بلدي مغامرة مثيرة في الشعبية الاشتراكية العظمى الجماهيرية العربية الليبية
(My Excellent Adventure in the Great Socialist Peoples’ Libyan Arab Jamahiriya)
The advert was tiny and it was tucked down by the Bunion cartoon, at the bottom of one of the back pages of the Belfast Telegraph, the ones usually filled with classified ads. ‘English Teachers required for University of Tripoli, Libyan Arab Republic’. it read. ‘Graduates with minimum two years experience at secondary level. Annual salary 5,000 Libyan dinars.’ A quick call to the foreign exchange department of the Ulster Bank: “What’s a Libyan dinar worth”, I asked. “Three pounds” came back the answer. Three pounds! You mean this job pays fifteen thousand pounds a year! So miracles can happen.
It was the summer of 1973 and life was miserable. Two years before I had graduated from Queen’s University in Belfast with a degree in Economics and Politics and little idea of what I was going to do with my life. Out of financial desperation I had drifted into teaching. It wasn’t something I wanted to do and I quickly discovered that I hated it. Since then my personal motto has always been: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. (Yes, I know that’s horribly unfair to teachers and as I’m married to one – a very good one, incidentally – I’m not allowed to forget how inaccurate and bigoted that statement is. Sorry, but it’s how I feel.) Anyway having become a teacher by default, I was determined to avoid teaching kids, something I knew I’d really, really hate, so I aimed at the tech college level where I thought the students, being older, would be more motivated, more fun to be with. They weren’t.
My first job was at Newtownards Tech College, teaching general studies to apprentice electricians, carpenters and bricklayers although with a surname like mine I’ll never know how I got it. This was Newtownards after all, east of Belfast and as Orange a town as could be found anywhere in the North. The nearest Catholic population of any size was miles away in Portaferry, perched at the end of the Ards peninsula as if they had been pushed there, out of sight, out of mind. If they had been edged any further away from Newtownards they’d have fallen into the sea. I don’t know why I was hired but my suspicion always was that the English accent confused the heck out of the selection panel.
My boss rejoiced in the name, Cecil Maquigg, an elder in his local Presbyterian kirk and a part-time RUC Reservist. The IRA was firing the first shots of its war when I started teaching there and Cecil was out every night, proudly walking the streets of Newtownards to protect it from the republican visigoths. An upright man, who rarely smiled, Cecil put the ‘d’ into dour and the ‘a’ into anally retentive. I am not sure he knew what to make of his newest recruit but he was polite if distant and left me to my own devices most of the time.
The students were a different matter though. It was in their DNA, an ability to sniff out a fenian (or an imagined one, as in my case) from 200 yards. No problem with the accent with these kids; if a guy has got a fenian name then he is one, end of story. If I say that on the Monday morning after Bloody Sunday, I walked into the first class of the day to discover ‘Thirteen – nil!’ chalked in large letters on the board, you’ll get a taste of what it was like to teach there. My next job, at Larne tech, was marginally worse. Bernadette McAliskey once coined the wonderful phrase, ‘Keeping his head lower than a Larne Taig’ to describe a friend who was trying avoid unwelcome attention. After a year in Larne, I knew exactly what she meant.
The two experiences were not entirely awful. I met some nice people, all Protestants, and gained a valuable insight into that community, one that would serve me well when I began life as a journalist. What really made life so wretched was poverty. When I finished at Queen’s I owed £2,000 in bank loans, an enormous sum in those days. This was 1973 don’t forget and to put that into context a teacher at my level earned an annual salary of about £1,100 a year. So I owed nearly two years pay and it looked as if it would take years to clear the debt, scrimping and scraping in the meantime to keep body and soul attached.
The little advert down by the Bunion advert was therefore a potential life-saver. I could pay off all my debts in a few months and by the end of a year I’d have a little nest egg. If I could get two years out of it, life would be changed beyond recognition. So I wrote off for an application, filled it in and a few days later was summoned to a semi-detached house off the Cregagh Road in east Belfast for an interview with a curious Englishman called Dennis Philcox.
