Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part 5

Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part 5

Because this week I’m going to be talking directly about Gaddafi and his works, a few words of explanation. I mentioned earlier that Gaddafi was not referred to as President but as Great Brother Leader. I haven’t mentioned before that the official name of the country was the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, or SPLAJ for short (yes, I know it sounds like a road fatality). Jamahiriya is awkward to translate, but it refers to the concept of direct democracy: government through collectives or Revolutionary Committees rather than through elected leaders. One of Gaddafi’s niftier maxims was “representation is an abortion of democracy.”

Buying books in Libya was a problem. The one bookshop I located in Benghazi was government-run and sold only school textbooks and government publications, the latter mostly authored by Gaddafi. I did buy there two fine atlases and I bought quite a few of Gaddafi’s speeches, so I was up to scratch with the more radical and also the more deranged aspects of the ideology of the regime.
The most prominent item was the Green Book, an assemblage of Gaddafi’s insights more-or-less modelled on Mao’s Little Red Book and, like that, a mixture of the inspiringly radical and the stark raving bonkers. As a whole it was intended to articulate Gaddafi’s Third Universal Theory (I’ve forgotten what the First and Second Theories were supposed to be).

This was a synthesis of (i) the principle of direct, rather than representative, democracy; (ii) the precepts of Islam, since although Libya was not an Islamic state and Gaddafi had introduced measures such as full equal rights for women, which are alien to states such as Saudi Arabia, the principles of Islam were still revered, and piety was encouraged; (ii) socialism, in particular of the African variety, with the works of leaders/thinkers such as Nkrumah and Nyerere being lauded; and (iv) Arab / Libyan nationalism. Although in our times nationalism can be seen as a force for evil (witness Poland, Hungary, Chechnya, India and elsewhere) one has to bear in mind Libya’s nationalist resistance to and painful memory of its long modern history of colonization, from the Ottomans through Mussolini’s Fascists to effective partition into three spheres of influence by the USA, UK and France.

Apart from the Green Book there was also the White Book, an account of the devastation wrought in Libya during the Second World War, when it was a major conflict zone between the Nazis and the Allies, and of the continuing loss of life due to the thousands of unexploded land-mines left behind after the war.
In addition, there was an anti-Semitic tract, which I bought, took notes on, and destroyed. The existence of this surprised me. To oppose Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians, as Libya did, is not to be anti-Semitic and Gaddafi had made several notable inter-faith gestures. One of the events I attended was a very fine one-day conference at which the chief speaker was the excellent Bruno Kreisky, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who had been Austria’s first Chancellor following the war. (In Austria and Germany the Prime Minister is titled “Chancellor”). He was introduced by Gaddafi with a speech full of admiration and affection.

Towards the end of my three years in Libya, but before the cataclysm of the 1986 bombing, I was asked by two Libyan colleagues to assist in the translation of one of Gaddafi’s speeches. This task was commissioned by the office of the Great Brother Leader (Or Great Bother Leader, as one Brit colleague re-named him). The plan was that they would produce a literal English translation from the Arabic and that I would then re-work this so that it appeared, as a translation should, not to be a translation at all.
First we were asked to attend the speech as performed by Gaddafi on campus. This was a bit of an ordeal, as Gaddafi’s speeches could roll on for three or four hours (amongst his contemporaries he was only outdone in the marathon stakes by Fidel Castro). I sat next to one of my colleagues, who whispered a summary translation into my ear, as—already the budding cultural journalist—I took notes on Gaddafi’s body language and vocalization. As we had been seated in the front row and could by no means exit mid-speech, we had a modesty blanket with us and plastic bottles to pee in.

Later that day we planned our work schedule. My colleagues confirmed what I knew already, that oratorical Arabic is extremely difficult to translate, on account of its circularity, with a word or phrase returned to with variations, to build up effect. They also pointed out that if we got anything wrong we’d be found guilty of treason. With this dire warning in mind, the work of translation turned out to be the most careful piece of writing I’ve done in my life.
I have now been banging on about Libya for five consecutive weeks. Time to give you a break, before returning to the subject and getting into the really weighty stuff: on the good side, the welfare state and the country’s tourist potential; on the other, public executions and the impact of the 1986 bombing.

Chris Dunton

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