Nov 18, 2011


How sweet will be the victory of the wretched, and how great! 
How sweet will the songs be on that golden day, and how brilliant the golden sun of the wretched as it blazes. 
How sweet this dangerous dream - that hopes will be realized, that wishes become true. 
That a dream will become reality, that the wretched of the earth will have their state. 

How sweet will the songs be on that golden day

"Escape to Hell, and other stories", Muammar Qaddafi;
 Review by David Seals / June 17, 1998

A few pages into Muammar Qaddafi's 'Escape to Hell, and other stories' a strange feeling came over me; I didn't realize what it was at first. Under the heading of Part I: Novels, I read the first sentence, "The city has been with us since ages long past, but regard its plight today!" It quickly became apparent this was no ordinary work of fictional entertainment with characters and a narrative plot. It wasn't going to fit into any genre of post-modernist minimalism, much like Qaddafi himself does not fit into any one place in the world as a political or religious figure.

This is the city: a mill that grinds down its inhabitants ...
Children are worse off than adults. They move from darkness to darkness;
from three darknesses to the fourth, as in the Quran.

Then it struck me: I was hearing the same voice of the Libyan people I had not heard for a third of a century, since I was a teenager living in Libya from 1962-65 as a dependent of the United States Air Force. It was the plaintive directness I heard in our houseboy Mobruk when he said, in October '62 as Tripoli erupted in anti-American riots because of the Cuban missile crisis, "We don't all hate Americans." He had tears in his eyes, as if his country's exuberant idealism had been laid bare. We were two teenage boys from different corners of the world terribly afraid of a world gone mad.

Most Americans sneered at Libyans back then and called them "Mos." A Mo was very poor and his country was very hot. He was an incompetent servant or laborer at best, he drank foul-smelling green water from dirty sandstone wells and hepatitis and dysentery were rampant among us foreigners.
Not one road in his city or country was free of huge potholes and donkeys and camels slowing the speed of our American Century. The women were treated like slaves in full-body barracan robes and were bought and sold like goats
A Mo was very poor and his country was very hot
Their religion was an alien apostasy from Christianity. Libya, to the Europeans and Anglo-Americans, from the time of Caesar to Rommel, was only a strategic outpost of the central Mediterranean shipping lanes, and a ripe resource of oil from olives to petroleum. The Greek historian Herodotus called them "Barbarians", after the indigenous Berbers. Theirs was the infamous Barbary Coast of pirates on the shores of Tripoli, to which President Thomas Jefferson first sent the Marines.

O wise, kind-hearted people..., humanitarians: have mercy on children, and do not deceive them by making them live in the city. Do not let your children turn into mice, moving around from hole to hole, from sidewalk to sidewalk.

But there was always that haunting voice, and Qaddafi's book has reminded me of it, as the muezzins reminded us five times a day of the memory of another strident voice crying simply in another desert, from Arabia 1400 years ago, for Allah, al-Rahman, ir-Rahim.

Libya at the time of King Idris

And there is something else in 'Escape to Hell', a self-criticism and self-irony not heard in this country from a national leader since Abraham Lincoln.

Back on the streets of Tripoli and Wheelus Air Base in 1962 Anglo-Americans hated that voice like they hated Arabic music on the radio. Qaddafi articulates why he and his people were so hated back then, when he says in 'Long Live the State for the Wretched!' in Part II: Essays:

This is the true secret for their hating you: you are not of this world, you are not wealthy, and for this they hate you. You are not oppressors, and for this they hate you. You are not pretenders, so they hate you. You are not hypocrites or liars, and for this they hate you.

Not until I read this book did I realize why Libya has also haunted my dreams for a third of a century, and perhaps why it haunts the world still today out of all proportion to its size. In another chapter titled 'Death to the Incapable...Until Revolution', an essay like a chapter in the odd novel:

Although the world of the incapable has no meaning and no effectiveness, is null and void and silly ... and although they create nothing and change nothing ... despite all of this, the world of these incapable ones is the richest, most fertile, most teeming, and full of literary meaning. For the world of these people has its culture; it has an ability to accumulate psychologies and narratives of literature, myth, and metaphysics.

