‘We’ve been trying to get you to come and talk here for the last three years,’ my host complained as we shook hands at the airport. ‘Here’ was Tripoli, capital of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, bathed in mild February sunshine; my host a functionary from the World Centre for the Studies and Researches of the Green Book – the Green Book is the Libyan equivalent of the Little Red Book. ‘The lecture is just an excuse,’ I told him. ‘I’m really here to see Leptis Magna’ – the capital of Rome’s African empire. We both laughed. He because he thought I was joking and me because I wasn’t.
I was billeted at the state-funded el-Kebir Funduq, rebuilt in 1982 on the site of the colonial Grand Hotel. The old place looks much nicer in photographs than its soulless replacement, with its surly receptionists, appalling service and second-rate food (the worst breakfasts ever, and that includes Pyongyang circa 1972).
The hotel overlooks the waterfront and is within walking distance of all the main sights, including the great old mosque-church-mosque, the Ottoman souk and the museum. Close by are the huge marble arcades of the colonial period. Some have a Belle Epoque charm; others are more reminiscent of grandiose Italian Fascist architecture like the railway station in Milan. Above both varieties of arcade are beautiful apartments with baroque plaster mouldings and shuttered windows, which once housed the colonials. Walking through the decaying arcades, crowded with noisy men-only cafés, one gets a glimpse of prewar Italy, far preferable to the imitations of Dallas typical of the cities of the Gulf States.
In a waterfront café with a lively Libyan intellectual, freshly returned from Canada and excited about his plans to launch a weekly newspaper, I notice that most of the young women, including those arm-in-arm with a boyfriend, are hijabed. A few of the hijabs are worn tight to look like a nun’s cowl; quite a few are designer versions and usually (as is also the case in Cairo) it’s what is worn below the neck that attracts attention. It’s not uncommon to see hijabed women wearing tight-fitting tops and jeans. In such cases a display of hair might well be thought a distraction. But my companion is shocked. ‘It was very different when I left for Montreal several years ago,’ he said. ‘Only a minority covered their heads and most wore skirts. And at least half the people in this café would have been women.’
Has there been pressure from the state?
‘Exactly the opposite,’ he said. ‘The government doesn’t impose any norms in matters of dress. Not now and not under the monarchy.’ But Gaddafi is pious, I insist. Why else would he have ordered the uprooting of the wonderful vineyards surrounding Tripoli? (Libya’s neighbours, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, have maintained their vineyards.)
‘It was a mistake,’ my companion declared. ‘Especially as our wines were better.’
We discussed his project for a cultural magazine. He was confident that changes were on the way in Libya. Things had improved. The secret police were less visible and had stopped harassing people. There were a few hundred political prisoners, mainly in Benghazi, a centre of salafism crushed fifteen years ago after an insurrection. It was in Benghazi last month that several hundred Islamists stormed the Italian Consulate after a Northern League member of Berlusconi’s government was seen wearing a T-shirt with one of the Danish cartoons on it. The minister was sacked the following day and Berlusconi apologised.
The next day I met a chain-smoking freelance journalist in his late fifties. In reality he was a creature of the café and did very little during the day apart from smoke and drink Turkish coffee – a character familiar to readers of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. He, too, was puzzled by the rapid growth of the hijab industry. His own wife had taken to wearing one about five years ago. Since she was present, I asked her why. She smiled and shrugged. I explained that I was curious to know whether it was a globalised fashion trend or a reflection of the increase in religiosity.
‘Both,’ she replied. ‘And also the proliferation of cable TV. We can now get everything. Pornography and preachers. The hijab in my case is a response to both.’
After his wife had left, the journalist said more. ‘I think it is an increase in religiosity, but in men more than women. Many young women do it to please men and think it will put them on the fast-track to marriage.’ He told me that a few years ago a Moroccan woman had approached him in a hotel restaurant. She was wearing a hijab and he was taken aback to realise she was a prostitute. ‘If we walk out and get in your car, nobody will think twice because I’m wearing a hijab,’ she had said. ‘I could be your sister, a cousin or even your wife. So I wear it to make things easier for you men.’
The two internet cafés in the hotel lobby have young male workers wearing jeans, who greet customers with a friendly ‘hi’. There are over a dozen messages waiting for me from various media outlets wanting comments or interviews about the Danish cartoons. What is striking is that nobody in Libya has mentioned them so far. I have a look at the cartoons: most of them are unfunny and the one of Muhammad as a turbaned terrorist is a provocative and crude stereotype. I reply to the questions of the Swedish liberal daily Dagens Nyheter, but ignore most of the requests.
