Review of "Gaddafi's Harem" by Annick Cojean
Published by Grove-Atlantic, £16.99, isbn 978-1-61185-610-1
This is a book in two parts. The first half is the vivid personal testimony of Soraya (a Libyan girl whose mother was a Tunisian hairdresser) who claims that she was abducted from her school aged fifteen. She had caught the eye of Colonel Gaddafi during his tour of her school, at Sirte, in April 2004. She was then subsequently invited to visit the personal quarters of Colonel Gaddafi as part of a delegation of school girls, but was then detained, groomed by the Colonel’s private staff before being raped. But instead of being released three days letter with an envelope filled with cash (as was the experience of many other Libyan girls) she was retained and educated to become a sex slave, confined to a basement suite of private rooms within the sprawling palace-barracks complex of Bab al-Azizia.
Few can doubt the harsh essential truths of Soraya’s story, of her abduction, of the repeated rapes, and of having her youth ruined by being forcibly schooled in the debauchery, corruption and laziness of a palace concubine. Her attempts to later escape from this life-style, including a period trying to work as a young adult in Paris, were doomed by her youthful experiences. And so her understandable hatred of Colonel Gaddafi leads her to paint a complete trope of un-Islamic villainy; so he is depicted as a garlic-eating, whisky drinker, who soaks up the blood of deflowered virgins as a magical charm, sodomises his male staff, urinates over his lovers, has sex during the daylight hours of Ramadan and forces his women to take drugs, smoke, watch and then act out pornographic films. He also bribes famous foreign beauties to sleep with him and is friends with such stage villains of the international circuit as Leila Trebelsi of Tunisia, the presidential entourage of France and Italy and Tony Blair. A surprising amount of this may be true.
The second half of the book is a more cautious examination into the background of Soraya’s story. This was achieved after Annick Cojean, a special correspondent (but not an expert on Libya) had published Soraya’s testimony as a scoop in the pages of Le Monde. This investigation, though few names can be given, confirms the likelihood of Soraya’s story in all its major details, apart from whisky, garlic and urination. Certainly Soraya’s account of the constant blood tests (to isolate the spread of sexually transmitted diseases) is a well-known feature of Gaddafi’s entourage.
While her references to the power of Sherifa Mabrouka, the procuress-guardian of Gaddafi’s concubines, grows more fantastical not less during through the course of Cojean’s investigations. For Mabrouka adds a whiff of sorcery to the court, learnt from her mother’s upbringing in the Saharan oasis of Ghat. Cojean also confirms how Colonel Gaddafi’s staff were trained to recognize that a particular pat on the head, during a state visit, was his signal of sexual interest. His staff then usually managed to smooth the way to the Colonel’s bed, for he had acquired heroic status through his personality cult as the lifelong guide of the Libyan revolution, whose patronage could certainly help anyone to get on in life. He also seems to have employed physicians working in secret clinics to restore the hymen of his abused victims so that they could pretend to be virgins. There are also many examples of Libyan girls being persuaded into his bed in order to release unharmed their boyfriends, brothers or fathers who had been taken into custody by the brutal security services. In addition the Colonel also preyed on the corps of uniformed female body-guards that he had established.
Colonel Gaddafi’s sexual vigour (with up to four sexual partners a day) was prodigious. It was maintained by the consumption of box loads of Viagra and also (according to Cojean’s investigations) by a restless desire to escape the poverty, degradation and unhappiness of his Bedouin childhood. He also liked to show his power over his own court of ministers and generals, as well as the old noblesse of Libya and the next generation of young intellectuals, by bedding their womenfolk. So much so, that sex, especially the act of phallic penetration, was as much a tool of power as an instrument of pleasure. No doubt these needs increased after the American air-strike of April 1986 revealed the military weakness of his regime. However Cojean found no hard evidence to support the claim that Viagra-fed government militia had used rape as a means of state suppression of the 2011 rebellion.
Whether as a subtle revenge for all this activity, or as another source of his personal insecurity, it was a common article of gossip in Libya (which even I heard) that the Colonel was the son of a half-Italian gendarme who had got at his mother when his elderly Bedouin father was away with the flocks. But similar stories are told throughout North Africa. Soraya’s testimony, amplified by a dozen other sources, implies that he needed to constantly demonstrate his power through violent sexual activity. Whether this was a feature of all his reign, or just the last twenty years, awaits a more detailed study of the court of Gaddafi whose daily rituals exceed even the most fervent fictional fantasies of the Orientalist.
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by Barnaby Rogerson