Libya 1980

This is the first story, in a series, about the bearded stranger's encounters with political leaders.

Today is a national holiday, the third anniversary of the change of our country’s name from The Libyan Arab Jumhuriya to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. To celebrate this event the Great Leader, Colonel Gadhafi, is speaking in Green Square, Tripoli’s largest public space.

The bearded stranger arrived in the crowd early in the third hour of the speech. The crowd had thinned since the start but the level of applause and cheering remained constant, and high. I and my ‘red hats’ were in charge of security. I had them posted around the square. Two of them were even hanging off the flagpoles either side of the podium, beneath the castle wall and the massive speakers which amplified his voice: my men were there to encourage the applause whenever the Great Leader took a rare breath.

I saw the stranger begin to push his way through the crowd. He passed the banner saying ‘Death to America’, and another saying ‘Misratah Secondary School Loyal Corps’. He stopped next to a group of rural militia, squatting on the ground in their jerds, their white cotton throws, who were waving, and occasionally firing, their rifles. He looked nervous when the crowd began to shout and pump their fists but he noticed me looking at him, and when I did nothing he must have assumed it was OK for him to be there. And then the Great Leader finished, as abruptly as ever. He climbed off the podium, in his brown camouflage jacket and turtleneck sweater, the massive size of his chest and shoulders betraying the protective gear I insisted he wore in public. (There’d been an assassination attempt in Benghazi just the previous week). He shook some hands, the cheering and applause continuing loud as the crowd began to drift away. As the Colonel climbed onto a guard’s back for the lift back to his car I caught the eye of the guy in charge of the sound system, and signalled to him. He turned off the system - the cheering and applause died immediately.

PS: the next day the bearded stranger attended the International Trade Fair. I was on duty again, and I greeted him. He said that he had just been with the delegates at the Iranian stall who offered: ‘Do you want to see the Imam (Khomeini)?’. Seeing two revolutionary leaders in two days had seemed an extraordinary opportunity for the stranger and he replied that he would love to. The delegate handed the stranger a photograph.

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