ESCAPE TO HELL
And Other Stories
by Muammar Qaddafi
How seriously should we take Muammar Qaddafi? In light of recent
events, it’s easy to say: not very. The Reagan administration painted
him as one of America’s most dangerous enemies, a claim that now pales
when set against other contenders for that title. His daffy brand of
pan-Arabism looks charmingly retro compared to the unbending religious
vision of Osama bin Laden, and it’s not even clear whether the Libyan
“rogue state” was really responsible for the most serious terrorist act
attributed to it, the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.
Throw in Qaddafi’s hostility to political Islam (a trait he shares with
most other Arab dictators, of course) and it becomes tempting to look
for the man’s good points. Well, here’s one for starters: he’s an
artist! Not a terribly gifted one, but no matter. For a glimmer of
insight into Qaddafi’s thinking, this collection of
stories-philosophical essays, really-may be the best guide we have.
The American journalist Pierre Salinger has not enhanced his tattered
reputation with a truckling preface to the English translation of
Qaddafi’s work, but he does deserve credit for helping bring the book
to light in the West. We’re told the original version was published in
Libya in 1993, in an edition featuring “cover art of the naÃ¯ve school”.
(One would have liked to see this reproduced; the cover of the English
edition shows Qaddafi sitting at a desk in Bedouin dress, apparently
hard at work churning out more pensÃ©es.)
Of course, what most people really want to know about the Libyan leader
is whether he’s a complete loonÂ and reading Escape to Hell does tend
to confirm the widespread suspicion that Qaddafi isn’t playing with a
full deck. His writing has a rambling, stream-of-consciousness flavor
reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s less coherent essays, suggesting that
dictators are often edited with a very light hand. Combine this with
his excursions into surrealism and frequent recourse to the high-ironic
stance, and it’s often difficult to make head or tail of his work.
It’s tempting to conclude that the man is hopelessly cracked-but often
enough there’s method in his seeming madness. Consider this choice
passage from his essay “The Blessed Herb and the Cursed Tree”:
Good news for the mentally disturbed, whether male or female. A herb
has been discovered in the plains of Benghazi, and it is now sold at
Hajj Hasan’s shop. In a television interview I personally conducted
with him, and which was seen by more than three million people, Hajj
Hasan said that the herb was a cure for the mentally disturbed. As for
those who have not yet become mentally disturbed, Hajj Hasan said
nothing about themÂ There is also anti-dizziness medicine. If you should
feel light-headed or dizzy for any reason, for example if you get dizzy
after shopping for a shirt for your son that costs one dinar at the
state-owned store, then finding it at a private store for 20 dinars,
returning to the state-owned store to find it gone, then back to the
private store only to find that its price had risen to 25 dinars while
you were gone only for five minutes, then Hajj Hasan can assure you
that he has the right medicine for youÂ
Lord knows whether this interview was actually broadcast; I wouldn’t
put it past Qaddafi. But if the essay reads like the work of someone
who’s overindulged in the “blessed herb” himself, take a closer look.
The endorsement of folk healing is tongue-in-cheek: “Truly, what need
have we of medicine factories in Rabta and Ras Lanouf as long as we
have Hajj Hasan and all of his herbal medicinesÂ ”
The same tone of heavy mockery pervades many of the essays, and Arab
traditionalists (including the region’s various Islamic movements) are
among its main targets. But not the only ones: in “Stop Fasting When
You See the New Moon,” Qaddafi showers praise on “Abd al-Norman”
Schwarzkopf for helping Muslims fix the date for the end of Ramadan in
April 1991. In a thinly veiled and not at all ironic dig at the Saudi
royal family, he adds:
The Quran is being used by Muslims to gain power, justify their
exploitation, killing, and servitude to foreigners, justify their
bowing down (before outsiders) and opening up (for outsiders). You are
Muslims, so you exploit the Quran for personal goals.
The essay ends cryptically:
General Norman Schwarzkopf
Mecca, Saudi Arabia-protected by air, land, and sea.
If this curio offers anything to Western readers, this may be it.
Qaddafi is no fundamentalist, but he shares the general Arab contempt
for the House of Saud and its humiliating dependence on infidel troops.
Published two years after the Gulf War ended, his essays give just the
faintest hint of the demons that conflict would later unleash.