In March 2008, Muammar Gaddafi came to Syria for the annual Arab Summit in Damascus. One night, he went on a pedestrian tour of the Sha’alan neighbourhood and stopped for sweet Damascene dumplings at a local store, amused by the fact that locals were taking photos of him from balconies, rooftops, and street corners.
He decided, right there and then, that he needed to pay a visit to Syria’s legendary comedian, Duraid Lahham, a popular household name in Libya, who is famous for his classic Ghawwar black and white comedies.
Gaddafi and Lahham go a long way back — the Syrian actor often staged performances in Libya, and “Brother Muammar” had hailed him for his “Green Thought” which was progressive and Arab nationalistic — mirroring, according to Gaddafi, the Libyan leader’s own Green Book.
Once in the 1980s, Gaddafi had even booked an entire theatre in Tripoli to attend one of Lahham’s shows — all alone. He was a big fan of Lahham’s 1981 television series Wadi Al Misk, and often insisted that Libyan TV broadcast it over and over again — sometimes repeating certain episodes several days in a row, simply because they made Gaddafi roll over with laughter.
With all of that in mind, Gaddafi showed up at Lahham’s residence in the Mezzeh neighbourhood, accompanied by a colourful assortment of poets, singers, and actors he had picked up along the way. Stories of Gaddafi’s eccentric behaviour have recently snowballed in the Arab press, and on Facebook. They have touched on a variety of topics, ranging from Gaddafi’s colourful assortment of suits and hats, the tent he props up wherever he goes, and the 40 Amazonian female bodyguards employed for his protection, which as rumour has it in Libya, are required to be all virgins. That doesn’t prevent them, however, from wearing high heels, make-up, or having their hair done when accompanying him.
Gaddafi reportedly hates flying over water, prefers staying on a ground floor — or in a tent — and never travels without his Ukrainian nurse. He loves the limelight, and recently showed up in Italy wearing a suit with a photograph of Libyan resistance leader Omar Al Mukhtar pinned on his chest.
Although some of these stories are fiction — most of them are true, and they reveal how complicated a character Gaddafi really is.
Gaddafi began his career as an ardent Arab nationalist, taking part in student demonstrations in Libya during the Suez Canal war of 1956. He was enchanted by then Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser, hoping that one day he would walk in his footsteps.
When Gaddafi seized power from King Idris in September 1969, his first idea was to hand over power to Nasser in order to unify Egypt and Libya. The Egyptian leader gently smiled and turned down the offer, telling him, “Muammar, you remind me of my youth.”
Gaddafi, after all, was only 27 years old.
Gaddafi’s audacity did not end there, and nor did his behaviour. In 2003, due to tension between him and then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, he accused the Saudis of “bringing the Americans to occupy Iraq.” During an Arab summit in Doha that same year, he declared himself “an international leader, doyen of Arab leaders, the king of kings of Africa and the Imam of all Muslims.”
During the Arab Summit in Tunisia in 2004, Gaddafi started to fidget, took out a cigarette and began puffing away, blowing smoke in the face of then Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The following year, when speaking at the Algeria Summit, he called the Palestinians and Israelis “stupid”.
In 2007, he boycotted the Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia, but gave a televised speech saying that “Liza” (in reference to Condoleezza Rice) had dictated what Arab leaders should say and do in Riyadh.
On a visit to Rome in 2009, Gaddafi hosted 200 Italian models aged between 18 and 25, giving each a copy of the Quran and asking them to convert to Islam.
During the Doha Summit of 2009 he started a row with Saudi King Abdullah, saying, “You were made by Britain and protected by the US.”
One of his most outrageous performances was at the UN last September, when he addressed the General Assembly for the first time. He spoke for nearly two hours then read excerpts from a paperback copy of the UN Charter, ripping out pages as he went along.
Gaddafi once defined democracy saying that its roots are in the Arabic language, which means to sit in one’s chair (power) because ‘cracy’ sounds like the Arabic word kursee.
In a 1998 interview, he claimed to have a “normal” relationship with US president Bill Clinton; “Clinton and I talk over the phone every night, sometimes for hours. He is a nice man and had it been entirely up to him, our relationship would have normalised with the US, long ago. The real problem is his wife, Hillary!”
During that interview, shown on Libyan TV, Gaddafi proposed that one of his sons marries Clinton’s daughter Chelsea, in order to turn a new page in Libyan-US relations.
Remarkably, Gaddafi still believes that he is not the president of Libya — although not a single decision has been taken over the past 42 years without his knowledge. When addressing his people last week, he made that clear by comparing himself to the Queen of England saying that both he and her “don’t have any authority to enact official rules”.
“That is exactly like my situation” he added, always correcting journalists or people who meet him and address him as “Mr President.” He often replies, “I am not president, but leader of the Revolution. Address me as Brother Muammar!”
This article appeared in Gulf News on March 1, entitled, “Decoding Eccentric Brother Muammar.”