By MICHEL COUSINS
Since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, over 180 independent newspapers have sprung up in Libya, like flowers in the desert after a rare downpour. Like desert flowers, most will die.
Yet a few that aren’t simple opinion sheets, which instead contain news and features and are more professionally run, will survive. One such is Al-Kalima (The Word) and one of its regular contributors is Amal Omar Shennib.
Born in 1935, she is not only the oldest Libyan woman writer but also the first. At age 15, before the country gained independence, she wrote for a magazine simply called Libya. Today, she often writes about the lost Libya, the Libya that Qaddafi hated and in true Stalinist style erased all reference to in books and the media: The Libya between independence in 1951 and 1969 when he seized power and abolished the monarchy.
“We knew nothing about that period; we’re only finding out about it now,” said Abdel Halim, a young Libyan university student whom Arab News later met in downtown Tripoli.
He recounted what had happened when he had visited the former royal palace there (now a museum) earlier this year while Qaddafi was still in control of the city. (The building in fact had started out as the Italian governor’s palace during the colonial period.) “I asked why there was nothing about King Idris. The guides told us they were forbidden to mention him.”
It is a story heard time and again in Libya: Young people who rose up and overthrew Qaddafi, craving to find out about the hidden past and reconnect with it.
For young Libyans, Amal provides a bridge to that past. She was intimately associated with it. Her husband, Wanis Gaddafi (no relation), was the last prime minister under King Idris. Her father, Omar Faiek Shennib, helped negotiate Libya’s independence and was head of the Royal Court as well as minister of defense in the first post-independence government. His more lasting claim to fame is that he designed the tricolor star and crescent flag that served Libya during the period of the monarchy and is now the icon of the new Libya.
Hers is a remarkable story of courage and endurance, not least because of what she and her family suffered under Qaddafi: Her husband in jail for two years, his health broken; her oldest son Majid forced to flee for his life to the US in 1977 and unable to return until 1994; her younger son Mohsen, Qaddafi’s youngest political prisoner, arrested in 1981 aged 13 and held for seven years; her brother, Abdul-Aziz Shennib, a commander in the pre-1969 Libyan army arrested in the first days after Qaddafi seizing power and imprisoned for four and a half years. He was later released and sent as ambassador to Jordan, but it was no gesture of reconciliation with the old regime. Abdul-Aziz had been at Sandhurst with King Hussein and he had orders from Qaddafi to assassinate him. Once in Amman, he told the king of the plot. He joined the opposition and later, at a press conference in Cairo, revealed that Qaddafi had murdered Lebanese cleric Musa Sadr.
Standing outside her modest house in Benghazi, no one could imagine the wealth of history within Libya. On the grand piano in the sitting room, there are silver-framed photos of her father, in dark suit and fez, like Egyptian ministers of the period, accompanying foreign dignitaries. On the table beside the sofa is a silver cigarette case with her husband’s initials “WG” on it. Other objects in the room carry the same initials.
Offering tea and cakes, Amal tells her story. She was born in Damascus where her family was in exile because of her father’s support for the freedom movement against the Italians. Back in Libya, following the defeat of the Mussolini’s forces and the country now under British military administration, she went to school where she did so well that in 1955 she was offered a place at university in Egypt. She hoped to be a doctor. At the time, she was already working as a schoolteacher, a job she continued for the next 17 years. Marriage to Wanis Gaddafi in 1956, however, put paid to her medical ambitions. She went to university in 1960 to study history and Arabic and graduated in 1964, when she became headmistress of a girls’ school.
Born in 1922 in Benghazi, Wanis was a bright star in the new independent Libya. During the Italian period, he had come to the attention of an Italian lawyer who trained him for the law. The British took over in 1942 and the young Gaddafi who became involved in the Benghazi city administration soon came to their attention. After the war, he was the offered a scholarship to Oxford but never took it up because he was recruited by the British to help in Cyrenaica’s political administration — the first Libyan they recruited. After independence in 1951, Wanis served as a provincial minister in Cyrenaica, successively of health, justice and transportation. Later, he became chairman of Cyrenaica’s executive council. In 1962, he was appointed Libyan foreign minister. Thereafter, he served in almost all Libya governments in a variety of posts apart from a brief stint as Libyan ambassador to Germany in 1964/1965. In 1967, he became foreign minister for the second time, and then, in September that year, he was appointed prime minister, a post he held until his namesake seized power a year later, on Sept. 1, 1969.
Her son, Majid, produces the formal letter from King Idris, formally appointing his father prime minister. He also produces a letter of potentially greater import. It was found among his father’s effects after Qaddafi had arrested him. It is a letter, in Arabic, from what was then the six-member European Economic Community purportedly inviting Libya to become an associate member. This was at a time that France was vetoing Britain’s attempts to join.
Two days after the coup — “it was not a revolution, it was a seizure of power,” Amal says forcibly — a soldier came to their small flat and arrested her husband. “We did not have palaces like he (Qaddafi) did.” Another forceful point.
Four months later, he was released. “He was told to stay at home,” Amal says. It was house arrest. “He said he would not go out but could not prevent anyone coming to visit us. So, they put soldiers on the door to stop anyone coming.”
In 1970, he was re-arrested and accused of letting the king leave Libya just before the coup. “How could he stop him? Idris was the king,” Amal says. The logic was wasted on the new regime. They were determined to imprison him.
