Sunday, August 28, 2011

Good-bye Gadhafi: The Fourth Estate Says Farewell

Frizz-head himself
“We’re coming for you, frizz-head!”

This derogatory threat frequently aimed at Colonel Moammar Gadhafi by the ragtag revolutionaries now conquering Tripoli is not exactly among the famous battle cries of history, such as “No guts, no glory!” or Shakespeare’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” The sarcastic name-calling reminds me of a (roughly translated) quote from Augusto Cesar Sandino, who fought the U.S. Marines occupying Nicaragua from 1927 to 1933: “Come, you clod of morphine addicts...I will make you eat the dust of my wild mountains!” Back then, morphine was routinely included in military first-aid kits to treat painful injuries. But our soldiers must have been using the opiate just to get high and really who can blame them, given the snakes, scorpions and swelter of Central America?

The clod of Libyan loyalists sticking with their leader after four decades of authoritarian rule have been eating the dust of the rebels’ wild deserts. And news coverage of the conflict is mesmerizing for a longtime war-correspondent wannabe like me. The most must-see-TV moments: the 36 journalists from all over the world held hostage in the Rixos, a five-star hotel that became their five-day prison.

CNN’s Matthew Chance issued live updates, sometimes via Skype or cellphone, as he kept a wary eye on the Gadhafi thugs armed with Kalashnikov rifles patrolling the lobby below where the captive reporters were gathered at one point. When all else failed, he went the Twitter route with escape on his mind: “Been thinking about how we can get out...But not a single journo is up for it.” As the colonel’s compound was under siege: “Huge explosions, heavy machine-gun fire. Rixos getting hit by stray bullets.”

Matthew Chance
The captive reporters, donning the body armor and helmets they need when embedded with combat troops, huddled in the basement or slept in the hallway of the top floor to stay away from windows while artillery fire erupted near the building. They spent many hours lying on their stomachs to remain as safe as possible in the mayhem. The power went out for 24 hours, leaving them in the dark and without air-conditioning in Libya’s intense summer heat. “We are feeling our way around the corridor with candles,” Chance tweeted.

Worse yet, the water was turned off. Food soon became another problem. His message on August 22: “Some gunshots cracking outside. We raided the hotel larder and got tons of cheese!” Eventually, the kitchen was fully plundered and the gunmen – no doubt also hungry – smashed open the interior gift shop. “I had a Mars Bar for breakfast,” he wrote two days later. Throughout, his British gift for understatement – or perhaps merely the Twitter limitation of 140 characters – prevailed: “Fingers crossed.”

The ordeal finally drew to a close on August 24. Chance’s 29-year-old Jordanian producer, Jomana Karadsheh, persuaded their captors in Arabic that continuing would be futile. “Crisis ended when Rixos gunmen realized that Libya outside of hotel doors was no longer Libya of old,” he explained on Twitter. “Handed us their guns & said, ‘Sorry.’” The journos, many in tears, were whisked away by the Red Cross.

Amid a popular uprising in a tribal Muslim society, this saga surely was the stuff of great fiction. Might a movie be in the works? When it comes to Gadhafi, the quintessential novel about ruthless, deranged tyrants has already been written. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez came out in 1975. Although set in the Caribbean and mirroring the excesses of numerous Latin American strongmen – such as Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, installed by the Americans after Sandino was assassinated – the book presents a universal truth about what Marquez calls “the throne of illusions.”

While committing atrocities, keeping the populace in poverty and harboring their nation’s wealth, these paranoid puppet masters invariably grow increasingly stranger. As I recall, the el-presidente-for-life depicted in the book decides to cover the capital city’s street lamps with red paper to counter a scarlet fever epidemic raging through his land, a plot device borrowed from a genuine incident in Mexican history.

Sandino poster with quote
The Libyan equivalent of the “eternal dictator” that Marquez described has always been as weird as the worst of ‘em. Gadhafi seemingly fell for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visited in 2008, giving her a locket with his photo inside and telling al-Jazeera “I support my darling black African woman... Leeza, Leeza, Leeza.” This week, the rebels taking over Gadhafi’s palace compound discovered two photo albums filled with her images. One can only wonder if this creepy obsession provoked feelings of jealousy among his Amazonian Guard, the tough-looking but attractive females he recruited for protection, and the zaftig blonde Ukrainian “nurse” who traveled everywhere with him.

