The year was 1986 and Colonel Ghadaffi was smarting from an air attack implemented by the Brits and the Americans. Then, as now, there had been accusations back and forth of Libyan planes invading foreign air space and American planes crossing over into Libyan air space. There were threats of consequences for not respecting no-fly zones, and of course promises of sanctions imposed on Libya for a variety of other reasons. At the time, I was living in Paris and when the United States finally made the decision to bomb Tripoli, the French would not allow our planes to fly over French air space. The situation was polarized from the beginning and destined to be a failure both militarily and eventually politically.
For months before the April 1986 bombing and for two months after, I met with the Libyan Ambassador to France in an effort to convince him to arrange an interview with Colonel Ghadaffi. Finally, the word from Libya was that the Colonel would receive me representing US News and World Report. Later, I learned that Ghadaffi assumed that the magazine was President Reagan’s favorite and therefore believed his “message” would get to the American president quicker than had he given the interview to another weekly.
The hotel Gran Kabir was considered to be five-star. For the ten days I stayed in Tripoli with my photographer, I must say that my every wish or utterance was the staff’s command. If I happened to say to myself while in the tub that there wasn’t any soap, within two minutes someone from housekeeping would knock, enter and provide me with a bar of soap. One could imagine that either my room was bugged or that the staff anticipated a guest’s needs before he or she could reach for the phone. My sojourn in Tripoli waiting for Ghadaffi to summon us for the interview was not only fascinating but also not unlike a spa of sorts. My diet consisted of sugar cake and icing morning, noon, and night, since I wasn’t used to eating camel meat or some of the other fare served every day at the buffet tables. As a result, I can attest to the sugar diet as I lost ten pounds in ten days.
During our stay in Tripoli, we were escorted around the city. We had a rather interesting time observing a revolutionary council meeting. A translator repeated the members’ words from Arabic into English while I scribbled notes, since tape recorders were discouraged. At one point, I must have been scribbling while the official was still speaking Arabic. He stopped talking, gave me a sly smile, ran his finger across his throat, and said in quite acceptable English, “So, you understand Arabic.” Happily we got over that misunderstanding and were able to go on to see so many other interesting sights. For instance, there was a public hanging in Green Square of several Revolutionary Council members who had been convicted of stealing eggs, followed by a tour of coffee houses where dozens upon dozens of men without work would congregate all day, day after day. They seemed content, however, or terrified of expressing their discontent, since all said how wonderful the “Leader” was because everyone was equal, had access to hospitals, received a stipend from the government, and were sitting on billions in oil. Of course, equality in Libya meant everyone was poor without education and job prospects except the Ghaddafi family and their closest friends and advisors. In retrospect, it’s difficult to say if Ghadaffi was as loved as the people claimed though I do remember one incident when the Leader’s benevolence, as far as I was concerned, was questionable.
There was a Libyan man who seemed to be more eager than most to talk to me. We had several informal chats in one of the coffee houses until on the third day, I went to find him and he acted as if he didn’t know me. At one point, he whispered that it was dangerous for me and I should just go away and not come back. That afternoon I was “invited” to one of the police stations and questioned for several hours about my “relationship” with the man, the interrogator going on to inquire if I was married, had children, and frequented nightclubs back in France, which led to whether or not I imbibed alcohol which officially is forbidden in Libya. The fact that I was unmarried caused the greatest concern, at least as the interrogator imagined it affected the shame I had inflicted on my father. After I promised never to talk to anyone again except in the presence of my minder, I was allowed to leave.
Once released, the days passed slowly, though the most interesting part of my time there was hanging out in the lobby of the hotel. It was there that I met many of the infamous, Palestinian freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on which side of the bomb or bullet one happens to be on—men like George Habash, Abu Nidal, Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad, Shaket Barzani, the de facto leader of the Kurds, along with an array of others that represented American Indian causes, as well as minority religious factions throughout the world. Back then, Ghadaffi was their great benefactor and these men waited, as we did, days and nights for an audience with the Libyan leader.