I use the word interview but that’s a generous word to describe what happened. Dennis, a voluble, balding man in his early middle age who sprayed more than spoke sentences, was married to a little mouse of a woman from Iceland called Helga who rarely, if ever, opened her mouth. It soon became clear that the only thing on Dennis’ mind was filling his quota of recruits and as long as you had the bare requirements there’d be a job for you. (I later learned that he and a partner already on site in Tripoli were on a finders’ fee for the University, so the more they hired, the more they got paid). He told me that he’d spent his life in ‘teffel’, as he called it, hoped I’d enjoy it too and wondered how quickly I could quit my job and get over to Tripoli. ‘Teffel?’ I asked, a little stunned at the speed of events and not exactly sure what I was getting into. ‘Yes, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, T-E-F-L’, he explained. “Well, I’d have to give a month’s notice. That’s in my contract”. “Great”, he replied, “welcome aboard”. That was it. I was on my way to Libya.
This was my entree to the world of TEFL, and to the community of people who spent their lives traveling from one Arab country to another teaching English to schoolchildren, college kids, oil executives, army officers, the wives of rich businessmen and so on. They’d typically spend two or three years in Saudi before moving to Kuwait or Dubai or Bahrain and so on. Mostly they were single, addicted to the itinerant life and entranced by the Arab world. Oil-rich Libya had been on the circuit for a couple of decades but since the revolution led by a young Colonel called Muammar Gaddafi old certitudes had been shattered.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Tripoli that I began asking the obvious questions. What on earth was the University of Tripoli doing hiring teachers via display ads down by the Bunion cartoon in the Belfast Telegraph? And how come I had got a job, and a lavishly well-paid one to boot, for which I was not even remotely qualified; after all I hadn’t even heard of TEFL until I met Dennis Philcox much less know how to do it.
The answers to those question lay in the complex history and politics of Libya and to the fact that the young Colonel Gaddafi had upended all those comfortable certainties which in the past had ensured that Belfast would be the last place on earth where Libya would seek its English teachers. These events had already interacted with the lives of the two dozen or so teachers hired by Dennis Philcox and they would interact in a wider and more far-reaching way with the politics and history of Ireland for the next several decades.
Ireland and Libya had one thing in common and that was an unhappy history as someone else’s colony and while Libya’s experience was every bit as miserable as Ireland’s, Libya could justifiably claim that hers was much, much longer. Libya was first occupied by the Roman Empire in 167 BC and ever since then one foreign power or another had taken the place over to enrich and empower themselves. After the Romans came the Moslems, then the Turks followed by the Italians who at first ruled via a local puppet monarchy, the Idris family, until Mussolini appeared on the scene, dispensed with the Idris clan and after a guerrilla war against Libyan partisans which cost many tens of thousands of Arab lives (a story captured in the movie, Lion of the Desert starring Anthony Quinn), absorbed Libya fully into Italy.
What attracted these early foreign interlopers to Libya was its coastal strip. The soil is rich and the Mediterranean climate balmy for ten months of the year. The combination made the Libyan coastal strip Rome’s bread basket and so enriched
Roman merchants that they were able to build two large cities on either side of what is now Tripoli (the ruins are spectacular by the way). The Turks came for the same reason, as well as the strategic advantage afforded by Libya’s geography, and so did the Italians, who shipped over thousands of farmers who, in shades of Ireland’s Plantation, stole land away from the locals to turn into vast olive farms.
The Italians were of course ejected after the Second World War and the victorious powers, America, Britain and France divided the country up into spheres of influence and installed the Idris family back onto the throne. The American sphere was in the west, around Tripoli where a huge airbase, Wheelus, was built. The French took the south, mostly scrabble hard desert but strategically important since it abutted on the French colonies of Chad and Niger, while the British took the east, around Benghazi and the scene of Montgomery’s victory at Tobruk over Rommel, conveniently close to Egypt and the Suez canal, which Britain was determined to hold.
The British used the adjoining desert as a military training ground. Veterans of the conflict in Northern Ireland will remember that after Operation Motorman in 1972 the British imported a fleet of Saladin and Saracen armoured cars to ferry their troops around the streets of Belfast and Derry. The vehicles stood out because instead of a dull shade of khaki like other British vehicles, these had been painted a bright sand yellow and the reason for that was that they had come directly from these training grounds around Benghazi.
