Mar 212013

                       Roland G. Simbulan*

As I write this, I reflect on an unforgettable country that I have traveled to in the mid-1980s–Libya–which is hogging the world headlines today. Libya is in the midst of a bloody civil war, or more accurately, at the center of a people’s uprising against its leader, Moamar Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for almost 42 years. Such longevity, or permanence, to rule must have gotten into “The Leader’s” head that he is now willing to massacre his own people just to keep himself and his family in power.

In 1987, I had the opportunity to travel to Libya whose official name under Gadhafi is the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. I was invited to speak at an international conference on imperialism, in the aftermath of the bombing of Tripoli by the United States then headed by President Ronald Reagan. In that bombing of Tripoli, Gadhafi’s residence had been destroyed, killing his infant daughter Hanna. At that time, Gadhafi was said to be fasting in a tent in the Sahara desert which occupies more than 80 percent of Libyan territory. Soon, he converted the devastated residence into a museum on anti-imperialism where visitors and tourists were led to see. The remains of U.S. bombs that had brought destruction and death to Tripoli were also displayed at the entrance of Gadhafi’s residential museum.

Our conference in Tripoli, Libya was attended by academics, NGO activists and even revolutionaries from all over the world. It was in that conference on anti-imperialism that I saw “The Leader” as he was referred to in Libya by his people. Gadhafi, who was the host and keynote speaker in the conference, was more than 3 hours late. The conference could not start until he arrived, and when he did arrive, lo and behold, what a sight!

Around him was an impressive close-in security entourage of camouflage-uniformed women soldiers wearing red berets and armed with AK-47s. Gadhafi was wearing an Arab robe, reminding me of Jesus Christ, except that he was wearing a Muslim cap, similar to the ones I have seen imams or Islamic religious leaders in the Philippines wear. Gadhafi spoke for two hours, although he disappointed me then for not being a fiery speaker as I had imagined. He was soft-spoken as in prayer and spoke in Libyan. But the English translation, as I recall, showed that the mildly spoken words spoken were strong and bombastic, using phrases like, “Punish and kill all American imperialists and Zionists.”

Libya became a center of world interest in 1969 when a young, idealistic military officer of the Libyan army, Col.Moammar Gadhafi, led a successful coup against the Libyan monarch, King Idris. Idris ruled like a feudal king and collaborated with foreign interests in monopolizing the benefits of the oil resources of his country. Gadhafi’s rise to power, then compared to Nasser of Egypt, was then deliriously cheered by the Libyan people for liberating his country from feudal and monarchical oppression, and breaking the monopoly by foreign interests of the oil resources of Libya.

Gadhafi expelled foreign military bases and facilities, i.e. British and U.S., and later followed this with the nationalization of all Libyan oil companies. Western interests were in panic as Gadhafi challenged what used to be unassailable foreign interests in north Africa, including those of Italy.

Through his Green Book, Gadhafi introduced an Islamic version of socialism which did not adhere to representative democracy. Instead, he introduced what he called a direct democracy through a people’s congress where, once a year, Libyans from all walks of life are invited to participate to discuss and pass legislation. And if this was an indication of the unconventional type of governance existing in Gadhafi’s Libya, it was the first time that I saw sheep and other livestock being herded through counters of the Tripoli international airport. The livestock were being herded to a plane.

Libyan Air which flew us from our stop-over in Frankfurt,Germany, to Tripoli in Libya, did not have any first class or economy class. It had only one class for all passenger.  Nor did their flights have any assigned seat numbers.  You could seat yourself anywhere in the plane except probably the pilot’s cockpit.  Their point o course, is that there are no class stratifications in  their country. Only candies were served in the four-hour flight.

Libyan Air did not even then trust the security system at the Frankfurt International Airport.  For even after all the passengers had gone through the routine but rigorous security procedures at Frankfurt for outgoing passenges, all our luggage were just line up outside the Libyan Air . They had to be checked again one by one by Libyan Air security personnel in front of the outgoing passengers bound for Libya.  This unusual procedure was done before any of the luggage were manually put on board.

I used to think that Filipinos were the only ones who are always late for appointments. This was until I went to Libya where people probably used the position of the sun rather than watches to tell the time. Everywhere we went, our Libyan hosts were always at least three hours late, and when they did arrive, one had better be ready because they would leave you behind if you were not ready to go.

There are two unforgettable places in Libya to which we were toured: the now uninhabited but still intact 3,000 year old  Roman Empire cities of Sabrata and Leptis Magda. The colonnaded open air theater of Sabrata, the baths, arcs, and toilets with mosaic designs, have all been well preserved as if pearls protected by the Mediterranean Sea on which they were embanked. I hope these priceless world treasures will not be destroyed by the ongoing civil war in Libya.

The Tripoli Agreement between Philippine government represented by Imelda Marcos who travelled to the Libyan capital of Tripoli, and the MNLF under Nur Misuari, was mediated by Gadhafi. That agreement is now recognized as the contribution of Libya’s Gadhafi to the Philippines.

At that time, Libya was known to allow the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF to establish a de facto embassy in Tripoli and to have given military training to many MNLF military commanders and fighters. Libya is also known to have donated generous amounts for the Muslim mosque in Quiapo, the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Islamic Studies and several other humanitarian and socio-economic projects for Muslim communities in Mindanao. Gadhafi’s heir-apparent son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who appeared recently on Libyan state television to denounce anti-Gadhafi “trouble-makers,” has visited the Philippines many times for his foundation’s philanthropic activities.

Gadhafi’s Libya saw itself as some sort of “center” for anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World, hosting conferences and funding the setting up of Green Book Jamahiriya centers worldwide, including the Philippines. As a concrete form of solidarity to Third World struggles, it aided and even trained military cadres of various African liberation movements, including those from South Africa’s African National Congress(ANC), the Zimbabwe African National Union(ZANU),and other organizations for which many African and Third World liberation movements have been so grateful.

At the time of my visit, there were already an estimated 4,000 Filipinos working in Libya, mostly nurses in practically all Libyan hospitals, and a few male Filipino engineers working in the state-run oil companies. I met some Filipina nurses while shopping in Tripoli and I was invited for dinner to their weekend gathering, an event that they have to exchange news about their homeland.

A memorable event was that farewell dinner given to us all in a huge tent in the Sahara desert, where guests ate from a common table marinated lamb and other Libyan delicacies which we ate with our fingers. There were belly-dancers who performed while the classic Arab war cry using the fast wiggling of the tongue was heard.

While the event was going on, I decided to go look for a toilet in the tent. There was none so I went out to find one. But outside there was only the desert and the dark. And there I saw a armed with an AK-47, and as if he knew what I was looking for, he pointed to the dark, empty desert lighted only by the moon and stars.

* The author is Professor at the University of the Philippines. He has lectured in many international conferences which has brought him, by his count, to more than 107 countries, and he edits a website,

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