The Libyan: A Story of Love in Gaddafi’s Libya
The author, Esther Kofod and the cover of her book, The Libyan
Book Review by Karen Dabrowska
The Libyan by Esther Kofod tells the story of Lina and Kamal who meet while studying in Washington, fall in love, marry and begin their married life in Gaddafi’s Libya.
Lina (who is given the Arab name Mona by her husband) was born in colonial Singapore to a domineering Chinese mother and a Danish-American father. Her childhood was not happy and she was very hurt when her mother callously fired her nanny pawpaw while she was studying in America. Lina was a clever student, an accomplished chess player, and an adventurous woman popular with her classmates.
Kamal was born in the desert in the same year as Gaddafi. His father was taking the family from Khums to Ramadi. It was the turbulent time during WW2 when the British and Germans fought their wars in the colonies and Kamal was born en route as the family made the journey to a safer town.
The novel begins dramatically. Lina’s husband tells her he has to leave Libya as he is about to be arrested by Gaddafi’s henchmen. She will join him later with the children.
The first chapters tell the story of Lina and Kamal’s life before they met. Apart from chapter one Birth in the desert the book is narrated in the first person by Lina. Although the disclaimer says it is a work of fiction it is hard to believe that the author is not drawing heavily on her own rich experiences and eventful life.
Esther Kofod, a Singapore-born lady schooled in Switzerland and the United States, lived for several years in Libya during the dictatorial Gaddafi regime. She is married to an American chiropractor and lives in Florida.
Kofod is a brilliant observer of detail and perceptive in her descriptions of character. When she returns to live in Libya she portrays Kamal’s second brother Ali as “a physically imposing man with soft, kind eyes and a radiant smile. A high ranking general, he wore the green decorated uniform of the Libyan army.
Ali struggled in English to warmly welcome me, then swooped Layla (Lina’s daughter) into his arms and covered her with kisses.”
In Libya her husband’s family welcomes her but soon she understood that “ there was someone far greater than all of us who dominated our lives. His pictures were everywhere, his voice on TV and radio constantly and all our conversations were cantered on him and his actions.
And in all those conversations, something was missing: something we talked around. The missing element was personal freedom, fuelled by the omnipresence of Gaddafi who seemed to have his ears and eyes everywhere.”
Kamal, who was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the European and American Departments as soon as he returned to Libya, once carried a photo of Gaddafi in his wallet.
His job consumed his life and he was seldom at home, determined to build a new Libya. But he soon became disillusioned and told his wife: “Gaddafi has surrounded himself with Libyans he has paid to be afraid of him, and foreigners who will tell him anything he wants to hear for money.”
Lina describes her meeting with Gaddafi: “I couldn’t help but notice how much charisma the man still exuded, despite the evil he embodied. He was a tall, striking man, and like all dictators, possessed that certain quality which charmed people into wanting to believe in them.
“People were taking turns kowtowing, kissing and praising him and in turn he acted as their benevolent leader. It was a bizarre sight, since I am sure at least half of the people in the room would have killed him if they could.
“I told Kamal that I could not bear touching the hand of a man who had killed so many innocent people. We both felt so repulsed by the whole scene that as soon as we had the opportunity we discretely slipped out to avoid being party to the sick narcissism.”
Kamal tried to shield his wife from the horrors of the regime but Gaddafi’s reign of terror was brought into the living rooms of all the citizens: her daughter saw two men hanging on the television live.
Not long after this gruesome spectacle Kamal’s old friend Khweildi the Minister of the Interior passed him a note and placed his finger on his lips indicating the room was bugged: Gaddafi has given orders for your immediate arrest. I cannot help you. You must leave the country at once”
That is exactly what Kamal does. Lina follows him with the children after a harrowing time at the airport. In America Kamal joins a group of elite intellectual dissidents to establish the most powerful of all the opposition parties.
Ironically Lina loses her husband not to Gaddafi’s secret police but to Wafa a wealthy sympathiser of the Libyan opposition who seduces him. He dies of lung cancer in 2010 and does not live to see the liberation of his beloved country. Many of Kamal’s peers are now leaders of the new Libya.
Despite the hardships and the suffering Lina is not a bitter person: she forgives her husband’s betrayal and dreams of the day when she will return to her adopted country: “I pray with Gaddafi gone, Libya will thrive and one day become a model state for the Arab world the way Kamal had envisioned.
“It is my dream to go back to Libya one last time before I die with my children and my friend Michelle. I would like to stand with them at the ancient ruins in Leptis Magna and say a prayer for all those who have gone before me, meet the descendants of my Libyan hero Hussein and savour once again the wonderful dishes a beautiful woman named Kamila once cooked for me on Libyan oil. Most of all I want to breathe the air of freedom in the new Libya.”
Kofod dedicated the book to the men and women of Libya who ended 42 years of terror and betrayal and to the Libyans who did not live to see it happen. Her love of Libya is evident and she has presented a vivid account of its modern history through the eyes of Lina and Kamal.
She has added another version of the spelling of Gaddafi (Ghaddafi) and in her chronology of the history of Libya she speaks of the ‘civil war’ not the revolution. In a very personal interpretation of history she refers to the aftermath of the revolution as ‘Libyan independence October 2011’.
The Facebook page THE LIBYAN received over 300 likes in 1 day, mostly from Libyans, and Kofod’s Twitter account is quite active (@EKofod). Amazon informed her that her ranking in books about Libya (over 1000) went up to 17 within a few hours. There are plans to translate the book into Arabic and distribute it in Libya.
The LIBYAN is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and from www.estherkofod.com