Now of course the Libyans are hated even more because they are wealthy, having taken over their own oil resources for the first time, and building up a powerful defensive military capability from incessant attacks by those same heirs of Caesar and Rommel
Moammar Al Gaddafi with Libyan people

They have turned over their annual oil revenues in the billions to themselves, making themselves anew, from being the poorest country on earth in 1951 (before oil was discovered in 1959) - with a $50 annual per capita income, lower than India's - to the best in Africa, and higher than England's. They are building a Great Manmade River in the Sahara from vast subterranean seas of water, next to the oil oceans, and dams and irrigation canals thousands of kilometers long to turn the desert into a green agricultural resource.
The Brother Gaddafi pray in pipe of The Great Manmade Rever
But we don't hear anything about that. 
Qaddafi and his Libyans are branded one of the greatest 'Terrorist Regimes' on the planet.


His book provides a lot of clues, helping to explain their national consciousness behind the press clippings and quotes, such as the one he made in 1996 when he opened the second multi-billion dollar phase of the Great Manmade River Project,
"This is the biggest answer to America and all the evil forces who accuse us of being concerned with terrorism. We are only concerned with peace and progress. America is against life and progress; it pushes the world toward darkness."
Mommar Al Gaddafi - Libya and Libyans
According to an article on the Green Book internet website, it is this River Project that has caused a lot of American paranoia (Qaddafi's 'Green Book' came out in 1980, delineating the social and economic structure of his unique system of governance):

The newly-inaugurated stage of the project will provide Tripoli and the surrounding region with fresh water pumped from sub-Saharan aquifers and transported over hundreds of kilometres through vast networks of pre-stressed concrete pipelines. Because a mountainous formation known as 'Jabal Nefussa' blocks the natural flow of the piped water from the areas where the aquifers are located to the coastal plain, it was necessary to drill a tunnel through the mountain and install a pumping station. It is this tunnel, located at Tarhunah, that U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry earlier this year threatened to attack with nuclear weapons on the pretext that it was a chemical weapons factory.

Mobruk once laid bare some of my own most basic emotions, in 1962, when he also asked me, pointedly, " Do you buy your wives?"

I laughed at the absurdity of the question then, but I was quickly shamed when I saw tears in his eyes again. "We have to pay many sheep and goats to a girl's father. It takes many years of hard work." I think now about how my arrogance must have looked to him, for I had girlfriends, a transistor radio, money to spend on soft drinks and movies, F-100s roaring overhead day and night from our superpowered NATO Base at Wheelus. I think now about how we bombed our own base in 1986 and killed hundreds of Libyan women and children in downtown Tripoli and Benghazi, including Qaddafi's own 16-month old daughter Hana. 
 Qaddafi's own 16-month old daughter Hana
 So I was pleased to hear Mobruk's disturbing grassroots voice again as I read the first chapters of 'Escape to Hell'. Maybe it can only be a personal excitement, and you can only care about someone if you've lived with them and shared cous-cous on the ground with them, and listened to the lovely Suras of the Quran in musical Arabic while sipping chai in the little servant's shack behind the big white American villa. But then the best books evoke just such emotional reactions, and I found Qaddafi's direct passion very moving.
He takes me back into the Suq and the Casbah of the Old City where Mobruk took me, where it was forbidden for Americans to go. In those dirty reeking sewers of poverty I can hear Qaddafi's anger, and piety too. Whole tent cities for refugees from the desert, bedouins and Berbers looking for non-existent jobs in the booming new oil industry, were constructed and fenced off on the perimeters of Tripoli and our consciousness, reminding me of Andersonville and Auschwitz.
The stink was indescribable, with open sewers in the dirt trails running between cardboard shacks, miles and miles of concentration camps fenced off and patrolled by NATO policemen. (While at the same time the U.N.-created King Idris presided over a Constitutional Monarchy from one of his huge palaces)
He takes me out into the baking hardscrabble fields where the women toiled like mules, and I was never never allowed to even look at them, let alone talk to them.
Tripoli, Libya 1990
Today I am shocked to see pictures of Libyan women without barracans working in modern hospitals as doctors, and in a whole New Tripoli of superhighways and skyscrapers as engineers and teachers. They are wearing fashionable short dresses with high heels and chic Italian stockings!
The Libyans tell me today, "You wouldn't recognize it. We have 3 or 4 cars in front of every house, and everyone in the country has a home, and the world's best health care and education. You should find yourself a good Libyan woman. There are lots of them!"
Qaddafi evokes the spirit of his people and his land.
It is a wildly unfamiliar joke but the easy laughter is a good friend. There is a lot of that kind of humor in Qaddafi's book too, in the irreverent-reverent sarcasm of the chapters 'Stop Fasting When You See the New Moon' and 'The Prayerless Friday'
These are people who are human first and foremost, but, like their "Guide" as Qaddafi is called, or "The Brother Colonel", they are as passionate about the forbidden topics of politics and religion as anybody I've met anywhere in the world. There was never a shortage of good conversation and stimulating new perspectives, and here again Qaddafi evokes the spirit of his people and his land.

