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Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part 1



Between 1983 and 1986 I worked at a university in Libya under the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and for the next few weeks I shall be writing about that experience. I shall have to practice self-censorship, as there may be people alive—Libyans and foreigners (especially members of the diplomatic corps)—who might be endangered by what I could, but shan’t, say. Also I have a lot of what I do want to say to set down. After consulting with my long-suffering editor I have decided to do this in two chunks—up to 5 weeks each—and to offer something else in between to relieve you from reminiscences of that hot, dusty, turbulent north African country. All of this might seem to be excessively “I” focused, but there is a justification for this. I have had the good fortune to live in or visit parts of the world that relatively few foreigners have encountered and it seems worthwhile to share that experience. Readers of thepost have already been treated to (or have endured) my accounts of driving across the Sahara and multiple visits to Cameroon. Now here is Libya, which very few foreigners have experienced, despite its outstanding tourist potential (something I’ll address as the piece proceeds). Under the Gaddafi regime it was a closed country; no visas were issued to foreigners except for those employed there and (for short and infrequent visits) to relatives of those who lived back at home or elsewhere. Since the violent death of Gaddafi the country has descended into chaos, carved up between rival governments and their militias, and is a no-go area. One prays that the latest UN-brokered peace deal will lead to the place getting back on its feet. To say a little more about my procedures in writing about the Libya of the 1980s, I have for some time planned to write a book of pieces of this kind (order your advance copies now!) The idea would be to record my own experiences—along the lines of a memoir or autobiographical work—while trying to give a full idea of what the relevant places were like during a specific period, and at the same time discussing perception and the authorial procedures involved in giving account. So it would be a kind of meta-memoir. I have designed a format for doing this, but I’m not going to describe that here, in case some budding author pinches the idea. To be boastful for a moment, after leaving Libya I contributed a chapter to a multi-authored academic book called The Green and the Black, a book on the Gaddafi regime’s relationships with countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Two reviewers commented that whatever the flaws in my chapter (certainly my research was patchy) it was the only one in the book to give a vivid idea of what it was like to live in Libya, of what the place actually felt like. So I’ll try to do more of that over the next few weeks. In accounting for life under Gaddafi I want very much to acknowledge both the bad and the good aspects of the regime. The latter has been seriously underrated, for reasons that are fully understandable and have to do with world politics. Gaddafi had very few friends anywhere. But it is dishonest—indeed craven and self-defeating—not to acknowledge the merits and achievements of the regime as well as its crimes. It is instructive to compare photos of Gaddafi from the beginning to the end of his career. In photos from 1969, when—inspired by the example of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt—he led the military coup that overthrew an utterly corrupt regime dominated by Western interests—he looks like a brave young visionary. In the very last photos he appears depraved, chronically ill (he may have had syphilis), utterly malevolent. It is difficult not to peer into those eyes and quake. But now to tune into my own experience and to begin at the beginning (always, as someone said, a good place to start). In 1983, out of a combination of self-interest and principle, I resigned from my university post in my beloved northern Nigeria and returned to the UK without a job. Almost immediately I saw an advert recruiting staff for Gar Younis University in Benghazi, Libya’s second city. I applied and was called to an interview in London. Libya did not have embassies abroad but “People’s Bureaus”—a name that related to the principle of government by “revolutionary committees”, a subject I’ll return to. Shortly before the interview, I turned up at the door of the London People’s Bureau of the SPLAJ (Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, to give the country its official name) and was greeted by a massive security guard, a jolly Londoner, who ushered me in, saying “Let me lead you astray.” The interview went well and I was assured I’d be offered a job. Leaving, smiling broadly, I told this to the guard, who said “rather you than me, mate.” To be continued Chris Dunton

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