[Seals is the author of many books, including 'The Powwow Highway' a
contemporary comedy about his Cheyenne Indian relatives which was made into a
feature film by George Harrison's Handmade Films]
A few pages into Muammar Qaddafi's 'Escape to Hell, and other stories' a
strange feeling came over me; I didn't realize what it was at first. Under the
heading of Part I: Novels, I read the first sentence, "The city has been with
us since ages long past, but regard its plight today!" It quickly became
apparent this was no ordinary work of fictional entertainment with characters
and a narrative plot. It wasn't going to fit into any genre of post-modernist
minimalism, much like Qaddafi himself does not fit into any one place in the
world as a political or religious figure.
This is the city: a mill that grinds down its inhabitants ...
Children are worse off than adults. They move from darkness to
from three darknesses to the fourth, as in the Quran.
Then it struck me: I was hearing the same voice of the Libyan people I had
not heard for a third of a century, since I was a teenager living in Libya
from 1962-65 as a dependent of the United States Air Force. It was the
plaintive directness I heard in our houseboy Mobruk when he said, in October
'62 as Tripoli erupted in anti-American riots because of the Cuban missile
crisis, "We don't all hate Americans." He had tears in his eyes, as if his
country's exuberant idealism had been laid bare. We were two teenage boys from
different corners of the world terribly afraid of a world gone mad.
Most Americans sneered at Libyans back then and called them "Mos." A Mo
was very poor and his country was very hot. He was an incompetent servant or
laborer at best, he drank foul-smelling green water from dirty sandstone wells
and hepatitis and dysentery were rampant among us foreigners. Not one road in
his city or country was free of huge potholes and donkeys and camels slowing
the speed of our American Century. The women were treated like slaves in full-body
barracan robes and were bought and sold like goats. Their religion was an
alien apostasy from Christianity. Libya, to the Europeans and Anglo-Americans,
from the time of Caesar to Rommel, was only a strategic outpost of the central
Mediterranean shipping lanes, and a ripe resource of oil from olives to
petroleum. The Greek historian Herodotus called them "Barbarians", after the
indigenous Berbers. Theirs was the infamous Barbary Coast of pirates on the
shores of Tripoli, to which President Thomas Jefferson first sent the Marines.
O wise, kind-hearted people..., humanitarians: have mercy
on children, and do not deceive them by making them live
in the city. Do not let your children turn into mice, moving
around from hole to hole, from sidewalk to sidewalk.
But there was always that haunting voice, and Qaddafi's book has reminded
me of it, as the muezzins reminded us five times a day of the memory of
another strident voice crying simply in another desert, from Arabia 1400 years
ago, for Allah, al-Rahman, ir-Rahim.
And there is something else in 'Escape to Hell', a self-criticism and
self-irony not heard in this country from a national leader since Abraham
Back on the streets of Tripoli and Wheelus Air Base in 1962
Anglo-Americans hated that voice like they hated Arabic music on the radio. Qaddafi
articulates why he and his people were so hated back then, when he says in
'Long Live the State for the Wretched!' in Part II: Essays:
This is the true secret for their hating you: you are not of this
world, you are not wealthy, and for this they hate you. You are not
oppressors, and for this they hate you. You are not pretenders,
so they hate you. You are not hypocrites or liars, and for this
they hate you.
Not until I read this book did I realize why Libya has also haunted my
dreams for a third of a century, and perhaps why it haunts the world still
today out of all proportion to its size. In another chapter titled 'Death to
the Incapable...Until Revolution', an essay like a chapter in the odd novel:
Although the world of the incapable has no meaning and no
effectiveness, is null and void and silly ... and although they
create nothing and change nothing ... despite all of this, the
world of these incapable ones is the richest, most fertile, most
teeming, and full of literary meaning. For the world of these people
has its culture; it has an ability to accumulate psychologies and
narratives of literature, myth, and metaphysics.
Now of course the Libyans are hated even more because they are wealthy,
having taken over their own oil resources for the first time, and building up
a powerful defensive military capability from incessant attacks by those same
heirs of Caesar and Rommel. They have turned over their annual oil revenues in
the billions to themselves, making themselves anew, from being the poorest
country on earth in 1951 (before oil was discovered in 1959) - with a $50
annual per capita income, lower than India's - to the best in Africa, and
higher than England's. They are building a Great Manmade River in the Sahara
from vast subterranean seas of water, next to the oil oceans, and dams and
irrigation canals thousands of kilometers long to turn the desert into a green
But we don't hear anything about that. Qaddafi and his Libyans are branded
one of the greatest 'Terrorist Regimes' on the planet. Why?
