Libya On The Couch

She was once young, beautiful and talk of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern promise. But after four decades of enduring abuse, Libya has become ugly, unhappy and miserable old woman. She can’t even recognise herself in the mirror and is unable, try as she might, to recall any happy memories. 

Under her dangerous captor, he broke her down and now she cannot deal with the simple day-to-day tasks. When she compares herself to others, she is deeply jealous and resentful, as they have built proud kingdoms and taken care of their children and lands. With fear, trepidation and her heart pounding in her chest, she’s decided to speak her peace before looming death and confide her regrets.

In therapy, honesty and disclosure are musts and one need not hold back. She is ready to revisit the terrible memories and go far back. As she sits on the client couch uncomfortable and nervous, the figure behind the desk has his pen ready to write it all down. He starts: “What brings you here today Libya?”

Not sure where to begin, Libya sighs and puts a hand over her face and mouth. She says: “It is a horrible story and I am ashamed. I’ve been feeling down and struggling for years. I always cry without reason and I shout in my head. It is my children that I’m most concerned about.

“Even with the will, energy and drive to live honestly, but they have been brainwashed and led to corruption, deception and lies to get ahead. I am, as you know, ill with terminal cancer; and, I’ve had to sell my jeweller and all my possessions to pay for treatment abroad in a last ditch attem;pt to repair the damage of the past. Who would have thought I would have no choice but to beg for strangers’ help?

“It is the small things also that embarrass me and I’ve yet to admit it, I’ve been complicit by my silence as the default mode. I have neglected myself and abandoned my health. My beautiful terrain should not have taken the brunt of the assaults. My beaches, my mountains and my oasis surrounded by desert land! Of course, those informed and wise know and intuit the truth of my story and feel sad for me. I find this tough to accept.

“As a mother, I am well aware of all the bad stuff that has been going on. Some of it is my fault, but most of it is not. I admit to a number of my own flesh and blood have been seduced by evil and identified with the jailor from the start.

“He gives them money, cars and houses so they do his bidding, no matter the cruelty of his requests. How they came to be mine and groomed to worship and idolise him I don’t know. I must take into account if I’m to ever to get closure and make sense.

“I don’t like to say it, but yes, I have been the victim of both mental and physical abuse, and that it became normal so I kept quiet. I found ways to deny and pretend nothing was wrong; and, forced as I was, I did things. I was forced to see events nobody should ever have to see or to witness.”

Analyst: “Okay, Libya, if it helps, how far back can you recall?”

“I guess the mistreatment began in 1976. He hung and executed anyone who dared to protest and voice dissent. The same would happen on the anniversary for years to remind us the certain fate if we didn’t accept his power and ability to kill us too.

“Fear! We were so scared and captive in our own land and homes. We could not even pray at the mosques as the dawn raids were the worst for many of us. At school, also, the young were beaten and their curious minds shut. What followed, in the 1980s, well. Am sure you’ve heard of the ‘stray dogs’ assassination campaign? Even abroad, his tentacles reached very far.

“Paranoia! God, I suspected everyone an informant, even my relatives and neighbours. I checked my every word and filtered everything I said, so as not to make complaint and or forbid I say something about the ideological stance of the government. I couldn’t swear, except in my frustrated nightmares, as I would wake up in a cold sweat.

“Not to mention the economic strife and the stupid dinars. When products arrived, we couldn’t afford but the necessities. Everyone drove miles for years for clean water, promised as we were with an artificial river! With travel, visas were impossible to get to get out. We became isolated from the rest of the world.

“How ironic that the world saw my captor as a strong and eccentric rebel who dared to challenge the international status quo. He claimed that greed and power were the enemy. Hmm, he is still telling these lies, when he has been hoarding the oil riches in private investment accounts. For what? Sick, perverse and terror ends. He thought there was a price tag on everybody’s head.”

But then, with a gulp, she says: “But maybe this time is different. Maybe today, for those of us who truly love our country and have our roots on its soil, something might shift. We can no longer refuse to forget or let things go.

“We have nowhere else to stay and we don’t want anywhere else. The death of many loved ones has been the heavy price to pay, but what has gone on for too long must end. He’s turned us against each other and shooting to kill the armed and the unarmed. For no other goal but to keep onto a power seat made useless and ineffective by himself.

