Weathering the Libyan Revolution, Meeting a Certain Colonel, Followed by a Fateful Visit
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
As an American anthropologist doing fieldwork in the Libyan Desert Oasis of Augila, I along with my wife, Nancy, experienced Qadhafi’s coup on September 1, 1969. After I was called out of the Desert by the new regime, I began to see the possibility of imminent change in the government. I was residing deep in the Sahara Desert, while Nancy was living in an apartment in Benghazi when the coup took place. This is my account of living on the edge after the coup that fateful day in September 1969.
Crossing the Libyan Desert
Benghazi was all abuzz with the news of the ‘Revolution.’ which was a now-politically correct term for what was otherwise a military coup. University students were all ears to find out where their country was going politically. The U.S. Principal Office in Benghazi along with the Embassy in Tripoli was trying to find out who Mu’ammar Qadhafi was. No one seemed to have a clear idea, according to one diplomat, “of who this guy is.” They knew he’d been on an overseas military training program in the UK and that perhaps the planned coup had been hatched there, but much more than this had left the diplomatic community in the dark.
The Old University of Libya–from the 1960s
Photographs of Colonel Qadhafi began to circulate, depicting him as thin, angular-faced, handsome and very fair. His absence of color may have reflected a sunless sojourn in the UK. I hazarded a guess from the facial appearance that he might have been of mixed Berber-Arab background. I’ve never been able to confirm or deny that. Qadhafi seemed to be an elusive young man, 26 years old, carrying himself very well in his neatly-starched military uniform. Along with a few of Qadhafi’s age-mates from the military, the once-young shepherd boy from near the Gulf of Sirte hatched the plan that displaced by one day the earlier-planned coup by the King’s circle of Bedouin guards. The coup was carried out masterfully. How much of the rest of a plan for governing had been considered by Qadhafi and his cohorts, however, was unknown.
A Young Colonel Qadhafi–around 1969
Adjusting to life back in Benghazi didn’t take long. Life at the University was intermittent, particularly with the uncertainty as to who would preside over it. For a while, it appeared as if the status quo of the University leadership might prevail, but soon it became clear that it wouldn’t. I spent time at our apartment catching up with Nancy and analyzing survey data from the summer’s work. I was also out and about to meet with Libyans and friends from the international community to reconnect and chat about what they knew of the new regime. A curfew was imposed, so staying out late wasn’t an option. Alcohol was forbidden though we had diplomatic friends who were not affected by the ban. They kindly offered us the opportunity to indulge with them in a pre-curfew beer, glass of wine, or something stronger — as long as we finished imbibing in time to race home prior to the 10 PM deadline.
One day, during the third week in September (1969), there was a knock on our apartment door. It was a messenger from the University with an invitation for Nancy and me to attend a reception the following day at the faculty meeting hall. The reception was to introduce the country’s new leader to the Faculty of the University’s Benghazi campus. Qadhafi had once been an external student at the University, who had studied at the same time as he was pursuing his military career. His connection to the University as a former student was what had prompted the invitation for his visit.
Benghazi in the 1960s
So on the afternoon of that late summer-early autumn day, we attended Qadhafi’s reception, which included about 50 faculty members, perhaps 10 of us foreigners. The small size of the reception area allowed Colonel Qadhafi to circulate among the faculty. He didn’t appear to be heavily protected by security guards. When he moved towards Nancy and me he extended his hand to me and we spoke for a minute or two. Though he’d been in England for training he seemed reluctant to speak English, so we greeted each other in Arabic and I briefly mentioned to him my work in Augila. Qadhafi seemed friendly, as he smiled broadly, frankly appearing to have a bit of charisma about him.
Whether it was charisma or a charade—only time would tell.
A Fateful Visit
Following the coup of September 1969, the new government took some time to establish its influence over its citizens’ lives. Libyans were used to a laissez-faire relationship with the former government, so there was some concern about the role of the military-based rule. There was enough confusion from the new government that I was able to get back down to the Oasis. My Oasis friends continued to feel uncertain about the repercussions of the coup. I was rounding out my research, so the timing was good, at least for the short run. During that visit, I was especially interested in re-interviewing some of the older male residents.
A year earlier I had sat with these older men to ask myriad questions about their parents’ memories and even more distant memories of their forebears. Their stories had been passed down about life in the Oasis going back four or more generations. These octogenarians and a few 90-year-olds provided details about the political positioning of the four clans in Augila. Some even told of the control over the region by one of their own. On hearing, then rereading about this little slice of Oasis history about their very own ‘despot’ brought me full circle to the then, contemporary era. In 1969 it didn’t seem possible that Libya would be ruled despotically during the coming years. No one I knew had foreseen that possibility.
In both Benghazi and Augila, there was a certain optimism in the early days of the coup. Qadhafi’s takeover symbolized a need by Libyans to reject the bad memories of a brutal, Fascist Italian domination of their country in the early half of the twentieth century, including a clear pattern of the genocide of their fellow Libyans during 1929-1933.
Many of Aguila’s own had fought against the Italians, so they knew firsthand how El Duce, Mussolini, had ravaged the country. Even the place of Britain and the U.S. in the early second half of the same century rubbed some Libyans the wrong way, due to these powers’ support of Israel and their not so subtle political-military support of King Idris and a regime based on oil. Libyans also liked the initially strong pro-Arab stance of their new leader, though they’d no idea where that might take their country in the future.
Back in Benghazi, by now October 1969, life had calmed a bit. I was occupied by both University work and analyzing my research. But that calm broke when I discovered that my original connection to Libya and my fieldwork in Aguila, University President Abdul
Mola Daghman had been put under house arrest. He was also the son-in-law of the Minister of Education. Having come to know and respect Abdul Mola once we arrived in Benghazi, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and friendship with him. So, that October, I decided that I’d visit him while he was under house arrest. I drove in our personal car to his home in downtown Benghazi.
A single policeman guarded Abdul Mola’s home. I felt a little edgy about my visit. It might not have been in my best interest but I felt compelled to wish him well, appreciating him as a friend and for how he’d helped Nancy and me. Abdel Mola was very grateful for my visit though he didn’t reveal much about the rationale for his arrest. It was clear he was protecting both himself and me since electronic listening was most likely in place. I was glad I’d made the visit, my sentimental side in wanting to honor Abdel Mola seeming to have won over any overriding fear of risk I might have had.
Adapted from John Mason’s LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017.