Me and the book. Image by Ben Thomson
As a kid, I remember being mesmerised every time Muammar Gaddafi appeared on SBS World News. He'd wear gold Cartier glasses and a silk robe, while posing for photos with an arrogance that simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed the masses—like a soldier’s monument had come to life.If a dictator is someone who wields absolute authority, Gaddafi fit the profile. In retrospect, there's a pretty healthy debate around whether his despotic rule was what Libya needed. But as a kid, I was attracted to his Saharan style and humour. The man was essentially a joke with a bare-knuckle punch line.
I wanted to understand how he learnt to throw punches.Back in 1969 a young Libyan soldier named Muammar Gaddafi founded a revolutionary cell that overthrew the Western-backed Senussi monarchy in Libya. Then, throughout the early 70s, Gaddafi consolidated his power around a political philosophy he called the Third International Theory.A mixture of utopian socialism, Arab nationalism, and Third World revolutionary theory, Gaddafi's DIY political movement produced remarkable feats of progress. They managed to raise Libya's literacy rate from 25 percent to 87 percent while providing citizens with free electricity, healthcare, and education. The government also offered generous subsidies for first-home buyers and people purchasing cars.In 1975 Gaddafi funnelled his ideas into a political textbook titled The Green Book, after Mao’s socialist pocketbook, The Little Red Book. Libyan children were forced to spend two hours a week reading the book as part of their curriculum, while extracts were broadcast every day on television, and slogans appeared on billboards throughout Libya's major cities.Gaddafi's second book appeared with far less fanfare. Published in 1993, Escape to Hell is a compilation of short stories and essays that critics dismissed as “atrocious.” Today the book has been largely forgotten, but to me it offers a rare insight into the mind of an enigmatic leader: one who was already facing the twilight years of his power.
To understand Gaddafi’s mindset when he wrote these stories we need to look at the decade before their inception. It all started in 1981, when the US Navy shot down two Libyan fighter aircraft and sunk two Libyan radio ships in the Gulf of Sidra—an area Libya claimed as their territorial waters. According to Gaddafi's regime, that constituted an act of war.From the 1980s onwards, Libya began assassinating dissidents. The most notable was the shooting of a police officer outside the Libyan embassy in London. Then, in 1986, Libyan agents were responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin, killing three Americans and injuring 229 others. This led President Reagan to order air strikes over Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 35 people.But the event that damaged Gaddafi’s international standing the most was the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, killing 243 passengers and 16 crew members. A year later, the Libyan government was responsible for the bombing of French plane UTA 772 over Niger, killing 171 people.And all of this is why, in the year before Escape to Hell’s publication, the UN implemented strict sanctions on Libya, crippling the oil-rich nation and destroying Gaddafi’s hope for an Arab Islamic republic.Escape to Hell captures Gaddafi’s indignation with the international community. He oscillates between justifying his regime's brutal actions and revoking his anti-Western sentiment. At one point he even calls on Western nations to spread Pan-Africanism. “I’m turning back to realism,” he thunders. “The Arab world is finished: Africa is paradise.”
The book is primarily narrated in the first-person, comprising 12 short-stories that Gaddafi described as novels—probably an indication that the “Brother Leader” didn’t believe in editors. He was certainly no protege of Flaubert, and his short-stories often feel like campfire ramblings. They're a mixture of literary nonsense and Bedouin fables—all ending with heavy-handed moralising that feels more like a scolding than a resolution.In the opening chapters, Gaddafi presents the binary make-up of the world, as though inspired by a beginners guide to Derrida. He uses simple dichotomies, such as pitting the city against the village, the earth against fantasy, reason against superstition, and progress against the past.The first story is called The Suicide of the Astronaut and it sees Gaddafi take aim at the space race via a conversation between an astronaut and a farmer. The narrative follows an astronaut who visits the moon, finds nothing, and upon his return to earth realises that his qualifications as a space explorer leave him unfit for life on earth. The astronaut's existential crises then drive him to suicide.Having been raised by a cattle herder in the desert of Sirte, Gaddafi always liked to frame himself as a humble farmer. The oil-rich revolutionary who often slept in an air-conditioned tent writes: “I am an illiterate bedouin, who does not even know about painting houses or sewage system. I drink rain water or well water using my hands, filtering out the tadpoles with my cloak.”
In the eyes of Gaddafi, agriculture was the world's sustenance while the space race was a costly distraction. In the 50s, during an effort to drill oil in Libya’s south, large aquifers were discovered that led to the development of the world’s largest irrigation project, aptly labelled: The Great Man Made River Project.Gaddafi dreamed of colouring the desert “as green as the flag of the Libyan Jamahiriya.” And although the project has been overshadowed by his humanitarian record, Gaddafi achieved just that. Once the water reached the desolate towns, agricultural land went from 700 hectares to 1,600 hectares, and the number of farmers increased from 117 to 305.In his second story, Escape to Hell, Gaddafi deviates from storytelling to straight-up rambling about leaving the desert for the city, or as he calls it “Hell.”According to Gaddafi the city inspires a dangerous kind of liberalism. He compares life in urban cities to being buried alive, writing: “I love the freedom of the masses, as they move freely, with no masters above them. They have broken their chains, singing and rejoicing following their pain and tribulation. Yet how I fear them!”In many ways Escape to Hell is Gaddafi’s most revealing story, as it chronicles his ultimate anxiety: being overthrown by the masses. “I feel that the masses, who would not even show mercy to their saviour, follow me around, burning me with their gaze.”
In Gaddafi’s eyes the masses held the ultimate power, and he had a difficult time reconciling the fact that he was no longer an inferior bedouin—part of the masses—but potentially a dictator, and the very caricature he aspired to overthrow.Gaddafi was more than aware of how his career might end, noting the violent fate of populist leaders such as Hannibal Barca, Girolamo Savonarola, Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Benito Mussolini. He laments, “Within this mass of people, who poisoned Hannibal, burnt Savonarola, and smashed Robespierre, who loved you but failed to reserve a seat for you at the cinema, or even a table in a cafe…”The last story in the collection is a long musing titled Death, in which Gaddafi attempts an ambitious exploration of death as a character, gender, place, and as an idea. Gaddafi asks, “Is death a man, and thus to be fought, or a woman to whose tender embrace we must surrender?”In the story, Gaddafi journeys into the desert to flee the mob of Tripoli: a prophecy that would come to life in 2011, when the tide of civil war turned against him and he was forced to gather his bodyguards and drive out to an ending that history had ordained.Gaddafi makes another chilling prophecy toward the end of Death. He writes, "The conclusion is that death often fails in battle when he comes under a clamorous cloud of dust with black banners fluttering in the heart of the storm." Today the black banners of Salafist terrorists like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are just two, among the many warring factions, fighting for control of Libya as it tries to heal after the Arab spring.The last time I saw a recording of Gaddafi, he was being filmed on a mobile phone, drenched in blood and begging for his life as a mob of Misrata rebels sodomised him with a bayonet. He pleaded, “Do you know right from wrong?”For me, Gaddafi's short stories pose an even more important question: who's right from who's wrong?For more, follow Mahmood on Twitter or Instagram