By this time oil had been discovered in Libya. Not just any old oil but stuff that was so pure that it was said that it could be poured straight from the ground into a motor car’s engine. That meant it needed very little refining and was more than ordinarily profitable for oil companies. So Libya’s abundantly fertile coastal strip was replaced by oil as the motive for foreign interference and for the best part of a quarter century the post-war settlement prospered: the Idris family ran the place and cut deals with oil companies that enriched them both while the British, Americans and French supplied the Libyan elite with its needs and exercised huge cultural and political influence over the country. The Libyan masses though were left mostly untouched by this enormous natural bounty, as they had since the days of the Roman Empire. (Question: What did the Romans ever do for the Libyans? Answer: Nothing) By 1958, the United Nations calculated that Libya was the third poorest country in the world.
And then along came Gamal Abdel Nasser. Along with officer colleagues in the Egyptian army, Nasser overthrew the pro-British monarch King Farouk in 1952 and in 1956, on a platform of pan-Arab solidarity, social and economic reform and opposition to foreign interference in the region, he was elected President of Egypt. That year Nasser electrified the Arab world when he nationalised the Suez Canal, edging its two largest shareholders, Britain and France into a conspiracy with Israel to invade Egypt and recapture the Canal. The adventure failed, thanks largely to American disapproval (a stand that nowadays seems like it could have happened on another planet) while the debacle of Suez marked the final and undeniable sunset of the British empire. The Suez Canal had long symbolised Western interference in, and domination of the Arab world and Nasser’s move made him an Arab hero and a role model for a young Libyan army officer called Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi’s revolution was modeled entirely on Nasser’s and in many ways was a facsimile. Gaddafi overthrew a pro-Western puppet monarch, just as Nasser had, and he and his fellow revolutionaries shared Nasser’s enthusiasm for radical
social and economic reform. They were also pan-Arabists and Gaddafi’s Libya applied almost immediately for membership of Nasser’s United Arab Republic, the ill-fated union of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. They were also determined to get pay back from the European powers who had colonised or exploited Libya for so long – and that’s where Dennis Philcox and his ad in the Belfast Telegraph enters the story.
Gaddafi and his co-revolutionaries made expulsion of Western oil companies and their governments a major and early priority. By 1973, BP and other foreign companies had been nationalised and oil production was firmly in the hands of the Libyans. The Americans had been forced to close the airbase at Wheelus (in 1974 you could still climb into the cockpits of abandoned American jets lying scattered around the base), the French had been chased out of the south and the British had emptied their military bases and training grounds around Benghazi.
Through the British Council, the British had also supplied the bulk of Libya’s English teachers but in 1972 Gaddafi cancelled their contract. The British Council was an arm of the Foreign Office, and regarded by the Libyans in the same light as the British Army, but it had long been viewed in the Arab world, and elsewhere, as a convenient cover for spies and that was another reason for kicking them out. (The notion that the British used teachers as spies was not, as I learned, that far-fetched. One non-British Council teacher in the agricultural department at the university one night confessed to me in his cups that MI6 had asked to see him during his vacation breaks so that he could be debriefed on a huge Gaddafi-inspired project to irrigate and farm part of the eastern desert. He agreed to help them.)
So that’s why Dennis Philcox was running around recruiting teachers for Libya
although it didn’t quite explain why he had come to Belfast of all places to do so. Strictly speaking Belfast should have been last on his list. The Belfast accent is about as far away from RP, as the TEFL pros call it, as you could get. RP stands for Received Pronunciation, or, if you prefer, a BBC accent and the idea that young Arabs were being taught English by people with such coarse, incomprehensible enunciation horrified and outraged those few British Council leftovers still working out the remnants of their contracts when we arrived in Tripoli.
No, the reason Dennis had set up a base in Belfast had more to do with Nasser, the Suez Canal and Gaddafi’s desire to tweak the noses of the old imperial powers, especially the Brits, than it had with any teaching skills or fluency in English. Dennis had come to Belfast, unwittingly or otherwise, I do not know, to provide camouflage for the Libyans so that they could install an agent of the Provisional IRA in Tripoli, an ambassador if you prefer because that is how he was treated, to liaise with them over weapons and financial assistance for the IRA’s war in the North. That agent wasn’t in our particular group but he was one of dozens of Irish teachers recruited, North and South, at that time, so many that one would not stand out and therefore would less likely come to the attention of MI6 or other agencies that kept a wary eye on Gaddafi’s dealings.
