Commentary — September 28, 2011, 9:33 am

Pro Patria Vivere: The Lure of the Libyan Front

Patrick Graham is a freelance writer based in Toronto. His article “Beyond Fallujah: A year with the Iraqi resistance,” which appeared in the June 2004 issue of Harper’s Magazine, won an Overseas Press Club award. This piece is based on “Among the Banana Eaters: The middle-class rebels behind Libya’s revolution,” which is in the October 2011 issue of Harper’s.

Not long after the fall of Tripoli, the translator I’d worked with in Libya this past spring sent me an email. “How are you dude?” Abdullah wrote. “i was in Tripoli last week with the revolutionarys, finally i did it.”

The note was terse. War had evidently made Abdullah as laconic as Hemingway. There probably wasn’t much else he could say—it all meant too much to him. But I had to laugh, since I was one of the reasons he hadn’t gone sooner.

At the beginning of March, I was driving in Benghazi with my new friend Jalal—Jay, as he’d told me to call him—when his phone rang. It was his brother, Abdullah’s father. “There’s a family problem,” Jay said. As they spoke, we kept driving through the narrow, rundown backstreets of Benghazi’s old town, surrounded by deteriorating art-deco buildings that reminded me of ones I’d seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was my first day in Libya, a few weeks after the revolution had begun, and I was still trying to get a sense of the place. I’d met Jay at Benghazi’s press center, where he was visiting a cousin, and he’d immediately offered to tour me around the seaside city’s revolutionary sites. He was Libyan, but had lived much of his life in the U.S. He owned several stores in Jackson, Mississippi, in addition to one in Benghazi.

We were heading back to his house for dinner when he got the call from his brother, a pilot put out of work by the revolution. Jay sounded concerned on the phone, but when he hung up, he started to chuckle. His brother had locked Abdullah in his room, telling him, “I can’t even get you to go the store for me and now you want to go to the front to fight?”

At the time, many of Benghazi’s inexperienced young men were volunteering to fight, though few would have known how to hold a gun even if they’d managed to scavenge one from Muammar Qaddafi’s armories. The revolutionary army was like something out of the Spanish Civil War: a collection of uncoordinated, leaderless brigades bearing the names of various hometowns. Young men would show up for a few days, then go home. Not surprisingly, the front lines were mayhem. You felt more likely to be shot accidentally by one of the revolutionaries than by one of Qaddafi’s trained soldiers.

I’d been looking for a translator, so when Abdullah, freed from his father’s house arrest, came to see his uncle Jay after dinner that night, we agreed to work together. The next day, we went out to the front, where we avoided a government MiG bombing by only a few minutes.

Abdullah is twenty-three years old. Like most young translators working with the foreign press in Libya during the revolution, he refused to be paid, which made for an odd, almost familial dynamic. I spent a lot of time trying to convince him and his friends that a free Libya would need them more as engineers than as martyrs. It was a hard sell, but after a few more visits to the front, where the rebels seemed to be losing ground and the retreats could be terrifying, Abdullah’s enthusiasm started to wane. He still wanted to join up, but he was less naive about the possible consequences.

From “Among the Banana Eaters”:

After the second day of bombing runs, I went out to the highway that ran south from Benghazi. Qaddafi had sent as many as ten thousand soldiers to take the city—with tanks, amphibious vehicles, truck-mounted rocket launchers, and several of the Toyota Land Cruisers favored by his security services. The wreckage from the air strikes was impressive. When I got there, vehicles were still in flames or smoking…

There was a sour smell of burning chemicals and hot metal. Curious locals surrounded the destruction, drawn by a mixture of pride and revulsion. Cell phones recorded the scene—the entire revolution was constantly replayed on these tiny screens wherever groups gathered, like shots from an epic holiday shared among friends.

Nothing on the road was intact, including the road itself. Gun turrets had been thrown dozens of feet from tank hulls, and the roof of a bus was peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. Dozens of government soldiers had died in the attack. A group of men carried the body of one wrapped in a blanket past an enormous puddle of what looked like melted aluminum shimmering magically under one of the decapitated tanks. Some of the men took photos… One man pretended to speak for the bodies and said, “Look what Sarkozy did to us.” Others said to leave them alone—that such mockery was forbidden by the Koran. Someone had gone to the trouble of burying a civilian killed by Qaddafi troops not far from his burned car. A black shoe, a pocketknife, and some keys lay on the grave.

By the end of August, though, with me back in Canada and my Harper’s story filed, he’d followed through on his plan, making his way to Tripoli, where he helped to arrest fifth columnists and flirted with girls—which, when I called him to catch up, sounded as though it had been the highlight of his brief war.

We spoke the day the new Libyan flag was first raised at the United Nations in New York. It was extraordinary to me how fast Libyans, with NATO’s help, had unseated Qaddafi. When I’d left Benghazi at the end of March, I’d believed Libya would split along its historical lines of east and west, with Benghazi as the capital of a rump state.

Abdullah filled me in on his adventure. Near the end of August, the militia he had been training with asked for volunteers. “They told us they wanted fighters to go to Tripoli, and the same day I went,” he told me.

“You’re an idiot,” I said. “Yeah, I’m an idiot,” he replied, laughing proudly. “I finally did it, man.”

The boat trip to Tripoli had taken two days, with a brief interruption when NATO ships stopped the ship en route. The group was permitted to pass on after claiming to be carrying civilian aid, though Abdullah said the NATO crew “knew that was a lie.”

On the way, he and his older brother, who had also volunteered, phoned their parents to tell them where they were. “What the hell are you doing?” his father asked them. His mother started calling three or four times a day, crying.

The capital fell soon after Abdullah arrived—in part, he said, because one of Qaddafi’s commanders had secretly switched to the rebel side in the spring and didn’t defend the city. Abdullah and his fellow Benghazians spent the next ten days arresting Qaddafi loyalists, leaving the heavy fighting to veterans from Misrata.

One day while Abdullah was still in Tripoli, his father called and said that he, too, was in the city, on a “secret and dangerous mission” to pick up seaplanes and fly them back to Benghazi. “Now we are a revolutionary family,” Abdullah told me. “I would have been so sad if my father had gone to Tripoli and I had not.”

The Benghazi brigade quickly realized that the people of Tripoli didn’t need more help. One of Abdullah’s friends, a local soccer star, stayed on to keep fighting, and died a week later in Bani Walid. But the rest, he told me, “are civilians again.”

“You could say it was easy,” he remarked. “I had friends who fought in the mountains and Misrata and said it was nothing.” His choice to go to Tripoli hadn’t merely been for the experience, though. It was also a gesture of unity. “In the past, the people of Tripoli hated us,” he said. “They thought they were better than us. But they were happy to see us. They welcomed us. Especially when they knew we were from Benghazi. I can’t explain it. It was very emotional.”

And then there was the highlight of the trip. It turned out, Abdullah said, that there were lots of girls in Tripoli. “There are stories that the girls in Tripoli like guys from Benghazi. And they want to marry us.”

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Patrick Graham:

Commentary October 26, 2011, 11:11 am

Life, the Revolution and Everything

From the October 2011 issue

Among the banana eaters

The middle-class rebels behind Libya’s revolution

From the February 2008 issue

Go before you die

A road trip through the “new” Colombia

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.

The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson

Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:

6,000

An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today