THE LIBYAN is unforgettable storytelling, told with raw honesty and an eye for detail. This stunning memoir sweeps four continents and several decades, from colonial Singapore through Europe and the United States, to Libya. A poignant saga of historical and cultural wealth, it transports the reader on an exciting journey of passion, terror and betrayal, chronicling a slice of Libya during the early years of Gaddafi's dictatorship.
Friday, January 9, 2015
As I walked into the American Embassy that spring
morning, I glanced surreptitiously at the rooftop of the building across
the road. Libyan Secret Service men were perched like vultures, just as
Kamal had warned, watching and filming every person entering the
embassy. They were so obvious that I was tempted to wave.
I was riddled with guilt for not telling my husband
what I was doing. But I was sure he would tell me not to go—so I hadn’t
asked. My concern for the welfare of my unborn child justified my
defiance. By my doctor’s calculations back in Florida, the baby was due
in June. It was already April, and I had not seen a doctor since leaving
the States in December. Four months.
The embassy was housed in an old Italianate
terracotta stucco villa in the city center. It was surrounded by modern
buildings that already looked tired and aged due to neglect. The
reception room was packed with Libyans and foreigners, all frantically
vying for an official’s attention. I idly wondered if any of the men
there were also secret police.
It was hot and stuffy inside, despite several
window air conditioners struggling to suffuse cool air into the close
quarters. The scores of all our hot bodies pressed tightly together
defeated their tireless efforts.
I wiped the perspiration from my forehead and took
deep breaths to overcome a creeping tide of claustrophobia, both from
the surroundings as well as from the heaviness of my advanced pregnancy.
I heaved a determined sigh and got to the back of one of three long
It was obvious that most of the people were there
to get visas to the United States. For some reason, I felt safe simply
knowing that I was diplomatically on American soil. I just hoped I
wasn’t doing anything wrong by being there, and that Kamal wouldn’t be
too angry with me.
After standing in line for a while, I felt a soft
touch on my arm and turned to see an attractive black woman with an
overly friendly smile. Despite the heat, she looked impeccably crisp in a
smart white linen suit with matching white pumps.
“May I help you, Madame?” the woman asked.
She was an American! My spirits lifted immediately. It was nice to hear an American voice.
“Oh, yes, please!” I replied with relief. “My name’s Hiba Ben Ramadan. I’m American; I’m here to register.”
“So nice to meet you, Mrs Ben Ramadan! My name’s Lynn Pendleton. I’m the liaison for consular affairs.”
Her accent hinted at Ivy League. She extended a
bony, well-manicured hand, which I happily accepted and shook. Her smile
widened, and I wondered if she already knew who I was. Using her other
hand, Miss Pendleton lightly laid it on my shoulder.
“Please follow me,” she said in a low voice, drawing me out of the line.
I was quite taken aback by this show of
favoritism, and while relishing in it, I was also a little
self-conscious. Her manner exuded such grace and hospitality that it
made me feel like I was a guest in her home. I noticed the questioning
expressions of some people in the crowd as I was whisked away, but I
didn’t care. Often, because of my olive complexion, I would be mistaken
for an Arab, so they were probably thinking I was in trouble.
I followed Lynn Pendleton down a long narrow
hallway into a room at the end. It was a small room, about twelve by
twelve feet, but the walls were very unusual. They were completely
covered in a metallic quilt-like fabric, including the ceiling. The
temperature in the room was much cooler than the other rooms, almost
cold. A low wooden round table stood in the middle, surrounded by four
comfortable looking club chairs. The only other thing in the room was a
large crystal ashtray on the table, overflowing with cigarette butts.
I sensed Miss Pendleton was watching my reactions
very closely. With a gracious smile, she motioned for me to take a seat,
simultaneously removing the ashtray.
“I’ll be right back,” she said reassuringly, as
she made a motion to leave the room. I settled into one of the chairs,
marveling at how quiet the room was. It was nice to just sit and relax
after standing in line for so long in the oppressive reception room.
After about ten minutes, Miss Pendleton came back with someone.
“Mrs Ben Ramadan, there’s someone here I’d like you to meet.”
Before I could answer, a large man, wearing
glasses, and with sandy-colored hair and a bushy mustache came into the
room. He wore khaki trousers and a plaid sports jacket over an open-neck
white shirt. I suspected he was responsible for a lot of those
cigarette butts in the ashtray. He too had a very big and friendly
smile, eagerly extending a beefy hand followed by a firm handshake. He
was average-looking, and if I had not know he was American, he could
probably have passed for a fair-complexioned Libyan like my
father-in-law. Despite his thinning hair, I suspected that he was in his
“Mrs Ben Ramadan! I’m James Moore. Delighted to meet you!” His exuberance seemed genuine.
