The day Gaddafi met me

A foreign correspondent recalls the whiff of falafel and evil that surrounded the Burberry-adorned brute in 1980s Libya.

Clive Forthwright

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It was 1986 and the President of America, Ronald Reagan, had just overseen the bombing of Libya. A typically oafish act from the film star, I reflected wryly. In the arena of world affairs, however, one leader’s oafishness is often a foreign correspondent’s opportunity. And so it was that the tyrant Colonel Gaddafi summoned me, as a prominent recorder of events and discoverer of truths, to his tent on the outskirts of Tripoli. This, I later reflected, was to be the day that Gadaffi met me.

It was a disconcerting first meeting. My experience at the extremities of human experience told me that there was a something a little odd about this man. Sporting a baseball cap, festooned with peacock feathers, the colonel – as he insisted on calling himself – shook my hand forcefully, but it was without warmth. Our conversation was equally as queer. I would ask him a question and, before answering, he would guffaw as if I was the funniest thing since Aristophanes. He was trying too hard. I am humorous, certainly. But I am not, my wife tells me, hilarious. My life is too serious, my vocation – as a foreign correspondent – too important to be hilarious.

His answers would not have interested me even if I had been able to understand Arabic. They would have told me nothing that I could not see with my own eyes. For the colonel is clearly an affected man. He may appear civilised, accompanied as he was then by a troupe of muscular, protective women, but there was clearly something disturbed beneath the surface. I could feel it. I could sense it. And at regular intervals I could smell it. A whiff of something foul, something rotten, something half-digested. Civilisation, perhaps.

As I left the colonel’s tent, soiled but untainted, I surveyed the terrain: the wildflowers, the lavender, the eucalyptus, the Arabs. As one unswayed by the charisma of dictators, I felt it beholden upon me to speak to one of these Arabs. I wanted to know the real Libya. I wanted to know if the socialist democracy Gaddafi wrote of in his Green Book really worked. Was the general will, as Rousseau called it, channelled effectively through Gaddafi’s network of committees? Were people really able to exercise sovereignty through the political mechanisms the colonel provided? As ever, I spoke passionately, articulately and at some considerable length, referencing the works of Hegel and Marx, and the tyrannies of Pol Pot and Stalin. ‘I not speake Englishe’, the Arab responded. No matter; the Arab’s confused, fearful look told me all I needed to know about the colonel’s Libya

The colonel was to meet me again in 1988. He had called a group of my fellow combatants – journalist-seers – to a press conference in a heavily fortified compound just outside Tripoli. To announce what, I am still unsure to this day.

We waited for what seemed like a terribly long time. ‘Where is the colonel?’, we asked. ‘He is with his burlesque troupe’, came the reply. And then suddenly the hubbub died. There the colonel stood, resplendent in a Burberry shellsuit finished off with a towline deerstalker. His wet-permed locks peeped out from beneath the stalker, his smile was fixed and his dark eyes were set to furtive. He said nothing. He just shook our hands and laughed far too hard, like a man who knows the rules of social interaction but has none of the feeling. This man is crazy, I thought. A primitive trying to be as civilised as me and, possibly, you.

I noticed that he refused to make eye contact – lest he give himself away, I thought. But then, quite by design, his eyes met mine for the briefest of moments. That was all I needed. I saw it all: the fate of the colonel, the fate of Libya. And I smelt it too, that whiff of sulphur, that stench of corruption, that waft of something recently eaten. ‘Falafel’, whispered a young German reporter in my ear. ‘No’, I said, ‘that is evil’.

Being a man busy with the affairs of history, I have had little cause to visit Libya since those unnerving days. World events have been calling me from afar, demanding that I both bear witness and, during my quieter moments, delve deeper to discover their meaning. History is a demanding mistress, I once remarked to my wife. The Berlin Wall fell, and I was there. The Soviet Union disintegrated, and I was there. The Slavs began slaughtering one another, and I was there. Time waits for no man, they say. But I like to think that history waits for me.

And so at long last, my ever discerning eyes are turned once more towards Libya. Seeing the colonel now, sheltering under an umbrella, entrapped and enraptured by his own image, I am wont to wonder at the vanity of men.

Clive Forthwright started his career in foreign correspondence in the Somme and now lives in semi-retirement in Dewsbury.

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