Revolution: when feelings of impotence penetrate every part of the life of the incapable, and they lose the feeling of impotence and the decline that it involves. When neglect, ignominy, and baseness fail to provoke, the life of the impotent reaches zero, a static level of silliness and marginality. The countdown to approaching nothingness begins...

'Escape to Hell' is a philosophical fiction intended as a test of the reader's willingness to really consider new possibilities for the next millenium, as the Libyan people themselves have been tested; and even without the amazingly complicated political and religious pre-conditioning most First Worlders would bring to this treatise by one of the world's most notorious outlaws, it is a challenging mixture of post-Socialist Islamism that Qaddafi calls "a radical social progressive trend."

He calls it a Novel as much as an Essay because he is his own great fictional creation. The persona of Qaddafi reminds me of the way Sitting Bull got in the face of the 19th century, until he was like one of Qaddafi's own larger-than-life paintings (which I saw in the lobby of the Libyan UN Mission in New York) on a big white horse in flowing romantic robes and headdress. And it is this grammar of genuine myth that went far beyond psychology, making Sitting Bull's image the dominant face of frontier America. After all, who has stood the test of time - the "Savage Red Devil" or President Rutherford B. Hayes? 
Muammar AL Gaddafi larger-than-life
 Will Qaddafi's green revolution in the desert survive Bill Clinton's highway bill?
What is the real nature of the pan-Arabic hostility to Zionism?
These are important questions and we cannot just dismiss Qaddafi's voice in the heretofore uneven debate. We have not heard much from the Arabs and non-Arab Muslims. Qaddafi's book is a valuable addition to the debate. Arafat is routinely demonized as one of the generic "Terrorists" in popular cinema and journalism. It is just as unfair and counterproductive as the one-dimensional Hollywood stereotypes of Sitting Bull and his people.
Yasser Arafat and Muammar Al Gaddafi
It would take a lot more than a book review to explore the truth of Libya's real place in our geopolitical paradigm at the end of the millenium, and Qaddafi himself probably doesn't know the half of it. "Flee, flee the city" he exclaims in the second chapter titled 'The Village'. "Leave the irritation behind, the anxious places, the sealed locations." Here we can begin to see his characteristic Libyan idealism shining through:

How beautiful the village and countryside are! Clean air, the horizon before you, the heavens without pillars thou canst behold [Quran, sura 13, verse 2], with their divine lanterns above.

A structure and a fallible human purpose start to become evident by the next chapters of 'The Earth' and 'The Suicide of the Astronaut', in which he says, "You can leave everything, except the earth ... Land has been the context of the conflict ... Whither then are you going?" The astronaut, modern technological man, goes out into the solar system looking for meaning, but ... " ... man returned to the earth, dizzy, nauseous, and fearing doom." The astronaut then committed suicide "after he gave up on being able to find work on the ground that could sustain him."

All this builds quickly to the revealing core, which is the enigmatic title of the book. 'Escape to Hell' begins with one stunning statement after another:
"The tyranny of the masses is the harshest type of tyranny"; "I love the freedom of the masses, as they move freely with no master above them." 
Suddenly there is the personal cry of the author that lifts it all out of an interesting sociopolitical news analysis by a famous public figure into a Dantesque journey of the soul: "What terror! Who can address the unfeeling self and make it feel?" What is this? Before I could switch nonfiction-fiction gears he goes back to "a collective intelligence" and "social conflagration", then back again in one sentence to "a society that loves you yet will never show you mercy." He himself is feeling the terrorism.

Within this mass of people, who poisoned Hannibal, burnt Savonarola, and smashed Robespierre, who loved you but failed to reserve a seat for you at the cinema, or even a table in a cafe, who love you without expressing this in any simple way ...

