On a child of Gaddafi
The past is a sun-dappled terrace. The light is always bright, pouring from a yellow sun and the air is crisp with autumn. The school year is beginning anew and there are so many things to look forward to. I am at the University of Minnesota and have been in college long enough to feel confident and secure: it’s a fine day, fresh and appealing and I have just crossed the cast-iron bridges arched up over Washington Avenue between the great tree-lined mall and the Student Union. As I remember it now, the man with the leaflets is a stain in all this brightness. He is small, turd-colored, dressed casually. As I pass, he hands me a flyer, folded to make a tiny booklet. Inside the Student Union, I sit down at a table in a lunchroom and peruse the brochure. It is something called Gaddafi’s Children. The leaflet is printed in garbled English. It seems to be an encomium to a great leader, an African called Moammar Gaddafi. There are drawings of the great leader. He is wearing a military uniform and a hat like those sported by the pilots of big commercial airlines. His eyes are hidden behind sunglasses. The great leader is surrounded by children who raise their hand in supplication to him. Some of the children have slant-eyes and are Asians; some are sub-Saharan Africans drawn luridly to emphasize stereotypical racial characteristics; an American Indian wearing feathers is among the children, and there is a preppy little boy in a sweater with a cowlick, a kid that looks a lot like Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. The brochure says that the leader, General Gaddafi, will unite all Africa, and, one day, the entire world under his beneficent rule. All people must learn that they are his children whom he loves and that it is their responsibility to adore him.
I thought the brochure was very funny and laughed at it. Then, I tucked it into my briefcase to show my friends. The printed text was naive and written in pidgen-English and I thought everyone that I knew would find it amusing. The paper was cheap and the ink easily smudged and the leaflet looked like religious tracts that you sometimes found on the floors of the lavatories warning you about Hell. I would like to tell you that I still have Gaddafi’s Children, that it recently came to light tucked between the pages some old textbook that I was shoving into a box to take to the dump. But, of course, I lost the brochure within the week, don’t recall showing it to anyone at all, and nothing remains from that bright morning almost forty years ago but this memory. And, since I am now an old man, soon that memory will be gone also.
It’s an inconsequential memory. The day was bright, a Libyan graduate student pressed a brochure into my hand, and there were bridges nearby – great, white expanses of bridge crossing the turbid Mississippi river and, at hand, those cast-iron walkways over Washington Avenue, spritely, springing into the air like gazelles, two matching pedestrian bridges with the traffic sluicing under them. Bridges mark my memories, arching upward into the sky, ramps to a future that has now arrived and become the past. Words from Joseph Kessel’s resistance memoir cited by Jean-Pierre Melville as the epigraph to his film Army of Shadows occur to me: “Bad memories. I welcome you anyhow. You are my long-lost youth.” My memory of Gaddafy’s Children is not bad. But I welcome it because redolent of youth and happy student days.
As far as I can tell, no one in this country really knows much about Moammar Gaddafy. The obligatory rejoicing at his slaughter is hollow. In America, at least, we didn’t know the tyrant well enough to honestly hate him. The media will gin the mob into a frenzy of bloodlust, but is this really warranted? In fact, before the recent unpleasantness in Libya, my surmise is that most Americans – if they thought of Gaddafy at all – regarded him as an eccentric, vaguely comic figure, a sort of depraved elder uncle dressed like a perverse scoutmaster.
As evidence for this proposition, one might cite the pervasive confusion about the Libyan dictator’s name. A vast zone of orthographic uncertainty surrounds Gaddafy’s moniker. Was the guy named Gaddafy or Ghadafy or Quadhafi or Kaddafy or Quaddafi? The internet allows surveys to be made with respect to these variants, of which there are said to be more than fifty; apparently, the most popular spelling has been Gaddafi, used more than 8 million times, followed by Khaddafy, counting four million uses. In one MSN blog, I observed that the dictator’s name was spelled both “Ghadhafi” and “Quadhafi” in the same paragraph.. The Denver Post used three different spellings in three successive weeks’ articles. The problem becomes compounded when one examines variants of the Libyan’s first-name, englished as either “Muammer,”or “Moammar,”or “Muanmar” etc. In the Holy Qur’n (“Koran”? “Qu’ran”?), God is said to have 99 names. Considering Arabic flourishes to Gaddafi’s name – various calligraphic appendages to the decedent’s appellation, all hyphenated and curved like a saracen scimiter (“Bab al-Azziziya” sometimes rendered just “el-Aziya”) – it would seem that the murdered Libyan dictator has more than a thousand names, at least as rendered in English. Himself to blame, Gaddafi’s name is assassinated daily in a million European and American newspaper articles. It seems that the dictator was inordinately proud