The king’s departure before the coup remains the source of great speculation and conspiracy theories. Idris, a devout ascetic who lived a simple life, was not interested in day-to-day politics and had previously tried to abdicate. However, great pressure had been put on him to stay. By summer 1969, he had made up his mind. He left the country in July for Greece, ostensibly for a holiday, and in August, he issued an instrument of abdication from Athens to come into effect on Sept. 2 in favor of his nephew, Crown Prince Hassan. He then went to Turkey for medical treatment.
However, the man who was effectively chief of staff, Col. Abdelaziz Shelhi, who with brother Omar had been treated by the king as the sons he never had, had other plans. He planned a coup for Sept. 5. However, it was preempted by Qaddafi’s coup on Sept. 1. The problem was that Shelhi’s coup was widely known — so well known that when the crown prince was arrested, he reportedly asked if those arresting him were Shelhi’s men.
Those conspiracy theories, however, center around a more dramatic suggestion that the British, who had major military bases in Libya and who were very close to the Libyan army high command, backed Shelhi. They supposedly felt that a Libya led by the crown prince would soon fall into the hands of Nasserites and become a client of Egypt, and through it, the Soviet Union. They saw Shelhi as able to lead a pro-Western Libya.
The second part of this conspiracy is that the captains’ coup which preempted that of the senior officers’ was backed by the CIA. There is no evidence — although, interestingly, Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum became a close friend to the new regime. But then Hammer had some strange friends.
Amal still retains great affection for the late king. “He was a father to me.” She recalls a particular debate in 1962 when Libya amended its constitution to become a unitary state and the issue of women being allowed to vote was being hotly debated. Two politicians went to the king to put opposing cases: that women should be allowed to vote in elections to parliament, and that they should not. “The king listened,” Amal recounts, “and then said: ‘You are both wrong. They should not only be allowed to vote, they should be allowed to stand for parliament.’”
Wanis was jailed for two years for “permitting” the king to leave, and it broke his health. In 1974, at age 52, he suffered a heart attack, but was refused permission to leave the country for treatment. Amal had already quit her job as headmistress of the high school that she had helped found in 1961 in order to look after him.
Resigning had not been easy despite the new regime’s purge of all schoolteachers connected to the old one, which offered five years’ extra pension rights if they would go. Yet, when she submitted her resignation, triggered by the new regime’s decision that high school girls must wear army uniforms (something that continued in Tripoli until just weeks ago), it was refused. She was forced to stay on for another year until a replacement could be found, but without pay. Nor did she ever receive the five years’ extra pension rights.
In 1977, Amal’s eldest son, Majid, left for the US. He had been involved in the anti-Qaddafi demonstrations the previous year at Benghazi’s Gar Younis university. They had been crushed mercilessly with students killed or jailed. “The system was so much stronger than we were,” he said. “We had to leave.” He went to Portland where he studied engineering. He is grateful to the Americans. “The US was very kind to me. They helped me a lot.”
Her younger son, Mohsen, had a more horrific experience. In 1981, at age 13, he became involved in a plot against Qaddafi. The plot was discovered and its leaders executed. Others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mohsen was jailed. He spent his 14th birthday and the next seven years in jail, as Qaddafi’s youngest political prisoner.
In 1986, Wanis Gaddafi died. For Amal, it was a terrible time. Her eldest son was far away with no prospect of ever returning, and her youngest son was in jail. He was released in 1988 but was watched continuously; it was clear that the regime had him in its sights. The family decided he had to get out of the country. He was smuggled into Tunisia, just in time. After he left, the police arrived at the house intent on arresting him. From Tunis, he headed to Egypt to resume his education but when Qaddafi normalized relations with Egypt in 1989, the Libyan opposition there felt threatened. Mohsen went to the US to join his brother.
Slowly, the system relaxed somewhat. In 1994, Majid returned to test the waters. Mohsen followed soon afterward. The family was reunited, but for Amal, there were still restrictions. She lived out of the public eye. She was not allowed to write or be published.
Then, in February, freedom came and the gentle Amal became an unlikely revolutionary. On the “Day of Rage,” called by the opposition for Feb. 17, she was there outside the Court House, the focus of the revolution. “I cried when I saw the flag, which my father designed.” It was a cold day, says her son Majid. “I was afraid she would catch cold.”
But she would not leave. “I started working immediately,” she says, writing a column for Kalima every week.
So, what are her hopes for the future? Where does she see Libya going? “I hope for the best. Anyway, we got rid of that man. At least we have our identity back,” she says.
She has no illusions that everything will be plain sailing from now on. “It’s a difficult time now,” she says, “but the difficulties will pass. We must be patient. It will take time. We cannot go back to the past, but we can now go forward.”
A woman of great dignity and deeply inspiring, she does not intend to stop writing. “I’m now an old woman, but still very active,” she says with a sparkle in her eyes.
An old woman, perhaps, but one with a very young heart.
The different spelling of the names Qaddafi/Gaddafi are deliberate. They differentiate the two characters and, in the case of Wanis, that was how he spelled it.
*The colors of the flag have a double meaning: To the black flag (with crescent and star) of Cyenaica, of which Idris was emir before the creation of Libya in 1951, was added the green to represent Tripolitania and red for Fezzan. But it also represents the black flag “Al-Uqaab” of the Prophet (pbuh) and the crescent and star representing Islam, red for the blood of those who died fighting the Italians and green for the verdant lands along the coast and in the oases