Hitchens archive: Colonel Ghadaffi's Libya

In this 1976 article, Hitchens reflects on a dictator on the ascendant.

"The lunatic of Libya" was President Sadat's most recent attempt at a definition of Colonel Ghaddafi. He delivered it during Egypt's national day last week, a day that is ironically celebrated as a public festival in Libya as well. Ghaddafi's reverence for Nasser is exceeded by nothing but his reverence for himself; one even sees the occasional poster of the founder of modern Arab nationalism, smothered by scores of the colonel (and in one instance, eccentrically, by a portrait of Giscard d'Estaing).

Libya's redeemer has long ago exhausted the hyperboles of his enemies and his admirers. He is young, visionary and dashing - or puerile, unbalanced and erratic - depending on which way you slice it. He prefers to take his power neat. Of the original 12 members of the Revolutionary Command Council, two (Majors Hawadi and Hamza) are in detention and two (Majors Muhaishi and Al Huni) have fled abroad. Another was killed in an apparently bona fide crash. And the prime minister - Major Jalloud - has been two months in Beirut, filling the fruitless role of a mediator. Evidently, Gaddafi does not think that Libyan statecraft calls for very much in the way of checks and balances. Nor, if it comes to that, did any of his pre­decessors, whose departure dates (the Italian fascisti, the Americans, the British) are all anniversary-fodder as well. But Ghaddafi is distinguished from the more routine kind of putsch-monger and demagogue by having an ideology all of his own. It is called "The Third International Theory", a box of unsorted ideas worked out by the leader himself. Al Thawrah (the revolution) and Al Jihad (the holy war) are often intermingled in this salad of ideas, with baroque results. It is defined by 'aspects' of which the 'metaphysical' one is: 'The contents of the heavenly messages according to which modern science is interpreted.' That is for adult consumption. What are they teaching the children? Incidentally, the states objectives of the Arab Socialist Union in Libya include 'to prevent the people from falling in the stranglehold of one class or one individual' and 'to denounce right-wing puritanistic ideas, as well as the parasite left'. Now, wall-posters in Tripoli do no exactly eschew the individual, while Muslims and non-Muslims are prevented from buying or consuming a drink in puritan Libya. Parasite leftists must needs ferret away half bottles of whisky in their spongebags when paying a visit.

The thing that gives Gaddafi his prestige is the issue of the Palestinians. Those who affect surprise at Arab feeling on this question often pretend that it is only used by corrupt and despotic regimes as a means of distracting the masses from their superstitious and neglected lot. Nothing could be less perceptive: any government that relaxed its stand beyond a certain point would probably fall. Currently the great issue is Lebanon, where a ragged army of Palestinian refugees and Lebanese left-wingers is confronting a Syrian invasion, an entrenched local Falange party and the combined hostility of the Russians, the Americans, the Israelis and the Saudis.

In Beirut last September, I was told by PLO supporters that "come the four corners of the world in arms", they would fight them off. Now, they are being called upon to do it and Ghaddafi is paying a large number of their bills. Diplomatic sources in Tripoli say that the length and complexity of the struggle is blunting his enthusiasm, but give that he denounced the October 1973 war and the later Arab oil summit as being irrelebant to the Palestinian struggle, this point seems at least debatable. He may at last have found his cause, and the vehemence with which other states denounce him is due to the fact that they recognise the present conflict's potential as a detonator far beyond the borders of Israel or Lebanon.

One way in which Arab states do manipulate the issue of the PLO is by holding competitive conferences in their support. This autumn, the Iraqis will hold one. So last weekend, the Association of Libyan Lawyers held one too, and invited myself among others. It was tightly overseen by officials, and much-harangued by fraternal OAU diplomats (Uganda mysteriously missing from the list). The only really absorbing session was one featuring anti-Zionist Jewish spokesmen, chiefly from North America. Foremost was Dr Alfred Lilienthal who has been fighting this lonely corner ever since he was a GI in the Middle East 30 years ago. But there was also a Mr Neuberger from the fascinating Naturei Karta sect of Jews, based in Jerusalem, who look on Zionism as a blasphemy against the Torah and the Talmud. They support the PLO. Mr Neuberger was warmly applauded, though I noticed that his speech also contained an attack on theory of evolution. The entire proceedings had been opened by ten minutes intoned from the Koran by a muezzin, which seemed odd since the subject under discussion was a secular state.

Libya is swamped in oil money and has a very small (2.5 million) population. It is not difficult to control politically, and Tripoli is resounding to the noise of new construction; whether of housing estates, barracks, hotels or roads. Perhaps it is the astonishing Roman remains on the coast just outside which give the impression that the desert will nevertheless be back one day. Or perhaps it is that Libya is now ruled by the greatest Ozymandias of them all.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis