As the author, a retired U. S. Foreign Service officer, observes, “For most of us, making history is not in the cards. But,for any of us a close brush with history can happen any time — perhaps without our knowing!” Read on to find out about his unexpected encounter with an historical figure. ~ Ed.
N THOSE DAYS — the late 1960’S — all of North Africa was, as much still is, a gritty, dusty place where, when vision could penetrate the ugly detritus of modern life, one could spot evidence of millennia of human habitation and eons of natural history all around. Among North Africa’s more exciting, if not esthetically elevating, regions was Cyrenaica — the Kingdom of Libya’s eastern province — where the all-encompassing Saharan dust was being stirred then by man’s frenetic quest for oil. The only town of any size in the province, Benghazi, had been something of a household word two decades earlier when Rommel’s tanks chased the British, then the pursued became the pursuer in that sideshow to the European World War. Once that fray was over Cyrenaica went back to sleep while the wreckage of war — the thousands of abandoned trucks, tanks, aircraft, and forgotten human corpses, rotted ever so slowly in the arid desert climate.
At the time this story takes place, Cyrenaica had changed from being one of the most economically deprived, educationally backward, physically isolated, and culturally neglected places on the planet to being all of those plus the place most outrageously, selfishly, and unconscionably exploited by European and American capitalists.
The people of Benghazi and the rest of Libya were generally passive, accepting their fate as the rape of their native endowment proceeded all around them. For the privilege of extracting the oil, huge sums of money were paid in royalties by ESSO, Mobil, British Petroleum, and the other firms, but so little of that wealth trickled down to the average Libyan that his real per capita income had not changed from the time of independence in the 50’s, when Libya was said by the UN to be the poorest country on earth. There was, however, some new employment for Libyans. Hundreds worked in the oil camps doing heavy labor, cooking meals, cleaning barracks, or driving buses. A very few, those with the proper connections, had hooked up with foreign partners to form companies providing goods or services to the oil community at a handsome profit. But the huge majority of Libya’s population stood around — or sat around in the coffee shops of Tripoli or Benghazi — paying inflated prices engendered by the boom and watching the theft of their national treasure much as they might a soccer match.
To be fair to the fat capitalists, their exploitation of Libya was proceeding with the full — even avid — consent of the Senussi, the mystical nomadic cult whose leader was Libya’s monarch, and of its hangers-on consisting of Bedouin princes, slave traders, and other mysterious and often sleazy élites. While King Idris was generally believed to hover in a cloud of acetic purity well above the financial scramble, huge fortunes were being made by those who whispered into his ear. While the petroleum coming out of the ground lubricated the world’s gears, payoffs, baksheesh in the local parlance, oiled the wheels of commerce locally.
Into this romantic, exciting, mysterious, and deliciously corrupt setting I stepped, the most junior of diplomatic officers, sporting a self-image cloned from Lawrence of Arabia, and charged with watching the decision-making process, the political intrigues, and the social dynamics of Libya.
The American diplomatic establish in Libya, while headquartered in the administrative capital of Tripoli, maintained two other embassy offices, one in Benghazi, the legislative capital, and one in Bayda, the “royal” capital where Idris chose figuratively to pitch his tent. In that fateful summer of this story, my second in Libya, our principal officer in Benghazi was due for leave and I was assigned to stand in for a month. It was an honor, one I saw presenting another opportunity to expand my country expertise into the huge wasteland stretching eastward from the relatively cosmopolitan oasis of Tripoli.
In reality the duty proved somewhat less glamorous. It required that I live in a large, poorly furnished, pest-infested house near the sea, where I had a family of caretakers who were to cook, clean, and otherwise tend to my needs. The house came complete with a mangy dog whose hair seemed to be the preferred mode of transport for the scorpions and other noisome varmints trying to enter my precincts. The cook, who liked the dog even less than he liked scorpions, refused to check the animal for hitch-hikers, so I had to be very careful before sitting, lying down, or putting on clothing.
