One sunny afternoon, in 1999, walking along Stassinos Avenue in Nicosia, I noticed a glass-enclosed message board attached to a high iron fence. It contained a large poster of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, held up by thumb tacks, and several notices of forthcoming events—most of which had occurred in the distant past. I had stumbled on the Libyan embassy—or People’s Bureau, in Qaddafi nomenclature—in Cyprus.
At that juncture, relations between Libya and the United States were in the deep freeze; but I was in a sociable mood, and naturally curious about the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Qaddafi’s nomenclature again), and thought it would be interesting to present myself as an American journalist and see how far I got. Unfortunately, the gate was locked, and there were no signs of life within the embassy, a large, slightly shabby structure set back some distance from the street.
But the following evening, taking a moonlit walk after dinner, I passed the embassy again and saw that the gate was open and the building fully lit. I walked across the courtyard and rang the bell. No one answered. I rang again—and then noticed that the door was ajar, and so pushed it open.
Crossing the vestibule, I beheld a gigantic, wood-paneled room, one wall of which was covered with swollen bookshelves, and in the middle, a large, blaring television set. About a dozen men—some in suits, others in shirtsleeves—were purposefully milling about, ascending and descending a nearby staircase, stopping to gaze at the TV, talking among themselves. After a moment, one of the younger men noticed me standing at the threshold and came forward.
Of course, I had no idea how I would be received, so I was pleasantly surprised when, having identified myself, I was greeted with what might be called diplomatic warmth. The young man was soon joined by two or three older colleagues, who seemed to take my status (and idle curiosity) very much in stride. I was not asked for identification, or questioned in any way at all, but invited to tour the premises. Conversation about Libyan foreign policy was slightly awkward, quite apart from the language difference; but my questions about the People’s Bureau, and the Qaddafi regime generally, were answered conscientiously.
At some point I must have remarked on the wall of books (all in Arabic, I could see), for there was sudden, rather animated, discussion among my hosts, who led me into an adjoining wood-paneled anteroom. All four of the walls in this windowless, high-ceilinged chamber were covered in bookshelves as well, and just as I absorbed the interesting fact that these books were in European languages, not Arabic, the younger man stepped back a foot and gestured toward the shelves.
“Please,” he said, “if there are any books you would like to have, we want you to take them with you.”
This unexpected offer put me in an obvious quandary: Of course I would be interested to see what the shelves contained, but I was more than a little embarrassed by this unconventional specimen of Libyan etiquette. So I quickly surveyed the shelves and pulled out two or three titles—a British book on the Arabs and medieval Europe, another on the U.N. partition of Palestine, an English glossary of the Koran—and offered thanks.
To my surprise, the Libyans seemed slightly disappointed that I had not cleared out several meters from the shelves, but I explained that I had to transport these heavy volumes a long way home. At this juncture one of the older staffers, who had been eyeing me with a certain reserve, intervened. There was another lively discussion, and the upshot was that I couldn’t leave without a few souvenir publications from Colonel Qaddafi himself. So I was ceremonially presented with, among others, The Islamic World Is Being Subjected to a New Invasion (1987) and The Revolutionary Declaration Made By Brother Col. Muammar al Qadhafi on the Occasion of the Ninth Anniversary of the Great First of September Revolution (1978), a handsome little edition of the colonel’s famous Green Book, and (my favorite) the finely bound transcript of a seminar on the Islamic-Christian Dialogue (1976), presided over by Qaddafi in Tripoli, featuring dozens of foreign delegates, a huge contingent from the Vatican, and Stokely Carmichael (spelled “Stockcy Carmeachel”) of the U.S.A.
A poignant note was struck by the young man who had first greeted me. He explained with some excitement that the recent lifting of U.N. sanctions allowed Libyans to travel abroad. He had asked the most questions of me, and was clearly anxious to correspond. But when I asked him to write down his email address, he struggled mightily to render it in English—which, when I returned home, I failed to decipher. I hope he’s all right.