It took five months of concentrated lobbying in the Muslim world by a travelling imam from Denmark to manufacture this ‘anger’. In occupied Afghanistan about five hundred people joined a demonstration. Were their thoughts on the cartoons or the ruin and destruction around them? Feeling powerless, they used the cartoons as an excuse to march outside a US military base. The marines opened fire and two young boys died. In Lahore the violence was orchestrated by the Jamaat-i-Islami (London rep: Sir Iqbal Sacranie), who tried to regain the political initiative by getting young men armed with clubs to attack a bank. Perhaps they needed some cash. One cleric who clearly doesn’t is Maulana Yousaf Qureshi of Peshawar, who is offering a million dollars and a new car to anyone who kills the cartoonist. The make of car is not specified.
All this is very different from the restraint shown by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and Western Europe, whose members objected but in a newfound, moderate way. They are seriously interested in power and want the United States to believe they are pretty much the same as Christian Democrats. That this is largely the case can be seen in Turkey, where a pro-EU, pro-Nato Islamist party is in power.
Having answered my messages, I switched on al-Jazeera and watched Brother Nasrullah, the charismatic Hizbollah leader in Lebanon, calmly informing a press conference that ‘if the faithful had carried out Ayatollah Khomeini’s injunction and killed the apostate Rushdie, the Danish newspaper editor would never have dared to publish these cartoons.’ It’s the simplicity that is frightening here. The religious objection to the cartoons is first that they portray the Prophet of Islam, and second that they do so in caricature, a form of representation ‘painful’ to all believers. There is nothing in the Quran itself that forbids portraits of the Prophet or anyone else. There are proto-Judaic injunctions against idolatry, but these refer to the worship of statues depicting gods and goddesses. Islamic tradition, the bulk of which was constructed after Muhammad’s death, is contradictory on the matter. As the young religion conquered old empires it was faced with practical problems. Whose image should replace that of the Byzantine or Persian rulers on coins? There are early eighth-century Islamic coins with an image of the Prophet. Even centuries later, in the post-Islamic Turkish and Persian traditions, his image was not taboo.
Back in London as I write this I have in front of me a striking edition of the illustrations to the Miraj-nameh, an early medieval Islamic account of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven from the Dome of the Rock and the punishments he observed as he passed through hell. Some European scholars maintain that a Latin translation of this work might have given Dante a few ideas. The stunning illustrations in this 15th-century copy were exquisitely calligraphed by Malik Bakshi of Herat (now in Afghanistan) in the Uighur script. There are 61 illustrations in all, created with great love for the Prophet. He is depicted with Central Asian features and seen flying to heaven on a magical steed with a woman’s head. There are also illustrations of a meeting with Gabriel and Adam, a sighting of houris at the gates of Paradise, and of winebibbers being punished in hell.
Muhammad insisted he was only the Messenger, a human being, not a divinity, and the main reason later Islamic tradition did not want his image shown was the fear it might be worshipped (like that of Jesus and Mary), when that prerogative belonged to Allah alone. But even in the absence of an image, the Prophet of Islam is worshipped as a virtual divinity, otherwise the reaction of the ultra-orthodox to any perceived insult to him is incomprehensible. Muhammad’s son-in law, Caliph Ali, the posthumous inspirer of the Shia faction of Islam, and his sons, Hasan and Hussein, are also represented in various religious art forms in Iran and worshipped.
As for religious ‘pain’, this is, mercifully, an experience denied unbelievers like myself and felt only by divines from various faiths, who transmit it to their followers, or by politicians in direct contact with the Holy Spirit: Bush, Blair and Ahmedinejad and, of course, the pope and the grand ayatollah. There are many believers, probably a majority, who remain unaffected by insults from a right-wing Danish paper.
The next day, I’m driven to Leptis Magna, on a road running alongside an unspoilt coastline, and the satanic cartoons fade from memory. As we turn a corner the pillars of Leptis suddenly appear, with the turquoise Mediterranean as their backdrop. The size and scale is astonishing. Like much else on the shores of this sea, the city was founded by Phoenician traders, around 1100 BCE; later it fell to Carthage and was incorporated into the Roman Empire by Tiberius after the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 BCE. It provided Rome with an emperor (Septimius Severus) and the arch commemorating him still stands. The Vandals took Leptis in 439, destroying its walls to prevent Roman resistance. By the time the Arabs arrived in 650, the city had been abandoned, but its stones weren’t looted and the city was hidden under the sand, until in 1912 Italian archaeologists uncovered it. I was alone for the three hours I spent at Leptis, apart from a few Libyan families with picnics and some Italian tourists.