“Very nice to meet you, too,” I nodded, feeling somewhat confused and overwhelmed by this special treatment.
“Well, I’ve got to bet back to work,” Miss
Pendleton interrupted with a demure smile, laying one hand on my arm.
“If there’s ever anything I can do to help you, anything at all, please
let me know!”
“Thank you, Miss Pendleton. It was nice meeting you,” I mumbled—still perplexed by the curious exchange.
She left discreetly, closing the door carefully
behind her. The room was so sound-proofed I could not even hear her
heels clicking down the corridor.
I was now left alone with James Moore. I felt a
little uncomfortable, realizing that Kamal would not be pleased to know
that I had been alone in a room with a strange man. I knew enough about
Libyan customs by now to know that I was in a compromised situation
culturally as well as socially. Once again, I was torn between what I
was and how I was supposed to behave. For now I was just glad to be in
the company of an American-speaking person, yet I had a haunting feeling
there was something behind all this hospitality.
Mr Moore turned out to be a pleasant and engaging
conversationalist. He told me he had been working in the Middle East for
many years, and let on that he was a collector of Arabic art and
artefacts. He asked if I spoke any Arabic, and inquired about my family
back home. I had the feeling he already knew the answers, because he was
asking all the right questions. However, I was enjoying the
conversation so much that I really didn’t care.
Reluctantly, I decided to change the subject, and take the opportunity to gear it to the real purpose of my visit.
“Mr Moore, I...”
“Please, call me Jim.”
“I’d like to have my baby delivered at the
American Oil Clinic, but apparently only employees of oil companies are
allowed. My husband and I are willing to pay whatever it costs.” Kamal
had said nothing of the sort. “Is there any way the embassy can help
me?” I knew it sounded like I was pleading, but for my child’s sake I
could afford to be a little shameless.
“Consider it done!” He replied, without
hesitation. “In fact,” he continued, “I’ll make sure that Dr Watson,
Head of Obstetrics, will personally take your case. You’ll have the best
I couldn’t believe it was that easy.
“Thank you so much, Mr Moore.” I said, with relief
and gratitude, cautious not to sound too desperate, though frankly I
“Mrs Ben Ramadan, if you would please give me your telephone number, I’ll have someone from the hospital call you with details.”
Without hesitation, and without thinking, I
quickly wrote down my number with the pen and notepad Mr Moore had
removed from his jacket pocket and happily handed it back. “I’ll take
care of this right away, Mrs Ben Ramadan. I promise you’ll be hearing
from someone by tomorrow, at the very latest.”
I thanked him and started to get up to go, but Moore cleared his throat and subtly gestured for me to stay.
Looking me straight in the eye, with a more
serious tone in his voice, he said, almost apologetically, “Mrs Ben
Ramadan, I’d very much like to meet your husband, Dr Ben Ramadan. Do you
think it would be all right for me to call him?”
Surprised at what he was asking, I was at a
momentary loss for a reply. I also realized that, of course, now that I
had given him our home number he could call anytime. I was starting to
feel a little worried.
“Well…I’ll have to ask him. I think our phones are bugged, and …”
I wondered if this man realized that a call from
the American Embassy would put Kamal in a precarious position. There
were eyes and spies everywhere, and Kamal could easily be accused of
cooperating with the Americans.
“Mrs Ben Ramadan, I absolutely understand your hesitation,” he interrupted, in a sympathetic tone.
“But I want to assure you I have no intentions of
putting your husband – or you,” he paused and looked at me seriously,
“in a compromising position. All I ask is if you would just please tell
him that I would like very much to meet him.”
“All right,” I replied, uncertainly, and with some hesitation. “I’ll tell him.”
I was perplexed by this request, but I also
wanted to try to be accommodating and not appear ungrateful. Despite
everything, the hospital booking remained foremost in my mind.
“Mrs Ben Ramadan, I think there’s something I
should tell you,” continued this big American with a gentle smile.
“Nothing said in this room can be heard by anyone, anywhere, which is
why we brought you in here. I want you to feel comfortable to say
anything you want,” he said, pausing for a second. “Do you understand
what I’m trying to tell you?’
I nodded, his implication slowing sinking in. I
thought quickly about the secret police monitoring who was coming and
going, into and out of the embassy. However, I was an American citizen,
and didn’t see why I would get into trouble. In fact, I had not even
registered my presence with the embassy, which was the required and
perhaps sensible thing for all Americans who reside abroad to do.
Mr Moore let his words sink in before continuing.
“This room is totally isolated from any kind of sound or visual devise. We call it the Bubble Room.”