The images of the "rebel forces" advancing into Tripoli mesmerized me this weekend. It has been a surreal experience to see the "Green Square" in Tripoli filled with joyful Libyans celebrating the anticipated fall of Colonel Gaddafi.
In 1965 my Dad took our family to Tripoli after he obtained a job as a geophysicist for a major U.S. oil company in Libya.
Dad had worked for a couple of different companies in Texas and Oklahoma. But our family’s proverbial "big break" came when my Dad accepted the new oil job and took my Mom, my older sister Robin, my little brother John, and me to North Africa, of all places.
Libya had a monarchy in place when we moved there in 1965. King Idris was the leader. Libya had been an Italian colony and had achieved freedom from Italy in 1954. In the late 1950’s oil was discovered there and U.S. and British oil companies moved in. By 1965 there were over 10,000 Americans living in and around Tripoli.
Living in Libya as a grade school kid was like a dream. We swam and snorkeled in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, searched for Roman coins near the ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna, and collected bullets from World War II which we found in the sand. The U.S. had a large air force base there called Wheelus, which broadcast U.S. television and radio shows.
The images of living on the edge of the Sahara Desert remain with me today. We lived around the corner from the tallest mosque in Tripoli. The call to prayer which was broadcast from the top of the mosque is just one memory of the sights and sounds of Libya. I remember driving downtown with my Mom when she would shop in the souk in the old city, buying sheep rugs, copper pots, and silver bracelets.
Libyans were warm and friendly people. But for reasons not clear to me now, as a child we got into a lot of "dirt-clod" fights with the Libyan kids. As strange as an experience it was for us growing up in North Africa, it must have been even stranger for the Libyan children to grow up with a bunch of redneck kids from Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
On September 1, 1969, things in Libya changed profoundly.
I remember that day well. It was the first day of fifth grade. My brother, sister and I waited outside of the villa for the school bus that would take us to the Oil Companies School (OCS). The bus never came. Our neighbors told us that there had been a "revolution" and King Idris had been overthrown. My Dad returned from downtown and told my Mom the exciting details and told us kids to go inside and be quiet. We stayed in our villa for two weeks with the Ghibli blinds closed. I remember being very happy that I did not have to go to school and got to play with my siblings.
When Gaddafi took over, he quickly forbid the airing of any U.S. television and radio and kicked the U.S. and British air bases out of the country. The Italian stores were looted and burned. He forbid any signs in English and imposed a curfew.
Billboards of Gaddafi were then erected all over the city, like this one shown in this photo below I took as a youngster.
Gaddafi militarized the country. He aligned Libya with every nut cake dictator like Idi Amin, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He linked Libya with the Soviet Union and bought MIG jets and Soviet tanks. I will never forget the noise of a hundred tanks driving down Zavia Road, on one of the few asphalt roads in our neighborhood. I ran down to Zavia to watch the tanks, as they roared by tearing up the asphalt. The spectacle simultaneously fascinated and frightened me.
My Mom and Dad stayed in Libya until 1988, when President Reagan ordered all U.S. citizens out of the country. Like the thousands of other Americans who lived in Libya in the 1960’s and 1970’s, our fondest memories were those of Libya "before Gaddafi."
Gaddafi lasted a long time. After over 4 decades of secret police, it looks like Gaddafi has finally fallen.
Has it really been 42 years since that first day of fifth grade when the school buses never arrived?