Ten days after we arrived in Tripoli, US News and World Report issued an order that we were to “pull out,” as the cost of the hotel at $1,000 per night for the room alone, was doing nothing more than boasting the Libyan economy. We booked a flight on one of two days during the week that either Libyan Air or Alitalia was leaving Tripoli, packed, and proceeded to the lobby to head home. Before we could reach the front door of the hotel, we were stopped and told that the “Leader” would see us immediately. Ushered into chauffeured cars with a buzz of security and television cameras surrounding us behind and in front of our vehicle, we were driven to an unknown destination. We only learned where we were when we had arrived—the bombed out villa—Babal Aziz—where the American F-111s had made one of several direct hits to surgically eliminate Moammar Ghadaffi. Obviously, they had failed but the physical damage to the building was impressive.
Dressed in an Yves St. Laurent one piece jump suit, Ghadaffi entered the enormous room and, without making eye contact, proceeded to where our chairs were set and the cameras were focused. His guards and advisors snapped to attention. Libyan television was recording the event. I must say that back then Ghaddafi looked good, a bit like Tom Jones, a bit like James Garner. The rumor at the time was that an infant Ghaddafi and his wife had adopted had died in the American bombing. Western sources claimed that Ghaddafi had apparently “adopted” the infant after the bombing. The first statement I made to the Colonel after we had taken our seats was precisely that my sources claimed he had never adopted a baby who died in the air strike. Ghaddafi barely reacted though his guards and advisors cringed. In response, however, the Colonel informed me that his wife, Safia, had been “tied to her bed” as treatment for a bad back. When the bombs fell, Ghaddafi informed me that he and her nurses had spent “frantic minutes” disengaging her from the straps. Hmm…Enough chit chat. The interview began. The cameras rolled. My photographer began snapping pictures for what would be US News and World Report’s cover story.
The headline for the story came directly from Moammar Ghaddafi’s lips. “I am a combination of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,” he proclaimed and proceeded to tell me how he cared little for power but only for his people. He was neither leader for life, dictator, president, king, God, or any other title that denoted omnipotent power. He had created what he called a Jamariya which meant that his people through the Revolutionary Council ran the country. He was merely a servant of the people. And, of course, the people loved him. He loved his people and he loved his blessed and dear departed mother, and he loved all creatures of this earth. He was a simple man who preferred living in a Bedouin tent since after all, those were his roots. He had liberated his country from King Idris who cared only for money and the profits he could hoard from oil. King Idris did not consider his people and if they went hungry or lived without a roof over their heads.
The interesting thing about Ghaddafi is that the interview was conducted in English and Arabic—I spoke English and Ghaddafi replied in Arabic—a tape I have and cherish. What is interesting, however, is that Ghaddafi had been educated at Sandhurst military school in England and so spoke perfect English. Obviously, he had the advantage of understanding my questions and having time to think about an appropriate response. His responses and statements were anything but appropriate but rather patently silly except when he berated Reagan and Thatcher as devils who killed innocent women and children with their bombs.