I have written extensively elsewhere about that liaison between the IRA and Gaddafi, how the agent, a small, elf-like man from a town in Co. Monaghan who was known to the Libyans as ‘Mister Eddie’, would teach English to the children of Libyan Army officers by day but at night retire to his villa in Tripoli’s embassy district where he would dine off exquisitely embossed plates confiscated from King Idris’ palace and discuss the war in Ireland with his contact from Libyan intelligence.
I have also written about the last dramatic chapter in that liaison which culminated in the capture of the gun-running ship, the Eksund in 1987 and how that event transformed the IRA’s fortunes, closing off for good any lingering hopes of military victory, but planting the suspicion of high-level betrayal and the seeds of a bitter split in the IRA while accelerating the infant peace process. This is not the place to rehearse all that history but to make a broader point about the Gaddafi-IRA relationship.
The striking aspect of their association is the extent to which the stories of the Provos and Muammar Gaddafi have run on parallel tracks, more or less, throughout the years of their existence, beginning with their genesis. They started out in life at more or less at the same time: Gaddafi’s revolution happened on September 1st, 1969 while the Provos effectively came into being a fortnight earlier, on August 15th, 1969 when the inability of the disarmed/unarmed IRA to defend Catholic homes from Loyalist petrol bombs inspired a revolt and split in the ranks. Gaddafi threw off the yoke of a monarch he regarded as a puppet of the West while the Provos rejected a leadership seen as being just as out of touch with the needs of their people.
They both then shared years of commitment to revolution and a conviction that only violence and armed struggle could achieve their aims, Gaddafi through funding and arming anti-imperialist insurrections throughout Europe and Africa and the Provos by bombing and shooting, by killing and destroying.
Both then shared an existence marked by failure, isolation and near defeat followed by re-assessment and a rejection of their old ways. Gaddafi’s volte-face came about thanks to international sanctions imposed in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing and other incidents and culminated in two highly symbolic acts, both designed to signal a radical change in direction. Only one is really known about. That was Gaddafi’s surrender in 2004 to George W Bush’s demand that he dismantle his ‘weapons of mass destruction’, as overt a genuflection towards Washington as it was possible to make.
The other act, which happened years before, is less well known. When the IRA
made the arrangements for the arms shipments of the 1980’s, Joe Cahill, who had been chief of staff when the relationship with Gaddafi began, accepted a Libyan insistence that the real identities of the IRA personnel involved in the operation, from leaders like ‘Slab’ Murphy and Micky McKevitt through to the foot soldiers who had been sent to Libya to train in the weaponry, be recorded by the Libyans. Each man was obliged to fill out a form detailing exactly who they were which was then handed over to Libyan intelligence. When Gaddafi began to repair relations with Britain in the early to mid 1990’s he handed over those details to MI6 as a sign of his bona fides along with the manifest of weapons shipped from his armories, a concession that facilitated the demand during the peace process that the IRA decommission its weapons. Muammar did the dirt on his old mates, in other words, to save his skin.
The Provos faced defeat and isolation at a much earlier stage than Gaddafi and while it was the 1981 hunger strikes and the subsequent foray into electoral politics that stimulated, at least amongst the leadership around Gerry Adams, a re-assessment and eventual renunciation of armed struggle and their old ways, both they and Gaddafi ended up in the same place, as friends and allies of those they had hitherto spent their lives and expending their energies trying to destroy.
Consider some of the links Gaddafi is said to have forged in recent years. According to the Washington-based Politico website, the grand-daddy of the neocon hawks, Richard Perle, aka ‘the Dark Prince’ and one of those who agitated behind the scenes for the invasion of Iraq, became a Gaddafi adviser and frequent visitor to his desert tent beginning in 2006. Perle was working on behalf of the Boston-based consultancy firm, Monitor and debriefed VP Dick Cheney on his chats with the Libyan leader. Also recruited by Monitor as Gaddafi confidantes were the ‘end of history’ neocon icon, Francis Fukuyama and arch neocon, Bernard Lewis, said by some to be the single most persuasive influence on George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. By their friends shall ye know them.