of the ceremonial flourishes and elegant Abstract Expressionist swirls of classical Arabic, would not tolerate any other language in Libya, and, as a consequence, contributed to the manifest confusion as to how his name should be transliterated. Political correctness requires that President Obama and most newscasters swallow their Spanish “l” and “n” sounds, producing a caricature of Spanish pronunciation that must sound as cartoonish to native-speakers as the long “e” sounds pronounced by comedians like Jose Jimenez in the benighted fifties and sixties – “I go back to my vee - leege.” Thus, broadcasters schooled in this species of Spanish apply similar principals to Arabic, a language none of them knows well enough to even parody. Apparently, Gaddafi’s name commences with an Araabic glottal stop – hence, strange-sounding choking noises and an idiosyncratic non-English spelling: “Qaddafi”. (I can read German but don’t speak the language since I am certain that my pronunciation of even the simplest Deutsch would be severely painful to Teutonic ears – I used to despise folks who called Franz Kafka Frens Kefka or Thomas Mann Tom -ass Man; not to speak of “Goat- tee,” but German is so disdained today that even educated folks, the sort of people who listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on public radio, pronounce “w” for the German v-sound when they mention “Werner Herzog” or “Richard” (Rich- hard) “Wagner”. The idiotic way that people slurp and gulp Spanish today has forced me to conclude that the unapologetic mispronunciation of German is pretty much okay. In the renaissance, Elizabethans routine transliterated all names – Johann and Giovanni became “John,” Pierre was “Peter.” We still call Muenchen by the name “Munich” and Firenze is “Florence” like Roma is “Rome.” This seems preferable to affecting a stereotyped foreign accent.) Curiously enough, when Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli fell into the hands of the rebels, a diplomatic passport held by Mohammed Gaddafi, a son of the dictator, was discovered. That passport transliterated the surname as “Gathafi,” a spelling that no one has endorsed – except, apparently, the actual family members of the deceased tyrant.
In recent years, Gaddafi helped the United States and Europeans in their never-ending “war” on Islamic terrorism. Never precisely avuncular, Gaddafi seemed defanged and more an on opera bouffe figure of fun than a serious menace. Gaddafi’s transformation for raging mad dog foe to a mildly humorous comic villain began in 1987. In that year, a short-lived TV sit-com featured a two-minute cameo appearance by a character actor impersonating the Libyan ruler. The show was called “Second Chance” and mercifully vanished from the air-waves after a couple episodes. Matthew Perry, later famous on Friends, played a teenager trapped in purgatory; St. Peter gives him a second chance at life, an opportunity to rectify the various errors that brought him to an early demise and an occasion, it was thought, for, at least, 13 zany comedy episodes. In the show, purgatory seems to be portrayed as a kind of interminable game show and, at one point, Gaddafi has a walk-on role: dressed with his trademark exuberance, the dictator says that he can’t believe that he’s dead, and, in an eerie coincidence, thinks it odd that he died on “July 29, 2011" – not the exact date, of course, for the sic semper tyrannis moment but close enough to be disconcerting. In 1987, Gaddafi was at the height of his infamy, accused of orchestrating a 1986 bombing at a Berlin discotheque that had killed some American servicemen. Clinton sent some missiles in his direction a few years later, retaliating for the Lockerbie bombing – apparently, US forces managed to blow up a milk factory and may have killed one of the Libyan leader’s daughters. Later, Gaddafi became almost a friend to the West, hunting down and torturing Islamic fundamentalists to death with alacrity, amusing the world with his fashion antics, and, even, supposedly enjoying sex with various Roman super-models at “Bunga-Bunga” parties superintended by Italian premiere Berlusconi. As recently as 2009, Gaddafy was mildly praised for his leadership of the African Congress and his interventions, generally on the side favored by the United States, in various sub-Saharan wars and rebellions.
It seems churlish not to appreciate a good murder. The mob butchering Gaddafi in the sunbleached and desolate outskirts of Sirte was so excited, so amped-up on bloodlust, that the people wielding cell-phone cameras couldn’t hold them sufficiently still to record anything but a vortex of hips, shoulders, and arm, all in belligerent close-up whirling around a tired-looking old man. Only momentarily visible, Gaddafi seemed vaguely relieved that the whole ordeal was just about finished. A theological term, kenosis, occurs to me in the context of these images – Gaddafi looked “emptied out,” the bruised shell of his body was just about devoid of its inhabitant, life about to become nothing more than some waste fluid spilled in the hot and vacant sand. Cell phone cameras record a world without a viewfinder, a world without any real point-of-view, and this footage, spreading virally over the internet, was the dramatization of some sort of decentered nothingness. It was all impossibly close, vivid, and, yet, immensely and irrevocably distant and meaningless.
