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Monday, February 21, 2011

Michael Totten in Libya

Fortunately for Michael, he's not there now, but back in 2005 (the date on the link to his original article in the sidebar is December 30, 2005) Michael Totten visited Libya and wrote about it for LA Weekly. He re-upped the post at Pajamas Media. As usual, the pictures are stunning (okay, most of the country is concrete so they're not as stunning as usual). Here's a very small sample of what he has to say.
The gift shop offered a wide range of totalitarian propaganda books and pamphlets in multiple languages. A fantastic selection of Qaddafi watches ranged in price from $25 to $600. I bought one for $25. Qaddafi is shown wearing his military uniform, officer’s hat and sunglasses like a swaggering Latin American generalissimo. It was busted right out of the box, the hour hand stuck forever at 9 o’clock.

The lobby was plastered all over with portraits of the boss in various poses. He wore shades in most of them, but in some pictures from his early days, he wore a buffoonish 1970s haircut instead.

I had to suck down my giggles. God, was this guy for real? His unexportable Third Universal Theory was internationalist insofar as it obliterated any sense that Tripoli was Middle Eastern or African — at least from the point of view of the back seat of the car. I could have been in any former Soviet republic, or even in some parts of the Bronx. But look at those portraits! Now there was something exotic.

Most of the other men in the lobby (I hadn’t seen any women since I landed) looked like Arab businessmen who bought their suits from Turkish remainder bins. The only expensively dressed man sat at a shiny wooden desk, the kind you’d expect to see at a law firm. He had no work in front of him, not even papers to shuffle. His job was to stare holes through everyone who stepped in and out of the elevator.

There were no towels in my room. The bathroom was, however, generously stocked with products, all of them packaged in green — the color of Islam and Qaddafi’s so-called revolution. The hotel gave me green shampoo, green soap, green bath gel, green toothpaste and even a green shoehorn and comb. All were clearly (and, I must say, unnecessarily) marked “Made in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” There was no booze (it’s banned), no soda, no water, no juice in the mini-bar. A burn the size and shape of a deflated basketball was seared into the carpet.

I switched on the TV: nothing but hysterical state-run propaganda. I couldn’t lower the volume (the knob was broken), but at least I could change the channel and choose whether I wanted to be droned at or screeched at in Arabic.

My window overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and, closer in, a drained and stained swimming pool. There was a forlorn rocky beach down there, cut off from the hotel and everything else by a blank gray slab of a wall. The cold wind whistling into the room from the patio sounded like moaning ghosts trapped in a well.


Most apartment buildings were more or less equally dreary, but one did stand out. Architecturally it was just another modernist horror. But a 6-by-8-foot portrait of Qaddafi was bolted to the façade three stories up. It partially blocked the view from two of the balconies. The bastard couldn’t even leave people alone when they were home.

The posters weren’t funny anymore. There were too damn many of them, for one thing. And, besides, Qaddafi is ugly. He may earn a few charisma points for traveling to Brussels and pitching his Bedouin tent on the Parliament lawn, but he’s no Che Guevara in the guapo department.

I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty wore off in less than a day, and he’s been in power longer than I’ve been alive.

He was an abstraction when I first got there. But after walking around his outdoor laboratory and everywhere seeing his beady eyes and that arrogant jut of his mouth, it suddenly hit me. He isn’t merely Libya’s tyrant. He is a man who would be god.

His Mukhabarat, the secret police, are omniscient. His visage is omnipresent. His power is omnipotent.

And he is deranged. He says he’s the sun of Africa. He threatens to ban money and schools. He vanquished beauty and art. He liquidates those who oppose him. He says he can’t help it if the people of Libya love him so much they plaster his portrait up everywhere. Fuck him. I wanted to rip his face from the walls.


Worlds can’t meet worlds. But people can meet people. I forget who said that, but I like it, and I thought about it as I walked around inside Libya, hanging out, and talking to regular folks.

In a nation where so many report to the secret police, where a sideways word can get you imprisoned or killed, walking around blue-eyed and palefaced with an American accent has its advantages. I met one shopkeeper who opened right up when he and I found ourselves alone in his store.

“Do Americans know much about Libya?” he said.

“No,” I said. “Not really.”

He wanted to teach me something about his country, but he didn’t know where to start. So he recited encyclopedia factoids.

He listed the principal resources while counting his fingers. I stifled a smirk when he named the border states. (I had looked at a map.) When he told me Arabic was the official language, I wondered if he thought I was stupid or deaf.

“And Qaddafi is our president,” he said. “About him, no comment.” He laughed, but I don’t think he thought it was funny.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Comment away. I don’t live here.”

He thought about that. For a long drawn-out moment, he calculated the odds and weighed the consequences. Then the dam burst.

“We hate that fucking bastard, we have nothing to do with him. Nothing. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We do our jobs, we go home. If I talk, they will take me out of my house in the night and put me in prison.

“Qaddafi steals,” he told me. “He steals from us.” He spoke rapidly now, twice as fast as before, as though he had been holding back all his life. He wiped sweat off his forehead with trembling hands. “The oil money goes to his friends. Tunisians next door are richer and they don’t even have any oil.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“We get three or four hundred dinars each month to live on. Our families are huge, we have five or six children. It is a really big problem. We don’t make enough to take care of them. I want to live in Lebanon. Beirut is the second Paris. It is civilized! Women and men mix freely in Lebanon.”
Read the whole thing. Until recently, I thought of Gadhafi as a clown. In fact, I still think of him that way. But he's a brutal and deadly clown. He can't die soon enough.

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At 10:53 PM, Blogger Captain.H said...

Here's the latest from Fox News, as of 2/21, 3:30PM EST. 6 min. Fox video here.

US State Dept evacuating diplomatic dependents; Qaddafi's own diplomats are turning on him; two Libyan Air Force colonels fly fighter jets to Malta and request political asylum...excerpt from article: "...After seizing the Katiba, [the Libyan Security Police HQ in Benghazi, Libya's 2nd biggest city] protesters found the bodies of 13 uniformed security officers inside who had been handcuffed and shot in the head, then set on fire, said Hassan, the doctor. He said protesters believed the 13 had been executed by fellow security forces for refusing to attack protesters."

It looks like Qaddafi's regime is now truly tottering. Some of his own diplomats and military officers turning on him, security police executing other security police who refuse to commit atrocities against the people...the regime is starting to consume itself.

The question is, does Qaddafi have enough reliable military force still under his control to attempt to massacre his way back into absolute control? Either way, it looks like things are going to get bloodier and bloodier in Libya until Qaddafi is either ousted, assassinated or regains absolute control.

To those of us so inclined, let's say a prayer for the Libyan people.

At 2:32 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

His own people love him so much they're willing to die to be rid of him.

That says it all.


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