After the interview, we still had a day to wait for a plane scheduled to depart Tripoli. My minder, a horrid little man, came to my room the evening before our departure. Handing me a paper written in Arabic, he asked me to sign it. When I questioned the contents, he explained that the paper merely stated that I had been treated well while I was in Libya. Of course… I stalled, explaining that I needed to formulate the best possible compliments for the Libyan people and for Ghaddafi himself. I was a writer, I said, and could not just sign something on command. My minder acquiesced and allowed me to give him the paper before I left in the morning. That night, I stole out of the hotel and walked (how I did that I will never know) several miles down a dirt road to the French Embassy. We, the Americans, had shut our Embassy shortly before we bombed Libya. Knocking on the door, I was ushered inside and was able to meet with the French Ambassador and his very pregnant wife. They gave me a glass of good French wine to calm my nerves since I was convinced the paper I had been asked to sign was nothing more than a confession that I was a Zionist spy. I could picture myself dangling from a rope in Green Square like those unfortunate Revolutionary Council members who had been condemned for stealing eggs. The French diplomat told me not to sign whatever the consequences. Walking back to the hotel in the dead of night, my fear was overwhelming. The next morning my minder met me and asked for the paper. I thank Harry Bensen for my reaction. Harry is the celebrated photographer for Life magazine and countless other publications. I worked with him once when we did a story on the Ayatollah. Harry taught me to throw a fit if things got sticky. But, he cautioned, throw a fit only once and you will scare the daylights out of the Arab men. They are not used to women doing that. Throw a fit regularly and they will dismiss you as nuts. I threw a fit. Repeated that I was a writer and if he didn’t allow me to think this thing through back in Paris and fax it to him in Tripoli, I would call President Reagan myself so that more bombs would rain on his country. It worked. I got out and once settled on the Alitalia flight, began to relax. It was only when the pilot announced that we were finally over Italian air space did I dare to breathe a sigh of relief.
Now, more than twenty-five years later and the world has learned that Ghaddafi and his sons have hoarded billions overseas. During the time I lived in Paris, I knew that Ghaddafi was an important investor and owner in the FIAT car company. Sources in Europe also knew that he owned real estate throughout Europe, in England, as well as in the United States, and had many bank accounts in Switzerland. And yet, the difference between Ghaddafi and the other Arab kings and despots whose kingdoms and countries are threatened by their own people is that the Colonel created an image of himself as a simple Bedouin who cared little for possessions. And yet, what was he thinking when he dressed in expensive Saville Row suits and other wacky costumes that he wore, all seen on bill boards throughout Libya? Yet, I must admit he was clever. Where he once supported every marginal revolutionary group in the world, including those terrorist organizations that exported terror internationally, Ghaddafi also knew when to repent and renounce the violence and play nice with his enemies.
Part of Ghaddafi’s appeal was that he was nobody’s poodle. Another part of his appeal was that regardless of gestures made by other Arab leaders toward Israel, his map of the Middle East had Israel blackened out, as if there was no Israel. His own people, as well as visitors and journalists were told never to mention the word Israel but rather to refer to it as the “Zionist Entity.” In fact, when I asked him if he would ever recognize Israel, his response was predictable. “The Jews should go back to their homelands in Poland, Germany, and the rest of those countries in Europe where they came from.” And yet, rumor had it that his beloved and dear departed mother, Aisha, was, in fact, a Jew. There were some who said that about Hitler, that he had Jewish blood somewhere in his own twisted family tree.
Moammar Ghaddafi’s future is bleak. His best friend, Idi Amin is dead. Uganda has too many problems of its own to welcome him in exile. His other Arab friends are in deep trouble keeping their countries and kingdoms free from democracy. Hugo Chavez seems to be Ghaddafi’s only ally at this point and his grip on Venezuela is tenuous at best. Years of drug abuse, alcohol, and too many women, whether they were Korean or East German bodyguards, or Asian masseuses have taken their toll on the Colonel’s looks and on his health. His brain is clearly addled and his face is the painting of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, Dorian Gray, in the flesh.
The fact is that this revolution throughout the Arab world has been a disaster waiting to explode for decades. Whatever the image of the leader or however horrific their acts of violence were toward the world or to their own people is irrelevant. Whenever the rich get richer and the poor starve is an equation that can’t go on forever. Words make little difference. Promises eventually become mindless rhetoric. Image is useless.
What counts is who feeds the people, educates them, gives them opportunity for jobs and advancement, affords them social services, and offers them dignity and equality. Sound familiar? It should since right here in the United States, party affiliations are becoming increasingly irrelevant. What counts right here at home is the slogan used in 1992 during the presidential campaign between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
As for Ghaddafi, he had a good run—wine, women, and weapons, fame and fortune. The only thing missing was a dose of reality. But all that goes back to the last time I saw Moammar…