His book provides a lot of clues, helping to explain their national
consciousness behind the press clippings and quotes, such as the one he made
in 1996 when he opened the second multi-billion dollar phase of the Great
Manmade River Project, "This is the biggest answer to America and all the evil
forces who accuse us of being concerned with terrorism. We are only concerned
with peace and progress. America is against life and progress; it pushes the
world toward darkness."
According to an article on the Green Book internet website, it is this River
Project that has caused a lot of American paranoia (Qaddafi's 'Green Book' came
out in 1980, delineating the social and economic structure of his unique system of
The newly-inaugurated stage of the project will provide
Tripoli and the surrounding region with fresh water pumped from
sub-Saharan aquifers and transported over hundreds of kilometres
through vast networks of pre-stressed concrete pipelines. Because a
mountainous formation known as 'Jabal Nefussa' blocks the
natural flow of the piped water from the areas where the aquifers
are located to the coastal plain, it was necessary to drill a
tunnel through the mountain and install a pumping station.
It is this tunnel, located at Tarhunah, that U.S. Secretary of
Defense William Perry earlier this year threatened to attack
with nuclear weapons on the pretext that it was a chemical
Mobruk once laid bare some of my own most basic emotions, in 1962, when he
also asked me, pointedly, " Do you buy your wives?"
I laughed at the absurdity of the question then, but I was quickly shamed
when I saw tears in his eyes again. "We have to pay many sheep and goats to a
girl's father. It takes many years of hard work." I think now about how my
arrogance must have looked to him, for I had girlfriends, a transistor radio,
money to spend on soft drinks and movies, F-100s roaring overhead day and
night from our superpowered NATO Base at Wheelus. I think now about how we
bombed our own base in 1986 and killed hundreds of Libyan women and children
in downtown Tripoli and Benghazi, including Qaddafi's own 16-month old
So I was pleased to hear Mobruk's disturbing grassroots voice again as I
read the first chapters of 'Escape to Hell'. Maybe it can only be a personal
excitement, and you can only care about someone if you've lived with them and
shared cous-cous on the ground with them, and listened to the lovely Suras of
the Quran in musical Arabic while sipping chai in the little servant's shack
behind the big white American villa. But then the best books evoke just such
emotional reactions, and I found Qaddafi's direct passion very moving.
He takes me back into the Suq and the Casbah of the Old City where Mobruk
took me, where it was forbidden for Americans to go. In those dirty reeking
sewers of poverty I can hear Qaddafi's anger, and piety too. Whole tent cities
for refugees from the desert, bedouins and Berbers looking for non-existent
jobs in the booming new oil industry, were constructed and fenced off on the
perimeters of Tripoli and our consciousness, reminding me of Andersonville and
Auschwitz. The stink was indescribable, with open sewers in the dirt trails
running between cardboard shacks, miles and miles of concentration camps
fenced off and patrolled by NATO policemen. (While at the same time the
U.N.-created King Idris presided over a Constitutional Monarchy from one of
his huge palaces)
He takes me out into the baking hardscrabble fields where the women toiled
like mules, and I was never never allowed to even look at them, let alone talk
Today I am shocked to see pictures of Libyan women without barracans
working in modern hospitals as doctors, and in a whole New Tripoli of
superhighways and skyscrapers as engineers and teachers. They are wearing
fashionable short dresses with high heels and chic Italian stockings!
The Libyans tell me today, "You wouldn't recognize it. We have 3 or 4 cars
in front of every house, and everyone in the country has a home, and the
world's best health care and education. You should find yourself a good Libyan
woman. There are lots of them!" It is a wildly unfamiliar joke but the easy
laughter is a good friend. There is a lot of that kind of humor in Qaddafi's
book too, in the irreverent-reverent sarcasm of the chapters 'Stop Fasting
When You See the New Moon' and 'The Prayerless Friday'. These are people who
are human first and foremost, but, like their "Guide" as Qaddafi is called, or
"The Brother Colonel", they are as passionate about the forbidden topics of
politics and religion as anybody I've met anywhere in the world. There was
never a shortage of good conversation and stimulating new perspectives, and
here again Qaddafi evokes the spirit of his people and his land.
