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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An Israeli in Libya

34-year old Israeli photograph Rafram “Raphael” Hadad was held captive in Libya for five months last year. For the first time, he has agreed to talk about it.
When the authorities came to arrest Rubashov, the legendary hero from Arthur Koestler’s dystopian novel Darkness at Noon, he had been expecting them. Hadad, on the other hand, had been sitting in his Tripoli hotel room waiting for his flight back home, watching a Simpsons rerun without the slightest idea of what was about to take place. “At 12 o’clock sharp on Saturday, there was a knock at my door,” he recalls. The hotel receptionist and bellhop, escorted by three suited men who introduced themselves as being “with the office,” took Hadad’s luggage and insisted on driving him to a nearby building. “I immediately understood who they were,” Hadad says; they were Libyan officials.

The men started interrogating him about his cameras and his travels in Libya, and they informed him that they were confiscating his film. Apparently more disappointed by the fact that he would not have the chance to taste chraime, Tripoli’s legendary spicy fish stew, than by missing his flight out of Libya, Hadad was then instructed to wait at the hotel for his passport to be returned to him. “At this point, I am still sure everything is all right, and I figure I will just fly out the next morning, and try to get the film back afterwards,” he says. That night, after Hadad missed his flight out, two young men from the security services returned to pick him up. “They had brilliantine in their hair and were wearing black jackets,” he recalls. Unsuspecting, he got with them into the car, as one of the men entered the driver’s seat, and the other sat beside him in the back. Hadad relays what happened next: “Suddenly, as we are driving around Tripoli’s coastline, the guy next to me pushes my head down while the car starts speeding up. The next thing I remember is finding myself in a detention camp. Once there, they started screaming at me to take off my belt and shoes, and ordered me to empty my pockets. The moment the yelling started and they threw me out of the car and into a prison cell is when I understood I was in big trouble.”


With the exception of one relatively benign and short interrogation by authorities in the port city of Derna, Hadad’s rigid 10-day schedule in Libya was uneventful. He was able to survey the vast and picturesque desert landscapes across the country and catalog the relics of what had been one of the most culturally affluent Jewish communities in North Africa. During his wide-ranging travels there, he experienced what he now understands to have been a false sense of security. “I eventually came to realize that every second person I met in Libya was working for the secret police,” he says. “At my trial, I even encountered a security agent who had acted as my taxi driver a few days earlier.”

Thrown into his prison cell by the two agents who had picked him up from the hotel, Hadad had plenty of time to reassess the various people he’d met. The cell in the prison where Hadad spent his first weeks of captivity was about 6 by 6 and constructed out of barren concrete. With nothing but a chewed-up mattress with broken springs poking through it, a broken toilet, and no company but the family of cockroaches in the corner, Hadad remained confused but optimistic. A small barred window facing an illuminated hallway allowed him to retain a sense of time.

The initial interrogations, he recalls, were relatively bland, mechanical, almost boring. A young and cologne-scented investigator named Imad questioned him repeatedly about his comings and goings in Libya. Sitting in a room with nothing but two chairs and a desk, Imad would write down every word Hadad said. “The first alarming question he asked me was regarding the last time I visited Israel,” Hadad remembers. Saying that he was currently living in London, Hadad did not veer too far from the truth; he explained he was a Jewish-Tunisian photographer chronicling the remains of the local Jewish community. “I didn’t want to push it, so I admitted that I visited family in Israel a few times,” he says. Rather than dismay him, the questions about Israel apparently only heightened Hadad’s sense of optimism. “From this I understood that they were clueless,” he says. (After all, he had been living in Israel most of his life.) “I started to believe that I would come out of this in a few days.”


During Hadad’s first days in prison, not only was he not accused of any specific crime, but even more distressingly, he was not even told where he was or who was detaining him. “All this time, I could only keep thinking about my mom, and how she must be worrying about me,” he recalls. After all, no one had any knowledge of his whereabouts, and for all anyone knew he could be dead. Despite pleading unsuccessfully with his captors to inform his relatives in Tunisia of his arrest, word of his detainment would eventually reach his family by way of another prisoner who was interned with him. Hadad remembers that in one of the adjacent cells, there was a prisoner with a distinct English accent, who was constantly bellowing in pain. Having prompted a conversation with him by singing some choice Beatles hits, Hadad came to learn that the young man, who went by the name of Mathew, was a British citizen who had come to Libya, fallen in love with a Muslim girl, and was now awaiting deportation. On the eve of Mathew’s departure, Hadad had the sense to drill his sister’s email address into Mathew’s memory by repeatedly singing it in a catchy tune. Despite Hadad’s initial suspicions about Mathew’s identity—“I was sure he was planted there by the Libyans,” he says—the British man ended up delivering. The night he returned to England, Mathew sent Hadad’s sister an email that eloquently depicted Hadad’s grave situation. It read: “Your brother is in deep shit.”

Although Hadad’s family eventually got word of his fate and could set in motion the momentous diplomatic pressures that would eventually bring about his release, his immediate fate was about to take a turn for the worse. What Mathew had neglected to tell Hadad for fear of unnerving him was that the Libyan security services had their own diabolical ways of extracting information from their prisoners—as Hadad was about to find out. Having checked a fake email account Hadad had specifically created for the trip and given them, his investigators demanded the password to his real email account. “That’s when I understood it was time to spill it,” he says. “One week exactly after my arrest, I tell Imad, ‘Listen, I have something for you that will knock you off your feet: I am Israeli.’ ”
Read the whole thing.

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At 8:44 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Interesting an Israeli gets such polite treatment in of all places, Libya!



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