My driver would fetch me from this questionable splendor each morning in the embassy’s barely-operational Chevrolet station wagon and deliver me to the office located in a privileged setting on the main square overlooking the busy harbor. Unlike Tripoli, which boasted a scenic and historic waterfront, Benghazi’s was ugly, tired, hard-working, and still showing signs of its war-torn recent past. From my office balcony the harbor water looked as dusty as the city streets, if that were possible. Indeed it was! When the hot ghibli winds blew north across a thousand miles of Saharan dunes, they carried with them untold tons of what had once been Chad’s soil. The blowing dust tinted the Benghazi harbor water the omnipresent umber of the shore and produced in it a viscosity approaching mushroom soup. The dust was so pervasive that even when the wind stopped, the port lacked the pristine purity usually associated with the Mediterranean.
Those trifling creature discomforts and aesthetic imperfections aside, I was in heaven. I had a small but real slice of the big game of diplomacy and, with luck, I thought I might do something that would be noticed — at least in Tripoli, if not in Washington.
Not unlike elsewhere, the social life of a resident of Benghazi in those days was largely defined by his ethnic, social, and financial status. For westerners and those élite Libyans partnered with offshore suppliers, there were the clubs, most resembling Hollywood’s idea of the Longhorn in Dodge City, circa 1870. For the few western families there were somewhat milder beach clubs and company compounds where events appealing to all ages could be held. And, for rest there was the ubiquitous coffee shop where the good Muslim could get a stimulating but non-alcoholic jolt while schmoozing with his mates. The other social activity in which westerners, Libyans, and the multitude of “others” could participate was the inevitable dinner party. As the (acting) principal American representative on the ground — even though one who sported only a peach-fuzz face in a stubbly-beard town — I was invited to my share. And, it was at one of these events where my claim to (extremely modest and limited) fame was sealed.
This particular party, like most in Benghazi, was hosted by men, two in this case (one an American) who managed a major British electronic engineering firm. Both were senior field officials of the company with decades of experience in third-world countries and plenty of scar tissue to show for it. And, as usual, these men existed without wives and entertained with the assistance of local help (which appeared no better than mine when it came to preparing something toothsome!).
The dozen guests at the table — again all men — were mostly Europeans, but there were four or five “élite” Libyans present. Lots of booze preceded and accompanied the marginally-edible meal, which ended with the guests withdrawing to the hosts’ study for more drinks. On a plank table in the smoke-filled study lay a set of the plans for the hosts’ company activities in Cyrenaica — a radio network stretching across the desert. The great sand sea of Cyrenaica, extending south from the Mediterranean coast for over a thousand miles toward central Africa, was where the oil was being found. And unfortunately, it was the area where too many of those looking for oil had been lost. The radio net, then, was to support search and rescue for missing parties, downed planes, and the like in that awesome blazing wilderness.
Over our brandies or ports or Danish beers, the dozen of us gave cursory glances to those maps showing where the radio sites would be located. None of us, I thought, paid any serious attention to the blueprints. I did not imagine many would recall having seen them the following day. But someone did take note and his doing so would cost me some sleep that night.
Tired and a bit tipsy, I returned home to hearth and home, made a note to phone thanks to my hosts of the evening the next day, and after checking for insect life went to bed, only to be awakened a few hours later in the predawn darkness by the cook saying I had an emergency phone call. My American host of the previous evening was on the line shouting with incoherent fury that he was in custody, as was his co-director. They were being placed on the first flight out of the country — a flight scheduled to depart in two hours! He claimed he did not know the reason for their expulsion — that the police were throwing around words like “espionage” and “treason.”
