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Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine) – Part Three



During my first few days at Gar Younis University, I found there were several surprises in store for me. First of these was that there were so many female students — considerably more, it seemed, than male. I knew that under Gaddafi Libya was not an Islamicist state and that the legal code was Napoleonic, but hadn’t realised how radical Gaddafi had been in subverting the preferences of (very powerful) Islamicist groups in the country. He insisted on complete female participation in education (mixed classes, no less, and no gender restriction on who taught whom), as well as in the police and armed forces. Second, and I learnt this through a whispered communication, there was a covert agreement amongst staff to do anything possible not to fail students, as their failure would lead to their expulsion and their conscription into the army and the probability of their fighting and dying in the Libya-Chad border war and whatever other hostilities the regime might get itself into. Third — and this one so flummoxed me that I didn’t know how to react—although the university had a VC and other executive officers, and it had Faculties and Departments, the place was basically run by Revolutionary Committees, one for each Faculty. These, it turned out, functioned rather like the Leninist notion of collectives. After a while I was more-or-less adopted as the mascot of the Revolutionary Committee of my Faculty — I think it amused them to have a genial Brit on board, especially when in 1986 our two countries went to war. The convenor of ‘my’ committee was a Palestinian refugee — very radical—and he would ask me to make comments on the viability of various ideas the committee was putting forward. More often than not my reaction to a particular proposal would be “good idea, but how about going about it a different way? Like, any other way.” Writing the above paragraph, I kept wondering what if anyone from MI5 reads thepost? But we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. I am reminded, though, of the one occasion when the British security forces attempted to grill me. This was shortly after leaving Libya; I was on my way to Peru, and was taken into an office at passport check where a gent in a suit glared at me and said, in a tone that did not indicate wholehearted approval: “you’re a very well-travelled man, Mr Dunton.” I corrected my title and then went on and on about international academic work, until the poor bloke eventually dozed off. He really wasn’t in the James Bond league. Another discovery in those first few days was pretty alarming at a personal level. I had been hired to set up courses in African literature, my specialism, and to teach other literature courses. But it turned out that certain subjects were considered too sensitive for non-Libyans (or trusted fellow Arabs) to teach; these subjects included political science, history, theology—and literature. So I was being assigned to the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, where my job would be to teach brush-up courses in the English language (after a year I was asked to run the relevant unit). I explained that I had no formal TEFL training (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), but that nugget of information was brushed aside. In truth, I had done some TEFL teaching at a language school in Oxford when I was a student, to earn extra money for holidays. So, I was packed off to the aforementioned Faculty of Engineering and Architecture — packed off to, as it turned out, a wonderful office (it had a big chest-of-drawers for storing blueprints in; I never found a use for that), and with wonderful colleagues from Libya, Iraq, Poland, Australia and Finland. I borrowed copies of the relevant engineering textbooks, so I could stuff my cloze tests full of the relevant terminology, and knuckled down. Later in the year I was informed that my classes had been monitored by revolutionary committee members and I was told I was considered trustworthy enough to set up my courses in African literature. “Does this mean,” I asked, “I can be let off TEFL for engineers?” The reply shot back: “No, it does not.” Those first few days and weeks in Libya were full of discoveries. The Funduk Mumtaz, or far-from-Excellent Hotel, was situated behind a heavy-duty harbour, but I found out that the university campus ran alongside a stretch of unsullied Mediterranean beach, the water much less polluted than on many of that sea’s European stretches. Nothing as good, after a hard morning’s slog teaching tense sequences to engineers, as taking a dip in the Med. Of course there were no bars of the kind you expect in St. Tropez or Benidorm, but I made do (as I’ll explain later). To be continued Chris Dunton

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