In mid-June, three months into NATO’s bombing campaign, Gadhafi enjoyed a match with the Russian head of the World Chess Federation (who considers the game “a gift from extraterrestrial civilizations”). John Burns of The New York Times referred to the staged event as “wacko” and was promptly expelled from the country. “By all accounts, delusional” is how he put it on August 24, when asked to say more about the madman “with deadly cunning” who kicked him out of his fiefdom.

Rebels on gold mermaid couch
In the UK, Esther Adderly wrote in The Guardian on August 25: “Aside from their megalomania, fondness for brutality and (frequently) ignominious ends, dictators unwaveringly seem to share a taste in possessions and interior decor that might best be described as exuberant.” She noted that, in the compound home of Gadhafi’s daughter Aisha, there is a gold couch in the shape of a mermaid emblazoned with her own face. Her father also spawned a gaggle of nasty sons with a similar sense of entitlement.

Gadhafi’s elaborate custom-made clothes, bling, hats and turbans and were designed to bestow majesty but instead defined him as a ridiculously bizarre poseur. While the whole corrupt family luxuriated with Libya’s vast oil profits, he found time to foment terror. A suitcase bomb blew apart Pan-Am 103 over Scotland, killing 270 people aboard, in December 1988.The convicted Lockerbie killer, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, has just fled Tripoli – most likely to hide out with the despot, now the target of a massive search and with a $2 million bounty on his (frizzy) head. Those in the know believe the entire gang of villains most likely got away on the golf carts that would have allowed them to traverse the more than 20 kilometers of underground tunnels extending from beneath the compound.

Under minimal command-and-control, the opposition forces have jerry-rigged weapons mounted on small flatbed trucks that suggest a scene straight out of Mad Max. They are ordinary citizens – engineers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers – with no previous experience as warriors but Gadhafi’s 42-year reign is indeed collapsing. They celebrate their success by firing in the air or yelling “God is great!” When dreamed-of freedom from oppression suddenly comes true, the euphoria is contagious, yet I’d wager this tribal Muslim society will not now choose the equally suffocating shroud of Islamic fundamentalism.

In terms of stateside television, CNN has provided the most comprehensive perspective on Libya, thanks to courageous and articulate people on the ground like Chance, Karadsheh, Sara Sidner and Arwa Damon – who recently took viewers on a tour of Gadhafi’s enormous, well-appointed RV that was liberated by the fighters. Thanks to these intrepid employees, the cable network has out-scooped every other broadcaster and deserves an Emmy if not a Pulitzer Prize.

Unfortunately, the anchors back in New York or Atlanta tend to be poorly informed, even obnoxious. None is more inept than Kyra Phillips, in my opinion. Assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, like a witless cheerleader she asked the pilots sitting in their cockpits to wave to the camera. These planes were about to blow Baghdad to smithereens, killing who knows how many civilians along with Saddam’s army.

A month later, she interviewed the doctor of a 12-year-old boy named Ali who lost 15 relatives and both arms when a U.S. missile hit his Baghdad home. In, news editor Joan Walsh soon pointed out that Phillips "seemed shocked” by Ali's apparent inability to see that it was all for his own good, asking on air: “Does he understand why this war took place? Has he talked about Operation Iraqi Freedom and the meaning?" My hope is that this CNN birdbrain will shut the fuck up now that we’ve promoted regime change you can actually believe in.

On MSNBC, the infinitely smarter commentator Rachel Madow offered some comic relief about the Libyan situation. She enumerated the 112 different English-language ways to spell the moniker of the lunatic at the center of the story: Muammar Gaddafi is used by Time magazine and the BBC, for example. The Library of Congress has him down as Muammar Qaddafi. Other variations range from Mu'ammar Qaddafi to Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi to Muammar el-Qaddafi to Moammar Kadafi to Muammar Al Gathafi to Muammar Khaddafi. The White House prefers Muammar el-Qaddafi. The Associated Press and other organizations rely on Moammar Gadhafi, the one I’ve selected for no reason other than the whole thing is too dizzying to contemplate.

Whatever the case, he’ll always be frizz-head to me.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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