This is what the masses have done and continue to do to such people. "So what can I - a poor bedouin - hope for in a modern city of insanity? People snap at me whenever they see me: build us a better house! Get us a better telephone line! Build us a road upon the sea! Make a public park for us!" ... A poor, lost bedouin, without even a birth certificate, with his staff upon his shoulder. A bedouin, who will not stop for a red light, nor be afraid when a policeman takes hold of him. 
 "Leave me in peace to tend my flock."
 Is this, as suspicious Americans might say, the same lament of other billionaires like Howard Hughes or Nero who felt so totally centralized by all the wretched masses yearning for money that they went crazy, retreating into isolation and paranoia?
"I am an illiterate bedouin ... I do not know what money looks like ... the mad people of the city constantly ask me for these things ... I am a poor simple person ... leave me in peace to tend my flock."
Or is Qaddafi more like Sitting Bull, the unelected Medicine Chief, a poet-king like David personifying all the wealth and all the myths of his people?
A simple bedouin in a tent, running an Empire?
What a great character out of fiction, following his own Virgil into the inferno while simultaneously ascending into higher Hegiras: "I have decided to make my escape to hell."

I will now tell you the story of my experiences when I made that journey, that escape to hell. I will describe the road that leads there, describe hell itself for you, and tell you how I came back by the same way. It was truly an adventure, and one of the strangest true stories ever, and I swear to you that it is not fiction. In fact, I escaped twice to hell, fleeing from you only in order to save myself......
First of all, hell has wild, dark mountainsides, covered by fog.                           There is volcanic stone which has been burnt black since time immemorial. What is truly strange is that I found wild animals on their way to hell before me, also making their escape from you, for hell meant life to them, while life among you meant death. Everything then disappeared around me, except for my own existence, which I felt more strongly than at any previous time. The mountains shrank, the trees dried up, the animals bolted and melted into the jungles of hell, seeking refuge and fleeing mankind. Even the sun became obscured by hell, and began to disappear. Nothing remained clear except hell, and the most distinct part of it was its heart. I headed toward it, with practically no difficulty.

This rings of Lao Tzu's 'Tao te Ching' ("The blackness within the blackness"), or what Sitting Bull spoke of in the Siouan cosmogony as a Thunderbird obscured in the black misty mountains of the west.
The Mediterranean and the Sahara will do that to you. I swam in those same crystalline seas also, where Odysseus and Calypso played in the Blue Grotto.
The Berbers talk of pictographs of pyramids in the remote Kufra Oasis too.
Qaddafi mentions an Arab prince discovering America long before Columbus, and Aladdin, and a genie's ring, and a magic golden helmet. He is just as torn by this sublime modern dilemma as we all are, between mythology and psychology:

...the hell on earth never gave me the time to spend time with my self, contemplate it, and commune with it. For we - I mean me and myself - were like dangerous criminals in your city, subjected to searches and surveillance. Even after our innocence was proven, and our identity became known, we were placed in prison, guarded closely. Your purpose was always to prevent me and myself from coming together, so that you could sleep easily and contentedly. How beautiful hell is compared to your city! Why did you bring me back? I want to return to hell, and live in it. I would travel there without any passport, just give me myself so that I may go. The self that I discovered had been disfigured by you, as you tried to corrupt its innocence.

I came away from this book knowing a lot more about Muammar Qaddafi, and the historic transformation, the apotheosis, of Libya. His other stories about redemption and the death of his father, who fought Mussolini's Fascists who killed hundreds of thousands of Libyans in the 1930s, and his identification with Joseph in the Quran and the injustices that have been done by 'Jacob's Cursed Family' to Joseph, and the 'Blessed Caravan' of Ishmael's tribes who rescued Joseph and took him to Egypt (which was originally called Libya, as were Arabia and Canaan), make it clear that Libya is not a backwater outpost on the fringes of civilization as Americans saw it in 1962, or a third-rate culture with no tolerance of literature, liberation, or modern progress. 

How sweet this dangerous dream

But it is more like the mythic subconscious Homer called The Land of The Lotus Eaters, where Odysseus shipwrecked on his way home, and which Qaddafi describes as "this dangerous dream":

How sweet will be the victory of the wretched, and how great! How sweet will the songs be on that golden day, and how brilliant the golden sun of the wretched as it blazes. How sweet this dangerous dream - that hopes will be realized, that wishes become true. That a dream will become reality, that the wretched of the earth will have their state.


Black Hills, South Dakota
June 17, 1998
David Seals

Escape to Hell, and other stories
Muammar Qaddafi
(Stanke Press, Montreal/NY, 1998, 193 pp.)

Review by David Seals
[David Seals is the author of many books, including 'The Powwow Highway' a contemporary comedy about his Cheyenne Indian relatives which was made into a feature film by George Harrison's Handmade Films]

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