To an outsider, Gaddafi’s Libya was a weird, disturbing but ludicrous conundrum: a country where ‘the people’ were said to be in charge and one man had absolute power; where public transport was abolished as ‘anti-democratic’ and the police force was one day replaced with children in uniform to deter crime; and where abundant oil revenues were spent on motorway flyovers that carried no motorways.
Laugh as the visitor might, there were hints of darkness too, with the Italian embassy quietly complaining of skips full of human limbs dumped behind their elegant villa. A thick screen of PR rhetoric, evasive officials and an undeniably nervous general public obscured the visiting journalist’s view. The wider world guffawed at the antics of a ruler who held court in a tent and, depending on his mood, wore Bedouin cloaks, slick Italian suits and mirror sunglasses, or an admiral’s uniform with rows of medals from imaginary wars. He did many a turn on American television, oblivious of the figure he cut, and the West smirked.
We visitors used to say that the commonly held view of a country with a mad leader was not quite accurate. He was horribly sane – and malevolent – and it was his country that was being driven mad.
The reality behind this emerges powerfully and elegantly in the words of Hisham Matar. He is a man well qualified to dissect the regime, not forensically, but in a personal way, which he accomplishes to stunning effect in this account of his family’s experiences at the hands of a ruthless