Last June, Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi revealed the identity of another intriguing recruit to his father’s stable of advisers, telling The Daily Mail that Tony Blair had become ‘a personal family friend’ of the Libyan leader and that the two men were now on first name terms. Saif said that Blair, who is also an advisor to the Wall Street bankers J P Morgan and reportedly within sight of acquiring a personal fortune of some £20 million, had become a consultant to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund which has assets of around $65 billion and had visited the country ‘many, many times’ since quitting as prime minister. Their relationship prospered, he said, when Blair negotiated the release of the Lockerbie bomber in return for a lucrative oil contract awarded to BP.
Blair denied the Mail story but Saif Gaddafi was adamant: ‘Tony Blair has an excellent relationship with my father”, he insisted. “For us, he is a personal family friend. I first met him around four years ago at Number 10. Since then I’ve met him several times in Libya where he stays with my father…….He’s an adviser to the LIA, the Libyan Investment Authority. He has some consultancy role.’
The facts are much less clear cut when it comes to the relationship between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair but given revelations from Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell that he and his prime minister helped draft IRA statements at key moments during the decade-long peace process, and that Blair’s strategy of boosting Sinn Fein with concessions during negotiations, no matter the collateral damage done to the Unionist leader David Trimble or Sinn Fein’s Nationalist rivals, John Hume’s
SDLP, helped make it the dominant Nationalist party in the North, questions about the ties between them – was Blair an adviser or just a helper? – will be debated long after both men are dead. It could hardly be otherwise. You could say that Tony Blair destroyed the centre ground of NI politics in his quest to boost the Sinn Fein leader and you can’t get more buddy-buddy than that.
Whatever the truth there’s no doubt that in the case of Gerry Adams – and with Gaddafi until recently – their respective political turnarounds brought respectability, success and a new sense of security – as well as a new and surprising set of friends.
The fortunes and life stories of the Provos and Gaddafi may have travelled on parallel tracks for most of the past forty years but no longer, or so it seems. As I write this, Gaddafi faces extinction in Libya while, thanks to those pesky bankers, Adams is enjoying something of a revival in fortunes with a good result in the recent Irish general election. Will their paths now diverge? Who knows, but bear in mind what Chou En-Lai once said about the lessons learned from the French revolution – it’s far too early to tell.
As for me I had a ball in Libya. I spent two years there teaching in the language laboratory (the accent again doing me a favour) and I met some great Arab students, none more memorable than Juhanah, a Palestinian girl with perfect English whose family had twice been driven from their homes by Israelis, in 1948 from their farm near what became Tel Aviv and in 1967 from their home in West Jerusalem. Her father, a Cambridge educated philologist and as sophisticated a man as you could meet on a long day’s walk, had been obliged to take a low ranking job in a Libyan ministry to keep his family fed and clothed, taking orders from bullying oafs.
I lived in a villa on a farm cum fruit orchard that had once been owned by Italian colons but was now back in Libyan hands that was within driving distance of
empty, silvery Mediterranean beaches where many an afternoon was spent snorkeling, swimming and sunning. These were the early years of Gaddafi’s revolution. No wall-sized portraits of the dear leader stared down at you from street corners and the oil money went where it should, to the building of new apartment blocks, schools and hospitals and the wallets of ordinary Libyans.
Life was good. Booze flowed like oil from the desert wells (the Libyans turned a blind eye as the European and American expats brewed home-made beer or distilled ‘Flash’ with skills honed in the Glens of Antrim or the woods of Kentucky) while government subsidies on food meant that at night, as the cicadas sang their entrancing song, we barbecued whole sirloins or fillets of beef bought at the same price as stewing meat and feasted like kings. We were young, we were single and, for the first time in our lives, we had money in our pockets. I paid off all my debt, came home with enough money to buy a house and the energy and drive to make teaching a thing of the past.
I will always have a great affection for Libya but I hope Muammar goes to where all the hypocrites and tyrants should go. If he does, I’m sure he won’t want for company. And if he waits long enough he just might be joined by some old friends.