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In the evenings Adel pored over his small CD collection and played me his favorite music: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers. After his children were in bed, we gathered at the small kitchen table in his half-built home, near a window covered with black plastic that flapped and billowed with the breeze.

As we listened to background music that reminded me of a country bar, Adel told me stories about his life. He loved to watch my brow furrow in confusion or my eyes widen with disbelief as he described life under "the brother leader." Maybe it was a great relief for him to see the truth written across my face.

Take, for example, his story of purchasing a car. His adventure started late one Friday afternoon, when an announcement was made at the military office where he worked: Any employee who wanted to buy a vehicle must bring a down payment of 2,000 dinars to their supervisor the following Monday, because the government was expecting a shipment of cars from across the Mediterranean.

Like most of his colleagues, Adel had nowhere near enough money, so he spent his weekend frantically contacting friends and family, securing small cash loans for this rare opportunity. On Monday morning, he handed his supervisor a thick envelope stuffed with cash. Two years later, when the long-awaited car shipment finally arrived, he spent a day at the port watching other government employees drive away in gleaming new Volkswagen Jettas, until there were no more cars to be distributed.

A year after that he was summoned back to port and presented with a candy-apple red Tata—the Indian version of a Yugo—a car not much bigger than a golf cart. He never asked why it took more than three years for his car to arrive, or why some colleagues who paid the same amount received a Jetta—that would have been unwise.

As his story drew to a close, Adel began to laugh at my shocked expression. His wife, Fauziya, joined in, and so did Ismail, holding his forehead in his hands and chuckling when he met their gaze. Pretty soon I was laughing, too—but my amusement had barbed edges of sorrow and guilt: I knew that in less than three weeks I would return home, where car dealerships lined the crowded freeways and I could purchase almost any kind I wanted for no money down.

But Adel and his family would remain in Libya, with his tiny Tata locked up in his garage, this car he could not afford to drive because his only investment in his family's future was to sell this new car, which was a rare commodity in Libya.

During the three weeks I spent in Libya, Qaddafi followed me everywhere—peering down from billboards lining the highway, dangling from the rearview mirror of taxis, accosting me in hotel lobbies and restaurants.

Each street was marked with Qaddafi's signature green: doors, lampposts, window frames of otherwise stately buildings that recalled Italy's colonial presence. Even at a museum filled with artifacts of the Roman empire, I found a marble bust of Qaddafi standing conspicuously beside one of a Roman emperor.

One day, as we passed a large mural bearing his profile, my daughter turned to me abruptly. "Is that man a movie star?" she asked, pointing to him. And then, as we continued walking, she mumbled: "I'm glad we don't have that movie star at home, Mom. He's not handsome at all—and he doesn't look funny, either."

Later, Ismail translated as I shared this story, while we sat on thin cushions on the floor of my mother-in-law's sparse home, drinking syrupy green tea out of tiny glass cups. Her hand flew reflexively to her face to hide her smile, and then, for the only time during our visit, her face grew stern and disapproving. She pressed her finger to her lips, and in a forceful whisper, reprimanded me to never again speak this way in Libya.

To live with abuse is to master a complex code of silence and denial. One learns quickly which truths are too dangerous to be spoken, and out of self-preservation one learns a million ways to deny one's misery: Late one morning, just as we arrived at the old market in downtown Tripoli for a day of shopping, Qaddafi announced on the radio that all businesses must close immediately because he was about to speak on Libyan state television.

Shopkeepers frantically gathered up their wares and shuttered their storefronts, and we returned to the home of my sister-in-law, who suggested we spend the afternoon cooking a traditional Libyan meal together, completely ignoring the strange disruption of our day.

My Libyan in-laws showered me with kindness and generosity, squeezing fresh orange juice for me each morning, insisting I sleep in their beds while they slept on the floor, presenting me with tea and homemade sweets all day long. They did everything within their power to make me enjoy this isolated, fearful place. Over and over again I thanked them, telling them how happy I was to be there.

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