After visiting her in-laws in Tripoli for the first time, Krista Bremer came away with a new perspective on life.
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."
Passengers who had chatted with one another across the aisles on our short plane ride from Milan to Tripoli hugged their bags close and spoke in low tones, glancing furtively at a huddle of middle-aged Libyan men in cheap business suits, who watched us pass through customs. The air was thick with mutual suspicion.
"You must understand, Krista," my brother-in-law Adel explained later, as we stepped gingerly over patches of crabgrass in an abandoned field near his home, "this country has been run by a psychotic leader for so long that all Libyans suffer from mental illness."
Ahead of us, my 5-year-old daughter, Aliya Rose, hid in a small cluster of palm trees—the closest thing to a playground we could find.
A gaunt man with square, outdated glasses and the broad, lopsided smile of a boy, Adel was an electrical engineer who worked for the military. The best year of his life, he said, was the one he spent in the former Yugoslavia, pursuing his master's degree.
On our first night in Libya, he showed us pictures of his simple, well-lit apartment in Belgrade, with its kitchen cabinets full of food; the manicured parks in which he and his new young wife strolled each weekend; the beautiful, well-maintained architecture of the city.
His favorite stories about Yugoslavia revolved around freedoms so familiar to me that I no longer recognized them as such: the dinner parties they hosted for Yugoslavian friends, during which heated political debates took place at the table and laughter like music filled their apartment until late into the night; the evenings when his wife slipped out of their apartment alone and wandered the city to clear her head.
Adel spoke more freely in that barren field than he did in the privacy of his own home—as if his words were too dangerous to be trapped inside, as if he needed the gentle breeze to sweep them away. "Our mental illness comes from having to tell so many lies to ourselves and others just to survive another day," he said.
In a country where the government was the main employer and even the smallest criticisms of the regime led to disappearances, prolonged incarceration without legal representation, or torture, an enormous amount of pretending was required to try to lead a normal life.
At 36, Adel had only one dream: to experience life outside Libya once more. But like an old man who mumbles wistfully about the past, he spoke as if he knew this dream was beyond his reach. In spite of everything Libyans have lost during the nearly 42 years of Qaddafi's brutal reign—freedom of speech and movement, freedom to access basic goods or to improve one's life
—Libyans remain rich in their connection to one another.
The day we arrived in Ismail's hometown, a steady stream of friends and family passed through my father-in-law's home for five hours straight, warmly welcoming Ismail and inspecting his American wife and daughter. And each day we were there, many more neighbors and relatives visited.
Their strong family and community bonds make many Americans look poor in comparison—yet Qaddafi has turned their most precious resource against them: Every Libyan knows that to speak out against Qaddafi is to put loved ones in Libya at risk, which is why even Libyans living abroad are afraid to challenge the regime. There is nowhere on Earth they can escape their bondage to Qaddafi.
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.
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.