The literary musings of Libya’s Qaddafi: fiction, essays and even humor

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Image via Wikipedia

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Muammar Qaddafi to power, and while Libya is having a colossal party (“the mother of all celebrations” according to one description), many in the West are rueing Qaddafi’s staying power. The head of a Maryland think tank described Qaddafi as a “thug” in an editorial last week, around the same time that a New York radio host called Qaddafi a “butcher” and “tyrant.”

Qaddafi has heard harsher words, and if there’s anyone who can withstand his critics’ judgments, it’s Qaddafi, who has endured harsh isolation not just on the diplomatic front but the literary one. The latter happened after Qaddafi published “Escape to Hell and Other Stories,” a collection of fiction and nonfiction that (upon its release in English in 1998) was panned by Entertainment Weekly as “strange.” The magazine’s snarky reviewer said, “May we suggest a stint at Tripoli’s Writers’ Workshop to brush up on, say, plot, character, dialogue, tone, and coherence?”

It’s true that “Escape to Hell and Other Stories” is a challenging work that reads as if Qaddafi were a prophet scolding a flock of uneducated peasants. The book is divided into short stories (which are called “novels”) and essays, and the voice and style behind each entry is the same: Stiff and pedantic. Here’s a representative passage, from the essay called “Death to the Incapable . . . Until Revolution,” in which Qadaffi seems to blame those who are passive and easily swayed:

The truly strange thing in your lives is that you not only fail, but fail to learn your lesson. Any effect on you is not taken advantage of as a useful experience, no matter how much you fail you never change. No matter how much your beliefs betray you, this is never accepted by you. You are distinguished by your inability to recognize the truth, no matter how irrefutable.”

Compare this to the short story called “The City,” in which Qaddafi’s narrator (basically Qaddafi himself – a man who was raised in the desert) bemoans cities and those who live in them:

Life in the city is merely a worm-like, biological existence where man lives and dies meaninglessly . . . with no clear vision or insight. In either case, he is inside a tomb, whether he is living of dying. There is no freedom or rest in the city, or peace of mind. Instead, there are walls upon walls, whether indoors or outdoors, in apartment buildings, in the street, or in places of work.”

Anger and condescension practically drip from Qaddafi’s words, but “Escape to Hell and Other Stories” has its subtle moments, as in the short story “Death,” in which Qaddafi wonders whether death is male or female. “If it is male,” he writes, “then we must combat it to the last breath, and if it female, then we should surrender to it in the end.” There is dark humor here, especially if readers know that Qaddafi has a sense of humor. He does. This side of Qaddafi comes across in certain interviews, like the one he gave to National Geographic in 2000, in which he said he was born near a desert area called jahannam. In Arabic, the word also means “hell.” “The desert climate gives me a chance to think,” he told the magazine. “When there is a lot of work, I escape to hell.”

Qaddafi laughed as he said this to National Geographic’s writer, who said the Libyan leader  was “displaying an author’s pride at the play on words.”

In three weeks, when Qaddafi arrives in New York to speak to the United Nations General Assembly, protesters – including those mad at the prison release of Libya’s convicted Lockerbie bomber – will descend on Manhattan and follow Qaddafi wherever he goes. Qaddafi wants to set up his grandiose tent somewhere in the New York area. “Not in my backyard” was the sentiment of those in Englewood, New Jersey, when word leaked out that Qaddafi might camp there. Englewood’s residents might want to read “Escape to Hell and Other Stories,” which is available for free reading at Manhattan’s main public library (just nine miles from Englewood). If that’s too far, Amazon will deliver a used copy to their front doors for just $10. “Escape to Hell and Other Stories,” which features an over-the-top introduction by onetime JFK spokesman Pierre Salinger, ranks 1,687,700 on Amazon’s book list, meaning it’s not exactly a bestseller. But the book has its fans on Amazon (“five stars” says a reader from South Dakota) and such other places as, proving that Qaddafi has literary admirers far beyond his homeland in North Africa.

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2 Responses to The literary musings of Libya’s Qaddafi: fiction, essays and even humor

  1. Neal Ungerleider says:

    Gadaffi is a quirky individual who stands out among world leaders. But alongside his antics, he’s also squandered his country’s massive oil wealth and kept his population in place with a repressive regime. That part, unfortunately, isn’t so funny.

    That said, his Green Book is a masterpiece of WTF political science.

  2. Vickie Karp says:

    Extremely unusual to publish both fiction and non-fiction in the same book, and a great unintentional metaphor for Qadaffi. There is a long and winding genre for leaders writing books. My personal fave, as I’ve mentioned somewhere along the line at T/S, is Mussolini’s romance novel. Would be interesting to know more about who translated it, and if it was done by a translator or an interpreter, a literary one or one of his coterie.

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