August 27, 2009

In the Land of the Brother Leader

Qaddafi in Shades.jpg

(Note: I wrote the following account of my trip to Libya years ago for the LA Weekly, but the staff recently revamped the Web site and took my story offline. It's one of my best, I think, and I want to republish it now because it's no longer available anywhere else. If you missed it when it came out, I hope you enjoy it today.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 27, 2009 3:55 PM
Comments
This could have served as a hell of a lesson to us about what happens when a pathological narcissist is allowed into power.
Here's hoping the Libyans make something better for themselves when their sun-king finally exits the stage.
Posted by: Squires at August 27, 2009 7:34 pm
What a lovely article, MJT. Thanks for republishing it.
Posted by: AZZenny at August 27, 2009 9:05 pm
Surreal, and so sad, like a ghost prison. It took me back to a photograph I've never gotten out of my mind, of a broad, multilane highway in North Korea. At intersections young women wearing uniforms and white gloves "directed" no traffic, not a single car.
Posted by: Paul S. at August 27, 2009 11:37 pm
I must say I am a bit afraid about the fate of your shopkeeper who "burst the dam on Qaddafi". Not very afraid, but a bit afraid, yes.
In North Korea, I would be VERY afraid. The NK secret police would have perfect timetable of whatever you did and where for the whole of your stay, and they would be able to find such a guy in no time.
Libyan henchmen are probably less competent and more complacent, so I do not think that they would keep such a timetable on you. Too expensive and work-intensive, and Arabs are not Koreans in this regard.
However, if you had a cell phone with you, your movements around Tripoli might be tracked back even today, if they keep the location database of foreign numbers. (I do not know whether Libya even has a mobile network in the first place...)
Posted by: MarianCZ at August 28, 2009 6:52 am
MarianCZ,
Trust me, they don't know who that guy is. I went into too many shops, sometimes escorted by guides, and other times by myself when my guides went home for the night. I didn't have a cell phone with me, and they can't even know which day I had this conversation.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 28, 2009 9:41 am
I got all the way through this and mostly enjoyed it. Doesn't ring the foreign policy bell in my mind. More like indie/literature anti-tourism with a dash of Orwell. I can tell the difference and that it's your earlier work.
I'm sometimes surprised when you visit places like this and find no resentment at all. Understanding when Middle Eastern governments are effective at controlling their populations' opinions of The Enemy and when they aren't is a tricky job.
I think that in totalitarian countries the non-connected folks often are glad to see strangers, but the consistency is surprising. You'd expect a dedicated minority to buy into it, a la Iran, Lebanon, even Syria.
Seriously, why shouldn't the Libyans waiting tables in the Italian sector have resented you? All the edible food and pretty knicknacks are available for Qaddafi's foreign whores ("business partners"), while the help goes back and sleeps in the concrete graveyard. It would have been quite logical for them to view all the foreign guests as enablers and co-participants in Qaddafi's scheme.
(And now you understand Anti-Americanism...)
Although I enjoy the urban wasteland descriptions, though, I did have two opposing thoughts - #1, gotta be careful at equating ugly and/ or repetitive architectures to slavery, Mike, you lean on that maybe a little too much, and #2,
trash is easier to hate when it's piled in front of your face, but it's easy to get along with when it's piled in someone else's face. Still, I wonder if all the garbage piled haphazardly, everywhere, in the poorer parts of the Arab world makes it harder to come back to America and argue in favor of people who make a living gutting the EPA and whining about how many forms they have to fill out before they can dump lead into rivers.
There's good aesthetics, if you enjoy the juxtaposition of positive forms with negative content, in writing about totalitarian tourism. Same thing goes for visiting poor countries, but that comes off a less moralistic and shallower (these jerks don't have hot water, ha ha, get a job!)
Posted by: glasnost at August 30, 2009 12:06 pm
Glasnost: Doesn't ring the foreign policy bell in my mind.
It wasn't supposed to, as you seem to understand. This piece is in the "Holidays in Hell" subgenre of travel writing.
At the end of the day, I'd rather travel the world and simply describe it than about tell you or anyone else what to think about it.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 30, 2009 12:38 pm
I do understand.
At the end of the day, I'd rather travel the world and simply describe it than about tell you or anyone else what to think about it.
I hear you. First thought is a minor sense of guilt that I'm totally willing to tell you and everyone else what to think about it. Second thought, on the other hand, simply describing your own reactions in a well-narrated context, or a realistic fiction context, is a great way to get people to identify with you, or at least huamnize your point of view.
