As a few days ago marked the fifth anniversary of the murder of Muammar Gaddafi, I decided to mark it with a more low-key, fun-ish look back at Libya’s former national figurehead.
A more serious piece on the life and character of one of the most controversial world figures of the 20th century will follow in a few days, which I’d been working on for some time but hadn’t been able to finish in time.
In the meantime it occurs to me that while people mostly write very serious things – good or bad – about Gaddafi and his era, and much of it centers unfortunately on his brutal death and the horrific events in Libya from 2011 to now, it might be nicer for a change to look at a few of the more lighthearted curiosities and tidbits from Gaddafi’s monumental and controversial life. And, given how odd and epic a story his life was and how eccentric and odd a figure Gaddafi himself could be, there are quite a few curious or interesting facts or stories to pick from.
Recounting such trivia perhaps helps to humanise the man and prevent him from being presented only as an archetype, a symbol or a caricature.
Here then are some of the most curious, funny or otherwise interesting little bits of trivia I’ve come across about Muammar Gaddafi over the years.
For example, Gaddafi had a Jewish pen-pal who lived in Brooklyn.
Louis Schlamowitz had actually begun writing to Gaddafi way back in the 1960s and the letters only stopped in 2011 when the foreign-backed uprising in Libya began, at which time the Brooklyn-based florist was 81 years old. What is remarkable, and kind of endearing, about this story is that Gaddafi always wrote back, maintaining this pen-pal correspondence for decades. “He was a good pen-pal,” the elderly florist said. “I felt it was very nice of him to take the time to write back to me, because I’m nobody special.”
Mr Schlamowitz, who also exchanged letters with Marylin Monroe and Richard Nixon among others, said his correspondence with the Libyan leader aroused suspicion from the FBI and American agencies who visited him to ask what he was playing at.
A Christmas card from Gaddafi, written around 2000, thanked Mr Schlamowitz for his “friendship through the years”.
Gaddafi spent time in England as a student in the sixties. In April 1966, he was sent to Britain for training; spending time undergoing military training in Dorset and Kent and an English language course at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire.
One of his instructors from this time called him “hard working, conscientious” and “an amusing officer”, adding that he was an avid reader of books and also enjoyed playing football. Gaddafi disliked England, however, and later claimed that British Army officers had racially insulted him on a regular basis. He also claimed to have found it very difficult adjusting to the country’s culture. One wonders, with hindsight, whether these experiences might have had some impact on his later attitude towards the Colonialist powers, Britain in particular. The experience may have also caused him to retreat more into his Arab identity and his desert roots.
There is a very amusing picture (above) of the young Gaddafi walking around Piccadilly Circus in 1966, dressed in traditional Bedouin robes, while two English old ladies look on, bemused.
Um, yes, he appears to have had a major crush on former US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. He apparently did keep a photo album filled with pictures of her. Rice later claimed to have been fully aware of Gaddafi’s interest in her from their personal interactions. He once claimed he was “very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders.” I guess the heart wants what the heart wants.
And yes, like Augustus in Ancient Rome, he also decided to rename the months. February was ‘Lights’, August was ‘Hannibal’ (that other great, mythic ‘hero’ of Libyan history, who had waged war on the Romans).
Gaddafi contributed towards Welsh independence.
Gaddafi donated funding to Welsh independence party Plaid Cymru. The Libyan leader was known for his financial support of ‘liberation movements’ and oppressed groups worldwide: from Mandela and the ANC to the Maoris in New Zealand and Aborigines in Australia, the Black Panthers in America, the IRA, the PLO, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. etc. It appears that, included in this long list, was Plaid Cymru in Wales.
This is confirmed in an upcoming book by Plaid Cymru activist Dr Carl Clowes, who recounts his visit to Libya in the 70s and Gaddafi’s donations to the party. “Libya had the best health and education systems in the whole of Africa,” he says, recalling his delegation’s visit to the country. He suggests Gaddafi’s donation to Plaid Cymru was motivated by his general desire to disrupt the ‘Western Imperialist’ status quo.
Gaddafi is credited with having supposedly invented the ‘world’s safest car’.
The ‘Libyan Rocket‘, which looks like a sleek, futuristic vehicle, is said to have had a collapsible bumper, the ability to travel miles with flat tires, and a device that can cut fuel supply during accident to avoid fire. It was never mass produced, as the 2011 Libyan Civil War derailed the project.
There are obviously a bunch of apocryphal stories about Gaddafi, which we don’t know whether they’re true or false. One of these, for example, concerns the idea that the young Gaddafi had bunked with Muhammad Ali in London in the 1960s. Supposedly, sitting on Ali’s bed, the young student had talked about his plans for future revolution. ‘Watch, one day you will see,’ Gaddafi had allegedly said, while a half asleep Ali had (supposedly) reacted “Sheeet, you crazy!”