Revolution: when feelings of impotence penetrate every part of
the life of the incapable, and they lose the feeling of impotence
and the decline that it involves. When neglect, ignominy, and
baseness fail to provoke, the life of the impotent reaches zero,
a static level of silliness and marginality. The countdown to
approaching nothingness begins...
'Escape to Hell' is a philosophical fiction intended as a test of the
reader's willingness to really consider new possibilities for the next
millenium, as the Libyan people themselves have been tested; and even without
the amazingly complicated political and religious pre-conditioning most First
Worlders would bring to this treatise by one of the world's most notorious
outlaws, it is a challenging mixture of post-Socialist Islamism that Qaddafi
calls "a radical social progressive trend."
He calls it a Novel as much as an Essay because he is his own great
fictional creation. The persona of Qaddafi reminds me of the way Sitting Bull
got in the face of the 19th century, until he was like one of Qaddafi's own
larger-than-life paintings (which I saw in the lobby of the Libyan UN Mission
in New York) on a big white horse in flowing romantic robes and headdress. And
it is this grammar of genuine myth that went far beyond psychology, making
Sitting Bull's image the dominant face of frontier America. After all, who has
stood the test of time - the "Savage Red Devil" or President Rutherford B.
Will Qaddafi's green revolution in the desert survive Bill Clinton's
highway bill? What is the real nature of the pan-Arabic hostility to Zionism?
These are important questions and we cannot just dismiss Qaddafi's voice in
the heretofore uneven debate. We have not heard much from the Arabs and
non-Arab Muslims. Qaddafi's book is a valuable addition to the debate. Arafat is
routinely demonized as one of the generic "Terrorists" in popular cinema and
journalism. It is just as unfair and counterproductive as the one-dimensional
Hollywood stereotypes of Sitting Bull and his people.
It would take a lot more than a book review to explore the truth of
Libya's real place in our geopolitical paradigm at the end of the millenium,
and Qaddafi himself probably doesn't know the half of it.
"Flee, flee the city" he exclaims in the second chapter titled 'The
Village'. "Leave the irritation behind, the anxious places, the sealed
locations." Here we can begin to see his characteristic Libyan idealism
How beautiful the village and countryside are! Clean air, the
horizon before you, the heavens without pillars thou canst
behold [Quran, sura 13, verse 2], with their divine lanterns
A structure and a fallible human purpose start to become evident by the
next chapters of 'The Earth' and 'The Suicide of the Astronaut', in which he
says, "You can leave everything, except the earth ... Land has been the
context of the conflict ... Whither then are you going?" The astronaut, modern
technological man, goes out into the solar system looking for meaning, but ...
" ... man returned to the earth, dizzy, nauseous, and fearing doom." The
astronaut then committed suicide "after he gave up on being able to find work
on the ground that could sustain him."
All this builds quickly to the revealing core, which is the enigmatic
title of the book. 'Escape to Hell' begins with one stunning statement after
another: "The tyranny of the masses is the harshest type of tyranny"; "I love
the freedom of the masses, as they move freely with no master above them."
Suddenly there is the personal cry of the author that lifts it all out of
an interesting sociopolitical news analysis by a famous public figure into a
Dantesque journey of the soul: "What terror! Who can address the unfeeling
self and make it feel?"
What is this? Before I could switch nonfiction-fiction gears he goes back
to "a collective intelligence" and "social conflagration", then back again in
one sentence to "a society that loves you yet will never show you mercy." He
himself is feeling the terrorism.
Within this mass of people, who poisoned Hannibal, burnt
Savonarola, and smashed Robespierre, who loved you but failed
to reserve a seat for you at the cinema, or even a table in a cafe,
who love you without expressing this in any simple way ...
This is what the masses have done and continue to do to
such people. So what can I - a poor bedouin - hope for in a
modern city of insanity? People snap at me whenever they see
me: build us a better house! Get us a better telephone line!
Build us a road upon the sea! Make a public park for us! ...