For example, while I personally don't object to a message that boils down to "Fuck Qaddafi", some hypothetical people would be innately suspicious of a polemical, ideological essay whose point is "Fuck Qaddafi". They might see it as a Trojan Horse for some a, harmful, or b, american-superiority-perpetuating, kind of plans. So, a short narrative that is more genuinely *documenting* the "Fuck Qaddafi" message - that you genuinely felt at that specific time - that maybe does more for the Fuck Qaddafi cause than an outright, explicit advocacy essay saying Fuck Qaddafi.
Maybe. It might be more effective at reaching the non-core audience, anyway.
Maybe.
I am not suggesting that you have a hidden agenda. Maybe I'm suggesting that it's impossible not to tell the world what to think to a degree. I suppose you can tell them a series of contradictory things and it may me more up to them how to work it out...
Posted by: glasnost at August 30, 2009 2:31 pm
Glasnost: I am not suggesting that you have a hidden agenda.
Well, that's good!
Of course I do not like Qaddafi and won't pretend otherwise. Any American who supports this Stalinist and terrorist ought to be ashamed of himself. I won't hesitate for a minute to say that any more than I won't hesitate to say Kim Jong Il and every other jackbooted thug in the world can fuck off.
American journalists are supposed to give dictators bad press. The LA Weekly surely would have spiked my essay if it was pro-Qaddafi. My editor on that story, Marc Cooper (who also works for The Nation), is the good kind of old leftist who simply will not stand for that crap.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 30, 2009 3:00 pm
Glasnost: Maybe I'm suggesting that it's impossible not to tell the world what to think to a degree.
To a degree, yes. Neutrality is neither possible nor (in my opinion) desirable. As Microraptor said a few months ago, (who frequently criticizes me here, though he's a friend) it's better to be honest about your biases than to go to war zone and pretend not to give a shit what happens.
I suppose you can tell them a series of contradictory things and it may me more up to them how to work it out...
That's what I did recently when I got home from Baghdad.
Iraq is extraordinarily complicated. The fact that Qaddafi's a bad guy is not.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 30, 2009 3:04 pm
Iraq is extraordinarily complicated. The fact that Qaddafi's a bad guy is not.
Yep.
Posted by: glasnost at August 30, 2009 9:31 pm
Michael, I trust you that you do not put your contacts into danger willingly or by recklessness.
I just had two worries. None of them may actually apply to you. I have experienced them more than once.
First, people from (relatively) free countries generally tend to underestimate the surveillance performed by totalitarian governments. (Unfortunately, the free world governments seem to be going in the same direction...).
Second, non-IT people generally tend to underestimate the amount of data that can be digged from databases such as the location database of a mobile operator.
Posted by: MarianCZ at August 31, 2009 1:51 am
Oops, it is probably "dug", not "digged".
Posted by: MarianCZ at August 31, 2009 2:03 am
"Qaddafi thinks he's the sun of Africa"
Not necessarily. Most likely he expects his people to believe so and overwhelming majority undoubtedly does.
"I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty wore off in less than a day, and he's been in power longer than I've been alive."
It may sound strange, but this is classic example of transformation of quantity into quality.
Over time you get so used to it that you no longer see it.
Ugly? Yes. Grotesque? Yes. Annoying? Probably not anymore. Besides, when you are born into this life you do not even realize there is something wrong with it. Its like a leaf on a tree. Who would object to that or even notice?
PS. That Libian shopkeeper with big mouth, guy got balls (and no brain).
Posted by: leo at August 31, 2009 6:27 am
I was very impressed that the government was successful in actually keeping women out of sight and alcohol off the market (though I am not suggesting that this is laudable). It is one thing to declare those rules. It is another beast altogether to actually implement them.
I was part of the initial occupation of Baghdad. After Saddam's regime fell, there was alcohol for sale on every street corner the very next day. I can't imagine that it was shipped in from Syria that quickly. It had to have been readily available under the radar of the law.
Qaddafi is a douche, but he must be an effective one if he is able to bring the gap between policy formulation and implementation. I'm sure it sucks to live under a tyrant. It must suck even more to live under one who is effective.
Posted by: Schmedlap at September 5, 2009 10:40 am
definitly some of your best work! This was the first time I've read it and I loved it.
"He had no work in front of him, not even papers to shuffle. His job was to stare holes through everyone who stepped in and out of the elevator."
Hilarious!
Posted by: ramsis at September 9, 2009 10:47 am
Post a comment

Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Read my blog on Kindle









Sponsored Links

Buy a used boat

Shanghai Hotels

Yachts for sale


Recommended Reading