Patrick Graham is a freelance writer based in Toronto. His most recent piece for Harper’s is “Among the Banana Eaters: The middle-class rebels behind Libya’s revolution,” in the October 2011 issue.
After viewing a few of the gruesome videos of Muammar Qaddafi’s last moments, I called Abdullah, the young translator with whom I’d worked in Benghazi last spring. “You can’t imagine how great we are feeling after forty-two years and nine months,” he said, sounding like many of the Libyans I’d seen interviewed on TV. Few of them mentioned Qaddafi without also mentioning the forty-two years. The number had been everywhere in Libya since the revolution began: One of the many posters I’d seen plastering downtown Benghazi in March read, “42 is number of shoe’s size. and Gaddaffi’s period of government.” The number had a near-mystical quality; it was the answer to life, the revolution, and everything. I asked Abdullah how his father, a pilot, felt about Qaddafi’s death. “Dad lived with Qaddafi for forty-two years,” he replied, as though his father’s feelings were therefore self-evident.
As for Abdullah, he was sanguine about the shooting. He was sure someone had executed Qaddafi, and the rumor around town was that a Benghazian had pulled the trigger. Abdullah thought the killing was morally wrong, but inevitable. “I think it is the same in the end,” he said. “He would die now or later.” A trial, though, would have meant a forty-third or forty-fourth year, and the thought that Qaddafi would have a last platform for his lunatic speeches was too much. “He was a very big headache—we don’t want to think about Qaddafi.”
I understood. Anytime I’d turned on state television during the early stages of the revolution, I’d seen either Qaddafi speechifying and waving his arms in the air, or Libyans cheering Qaddafi and waving their arms in the air. The propaganda was relentless and ritualized, like a Leni Riefenstahl film starring a Marx Brother. Qaddafi never seemed to shut up, and Libyans were his conscripted audience. Not surprisingly, the show ended with the emperor stripped almost naked, lying silently on the floor.
And now that it was over? “I’m free and bored,” Abdullah said. The last time we’d spoken, in September, he’d surprised me with an epic story of sneaking off by boat with his brother to fight in Tripoli. Tonight, with the war over, he and three friends were flying to Cairo, then driving to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort town, for a ten-day holiday. Three of the group were “vets” like him; the fourth he jokingly described as “a civilian.” The plan was to hit the beach and then the clubs. Autumn was a good time for tourists, he said, and he’d heard the town was full of Russian and Italian girls.
I quipped that he’d best be careful, because Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, had just announced that Libya would be governed according to a form of sharia law. Abdullah didn’t want to be stoned for participating in adultery, did he? He laughed, but added that he was very keen on sharia, as was everyone else in Libya. “We know these things about cutting off hands—you could not do that for this generation,” he said. “As you saw, we are normal people.” For Abdullah, sharia meant a return to a more stable and ordered past. “We have lived with sharia for a hundred years and before—under King Idris and other times.”
He didn’t want to see nightclubs or liquor stores built in Libya, either. A trip to Sharm el-Sheikh for him was like a trip to Las Vegas for an American who didn’t want casinos in his hometown. What happened in Sharm el-Sheikh, Abdullah didn’t need to add, would stay in Sharm el-Sheikh. It had been forty-two very long years.