Photo: Krista Bremer
To enter Muammar Qaddafi's Libya is to step inside the ransacked home of an abuser, where suffering is written on the faces of everyone you see and everything shows signs of neglect: sidewalks strewn with trash, roads broken by potholes big enough to swallow a tire, buildings whose gaping window frames offer no protection from the wind.
Those who have lived in a violent home know how a separate weather system exists beneath its roof, which sits under a gathering storm cloud even when the sun is shining. Those who have lived under a tyrant know how to tread lightly and to sniff the air like a deer for the scent of danger: ears cocked, muscles quivering and tensed for flight, studying the faces of loved ones for signs of peril.
In Qaddafi's Libya, people inhale fear along with oxygen, and as it saturates their bloodstream, it causes paranoid, racing thoughts; a disorienting lethargy; and a tendency to choke on words. There is nowhere to flee, no escape from the heavy weight of oppression that settles on your shoulders the moment you arrive.
When I visited Libya in 2005, to meet my in-laws for the first time, my chest tightened as soon as I saw the towering portrait of Qaddafi that confronted me as I exited the plane—an image that would shadow me everywhere I went in Libya.
In his 1970s-era sunglasses, with what looked like a coonskin cap on his head and a flowing scarf around his neck, he appeared to loom so high above us that travelers peered straight upward into his broad nostrils as they passed on their way to customs.
Like a clown in a horror movie, this otherwise comical figure was imbued with a dark and terrifying power. My husband, Ismail, who had been trying for months to quell my anxiety about this trip, translated the Arabic inscription beneath the portrait for me: "Brother Qaddafi, our souls belong to you."