Many artefacts from Leptis and Sabratha (an ancient Greek city) are now in the museum in Tripoli, which has a stunning collection of virtually intact statues from the ancient world. But another object in the museum catches my attention. Preserved in a glass case, surrounded by antiquities, is a blue 1960s Volkswagen. This is the car which Gaddafi, then a young army captain, drove around Tripoli, encouraging his fellow officers to follow Nasser and topple the pro-Western monarch, King Idris. Gaddafi has run the country since 1969 without feeling the need to create a single political party. He has declared, pace Ibn Khaldun, that tribalism is the curse of the Maghreb and that since political parties are only a modern version of tribes, they are dispensable. This thought and others can be found in the Green Book. For the most part it is a collection of verbose and turgid declamations, with the odd original reflection reflecting the zaniness of the author.
It’s difficult to gauge what is really happening in Tripoli. Some things we know. Libya’s earnings from oil stand at $36 billion a year. Its annual budget is $10 billion. Its population is nearly six million. Naturally nobody starves. The bazaars are full of food, but the level of education and health facilities is primitive. Thousands of Libyans cross into Tunisia to get medical treatment. The contrast with Cuba, an island always strapped for cash, is instructive. The Medical University of the Americas in Havana trains and educates hundreds of students from South and North America (mainly Afro-Americans and Hispanics). The level of culture and education is very high. Why not Libya? The state bureaucracy produces a population in its own image. Isolated, provincial, with more than a touch of brutality, it conditions the population, who in return display fear combined with prudence and cunning. It need not be like this, and the latest turn towards the West is an attempt to join the globalised world. Few in Libya believe that Gaddafi was responsible for the Lockerbie disaster, but in order to end sanctions and shift Libya’s political position he admitted guilt and agreed to pay a fortune in compensation. The acceptance of imperial hegemony requires tributes of this sort. Does it also require a hereditary leadership? One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam, is being groomed for the succession. Since he’s a PhD student at the LSE and enamoured of the neoliberal West, there is little criticism here of the proposed handover. Gaddafi, after all, is no longer the head of a ‘rogue state’ but a ‘great statesman’ (in the words of Jack Straw) and has received Blair in his tent. This helps to maintain the pretence that he’s caved in to London, not Washington. It’s so simple: Saif wants to privatise everything and turn Libya into a Gulf statelet.
Interestingly, the only institution that works well is the cosmopolitan Islamic University, for foreign students only. The Islamic Call (a state-funded reformist network that runs the university) provides a free education in Islam and trains imams. Invited for lunch by the dean I discovered students from all over the world. Africans mingled with Chinese and there was a young woman from Myanmar, a few Vietnamese and Filipinos. There is a large library of 80,000 books (compared to 20,000 in the National Library), many of them digitised. In case too many imams come off the production line, each student is also taught a trade: electricians, plumbers, carpenters are being produced here. On my way out I was shown the bookshop. I asked what was available in translation from English. Three books were put on the counter. Shakespeare’s Comedies, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
Ahmad Ibrahim al-Faqih, a novelist I had asked to see, was in town. His autobiographical trilogy (I Shall Present You with Another City, These Are the Borders of My Kingdom and A Tunnel Lit by a Woman) has won him renown throughout the Arab world. Like numerous Arab writers inspired by the nationalist wave of the 1960s, he became disaffected after the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War. Many Arab intellectuals, writers and poets are alienated from both their own societies and the West. Few have embraced religion. Al-Faqih’s first novel opens: ‘A time has passed and another time is not coming.’ The final sentence of the trilogy is: ‘A time has passed and another time has not come and will not come.’ He told me that he is close to finishing a ten-novel work. ‘I’ve just been appointed ambassador to Romania. As you can imagine there is not much to do there, so I will have plenty of time to finish it.’
Gaddafi, too, writes short stories. One of them, ‘Suicide of an Astronaut’, is said to be surreal, but my requests for a copy went unheeded. My own talk was on the current situation in the Middle East. The audience consisted of university students and professors and a fair sample of the local diplomatic corps. As is my wont I denounced both the West and the venality of the Arab regimes. I discussed the grotesqueness of the double-standards deployed by the West against Iran on the nuclear reactor issue. I didn’t know that the Iranian ambassador was in the audience. Certainly, when I referred to his president as an incorruptible but simple-minded fanatic, I didn’t notice anyone walk out.