Soraya was just fifteen, a schoolgirl in the coastal town of Sirte, when she was given the honor of presenting a bouquet of flowers to Colonel Gaddafi, “the Guide,” on a visit he was making to her school the following week. This one meeting—a presentation of flowers, a pat on the head from Gaddafi—changed Soraya’s life forever. Soon afterwards, she was summoned to Bab al-Azizia, Gaddafi’s palatial compound near Tripoli, where she joined a number of young women who were violently abused, raped, and degraded by Gaddafi. Heart-wrenchingly tragic but ultimately redemptive, Soraya’s story is the first one of many that are just now beginning to be heard. But sex and rape remain the highest taboo in Libya, and women like Soraya (whose identity is protected by a pseudonym here) risk being disowned or even killed by their dishonored family members.
In Gaddafi’s Harem, an instant bestseller on publication in France, Le Monde special correspondent Annick Cojean gives a voice to Soraya’s story, and supplements her investigation into Gaddafi’s abuses of power through interviews with people who knew Soraya, as well as with other women who were abused by Gaddafi.
“A moving and disturbing wake-up call to the personal costs of totalitarianism.” —Publishers Weekly
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I was born in Marag, a small town in the region of Djebel Akhdar — the Green Mountain — not far from the Egyptian border, on February 17, 1989. Yes, February 17! It's impossible for Libyans not to understand the significance of that date: it's the day the revolution that ousted Gaddafi from power began in 2011. In other words, it's a day that's destined to become a national holiday, and that pleases me.
Three brothers came before me, and two more were born after me, as well as my little sister. But I was the first girl, which made my father wild with joy. He so wanted a girl. He wanted a Soraya. He'd thought of that name well before he was married. And he often told me how he felt when he saw me for the first time: "You were so pretty! So very pretty!" He was so elated that on the seventh day after my birth the customary celebration was as grand as a wedding party. The house was full of guests, music, a large buffet. He wanted everything for his daughter — the same opportunities, the same chances in life, the same rights as my brothers had. Even today he says that he had dreamed I would become a doctor. And it's true that he made me register for natural science courses in secondary school. Had my life followed a normal course maybe I really would have studied medicine. Who knows? But don't talk to me about having the same chances in life as my brothers. You can forget that! There's not a Libyan woman alive who would believe that. All you need to do is see how my mother, despite her being so modern, ended up having to abandon most of her dreams.
Her dreams were boundless, and now all of them are broken. She was born in Morocco at the home of her grandmother, whom she adored. But her parents were Tunisian. She had a great deal of freedom because as a young girl she went to Paris to be trained as a hairdresser. A real dream, right? That's where she met Papa, at a big dinner one night during Ramadan. He was working for the country's foreign information service and spending long periods of time at the Libyan Embassy. He, too, loved Paris. The atmosphere was so lighthearted, so joyful, compared to the oppressive Libyan climate. He could have taken courses at the Alliance FranÃ§aise, as acquaintances had suggested, but he was too carefree and preferred going out, wandering around, grabbing every minute of freedom he could manage. Today he regrets not being able to speak French. It would certainly have changed our life. In any event, as soon as he met Mama he quickly made up his mind. He asked for her hand, and the wedding took place in Fez, where her grandmother still lived, and then presto, all smug, he took her back with him to Libya.
What a shock for my mother! She never imagined she'd be living in the Middle Ages. She who was so chic, so careful to be stylish, well coiffed, well made-up, she now had to drape herself in the traditional white veil and keep her outings to a minimum. She was like a caged tiger. She felt cheated and trapped. It was nothing like the life that Papa had made her believe she'd have. He'd talked about traveling between France and Libya, about her work, which she could develop while going from one country to the other. Within days of getting married, she found herself in the land of the Bedouins. She became depressed. So Papa moved the family to Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, in the eastern part of the country. A provincial town, but still considered to be a little antiauthoritarian compared to the power in Tripoli. He couldn't take her to Paris, a city he himself still continued to visit, but at least she'd be living in a large city and could develop her family business. As if the hair salon could console her!
