When Ismail asked me what I thought of his homeland, I chose my words carefully, knowing how much he longed for this country and its people, how desperately he wanted me to see its beauty as well.
He'd told me stories about the pristine beaches of his hometown, but all I saw were decrepit buildings along a littered coastline. He told me stories about celebrations that filled the streets, about falling asleep to the sound of drumming and chanting echoing in the alley behind his home, about women who cooked feasts big enough to feed an entire village. But what I saw was barren homes, empty cabinets lacking basic necessities, and subdued women scurrying down empty streets. So I learned to lie—not just to him, but to myself.
I never admitted that the country he loved existed only in his imagination, or that I could not find a moment of peace in Qaddafi's shadow, or that his family's desperate generosity filled me with sadness. I never told Ismail that under Qaddafi his homeland had become a prison, and that as long as he was in power, I never wanted to return. How could I tell him I would not allow his children to know their Libyan family?
The day before we left Libya, Ismail's mother and sisters sat in a tight circle and cried as if they were at a funeral. Their tears flowed on and on, and I knew that as much as they loved us, they were grieving for themselves as well.
The next day we would pack our suitcases, flash our passports, and soar away to a different world, abandoning them to this one. Though I tried to conceal my feelings, I couldn't wait to leave; for three weeks I had felt a mounting desperation to escape.
The morning of our flight, Adel and Fauziya stood outside their home, their arms crossed against their chests, their shoulders curled inward against the wind. I did not want to say goodbye, so instead I told them I would see them in Europe one day; that we would reunite in the former Yugoslavia and they would guide me through the streets of Belgrade.
Adel smiled weakly, and then he reached out for Fauziya and clung to her as if, without her support, the slightest wind could topple him.
None of us dreamed that Adel would leave Libya in only a few short years. The last time I spoke to him, over the crackling of a faulty phone line, he told me he had been ill for quite some time. Several doctors had failed to diagnose his cancer, and in spite of the country's massive oil wealth, Libyan medical facilities were not equipped to provide the treatment he needed.
He spent the following months navigating maddening Libyan bureaucracy, awaiting permission to travel and preparing to undergo chemotherapy abroad. By the time he finally arrived in Jordan, found an apartment, and started treatment, it was too late for him. Just before he died, he'd been trying to get back to Libya to spend his last days with those he loved.
We said goodbye to the rest of Ismail's family in the crowded living room of his parents' home, and then his father followed us out to the narrow dirt alley behind his house, where a taxi idled beside a concrete wall, waiting to take us to the airport.
My father-in-law was wrapped in a long white cloth like a toga, its bright white hem floating inches above the mud. He had just returned from the mosque. He put his hand over his heart to say goodbye and then, as we squeezed into the backseat of the taxi, he leaned down at the open window and began to chant in a low murmur. "He's praying for protection for our family," Ismail whispered beside me. The blessing hung in the air between us, and I imagined it drifting back out the open window and staying behind with our loved ones in Libya.
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