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.”

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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

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