A poor, lost bedouin, without even a birth certificate, with his
staff upon his shoulder. A bedouin, who will not stop for a red
light, nor be afraid when a policeman takes hold of him.
Is this, as suspicious Americans might say, the same lament of other
billionaires like Howard Hughes or Nero who felt so totally centralized by all
the wretched masses yearning for money that they went crazy, retreating into
isolation and paranoia? "I am an illiterate bedouin ... I do not know what
money looks like ... the mad people of the city constantly ask me for these
things ... I am a poor simple person ... leave me in peace to tend my flock."
Or is Qaddafi more like Sitting Bull, the unelected Medicine Chief, a
poet-king like David personifying all the wealth and all the myths of his people?
A simple bedouin in a tent, running an Empire?
What a great character out of fiction, following his own Virgil into the
inferno while simultaneously ascending into higher Hegiras: "I have decided to
make my escape to hell."
I will now tell you the story of my experiences when I made that
journey, that escape to hell. I will describe the road that leads
there, describe hell itself for you, and tell you how I came back
by the same way. It was truly an adventure, and one of the
strangest true stories ever, and I swear to you that it is not
fiction. In fact, I escaped twice to hell, fleeing from you only
in order to save myself......
First of all, hell has wild, dark mountainsides, covered by fog.
There is volcanic stone which has been burnt black since time
immemorial. What is truly strange is that I found wild animals
on their way to hell before me, also making their escape from
you, for hell meant life to them, while life among you meant
death. Everything then disappeared around me, except for my own
existence, which I felt more strongly than at any previous time.
The mountains shrank, the trees dried up, the animals bolted
and melted into the jungles of hell, seeking refuge and fleeing
mankind. Even the sun became obscured by hell, and began to
disappear. Nothing remained clear except hell, and the most
distinct part of it was its heart. I headed toward it,
with practically no difficulty.
This rings of Lao Tzu's 'Tao te Ching' ("The blackness within the
blackness"), or what Sitting Bull spoke of in the Siouan cosmogony as a
Thunderbird obscured in the black misty mountains of the west.
The Mediterranean and the Sahara will do that to you. I swam in those same
crystalline seas also, where Odysseus and Calypso played in the Blue Grotto.
The Berbers talk of pictographs of pyramids in the remote Kufra Oasis too.
Qaddafi mentions an Arab prince discovering America long before Columbus, and
Aladdin, and a genie's ring, and a magic golden helmet. He is just as torn by
this sublime modern dilemma as we all are, between mythology and psychology:
...the hell on earth never gave me the time to spend time with
my self, contemplate it, and commune with it. For we - I mean
me and myself - were like dangerous criminals in your city,
subjected to searches and surveillance. Even after our innocence
was proven, and our identity became known, we were placed
in prison, guarded closely. Your purpose was always to prevent me
and myself from coming together, so that you could sleep easily
and contentedly. How beautiful hell is compared to your city!
Why did you bring me back? I want to return to hell, and live in it.
I would travel there without any passport, just give me myself so
that I may go. The self that I discovered had been disfigured by
you, as you tried to corrupt its innocence.
I came away from this book knowing a lot more about Muammar Qaddafi, and
the historic transformation, the apotheosis, of Libya. His other stories about
redemption and the death of his father, who fought Mussolini's Fascists who
killed hundreds of thousands of Libyans in the 1930s, and his identification
with Joseph in the Quran and the injustices that have been done by 'Jacob's
Cursed Family' to Joseph, and the 'Blessed Caravan' of Ishmael's tribes who
rescued Joseph and took him to Egypt (which was originally called Libya, as
were Arabia and Canaan), make it clear that Libya is not a backwater outpost
on the fringes of civilization as Americans saw it in 1962, or a third-rate
culture with no tolerance of literature, liberation, or modern progress. But
it is more like the mythic subconscious Homer called The Land of The Lotus
Eaters, where Odysseus shipwrecked on his way home, and which Qaddafi
describes as "this dangerous dream":
How sweet will be the victory of the wretched, and how great!
How sweet will the songs be on that golden day, and how brilliant
the golden sun of the wretched as it blazes. How sweet this
dangerous dream - that hopes will be realized, that wishes become
true. That a dream will become reality, that the wretched of the
earth will have their state.
Black Hills, South Dakota
June 17, 1998