“What has he ever done for the Libyans? Nothing! Go and see for yourself. Go and visit the hospitals, the schools, the infrastructure that are not fit for any purpose. Go and see the filth and the garage that never gets collected. Go see the polluted sea and the dirty beaches. All that potential gone to waste.

“With this revolution, at least I can scream and shout and open up to talk to tell my tale. But most importantly, I need to heal my broken heart. The world is close enough to hear my cries and I must run with this chance to turn the tables and claim my captor’s monstrous head!”

Analyst: “Libya, am afraid your minutes are up. Should we pencil in next week same time?”

The Gaddafi Archives

Libya Before the Arab Spring

The Gaddafi Archives is a controversial new exhibition taking place at the Slade Research Centre as part of the London Festival of Photography 2012. It draws upon original archives unearthed by a team of Human Rights Watch during the Revolution in Libya. The material is mainly photographs of originals discovered and therefore, they are not in any way of an artistic bent taken to humanise Gaddafi.

Still for the Libyan this exhibition is hard to stomach because Gaddafi was the great tormentor, abuser and grand narcissist, who derived great pleasure in displaying his prowess. The material only evokes feelings of loss, grief and shame about the wasted years and what could have been achieved but wasn’t.

None of the photos comes as a surprise, as the Libyans have already seen most of them on billboards for 42 years. We know of all his various outfits, from the military dress with false medals of honors, to the African robes and Armani suits. But perhaps for the foreign observer, the exhibition offers an insight into the years of horror endured.

Spread over five rooms, it starts with Libya’s independence in 1951. We see King Idris I and his former Prime Ministers, Mustafa Ben-Halim and Hussein Maziq, as well as his close Adviser Abdul-Aziz Shelhi. One shows HM Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to Libya in 1954 and another with the King opening Parliament, as well as photos of him with US and British Military attaches.

The Gaddafi era then follows, with Room Two focusing on the first year after the 1969 coup and anniversary celebrations, when the US and British had evacuated their air bases. Also, there is the major visit to President Gamal Abdul-Nasser in Cairo in 1969; and how, when the latter died, photos of the memorial parade with thousands of Libyans out in public mourning.

Room Three is material circa 1980s, when Gaddafi began to implement his Green Book theories, by abolishing parliament and the party system, rejecting communism and capitalism and the abolition of personal property. There are photos of a state visit to the Soviet Union President Leonid Brezhnev and a picture of Saif Il-Islam with his mother Safia Farkesk, in a Great Man Made River Project tunnel.

It is Room Four that looks at Gaddafi’s descent into hell, with photos and videos proving some of the public hangings that took place in the 1980s. In particular, one disturbing photo is of two men hanging at the Benghazi sea port and a video of the public execution of Sadiq Hamed Shwehdi. Also, in this room, are copies of letters from the CIA, dated in March 2004, coordinating with Gaddafi for the secret rendition of Abdullah Al-Sadiq (real name Abdelhakim Belhadj) from Malaysia.

Room Five is miscellaneous material, with portraits of Libyan military graduates, photos regarding the war in Chad and ‘Al-Fateh’ celebrations in 1977. It also includes cartoons and a recent video of Misrata militias terrorizing residents of nearby Tawergha accusing them of pro-Gaddafi atrocities.

Although there are no pictures of the recent Revolution, there is a tribute area to the photojournalists who were killed in April 2011: Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros and Anton Hammerl. And mention of Michael Christopher Brown and Guy Martin who were also wounded. HRW has made it clear that this exhibition is not meant to be a Gaddafi freak show, but to respect the memory of all those who have died or suffered under the regime.

Like any historic proof, it is for a nation’s benefit to preserve all original material for future educational reference. As Libyans, 42 years of history cannot be wiped out and the evidence must not be destroyed, no matter how much anger or shame we feel towards it. Archives remind us of what and how things went wrong and will help us to unravel the thousands of mysteries yet to be unraveled.

As Libyans, yes, we’d prefer to put images of a smiling Gaddafi aside, at least until our hurt and wounds properly heal. Perhaps in years, we can look dispassionately at these archives and gain much needed closure. Gaddafi laughed at us and we were scared of him. But, now it turns out, he was the Emperor with no clothes.

The Gaddafi Archives will be open until 29 June and include four panel discussions next week. For more information: Gaddafi Archives.

Note: This article was first published circa June 2012

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