The Literature of Oppression: Part 4
Escape to Hell by Muammar Gaddafi
Before he was trapped in a sewage pipe in the desert, buggered with a length of steel piping and killed by a mob holding camera-phones. Before the female bodyguards, and the poor schoolgirls, and the secret bedroom to which he took them, with its gruesome gynaecological surgery next-door. Before he came in from the cold, and renounced nuclear weapons, or shook Blair’s hand to close a deal with BP. Before Lockerbie, and WPC Fletcher, and the IRA. Before he was called Mad Dog, or Fuzzy-head, or Abu Shafshufa. Before he took to wearing a furry ushanka-hat with the ear-flaps tied beneath his chin, before he permed his hair, before he dressed like an African chieftain and carried a fly-whisk.
Before all of that, Muammar Gaddafi wrote a story called ‘Escape to Hell’. We cannot know for certain precisely when he wrote it – but it was likely in the 1980s, when Gaddafi had already been leader of Libya for fifteen years. By then, his brand of political ideology was becoming more fixed: a peculiar blend of social conservatism, populism, revolutionary socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism. Gaddafi’s literary style was also on display, and it did not receive a warm reception. His speeches were rambling and awkward, lurching between standard Arabic, his Bedouin dialect, and Berber tongues. He liked to coin words in Arabic, but these were laughed at by the intelligentsia in Cairo and Damascus. And he had published The Green Book as a manifesto of his political philosophy – but this was a poorly-written and widely-mocked collection of aphorisms, bought by tourists as a trinket and recited by school-children in a drone.
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Hardly surprising, then, that Escape to Hell did not attract much attention when it was published in 1993 in a collection of short-stories. In the bookshops of Tripoli and Benghazi, loyal followers might have bought a copy, but even they must have been underwhelmed by the cover: a green field and a bright sun, drawn in childish bright colours.
And Escape to Hell begins, as uninspiringly as its cover, as a kind of Gaddafi memoir. There are odd allusions to history, to leaders overthrown by their people, but they feel forced and unnatural. But it is also disarmingly honest: Gaddafi describes his fear of the mob, his fear of his father (who beat him), and his loneliness as a poor Bedouin from the desert in smart, urbane Tripoli.
Having rambled for five or six pages, the reader might be forgiven for shutting the book, bored. He might think that, after all, perhaps Colonel Gaddafi just felt unloved, and out-of-place, and scared. Maybe that explains it all.
The more cynical reader might even dismiss this outpouring as a clever ruse: self-deprecating to appeal to the wealthy burghers of Tripoli and Benghazi who had never really trusted this upstart shepherd’s boy. “At least,” Gaddafi wanted them to think, “this Colonel knows his place. He seems to have a healthy fear of us, the people — maybe we can keep him in check after all. Best to stick with him for a little while longer.”
Keep on reading. It gets much better. Without warning, Gaddafi drops all the introspection, all the talk about his fears and his father. His writing comes to life. It is as though Gaddafi has stepped away from the lectern, jumped down from the podium, two steps at a time, run through the auditorium to where you are sitting, grabbed you by the collar and lifted you out of your seat.
Now he is shouting at you with a truer voice, all historical allusion and affected modesty thrown aside. Gaddafi changes tone abruptly; now he wants to tell the story of how he escaped to Hell. It is the story of a journey into the desert, away from the mob he so fears, and a journey to solitude and tranquility. And it begins with Gaddafi fleeing Tripoli, hounded by the reader, by the mob.
“Your very breath bothers me, invading and violating my privacy; it seeks to squeeze me dry, greedily devouring my essence, licking up my sweat and sucking in my breath. Then it pauses, to give me a short breathing-space, before it attacks me again. Your breath chases me like a rabid dog, is saliva dripping in the street of your modern city of insanity. When I flee, it continues to chase me through cobwebs and esparto. So I decided to escape to Hell, if only to save myself.”
