Escapade in Hell: Reading the Short Stories of Colonel Kadhafi

By Carlberg, Russell | The Antioch Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Escapade in Hell: Reading the Short Stories of Colonel Kadhafi


Carlberg, Russell, The Antioch Review


Ever since Plato elaborated his ideal of the philosopher king in The Republic, the image of the dictator as artist has been seductive. Even the most mundane of leaders have taken the hint and demonstrated pretensions toward art, literature, or music. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Libyan dictator, Colonel Mouamar Kadhafi, has published his short stories. Yet, the idea is rather disconcerting, after all. Our first reaction is to laugh, but then we wonder, we even worry, that the man could possibly have some talent. Indeed, what about the publisher's jacket claim that Kadhafi's stories are nothing less than "astonishing"? The question becomes bothersome, even pressing, when we read the introduction by the Arabist and former French ambassador to Libya, Guy Georgy, which claims that Kadhafi's writing is "poetic." Why should the word poetic, when linked to the name of Kadhafi, bother us so much?

Kadhafi was the son of Bedouins, without a birth certificate or formal education; his life reads like a demonic Horatio Alger story. A devout Muslim with a keen fashion sense, he first made international headlines in 1969, at the age of twenty-seven, by overthrowing the Libyan royal family, which he considered, not without justification, as corrupt and subservient to foreign interests. Like his hero Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Kadhafi expelled foreign military advisors, nationalized royal property, redistributed land and wealth, and set about trying to modernize his country in the context of Arab nationalism. Kadhafi had some original contributions to make. For instance, rather than cutting the hands off of thieves with swords in the Saudi fashion, he was modern enough to recognize the unsanitary aspects of this practice and to relegate this penal work to a team of surgeons who would accomplish the task using anaesthesia and proper medical instruments.

Kadhafi's megalomania is legendary. There is little doubt that he wishes to go down in history, at the very least, as the father of modern Libya, and his massive desert irrigation project will likely achieve this honor for him, if it doesn't bankrupt his country first. But being Libya's founding father is hardly enough for an aspiring world-historical-figure. Since the beginning he has had pretensions of leading the entire developing world against Israel and the United States. Because of his murderous activities, such as blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed hundreds of American and British civilians, Kadhafi is popular with those who, for whatever reason, despise either Israel, the United States, or both. His anti-American diatribes and his willingness to back up his words with deeds and oil money have earned him, like Fidel Castro before him, a certain celebrity in the world.

Kadhafi's global vision is outlined in his Green Book, written in the 1970s, and since put into practice only in Libya. In Kadhafi's own modest assessment his "Third Universal Theory" will define the next world-historical stage of civilization, as his system supersedes capitalism, the "first universal theory," and communism, the second. The "Third Universal Theory" is, in essence, a shotgun marriage of western socialism and Islamic fundamentalism, sweetened with a Hegelian claim that the Arab nation, under Kadhafi's inspired leadership, of course, will soon have its day in the sun. Not surprisingly, Kadhafi's brand of Islam is highly idiosyncratic. As much for the sake of social control as to gratify his massive ego, he has outlawed all interpretations of Islam, save his own. Thus, he has overturned centuries of teachings, and has appointed himself chief prophet, second only to Mohammed. Disagreement with Kadhafi's textual interpretations are labeled "blasphemous."

The socialist half of Kadhafi's system is as idiosyncratic as the religious half. based on certain egalitarian notions found in the Koran, Kadhafi's economic theories have been taken to such absurd extremes that their application has mined Libya economically and socially. …

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