I suppose that now that I am old myself, I don’t get much pleasure in seeing old men harried and hounded and battered to death. Gaddafi’s trademark burnoose was ripped asunder. His wig was dropped in the dust. Someone pulled from his scalp a fistful of greasy hair. The massacre should have been poignant or beautiful or meaningful, but it was just a wretched scramble, no different from the wave of cell phones held above a Hollywood or Manhattan street to gaze with stolid indifference over shoulder and bald spots toward some celebrity scrambling for cover on the public way. It makes me a bad American but I felt the same way about the pointless murder of Osama bin Laden, an old geezer holed-up in a remote and ugly place, watching re-runs on his big screen TV. It’s tiresome and depressing to think of ueber-fit young Marines hustling to blast some helpless old geezer into eternity. Young people always have the illusion that the most recent triumph of murder, hailed as “justice” by the media, will change the world for the better. But already the same media crowing that Gaddafi’s death was an instance of “justice,” are beginning to report evidence of mass murder committed by the rebels. The photographs show shallow trenches the length of a football field paved with oblong white bundles, here and there leaking and stained – the mortal remains of Gaddafi’s supporters who seem to have been butchered en masse. The victors enter the homes of members of Gaddafi’s tribe, apparently accounting for 1/6th of the population of Libya, and expropriate their belongings and rape their women. Everyone is armed and the nights rattle with gunfire. The tribes and the clans are gathering force to fight one another. The cyclops eye of the media sees all this and reports it and doesn’t seem chastened or crestfallen in the slightest that this triumph so-called has soured so swiftly into murder for profit and ethnic cleansing.
I acquired a little brochure, about the size of Gaddafi’s Children, mapping trails in a park in Rochester, Minnesota. The park is called Indian Heights and consists of forty acres of precipitous bluff land overlooking the Zumbro River wedged and occupying the same sylvan ridge where the convent at Assissi Heights is located. Access to the park is at a cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood. The trail climbs steeply for three-hundred yards in a pleasant forest and, atop the bluff, paths lead to a chain slung between trees marking the perimeter of the convent. Beyond the chain and the no-trespassing sign, you can see a manicured lawn lapped up against some neatly trimmed trees, the edge of the park surrounding the rest-home for the old nuns who once worked as nurses at the hospitals affiliated with the Mayo Clinic. Prohibitions are always exciting and it is tempting to climb over the chain and explore the remote lawns and groves of the convent, but, of course, who knows what penalty might accrue to that transgression. Better to follow the map on the brochure and walk through the woods above steeply plunging hillsides to a limestone promontory, a little shelf of rock, extending over the ugly box of the Crenlo factory. Crenlo was built before Rochester was a metropolis and the factory sits on the banks of the Zumbro River, wasting real estate where a housing development for Mayo surgeons and IBM managers might be worth many millions of dollars. A young man and a girl are lying on the rock, obviously disconcerted by my presence. The valley below is brown with autumn and the many houses of the city are pale colors: light browns, cream, beige. In the center of the valley, the alabaster mesa of the Mayo Clinic rises above parking lots and hotels. The top of the bluff is a maze of small paths and they skirt a bowl that pioneers quarrying the hill for stone building materials have cut into the ridge. The quarry is ancient, abandoned for, at least, a hundred years and its outlines have blurred into steep house-high slopes densely furred with trees. The center of the irregularly shaped amphitheater gouged into the hill-stop is still scabby with rock and some campfires have been built there in cracked stone cairns. Although it is late October, it is almost warm with the sun shining on the expanses of stony waste not colonized by trees where there is only thistle blooming in the wind. Once, there were Indian burial mounds on the ridge, but the pioneers ruined them when they scratched away the hill to get at the bedrock below. Perhaps, some of the steep pitches and gloomy hollow ringing the quarry hide old intaglio mounds – shallow gouges in the earth shaped like lunging panthers or hawks with their wings outspread (I’ve seen such things in remote woods in Wisconsin or Iowa). Perhaps, there were conical teepee-shaped mounds here as well, now slashed in half and hidden in the underbrush. But nothing of this sort is visible to me.
The trails are pleasantly intricate in the vicinity of the old quarry. You can wander around and become confused while knowing that there is no danger and nothing at stake in being lost on the hilltop. Sooner or later, you will always stumble upon an alley-sized trail leading to the path down the slope into the residential neighborhood or come again upon the embarrassed lovers cuddling on the stone outcropping above the Crenlo factory. After an hour or so, I descended the hill, my dog, trotting nervously ahead of me, unleashed since there was no one in the woods but the lovers on the edge of the bluff. At the base of the hill, it was cool. The clouds had covered the sun and a few drops of rain flickered in the air – autumn had returned. The brief summer luminous upon the hilltop and glowing on the polished and cracked stone floor of the quarry was gone. The ice and snow of winter did not seem far remote.
On the grass, a Monarch butterfly lay amid the somber, dull-brown fallen leaves. The butterfly’s wings moved slightly with a rhythm that reminded me, for some reason, of a tired animal panting. The butterfly was worn-out and its life was departing, a kind of kenosis. I took out my notebook and tried to sketch the butterfly but the subtle curve of its wings – what Hogarth called the serpentine “line of beauty” – eluded my pencil. The butterfly was dying and, yet, the finery of its colors remained vivid and the beautiful wings were neither tattered nor faded. It looked like a vibrant piece of stained glass still lit, although faintly, by the life within it. I would like to tell you that the butterfly died with dignity. But my dog is playful and, after shredding the butterfly’s wings with her teeth, she ate it whole.