Review: Sandstorm by Lindsey Hilsum

Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution

Lindsey Hilsum

Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

Typologies can be misleading but, reading Lindsey Hilsum’s account of the recent Libyan revolution, one feels an irresistible temptation to construct a list of dictator characteristics. Dictators tend to come to power young and enjoy a certain measure of popularity in the beginning; with age, they become increasingly brutal and eccentric. Many start out as a member of a group that they come to dominate, then discard. They believe their people love them (Nicolae Ceausescu suffered this delusion even as Romanians turned out in their thousands, in December 1989, to overthrow him). They also suffer a related delusion that they and the country they rule over are indissolubly one.

Dictators are given to massive and misguided vanity projects and, in their desire to be seen as philosopher kings, they inflict their thoughts on a defenceless people. North Korea’s Kim Il-sung had Juche, the Paraguayan dictator General Stroessner had The Golden Book, Mao Zedong had his “thoughts”. Muammar Gaddafi had The Green Book, a work so fetishised that outsize versions were built across the country in concrete painted green. According to Hilsum, it is a work that alternates between second­-hand socialist ideas and more bizarre original “thoughts”. For example: “It is . . . unreasonable for crowds to enter playgrounds and arenas to watch a player or team without participating themselves” – an edict that, if carried out, would have killed off Libya’s sporting life for good.
The Brother Leader, Universal Theorist, Falcon of Africa, King of Kings and Supreme Guide of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya displayed another dictators’ trait: longevity. Dictators can last decades, provided they avoid the dangers intrinsic to the job. Gaddafi, who was almost 70 when rebels finally killed him, was showing every sign of planning a ripe, if increasingly crazy, old age, kitted out in an ever more bizarre series of costumes.
As Hilsum observes acidly: “[B]y 2011, he seemed like a character from an old movie that no one wanted to see again.” He had been in power for 41 years and “his dyed black hair grew longer and wilder, while his face grew more distorted by Botox, like a sinister Middle Eastern Michael Jackson”. By the time the end came, Hilsum points out, many Libyans were heartily embarrassed by him and ashamed of what he had done to their country.
Gaddafi was not just a fashion failure, either.  One African politician described him as a “split personality – both of them evil”. His list of victims ran into the thousands: some were tortured to death in his prisons, many more executed (hangings were televised on public holidays). Others, such as Ali Abuzeid, were murdered on European soil on the dictator’s orders.
Early in his career, Gaddafi earned some popularity thanks to his fierce anti-colonialism and his social programmes – he built hospitals using Libya’s vast oil revenues. He was a hero to young men such as Mukhtar Nagasa, son of a diplomat, who had studied The Green Book at school and who told Hilsum that Gaddafi and the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser were “like rock stars to us”. Gaddafi was also a friend of Nelson Mandela, who visited him, despite sanctions against Libya, when he was released from prison.
Libya’s health services would eventually deteriorate, the victim – like the rest of the country – of the regime’s corruption, incompetence and downright brutality. Gaddafi’s pharaonic project was the “Great Man-Made River”, the world’s largest irrigation project, in which millions of gallons of water are pumped from underground aquifers in the south of Libya to water the north. The scheme cost $20bn and made so little sense that western intelligence agencies believed, wrongly, that it was a cover for something else.
Hilsum was in Libya, reporting for Channel 4 News, when Gaddafi finally met his end. Her book brings together an account of the long months of the battle to overthrow him with an excellent replaying of Libya’s history under Gaddafi, portraying previous generations of rebels and the failed attempts to unseat him. Gaddafi spent $22bn on weapons in his first ten years in power and the wars that he encouraged and funded across Africa are still playing out in coups and instability. He also funded terrorism and was a major patron of the IRA. But Gaddafi bought so many weapons that, when the moment came, many rebels were able to arm themselves from long-forgotten caches of military hardware.
It was western companies, Hilsum reminds us, who serviced Gaddafi’s fantasies. The German company Imhausen-Chemie, she writes, helped him to build a chemical weapons facility and several Germans were prosecuted for supplying sanctions-busting materials and equipment. With the advent of the “war on terror”, though, all was forgiven as Gaddafi shrewdly parlayed his weapons programme, and compensation for the Lockerbie bombing, into international respectability.
The relationship became embarrassingly close. MI6 and the CIA helped to track down and return his enemies – “the least we could do”, according to Mark Allen, MI6 director of counterterrorism, who signed his letters to Gaddafi’s henchman Moussa Koussa “Your friend, Mark”. Hilsum’s account is essential (and accessible) reading for anyone who seeks to understand where Libya has come from and what the future might hold.
Isabel Hilton is Editor of

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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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