Sweet Tea and Breaking Bread with Gaddafi
By Dr. Halla Diyab for LIBERTY Blog
At Gaddafi’s tent in Sirte, Libya- February, 2007
You can easily forget about food, when you are seated on the same white plastic chair that Tony Blair once sat in Muammar al-Gaddafi’s tent. As I had already experienced the former Libyan leader’s mind games and erratic behavior, I naively expected everything to be different, even the food that I hoped would be served at our meeting. Gaddafi entered with two armed soldiers, who stood by his side, to protect him from the group of filmmakers he invited to produce a film on the historical Italian occupation of Libya. I was petrified to tell him that his script was not good enough, and needed rewriting. My voice shook as I told him this and he seemed a little angry, although I noticed that it was directed at the men in my party rather than at me.
He was a man of “green”. Everything in his tent was green: the lamp, the carpet, the interiors, and his Libyan jard (a traditional Libyan gown). Given his nomadic heritage, you would expect someone like him to be warm, but he was so intimidating in his approach to his guests. He did not make any eye contact; he talked to us while looking up, as if we were not important. I thought there must be something wrong with his vision. He started to make notes, but his pen (a green one) didn’t work. He flung it against a wall, which smashed into pieces. He then put out his hand, and an aide passed him a new one. It was unnerving!
As my fear waned, I was hoping a meal would be served shortly. Since the Gaddafi regime was not sophisticated, no scheduled itinerary had been prepared, so no one knew what to expect. However at the very least, I did expect a meal to be served, but where? Was there a special “food tent”?
My month’s long wait for Gaddafi led me to expect the unexpected. When four colleagues and I flew to Tripoli, we were met by the Minister for Culture, Nouri Humaidi, who took us to a plush hotel and gave us all Libyan SIM cards for our phones. We could order whatever food we wanted and “bodyguards” were also dispatched to the hotel, supposedly for our protection, but it soon dawned on us that we were being watched. One day I left the hotel to meet a childhood friend and stopped on my way to buy a Libyan schwarma (sandwich). I realized that two young men were following me and they were two of the many “bodyguards” assigned to me who spent their time milling around the hotel lobby. I continued walking, but soon received a call. It was Humaidi. He asked where I was going and insisted I go back to the hotel. It was rather intimidating and decided it was best to obey.
Each morning, my team and I were told we would have an audience with the Libyan leader, yet each day came and went with no audience. Finally, after a month, I received a phone call, summoning me to the lobby at 4 am. Three cars were waiting, with an armed guard, to take me and the team to see Gaddafi at his encampment close to his birthplace in the town of Sirte. From the capital, the drive took seven hours.
By the time we arrived, I was worn out from the journey and the early start – not the best preparation for a meeting with a dictator. We were first escorted to the “hospitability tent” before heading to the dictator’s tent. I was expecting food would be served at this point, but it was not the case. Although I was hungry, I could not ask for food. In Middle Eastern culture, women from an early age are taught not to ask for food in a stranger’s house, even if they are starving. It is considered disgraceful, aeeb in Arabic. This gives the impression that a girl is not suitably “well-bred” and could affect her chances of marriage. Before meeting Gaddafi, thoughts of food occupied my mind as the early start and long journey made me ravenous.
Instead his men confiscated all of our cameras and mobile phones. It was intimidating to be denied the right to capture a moment in a photograph with one of the world’s most notorious dictators. I was the only woman there, and the place was filled with military officials and armed men. However, even though I was in the presence of such men, I was not afraid and felt at ease. Gaddafi was forced to rely on the protection of a small band of supporters. Beyond that, he had no control. He explained that he needed a film to put pressure on the Italian government to pay compensation to Libya for its occupation. He said he was prepared to accept $50m for the cost of production. I also thought that any man expecting to pay that much money would at least have food to offer. I need not have worried, as sweet tea and flat bread was finally served from a wooden stove on the floor of the desert tent.
Gaddafi’s tea ceremony
Tea drinking is a very masculine tradition in the Middle East. Men have always gathered in makha, cafes drinking tea, playing chess and smoking shisha. Tea is one of the bonds that bring Arab men together. For me, it was one of my least favourite drinks, as I was not accustomed to its taste. Normally coffee is the drink of choice for women in the Middle East. Usually women gather to read the coffee grains after they finish and spend hours locked in discussion. On reflection, coffee drinking was a way to keep Arab women occupied, and stop them from questioning their inferior status within a society dominated by men.
Now in the desert, I was obliged to share a drink which I hugely disliked, with Gaddafi and his men who were gathered around a wooden stove. His men all wore the traditional jard. One of them was the Libyan poet and Gaddafi’s close friend, Ali Kaylani. These men nodded reassuringly from time to time to whatever Gaddafi said during the meeting. Fear permeated the tent, which sadly overpowered the sweetness of the tea and the smell of crusty bread. The sugary tea was barely drinkable, but I was not that foolish and felt obliged to finish it.
After meeting Gaddafi, tea started to seem less intimidating. I realized how far I had come from my early adult years in West Damascus, to being in the presence of one of the Arab world’s most powerful men. The meeting ended, but not with a meal of a roasted lamb as expected, but a handshake and selection of books he had penned. We drove back to the hotel with hungry stomachs, but stopped on the way, to grab some sandwiches. I returned to the UK leaving my land of birth behind. Plans for the film went ahead. Yet Gaddafi later disputed the fee agreement and said he no longer needed it, since he had reached an agreement with the Italian government in August 2008. I put the episode behind me until the summer of 2010, when I was contacted by the pro-Gaddafi Libyan journalist, A. Ahmeda, who said the Colonel had chosen me to make a film about his life story.
Once again, I flew to Tripoli with my English cameraman, but a meeting with the Libyan leader would only be arranged after filming began. The journalist explained that the reason why Gaddafi thought I was the perfect person to make a film of his life was because he decided the filmmaker should have knowledge of Libya, and it would have more credibility if someone based in Europe made it. I was told that Gaddafi feared his son was plotting against him. He feared that he might be losing touch with young Libyans, who perhaps preferred his son. The aim of the film was to tell his life story to a whole new generation. He wanted to show himself, to be not just as a great leader, but also as a good father and husband. It was to be his legacy. I decided the project wasn’t for me, as I was not ready to fool the world by immortalizing this dictator on celluloid. I bowed out on account of my busy schedule. I never imagined for a moment that Gaddafi’s prophetic words that: “he was losing touch with young Libyans”, would lead to the Libyan uprising and his death in October 2011.