King Idris I of Libya shaking hands with U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon. (Photo: Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf, "Libia bain al Madi wal Hadir: Safahat men at Tarikh as Siyasi", Vol II, Markaz ad Dirasat al Libiya, Oxford, 2004)
Publicado no Truthout.
From 1961-1964, I lived in Libya, then one of the poorest countries in the world. It was before Qaddafi, a time when King Idris was in control. My husband was stationed at the American-controlled Wheelus Air Force Base and I taught school there.
We lived in Tripoli, a city full of slums. Just behind our apartment, were people living in shacks made of old road signs, pieces of discarded corrugated metal and palm leaves. It got cold in the winter; a lot of people died and there were funeral processions in the streets. No running water for those people. They drew water from shallow wells and went into the bushes to relieve themselves.
The cinder block city homes had running water, but not during the day. We depended on a water tank on the roof that filled up at night if there was enough pressure in the system. No one I knew had a phone. They were very expensive and you had to pay a bribe to get one. Transportation for most Libyans was by donkey cart or on foot. Men and women wore long, white robes called barracans. Women in public were completely covered except for one eye hole, and they rode in the back of the bus.
Old men lay on the streets, each covered with a blanket, extended hands holding begging cups. Horse heads and hooves outside butcher shops were for sale. Milk in glass jars salvaged from dumps was delivered by donkey cart to those who could pay. The men who worked in the salt flat had no shoes and feet like leather. Barefoot boys begged for cigarettes, saying, "baksheesh," meaning free. "Baksheesh" was one of the first Arabic words I learned because it was used so often. It also means, "We'll close this illegal transaction with a bribe."
The king lived in a large and very beautiful palace, had a second palace in Benghazi and was building a third for the crown prince. Family members and cronies drove around in black Mercedes and lived in large villas. They went up to Monaco to drink, gamble and be entertained by women - all forbidden by Muslim culture.
When the queen did her shopping at the base exchange, it was closed for her convenience so she could buy expensive gifts unseen by all but her guards. My husband, an air policeman, was one of those guards. When she needed kidney stone surgery, she was taken to the base hospital, where she went to the head of the line. I was there at the time, giving birth to my first child. The nurse said my obstetrician would not be present for the delivery because he was operating on the queen.
The money that supported this opulent lifestyle came from oil. The oil fields were controlled by the Americans, the Brits and the Dutch. A second source of the king's revenue was the millions of dollars the American government paid to operate the base and send squadrons of fighter jets out over the desert for bombing practice.
When I arrived in Libya, I wanted to take a class in Arabic, but my military adviser recommended Italian instead because, he said, "If you go to Egypt or Lebanon and speak with a Libyan accent, the people will know you are from Libya and will not respect you." Libya was seen a place of desert tribes and little culture. Egypt, on the other hand, was greatly admired. I can still see pictures on Tripoli walls of Gamal Nasser. He was especially admired by a young military officer named Qaddafi, who, one day in 1969, overthrew King Idris by staging a bloodless coup.
Qaddafi immediately kicked out the Americans, the British and the Italians - all seen as imperialists. (Libya was an Italian colony under Mussolini.) He nationalized the oil wells; piped water from the large aquifer under the Sahara to coastal cities; built housing, schools and hospitals; paved streets and allowed women more freedom.
Unfortunately, Qaddafi's desire for power outweighed his concern for his people. He wanted to be the new Nasser and tried to unify the Arab world under his leadership. But Libya was seen as a backwater by other Arab nations and Qaddafi as too inexperienced, impulsive, brash, unpredictable, self-absorbed. They didn't take him seriously and that led to the ever more outrageous behavior that continues to this day.
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