Mama kept on brooding and dreaming of Paris. To us little ones she spoke of her walks on the Champs-Elysées, having tea with her women friends on café terraces. She would talk about the freedom that French women had, and also of the social welfare system, labor union rights, the boldness of the press. Paris, Paris, Paris. In the end this kind of talk bored us kids. But it made my father feel guilty. He had envisioned starting a small business in Paris, a restaurant in the fifteenth arrondissement, which Mama could have run. Sadly, he soon had a fight with his business partner and the project fell apart. At the time, he almost bought an apartment in the Défense area for twenty-five thousand dollars, but he didn't want to take the risk and still regrets that, now that it has become one of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods.
So my earliest school memories are from Benghazi. They are already a bit blurry but I do recall that it was a happy time. The school's name was the Lion Cubs of the Revolution and I had four girlfriends there; we were inseparable. I was the comedian of the group — my specialty was imitating the teachers as soon as they left the classroom, or mimicking the principal. It seems I have a gift for capturing people's looks and expressions. We five would cry with laughter together. I had an F in math but was the best of my class in Arabic.
Papa wasn't earning much and Mama's work became indispensable. In fact, the family's finances soon depended on her. She was working day and night, living in the hope that something would happen to take us far away from Libya. I knew she was different from other mothers and at school they'd sometimes treat me disdainfully as "the daughter of that Tunisian woman." That hurt. Tunisian women had the reputation of being modern, emancipated, and in Benghazi those were not considered to be fine qualities. Foolishly, the fact that my mother was Tunisian upset me. I almost held it against my father that he hadn't chosen a wife from his own country. Why did he need to marry a foreigner? Had he given any thought to his children? My God, how stupid I was!
The year I turned eleven, Papa announced that we were moving to Sirte, a city between Benghazi and Tripoli, also on the Mediterranean coast. He wanted to be closer to his birthplace, to his father — a highly traditional man with four wives — as well as to his brothers and cousins. That's how it is in Libya. Every family member tries to stay close to home — that supposedly gives them strength and unconditional support. In Benghazi, without roots or relations, we were like orphans. Or so, at least, Papa explained it to us. But I myself took this news as a complete catastrophe. Leave my school? My friends? What a disaster! It made me sick. Physically sick. I was in bed for two weeks, incapable of getting up to go to the new school.
But in the end I went. With lead in my shoes and knowing all too soon that I wasn't going to be happy there. First of all, you need to understand that we were moving to Gaddafi's birthplace. I haven't mentioned him yet because at home he was neither a concern nor a frequent topic of conversation. Mama clearly detested him. She'd change channels as soon as he appeared on television. She called him "the unkempt one" and, shaking her head, she'd ask repeatedly: "Honestly now, does that guy really have the face of a president?" I think Papa was afraid of talking this way about Gaddafi, so he'd remain silent. We all sensed intuitively that the less we spoke of him the better it was, since the slightest mention of him outside the family circle might be reported and cause us a great deal of trouble. So we had no photograph of him in our house, and weren't involved in anything the least bit political. Let's just say that instinctively we were all very cautious.
At school, on the other hand, it was pure adoration. His image was everywhere; every morning we'd sing the national anthem in front of an immense poster of him, which was attached to the green flag; and we'd cry: "You are our Guide, we walk behind You, blah blah blah"; and in class or during recess, students would talk with pure adulation about the man they referred to as "my cousin Muammar," "my uncle Muammar," while the teachers spoke of him as a demigod. No, as a god. He was good; he watched over his children; he was all-powerful. We all had to call him "Papa Muammar." To us he seemed gigantic.
Although we moved to Sirte to be closer to the family and feel more integrated in a community, things didn't work out this way. Basking in the glow of their blood relationship or connection to Gaddafi, the people of Sirte felt they were the masters of the world. Let's just say that, when confronted with the hicks and boors from other towns, they felt like aristocrats, regulars at the court. You're from Zliten? How gross! From Benghazi? Ridiculous. From Tunisia? Embarrassing!