This is pretty good writing, at least stylistically. Indeed, the whole of the second half of Escape to Hell — the description of Gaddafi’s journey to Hell — is better than you would expect. The odd thing is that, as you read, you find yourself hearing echoes of great European literature. After all, the journey to Hell — the descent to the Underworld — is a subject tackled by the greatest writers of all, by Homer, Vergil, Dante and many others. That is not to say Gaddafi ranks among such great writers — only that there is a ring of literary truth in his writing that we also hear in the finest descriptions of Hell.
Reading the passage above, for example, one could be forgiven for thinking of Aeschylus’ play Eumenides (458 BC); of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, the prince who killed his mother and was pursued for his crime by those hellish demons, the Furies — “Blow forth on him the breath of wrath and blood, / Scorch him with reek of fire that burns in you, / Waste him with new pursuit — swift, hound him down!”
Or, having fled Tripoli, take the description of the beginning of the road into the desert. Gaddafi says: “The path to hell is covered with an unending natural carpet, which I walked along merrily and happily. When the carpet came to an end, I found the road covered with fine sand. […] I stopped to choose the shortest path to take.” At once, we think of the famous opening verses of Dante’s Hell — “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone”.
And when Gaddafi says that he has escaped to the desert to flee the hellish, hounding crowds of Tripoli, to escape the mob, we think of the famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos, about people locked in a room in the afterlife: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” “Hell is other people.”
The cynic will say that Gaddafi has cribbed these allusions from European literature – so much for the illiterate, small-time country boy we encountered in the first half. Gaddafi was cunning; more clever than he seemed; he must have been pretty well-read. But, sneers the cynic, Gaddafi was no writer — The Green Book, and all those mad, rambling speeches are proof enough of that — so he can hardly be expected simply to have chanced upon the same turns of phrase as an ancient Greek dramatist, or a Renaissance poet, or an existentialist playwright. No, he was just a cheat, using high literature to make his point, turning beauty to his foul ends.
I disagree. It is true that the second half of Escape to Hell is more convincing than the autobiographical first. Whatever his ultimate goal, by describing his escape to the tranquility of the desert, Gaddafi expresses far more eloquently his fear of the Libyan people than he does in the prosaic first half of the story, where his openness and honesty is so earnest that even the most naïf reader must suspect its authenticity.
Instead, the journey to Hell rings true. Gaddafi finds in the desert a lonely serenity, far away from the city — “How beautiful hell is compared to your city!”, he tells the reader. I have heard this sentiment expressed by many who have been in the deserts of the Middle East. From young Egyptians fleeing smoggy Cairo for a weekend’s camping under the stars, to an Omani fisherman who liked nothing more than taking a trip into the desert and away from the treacherous sea. After he had crossed the sands of the Empty Quarter with tribesmen of the Rashid, the greatest British Arabist of all, Wilfred Thesiger, wrote something remarkably similar:
“When I first entered the sands I was bewildered by the utter unfamiliarity of my surroundings and frightened by the feeling that I had only to be separated from my companions to be completely lost in the maze of dunes. Now, like any Rashid, I regarded the Sands as a place of refuge, somewhere where our enemies could not follow us, and I disliked the idea of leaving the shelter the afforded.”
It is for this truth — both literary and simple — that Gaddafi’s description of his journey to Hell is so powerful. It is for this reason that Escape to Hell is good writing.
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In Escape to Hell, Gaddafi journeys into the desert to flee the mob of Tripoli. He would do so again. In 2011, when the tide of the civil war in Libya had turned against him and the rebels were in Tripoli, Gaddafi gathered his bodyguard and drove out to the sandy wastes, back towards Sirte, his hometown in the desert.
One can imagine that, driving through the sand-dunes in a small convoy, far away now from the shells and the bombs, Gaddafi felt again the calm about which he wrote in Escape to Hell. Then, ambushed by rebels on the desert road, his followers were killed and Gaddafi was dragged from his hiding-place in a sewage pipe. There, in the sands, Gaddafi met his end at the hands of a mob. He had tried to escape, and now he is in Hell.
George Richards is a writer covering Middle Eastern affairs. Follow George on Twitter: @gergis