Seeking a Libyan lion
By Lubna Abdel Aziz
How much or how little do we know of Libya or Libyans? Regrettably, the only image we have of this oil-rich African country is shameful to some, ludicrous to others. Lamentably, the only sounds we heard were those of a ranting and raving, ego-maniac, feeding on the blood of his people. For over four decades, the world was infrequently amused, and frequently enraged by the frantic rhetoric, foolish posture and frenzied performance of Libya's mentally unstable master monarch, He remained impervious to any social, political or historical consequences of his irrational behavior.
Perpetually dressed for a masquerade, the arrogant, imperial Colonel was no laughing matter. With abundant treasures at his disposal, he waddled and wallowed in a sea of black gold, leaving his country and countrymen impoverished and impaired. No longer silent and submissive, the people of Libya are determined to seek the majesty of justice, to regain their squandered riches and their scattered self esteem.
There is more to Libya than rich oil fields and a deranged Colonel.
Situated on the Mediterranean northern coast of Africa, its recorded history dates as far back as the 600s B.C., when the Greeks landed in Cyrenaica, what is now eastern Libya. About 700 B.C. Phoenicians had settled in Tripolitania, now, north- western Libya. The Romans ruled both areas for more than 5oo years, followed by the Vandals and Byzantines. The Arabs took control from the mid 600s A.D. to the 1500s, hence the Arabic language and Muslim religion.
Early in the 20th century, in an Italo-Ottoman war, the Italians gained control of Libya in 1912, but lost it following WW II. Comprised mostly of numerous tribes, the country assumed a monarchic rule in 1951, with King Idris of the Senusi tribe on the throne. A military 'coup d'etat' overturned King Idris in 1969. Their leader, a reckless, ruthless Colonel, by the name of Muammar Qaddafi, became ruler of Libya--but by no means its hero.
Libya however, has a national hero, held near and dear to its heart. Born in 1862, in the small village of Janzour, near Tobruk, (Cyrenaica), his parents named him Omar al Mokhtar, (the chosen one). Orphaned as a child, he was adopted by a political activist and religious leader of the same Senusi tribe, Sharif al Geriani. Omar studied the Qoran at the local mosque, and later at the Senisi Universtity of El Jaghbub, the headquarters of the Senusi tribe's resistance movement against colonial rule. A religious teacher by profession, Omar soon became skilled in the tactics of desert warfare. His quick mind and extensive knowledge of the local terrain, totally confused and baffled the Italian authorities. Leading his small but able group, he repeatedly mounted successful attacks, driving the Italian forces back to the desert. Astonished and embarrassed, the Italians were determined to put an end to the constant attacks of their mercurial enemy. Italian governor Ernesto Bombelli, created a counter guerilla force in the mountainous region of Gebel Akhdar, (Green Mountain), in 1924, with some success. Mokhtar quickly modified his strategy, relying on immeasurable assistance from his neighbours, the Egyptians. Maddened by his continued victories, the Italians became obsessed with the capture of the invincible Libyan lion.
The new Italian governor Pietro Badaglio succeeded in completing an accord with Mokhtar in 1929. Mokhtar however, soon denounced the accord and re-established his Libyan forces for the ultimate confrontation with the Italian famed general, Rodolfo Graziani. The Italian military commander resolved to put an end to the old religious teacher and formidable fighting nationalist, Omar al Mokhtar, enemy of Italy. Graziani soon realized that extreme measures needed to be taken, to defeat him and his band of rebels. He sought the approval of his elders, including Benito Mussolini, to wage a major war on the old fighter. Graziani removed the whole population of 100,000 inhabitants from the Gebel Akhdar, to concentration camps on the coast. He closed the Libyan/Egyptian border, depriving Omar of support from every side. Omar was left, without help or reinforcement. The Italians attacked constantly by air and on the ground, while the old man continued to resist. Finally, he was ambushed and wounded on Sep 11, 1931.
Twenty years of resistance came to an end. Weak and weary, Omar surrendered, accepting his fate with dignity and calm nobility. Within 3 days, he was tried, convicted and sentenced. He was hanged before his men in the concentration camp of Solluq, on September 16, 1931. His last words were from the Holy Qoran, the book he loved so well:" Inna Lillah wa inna Ilayhi raji''oun" (From God we came, and to Him we shall return).
It was a dark and heavy hour for Libya. The fairness of their hero's trial has been questioned ever since, by Italians, historians and scholars. Such were the heroes of yesteryear, before the discovery of rich oil fields, that changed the face of the earth and the heart of man. Omar's final years were depicted in a renowned film, "Lion of the Desert", (1981). No one else could have embraced the spirit of such a man, but the lion of the screen himself, the late Anthony Quinn.
The romance of Omar Mokhtar's life and death, lies not in the volumes of history, that should have been written, but in the heart and soul of every Libyan. His memory has been kept alive, by his people, and by his enemies, who have showered him with admiration and praise, throughout the years. As we fill in the gaps of history, we are stunned by the contrast of the two men who shaped the destiny of Libya.
No arrogant imperial with the unquenchable gusto of a Roman emperor, our 'Desert Lion' displayed the humility and zeal of a devout and holy teacher and the steadfast diligence of a dedicated soldier. No great wealth or luxury, were his. He lived and died a poor man, unyielding, unselfish and unrivaled.
Libyans, take heart! Dark clouds are ephemeral. They will roll away. Dawn is near and the blaze of the desert sun will surely melt away the memory of the cruel and crazed Colonel. No longer will you suffer the burning gaze of a madman, with wide and wicked temples, were no grey hairs ever appear. You shall however cherish the memory of a grey-haired, grey- bearded old warrior, with the smile of a philosopher, and the heart of a lion.
Quote: The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom, courage.
-- THUCYDIDES (471-401 BC)