No matter what she did, Mama was truly a source of disgrace. And when she opened a nice-looking hair salon in the center of town not far from our building in Dubai Street, the contempt for her only increased, though the elegant women of Sirte still came running. My mother was really talented. Everyone recognized her skill in creating the finest hairdos in the city and doing fabulous makeup. I'm quite sure that she was envied. But you have no idea how repressed Sirte is through its traditionalism and prudishness. A woman without a veil can be insulted on the streets. And even with a veil she is suspect. What in the world is she doing outside? She must be looking for an adventure or maybe she's having an affair. People spy on one another, neighbors watch the comings and goings of the house across from them, families are jealous of each other, protect their daughters, and gossip about everyone else. The tattletales are working around the clock.
So at school it was double trouble. Not only was I the daughter of "that Tunisian woman," but I was also "the girl from the salon." They put me at a desk all by myself, apart from the other students. And I never managed to have a Libyan girlfriend. Fortunately, after a while I became friendly with the daughter of a Libyan man and a Palestinian woman. Then with a Moroccan girl and then with the daughter of a Libyan and an Egyptian woman. But never with any of the local girls. Even when I lied one day and said my mother was Moroccan, which seemed less serious to me than being from Tunisia. But, no, it was worse. So basically my life revolved around the hair salon. It became my kingdom.
I'd run over there as soon as classes were over — and it was there that I came back to life after school. It was so wonderful! First of all because I was helping Mama and that was a delightful feeling, but also because I liked the work. My mother never stopped and, although she had four employees, she was constantly running from one customer to the next. They did hair, makeup, and skin treatments. And I can assure you that in Sirte, although the women may well be hiding beneath a veil, they're still exceedingly demanding and incredibly sophisticated. I specialized in removing hair from the face and eyebrows, using a silk thread that I'd wind between my fingers and manipulate very fast to catch the hair. Much better than tweezers or wax. I'd also prepare women's faces for the application of makeup, putting on the foundation, after which my mother would take over, working on the eyes before calling for me, saying: "Soraya! The final touch!" And I'd come running to apply lipstick, to check the total result, and to add a dab of perfume.
The salon soon became the meeting place for the city's elegant women. Meaning the women of the Gaddafi clan, as well. When there were important international summits taking place in Sirte, the women of the different delegations would come to be made beautiful, including the wives of African presidents and of European and American heads of state. It's strange, but I especially remember the wife of the leader of Nicaragua, who wanted us to draw huge eyes for her below her enormous chignon. One day, one of Gaddafi's bodyguards, a man called Judia, came to pick up Mama by car to do the hair and makeup of the Guide's wife. It proved that Mama had acquired quite a reputation! So off she went. She spent several hours taking care of Safia Gaddafi, and was paid a ludicrous sum of money, way below her usual fee. She was furious and felt really humiliated. So when Judia returned later on to take her back there again, she quite simply refused, claiming to have too much work to do. Other times she actually hid, leaving me to explain that she wasn't there. She really has character, my mother. She never gave an inch.
The women of the Gaddafi clan were generally insufferable. If I'd go up to one of them to ask whether she wanted to have her hair styled or dyed, she'd say contemptuously: "And who exactly are you to be addressing me?" One morning one of them, elegant and gorgeous, came into the salon, and I was fascinated with her. "How beautiful you are!" I said spontaneously. She slapped me. Petrified at first, I ran to Mama, who muttered between her teeth: "Be quiet. The customer is always right." Three months later I saw the same lady open the door of the salon. She came toward me, said that her daughter who was my age had just died of cancer, and apologized to me. That was even more startling than her slap.
Another time, a bride-to-be reserved the salon for the day of her wedding and put down a small deposit but then canceled. Mama refused to reimburse her, and she turned into a real she-devil. She started shrieking and breaking everything in sight, then alerted the Gaddafi clan, which arrived in full force and wrecked the salon. One of my brothers came to the rescue and was beaten up. When the police intervened it was my brother who ended up in jail. The Gaddafis did everything to keep him there as long as possible, and it took lengthy negotiating between the tribes to reach an agreement, which was followed by an official pardon. He was set free six months later, his skull shaved and his body covered with bruises. He had been tortured. And the tribal agreement notwithstanding, the Gaddafis, who ran every institution in Sirte, including city hall, joined forces to keep the salon closed for another month. I was appalled.
