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Inside the Saif house: Laurie Penny pays a house call

The UK home of Colonel Gaddafi’s son is in the hands of Libyan exiles. This is what it’s like from within.

"My family had to leave Libya just to survive," says a young bearded man in spectacles, perching awkwardly on a white leather sofa. We are in the front room of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi's mansion in Hampstead Garden Suburb, recently expropriated by activists working in alliance with Libyan exiles. An hour earlier, I had passed through an open window near some ugly imported ferns belonging to Muammar al-Gaddafi's son, having been invited to meet the members of the new Free Libyan Embassy.

We drink stewed tea from Saif's best china and eat cheese sandwiches using his silver cutlery, while the young man, Abdulla, tells me about how his uncle was "disappeared" by Saif's father. "In Libya, people disappear all the time. There was a prison massacre where 1,200 people died. They poured cement over the bodies." Abdulla nervously adjusts his glasses. "It's important that people know we're not creating a civil war for no reason."

Nearly every room in this enormous house boasts a large, flat-screen television. The occupiers have set each one to al-Jazeera, for rolling coverage of the people's revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world. Televised gunfire echoes in the marble hallway as Jay, 25, explains how activists from the London squatter movement took over the Gaddafi mansion, moving in secretly and putting up notices declaring their intention to hold the empty house under English common law. "We wanted to show our solidarity the best way we know how," he says.

Protestors on the roof of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's Hampstead house.

“It's a symbolic and practical reclamation of private property that belongs to the Libyan people. It's about their struggle, which is why the place has been handed over to the Libyans as a place to organise and a safe space for refugees," Jay says. "People have been arriving in support from all over the UK." The tabloids have portrayed the occupiers as drunken anarchists but this is, in Jay's words, "total bollocks". "On the first night, people came down thinking there would be a squat party and we turned them away. They didn't seem to realise how seriously we're taking this," he explains.

“At first, we were elated that we'd managed to pull it off. Then the Libyans turned up and they were elated. But once they started to get reports about family and friends being killed, the atmosphere changed. We were watching Zawiyah burning on al-Jazeera and someone saw his own house. It was terrible."

Jay takes me on a tour over four floors of hushed opulence, each several times the size of an ordinary London flat. "It's worth nearly £11m," he says. Under the kitchen is a cosy entertainment complex, complete with pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and a private cinema done out in suede, the pews so thick and warm you could sleep on them – which people have been doing. On the corner of one aisle a bare duvet lies, neatly folded. Everything here is white, bright and glistening: white leather sofas, marble floors, silver candlesticks adorning pristine white walls. The only note of colour is in one of the guest bedrooms, where a Libyan flag has been draped over the TV.

Fuelling anger

Fearing the spectacle of bailiffs dragging Libyans out of the private property of a Gaddafi, at a time when the UK government is desperately downplaying its erstwhile support for the dictator, the authorities have kept their distance. But that doesn't mean that there have been no attempts to get the occupiers to leave.

“Last night, at about four in the morning, someone came to the door," Jay says. According to Abdulla, "It was a well-dressed Arab person, [wearing] nice clothes and gold. When I asked him what he was doing here so late, he said, 'I want to make you an offer.' He told us: 'I have £40,000 in cash. You can have it if you leave immediately.' No amount of money could make us leave this house. It's not a financial issue."

Libyan exiles inside Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's house.

On the sofa opposite, a quiet man called Ambarak suddenly speaks up in Arabic. "What's a life worth?" he says, as Abdulla translates softly. "What are 100,000 lives worth?" Ambarak perches on the edge of the sofa, looking out of place in his keffiyeh and scuffed trainers. "I'm talking about people being shot by snipers in the street. I'm talking about family members selling dry bread to live.

“They ask what the west should do, but they've known about [Muammar] Gaddafi for years," he continues in broken English. "They did nothing. The petrol . . ." – he rubs his fingers together in a "money" gesture, grinning without humour. "My brother has disappeared in the fighting. We haven't heard from him, we have no way of contacting him." Ambarak goes very quiet. "Excuse me, please. I must go and pray."

"The resources that come out of Libya should belong to the people but that petrol money goes somewhere else," says Abdulla. "All those close to Gaddafi have places like this to live. There are some who are heartless and will do anything for a comfortable life."

Ambarak's family is in Misurata, where fierce fighting continues. "They say on the phone that they can hear shooting and tanks are coming down the street. My cousin has died, [as have] my friend, my neighbours."

An influx of neighbours bearing food terminates the interview. A young man wearing a Libyan flag like a cape takes the cups politely to the sink. He is a long way from home. "We all want to go home," says Abdulla. "But not to Libya as it is now."

The Libyans involved in this article wanted their names to be known; other names have been changed. Anyone wishing to support the Free Libyan Embassy can send a donation to wmclibya.org

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times