I’m guessing this probably didn’t happen; but it’s a fabulous story. We do know that Ali did visit Libya as a guest of Gaddafi some years later.
And yes, he once, in a fit of anger, proposed to ‘abolish’ the nation of Switzerland – and yes, that’s probably the funniest Gaddafi story there is.
No one knows his date of birth. The circumstances of Gaddafi’s birth, fittingly enough, have the almost prophetic air of something out of scripture or myth. The son of an impoverished Bedouin goat herder, Muammar Gaddafi was born in a tent near Qasr Abu Hadi, a rural area outside the town of Sirte in the deserts of western Libya. Curiously, Gaddafi’s date of birth is not known for certain, as his parents were Nomadic Bedouin and were illiterate and did not keep birth records.
Education in Libya was not free at that time (though it would after Gaddafi took power), but Gaddafi’s father funded his son’s education despite the great financial difficulty. During the weeks, Gaddafi slept in a local mosque, having no home, and at weekends he walked some 20 miles to visit his parents in their traditional dwellings. Reportedlty bullied for being a Bedouin, he was nevertheless proud of his identity and was said to have actively encouraged this same pride in other Bedouin children.
But he wasn’t embarassed by his humble roots, and in fact emphasized it wherever possible. Despite his increasingly odd and ostentatious dress-sense, he was also always keen to emphasise his humble Bedouin roots and would therefore receive dignitaries in his signature sprawling white tent, which he erected wherever he went: Rome, Paris and, after much controversy, New York, on a Westchester estate in 2009. Everyone from Tony Blair to Vladimir Putin (pictured below) would have to enter the tent if they wanted to meet with the Libyan figurehead.
He was inspired in part by Abraham Lincoln…
As a young man and student, he later claimed to have read voraciously on the subjects of General Nasser and Egypt, the French Revolution of 1789, the works of Christian Syrian political theorist Michel Aflaq and, interestingly, the biography of Abraham Lincoln. “Lincoln was a man who created himself from nothing without any help from outside or other people. I followed his struggles. I see certain similarities between him and me,” he said in a book published by The Pittsburg Press in 1986 called Gaddafi: The Man the World Loves to Hate.
Nelson Mandela named one of his grandchildren after Gaddafi.
After Mr Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, he rejected pressure from Western leaders – including then-US President Bill Clinton – to sever ties with Gaddafi, who had in fact largely bankrolled his election campaign. “Those who feel irritated by our friendship with Gaddafi can go jump in the pool,” Mandela had said. He added pointedly, “Those that yesterday were friends of our enemies have the gall today to tell me not to visit my brother Gaddafi.”
In 1997, Mandela awarded Gaddafi the highest official honour in South Africa in recognition for his support of human rights and the struggle against Apartheid.
While many of the monuments or landmarks associated with Gaddafi have been destroyed or torn down since his death, and many of the cities and urban developments he supervised the building of have been devastated by NATO bombing or left in ruin, various monuments or sites associated with or in honour of the late Libyan leader still stand outside of Libya.
Examples being the Gaddafi Mosques in Tanzania, Kampala and Uganda, as well as Pakistan’s biggest sports stadium, the Gaddafi Stadium (in Lahore). There is still ongoing debate in Pakistan as to whether the country’s most illustrious stadium should be renamed or should remain as Gaddafi Stadium.
Yes, one of the oddest and most eccentric things Gaddafi ever did was to create his elite, all-female bodyguard unit, the Amazon Guard. However, despite some salacious claims in Western media about the nature or relationship between Gaddafi and the women, it was always claimed that each of the female bodyguards was a virgin for life. I have no idea if that’s true; and the Amazonian Guard really was one of the strangest, most baffling, things Gaddafi ever came up with. Following the downfall of Gaddafi and Libya, the fate of many of the women was unknown, but photographic evidence existed to suggest that some of them were hunted down by Libyan rebels and brutally tortured and murdered.
Just weeks before Western media was calling Gaddafi a war criminal, brutal tyrant and accusing him of massacring civilians, Gaddafi was the frontrunner for Amnesty International’s ‘Human Rights Hero, 2011’ award. It will be a thousand years before someone goes from ‘Human Rights Hero’ to ‘brutal war criminal’ as quickly as that again.
And yes, Gaddafi had proposed ‘SATO’; a ‘NATO of the South’ that would be set-up in opposition to NATO and would’ve been constituted by African and South-American nations forming a mutual defense initiative. It sounds facetious, but he may have had a serious underlying point about the imperialist North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the need for an equal and opposite organisation.
No one knows where Gaddafi is buried.
After his brutal murder in October 2011, his body was kept on display for weeks before eventually being buried in an unmarked grave at an unknown location to prevent his tomb becoming a shrine.
A more serious, bigger piece to mark the fifth anniversary of Gaddafi’s death, which was meant to go up on the 21st, will appear here in the next few days. Meanwhile, you can read all older Libya posts here.