My oldest brother, Nasser, scared me a little and always took an authoritarian role toward me. But Aziz, just a year older than I, was almost like a twin to me, a real partner. Since we attended the same school, I felt he was both protective and jealous. And I served as a go-between for a few of his infatuations. I myself wasn't thinking about love. Not at all. That page was blank. Perhaps, knowing that my mother was strict and very severe, I was censoring myself. I have no idea. I didn't indulge in the slightest crush, not the smallest thrill, the most distant dream. I think that for the rest of my life I'll regret never having had a childhood sweetheart. I knew that I'd get married someday since that is every woman's destiny, and that I would then have to use makeup and be beautiful for my husband. But I knew nothing else. Not about my body, not about sexuality. I was in a panic when I got my period! I went running to tell my mother but she didn't explain a thing to me. And I began to feel ashamed when a commercial for sanitary napkins appeared on TV. Suddenly embarrassed to see these images in the presence of the boys in the family. I remember Mama and my aunts saying to me: "When you're eighteen we'll tell you a few things." What things? "Life." But they never had a chance to explain anything to me. Muammar Gaddafi was ahead of them. And he destroyed me.
One April morning in 2004 — I had just turned fifteen — the high school principal addressed all the students gathered in the courtyard: "The Guide is doing us the great honor of paying us a visit tomorrow. This is a thrill for the entire school. So I am counting on you to be on time, to be orderly, and to be well dressed. You are to present the image of a magnificent school, the way he likes it and deserves to see it!" What a piece of news! What a story! You can't imagine the excitement. To see Gaddafi in person ... His face had been known to me since I was born. His photographs were everywhere — on city walls, in administrative buildings, in town halls, at businesses. On T-shirts, necklaces, notebooks. Not to mention the banknotes. We were living permanently under his gaze, living in his personality cult. And in spite of Mama's acerbic remarks, I nursed a timid reverence for him. I couldn't even imagine his life, since I thought he was more than human. He was above the fray, on an inaccessible Olympus where purity reigned.
So the next day, in a meticulously ironed uniform — black pants and tunic, a white scarf around my face — I ran to school, impatiently waiting to be told how the day would unfold. But the first class had hardly started when a teacher came to get me, saying that I'd been chosen to present the Guide with flowers and gifts. Me! The girl from the salon! The student they kept away from the rest! I was completely in shock. First I opened my eyes wide in disbelief, then I got up, radiant and conscious of the envy of many of the girls in my class. They brought me to a large room with a handful of students who'd also been selected and ordered us to quickly change into traditional Libyan dress. The clothes were there, on hangers. Red tunic, red pants, a veil, and a little hat that they placed carefully on our hair. How exciting it all was! The teachers hurried us along, adjusting our veils, pinning our clothes, smoothing down our unruly locks with a hair dryer. I asked: "Tell me how to greet him, I beg you! What am I supposed to do? Bow down before him? Kiss his hand? Recite something?" My heart was beating a hundred miles a minute while everyone worked hard to make us look magnificent. As I think back to that scene today, I see it as preparing lambs to be led to slaughter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gaddafi's Harem"
Copyright © 2012 Editions Grasset & Fasquelle.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: SORAYA'S STORY,
3. Bab al-Azizia,
PART TWO: THE INVESTIGATION,
1. In Soraya's Footsteps,
2. "Libya," Khadija, Leila ... and So Many More,
3. The Amazons,
4. The Predator,
5. Master of the Universe,
6. Mansour Daw,
7. Accomplices and Providers,
9. A Military Weapon,
About the Translator,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well narrated story of an young girl caught into the harem of gaddaffi's Harem of torture. Insightful and important to understand what was happening