by the Libyan citizens.
pics and text © BQ
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