March 28, 2011
From Ireland to Libya.
Posted by William Birdthistle

When you grow up in a village of a few hundred expatriate families at the edge of the Sahara, you can be reasonably certain you’ll never hear its name spoken aloud on American radio.  But about a fortnight ago, with twin toddlers clamoring for breakfast and spoons of porridge poised in mid-air, I was proven wrong.

After weeks of Libyan disintegration featuring the unwelcome revival of Qaddafi’s ugly cabaret, fighting has for the second time reached the dusty hamlet of Marsa el-Brega.  Forces rebelling against the soi-disant Brotherly Leader and Guide of the [1969] Revolution have, at latest report, retaken the airstrip and port in this small wellhead on the Mediterranean coast.  Thirty years ago, forces loyal to Qaddafi formed a farewell escort for those of us plucked from the country during the last evacuation of Americans off the shores of Tripoli.  What was a site of childhood adventure for me has become a grim pit for Libyans who, it seems, must either remove Qaddafi or die for trying.


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When my father first accepted a posting from his hometown in County Cork to Libya in 1963, the country was ruled by King Idris and scrap metal.  The king was first and last monarch of a nation newly cobbled together from antique provinces of Ottoman vintage: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan.  Idris I was ushered into office after World War II by Allies grateful for his resistance to Axis forces and ushered out again in 1969 by an ungrateful army captain with latent penchants for sunglasses, costumery, and despotism.

The scrap metal, Libya’s first export, was the detritus of materiel from the Desert War, when Field Marshals Montgomery and Rommel fought their tanks back and forth through many of the same towns being fought over today: Benghazi, Tobruk, and Ajdabiya.  One of the first tasks for my father’s company more than fifteen years after the war was to clear the beaches of mines.  Many decades later, carcasses of vintage bombers and fighters still served as landmarks in the desert and curios beneath the pristine waters of the Libyan coastline.

During the war, soldiers on both sides assumed their enemy was poisoning the drinking wells when they routinely found oil floating atop the water.  But in Libya, petroleum oozes from the ground, which is why families like mine spent decades living in tiny outposts like Brega to harvest it.  The few amenities in such places shrank dramatically when Qaddafi took power with his long-forgotten religious zeal that outlawed haraam items like alcohol and pork.  Happily, an oil refinery is essentially a massive distillery, so my father and and his co-workers miniaturized their expertise to produce “flash,” a high-octane violation of Qaddafi’s edict.  (Upgraded to “Cointreau” with an orange rind, “Kahlua” with a scoop of Sanka, and “Scotch” with some wood chips.)  My mother and her children became adept at hiding Clonakilty sausages and bacon in brassieres and underwear too mortifying for customs officials to search.

When I learned of bullets being fired and people dying in this tiny town, known to few others than those of us who lived there and loved it, I realized that Qaddafi had completed his metamorphosis from farcical clown to wicked menace.

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