No One Writes Like the Colonel

A bookshop in the Libyan capital Tripoli was among many businesses to reopen last week following the fall of the Gaddafi regime. But more than most, the owner is hoping that the inauguration of a new period in Libyan history won’t represent business as usual. As recounted in this profile, septuagenarian Mohammed Ali Al-Bahbahy’s life story is itself book-worthy. A former military man educated in the UK and USA, Al-Bahbahy welcomed the bloodless coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969 but fell victim to it ten years later when educated officers were purged from the armed forces. In 1995, Al-Bahbahy opened a bookstore with 200 of his own books. Over the years, he’s acquired some 12,000 more, mostly from impoverished Tripolitanians selling books to make ends meet.

Al-Bahbahy’s bookstore was spared the suppression that characterised intellectual life in Libya under Gaddafi because of its owner’s military connections and its location in central Tripoli, around the corner from Green Square (recently re-christened Martyr’s Square).

Colonel Gaddafi on a 2009 state visit to Italy, alongside one of his military advisers and Italian President Berlusconi, via Libero Liberos/Flickr

Colonel Gaddafi on a 2009 state visit to Italy, alongside one of his military advisers and Italian President Berlusconi, via Libero Liberos/Flickr

The shop also stocked many translations of Gaddafi’s signature tract, the Green Book, published in 1975 as the colonel’s answer to Mao’s Little Red Book. The Green Book, a short book of about 20,000 words, was a collection of Gaddafi’s aphorisms with no discernible logic or sense of coherence, but it was an unavoidable part of everyday life for Libyans. It was so-called because the colour green has a long-held association with nature and life, particularly in the desert cultures of the Middle East, and has come to be the colour most often associated with Islam.

Gaddafi’s book was translated into 45 languages; Libyan schoolchildren were required to study it for two hours every week; choice quotes were daily fare on Libyan television and radio broadcasts; and ‘research centres’ were set up throughout the country dedicated to its study. On one occasion the Green Book even sponsored a West German ice hockey team.

Here’s one particularly apt example among many others of the book’s almost hallucinatory strangeness: “If a community of people wears white on a mournful occasion and another dresses in black, then one community would like white and dislike black and the other would like black and dislike white. Moreover, this attitude leaves a physical effect on the cells as well as on the genes in the body.”

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