Moammar Khadafy apparently had a crush on Condoleeza Rice. “I love her very much,” as he told Al Jazeera. When his “African Princess,” as he called her, visited in 2008 (a couple of years after Libya was crossed off the state sponsors of terrorism list, having been on since 1979) he said he wanted to show her a video. “Uh oh, I thought, what is this going to be?” writes Rice in her 2012 memoir. But it was just various shots of her meeting with world leaders. “It was weird,” she recalls, “but at least it wasn’t raunchy.” While the pictures glided past, a song played, composed by Khadafy himself. The actual lyrics remain a mystery, but we do know the song’s name: “Black Flower in the White House.”
I lost count of the you-can’t-make-this-up moments in these new books on Libya. The Rice item, for example, was plucked from “Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution” (Penguin Press, 2012). Author Lindsey Hilsum, a British television editor and reporter, says Khadafy had a thing for Madeleine Albright too. He even asked a reporter to tell Madam Secretary that if she liked him back, then wear green (the color of Khadafy’s 1969 revolution) next time she was on TV. Can’t stop, won’t stop: Khadafy also decreed that Libyan soccer fans could only cheer for players by number, not name, since Khadafy didn’t want any rivals for the adoration of Libyans. In 2009, the “rehabilitated” ruler addressed the UN, ranting 90 minutes over his 15-minute allotment, until his interpreter broke down, shouting “I’ve had enough! I can’t take it anymore!”
Since the revolution of 2011, Libya hasn’t taken it anymore. And now we have some powerful new books to explain how one of the world’s longest-reigning modern dictators met his end. I must confess that I’m just as bad as the next Western reader, lapping up the nut-bar bits about Khadafy more than the murderous realities. But humor is obscene when you recall that the revolution tripped off when the regime arrested Fathi Terbil, the lawyer for the families looking into the massacre of an estimated 1,270 loved ones in 1996 — a travesty concealed for many years — in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. “Sandstorm” opens with an elderly man journeying from Benghazi to the prison every few months to deliver supplies to his jailed brother-in-law. Each time, the guards said he couldn’t see his relative. The elderly man came anyway, for 14 years. That entire time, the brother-in-law was dead; the family was given false hope; and the guards blithely accepted the supplies.
A terrible story, but of a piece; all these books truck in chilling material. Officials from the East German Stasi, for instance, were brought in to train Libya’s mukhabarat. Some estimate that 10 percent of the nation acted as informants. On top of that, a generation of Libyans watched public hangings on television. One such event — the condemned man repeatedly cries “Mercy!” in a stadium of rabid onlookers — appallingly figures into Hisham Matar’s novel “In the Country of Men” (Viking, 2006). It is a must-read for anyone trying to understand Libya. Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, this boy’s-eye-view of life there in 1979 is profoundly fine and upsetting. People “vanished like a grain of salt in water” says an aunt of Suleiman, the boy narrator, who ages into an adulthood of “quiet panic.” That’s what happens when you grow up in a “time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men.”
“Exit the Colonel: the Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution” (Public Affairs, 2012) is the best recent book, I think, to go beyond the cult of personality to the traumatized but brave Libyans themselves. Ethan Chorin, one of a few diplomats sent there in 2004 to reestablish a US presence, is a graceful stylist who earlier did the good deed of editing “Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story” (Saqi, 2008). Each story he found — especially a totalitarian allegory like “The Sultan’s Flotilla” — flickers light on the cultural blackout of the Khadafy era, when “The Green Book,’’ the compendium of his logorrheic, crazy-salad philosophy, was the main literature allowed.
Chorin traveled across Libya to unearth the stories and authors. He met many countrymen, learned much, and all this adds grit and gravitas to his later “Exit the Colonel.” I felt especially enlightened, for instance, by his coverage of the country’s east-west split. Khadafy favored the western areas of Tripoli and his native Sirte, and purposely gutted services for Benghazi in the east because of its tradition of opposition (to Mussolini’s Italian colonizers and then to him). Benghazi, you’ll recall, is where the uprising would later kick off. It’s also where ambassador Chris Stevens was killed; Chorin was set to meet with Stevens the next day about a project in which Boston and Benghazi doctors joined to aid the Benghazi Medical Center.
One hard fact to swallow in Chorin’s book is that dictators sometimes dictate the right things: Khadafy mandated school for all children and eliminated illiteracy in the span of a generation. He also set up access to free health care; life expectancy went up by 20 years. And, at times, he managed the country’s resources to advantage. They say oil and water don’t mix, but in Libya — two and half times the size of Texas, 90 percent desert — Khadafy used money from stakes in foreign oil ventures to create the Great Manmade River, the earth’s largest irrigation project.
“Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi” (Yale University, 2012) pounds further into how the Universal Theorist (another of his titles) pulled off his 1969 coup, then tried to get his countrymen on board with Jamahiriya, Arabic for “State of the Masses,” a sort of there-is-no-government political system of his own concoction; as such, Khadafy also called himself “the Guide,” rather than a leader. (Since there was nothing to lead. Get it? No one else does either.) Author Alison Pargeter, a British writer specializing in North Africa and the Middle East, also traces the bizarre U-turn of how Khadafy got back in good with the West in the early 2000s by ponying up a settlement to the families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and scuttling his weapons of mass destruction.
The 2011 revolution has also inspired the updating and reprinting of several Libyan histories. I recommend “A History of Modern Libya” (Cambridge University, 2012) by the estimable Dirk Vandewalle, a government professor at Dartmouth. He takes us from Herodotus on up to the NATO intervention, all of it scaffolding his main thesis: Namely, Libyans have never experienced national self-rule (he calls them “bystanders”) not just under Khadafy, but also under King Idris I (whom Khadafy usurped), the Italian fascist occupation, and the Ottoman Empire before that.
Grasp this, and that the country has 140 tribes, and you’ll get just how difficult the transition to a viable state will be. Then again, Libya has superb potential: It boasts an educated populace, comparably better treatment of women, and an economy bolstered by oil money, plus the promise of tourism (gorgeous Mediterranean beaches, five UNESCO World Heritage sites). On top of which, Islamic radicalism is less prevalent here than in much of the region. Chorin even believes Libya could become one of “the first full success stories of the Arab Spring.” With the madman gone, anything’s possible.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.