I hung up and phoned the emergency number given me by the head of the Benghazi branch of the Libyan Foreign Ministry, reckoning that this was as legitimate an emergency as I was likely to see and that he would understand my waking him. The diplomat took the call in stride and promised to investigate. It was not long before he got back to me with the news that the expulsion was ordered by the military and was based upon the two westerners’ showing “top secret” plans to unauthorized people. I countered that such a charge was nonsense — the plans on the table were paid for by the oil companies and were displayed in many oil company offices in Tripoli. How could they be considered top secret? I fumed. The ministry official suggested that perhaps I take should take the matter up with the military officer who had instituted the expulsion order. The Army Signal Corps, my ministry contact said, was the branch involved and the officer in command at Benghazi was Captain Q. When I asked if that was “Queue” like the bus waiting line or “Q” like James Bond’s colleague, he chuckled, saying it really didn’t matter as it was a nickname derived from the captain’s tribal origin.
The duty noncom in charge of the Signals’ offices at that hour spoke enough English to inform me that the captain would be in his office in thirty minutes. I got the captain on my second call and, although the Foreign Ministry official had assured me he spoke English, the officer refused to acknowledge me in that language. My Arabic consisted of little more than formalistic greetings and a few set phrases; it was not nearly adequate for expressing the diplomatic indignation I needed at that moment. Fortunately I thought of trying Italian, of which we both had enough to converse, and it worked! But, while the medium was adequate, the message was not. The captain was adamant that the two engineers would be expelled — or hung as spies if I preferred!
By this time I knew that the flight was loading at the airport, but I nonetheless had my driver take me to the Signals barracks near the port. In a brief confrontation, Captain Q brushed me off as he might a minor irritation. He literally foamed at the mouth as he broadly excoriated all outsiders and especially those who were diluting Libya’s wealth and social structures. I was truly taken aback by his vehemence, and had to acknowledge that, as the plane had departed, I had lost.
Back at the office I put through a radio call to Tripoli and reported the incident to the deputy to the ambassador, in my defeated and somewhat hung-over state mumbling something about the rabid captain. My superior instructed me to send in a report of the incident for the record. I did so, and the two-page memo disappeared into the courier pouch to be forgotten by me almost immediately. End of story. Or almost the end.
Some fourteen months after the dawn expulsion of the two engineers, I was contentedly drinking a second cup of morning coffee at my desk in an American diplomatic mission hundreds of miles from Libya. My transfer a year earlier had left my Libyan incarnation merely a warm and welcome memory. My new venue and new responsibilities permitted precious few moments for watching events in “the sandbox,” as it was labeled here in sophisticated Europe.
That morning I was summoned into the presence of my boss, who told me to be ready to participate in a meeting early in the afternoon on the subject of the morning paper’s headline. He tossed me the paper, which reported the previous day’s coup d’etat in Libya. King Idris, who was out of the country at the time, had been overthrown by a military junta. Not much was known about those in charge except that they were young field-grade officers, apparently of a strict Islamic and perhaps xenophobic bent.
The debriefing to which I was summoned that afternoon was handled by a senior intelligence agency officer from a neighboring American embassy and was attended by his two assistants and me. The “spook” had with him a noticeably thin file containing, as he told me, all that was known about those who were now in charge in Tripoli. Department of State files had but one substantive piece of reporting on the men, he said.
The intelligence official then produced a copy of the report I had written on that uncomfortable morning so long before and so far away. It seemed, he indicated, that what I knew about my interlocutor of that morning was the totality of what the U.S. Government knew! But it probably was not too significant, the senior officer told me, “as this group is clearly a bunch of amateurs who won’t last long”. The captain of signals with whom I had locked horns, he said, was nicknamed “Captain Q” by his British trainers, based upon the transliteration from the Arabic for his home-town name which transliterates as “Q’ad-aafi.”
While some things have changed in the thirty-one years since my brush with history that fateful September, the benighted nation of Libya remains, for better or worse, in the control of that young man I knew as Captain Q. But it’s true that he carries the rank of colonel now and that he and I are no longer those youngsters who locked horns briefly over the fate of two nearly forgotten engineers — who, incidentally, were never seen again in the sandy wastes of Cyrenaica after that ill-fated dinner party.
Copyright © 2000 Rick Sherman