A group of Libyan expats has made Saif Qaddafi's mansion in London the frontline in Libya's struggle for democracy.
LONDON — Libyans are still struggling for their freedom, but a democratic enclave has already sprung up in London’s wealthy Hampstead Garden Suburb in a mansion once owned by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi. This relic from a brief era of rapprochement between Britain and the Qaddafi family is located on a small cul-de-sac about five miles from central London and is, surprisingly, one of the less ostentatious houses in the area; it conceals its size by making up in depth what its facade lacks in breadth. There are roughly 10 full-time Libyan activists now staying there, and friends of the Libyan opposition come and go regularly.
Belkasem Alghiryani, or "Billy," a 34-year-old barber and Libyan expat living in Manchester, is the head of the household ("but not in a dictator way"), duly elected by his companions. He helped organize the occupation of the house with a group of English and Libyan activists. He’s reluctant to say how they entered the house on March 9, but British laws on squatting are exceedingly liberal; the police visited briefly to ensure that the squatters had committed no criminal damage and declared the action a civil matter. Billy describes his comrades as "ordinary people." Some were students, he says; some worked in restaurants. But now, they devote all their time to protest.
When Billy first entered the house, he was "shocked, sad, upset" at its scale and opulence. There were no personal effects inside. "He didn’t even live in it," Billy points out. "He’s got a house like this for 11 million pounds and he doesn’t even live in it. Where does he get this money from? He doesn’t work; he’s got no wages. This is our money; this is the Libyan people’s money." Billy wants the house to go back to the Libyan people "as soon as [possible]."
For now, life at the mansion has settled into a steady rhythm. Every day, the activists ride the Underground from East Finchley to Hyde Park Corner to demonstrate outside the Libyan Embassy. In the evenings, they return home — sometimes entering the house through a ground-floor window — and cook dinner in a big, white-paneled kitchen. They all dine together around a long, glass-topped table (when I visited recently, their dinner consisted of fresh salad, plates of lamb shank with rice and beans, and tall glasses of Coke). A quick and thorough cleanup follows, and then everyone "chills" in front of Arabic-language Al Jazeera, with its images from the Libyan highways and from the streets and squares of Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Every night, someone — usually Billy — stays awake until 7 a.m. to keep lookout, pacing the house from front to back. During the day, too, occupants rotate house-sitting duties. "We are dealing with someone who has killed people in Libya already. Anyone could come to us. [Saif] could be connected with gangsters. We don’t know."
Although they’ve achieved a routine, strange things still happen. One morning at 4 o’clock, a man in a suit knocked on the door and offered Billy, who was keeping watch at the time, 40,000 pounds to vacate the house. "He spoke perfect English, but I know he was Libyan. I asked him a question in Libyan Arabic, and he answered in English."
Squatting imposes its own hardships ("I’ve got my own flat in Manchester," Billy says. "I pay my rent every month!"), but he insists they are not going anywhere — doing so would be to retreat from the struggle for the future of his homeland. For that, the memories of the injustices they’ve endured are too painful.
Sitting on one of Saif’s pink corduroy couches at the Hampstead house, Billy told me what life was like under Qaddafi’s rule. He was born in Benghazi, the fifth of eight children. His parents are over 70. Two of his brothers are in Libya fighting against Qaddafi’s forces now, and he doesn’t know whether they are still alive. He’d love to go back and fight, but adds, "I find I can do a lot here as well. Why would I not fight here? I call this a fight, but without weapons — a brain fight."
Billy’s father worked as an auto mechanic for Libyan Airlines, but left his job for the black market in 1989 because the state’s payment of salaries was too unreliable. Their house had only four rooms: one for boys, one for girls, one for their parents, and a kitchen. There wasn’t much time or money for leisure — they made their own toys out of milk cans — and they never traveled out of the country. All the children worked to help their parents get by.
In Libya, Billy says, almost everyone is subject to the blind forces of official caprice: "There is no system. It’s messed up. You might work and go two or three months without any wages. If you’re not involved with them, killing and torturing and corruption, you’re not going to get good things." He recalls a time when his older sister, a school gym teacher, was summarily sacked along with several colleagues. After a while, she received a letter ordering her to sign up for work in police administration. An older brother managed to get her old job back through connections, but the family resented resorting to corruption.
He regards Qaddafian education as one of the greatest slights he and his peers had to bear. "I always laugh when people ask me about the education in Libya. The first year of secondary school, a decision came from him: We went to the yard of the school and burned all the English books."
Billy remembers schools walled in like army bases. "We used to go to school in army clothes because we couldn’t wear jeans; Qaddafi said they were Western clothes. We used to be slapped in the morning, slapped in the afternoon. One day a week we had to have lessons as soldiers. We were just teenagers, but if we missed that lesson, they’d punish us like soldiers, make us walk on our knees on the concrete till we’d bleed. They’d kick our knees from the back. I had that many times. We had to learn how to use a Kalashnikov; you’d learn how to use it, but you’d never see it, never touch it. Qaddafi always said, ‘The money is in people’s hands; the weapons are in people’s hands.’ Qaddafi wanted Libya to be like one big army, and at the same time, not."
Billy especially resented the mandatory Green Book lessons. Green Book teachers, he says, "were not proper teachers" but received higher wages than other teachers and operated with impunity. "Every time one of them talked, they sounded just like Qaddafi." Religious education, by contrast, was "too weak … they teach you the bits that can go with Qaddafi’s regime." Qaddafi "didn’t push hard against religion, but he didn’t let people have freedom to learn. The regime was complicated with religion: sometimes saying extremist things, sometimes saying different things, sometimes calling for jihad against Switzerland. [Qaddafi] even wanted to change things in religion; sometimes he talked about the prophets in a bad way. We had to educate ourselves about religion."
Billy attends a mosque every Friday and prays every day, though he considers his practice more relaxed than that of some Muslims. He wants relations between mosque and state in Libya to be determined democratically, but doubts that a full separation between the two entities is necessary or desirable, in part because he sees religious practice in Libya as homogenous. He is uncertain, however, that he can read the national mood after a decade out of the country and emphasizes that only a multiparty system can reflect it accurately.
Despite his tendency to rebel against the regime, Billy managed to complete a degree in "planning and education" — a subject chosen for him by the authorities — at the University of Garyounis in Benghazi. By his early 20s, however, he knew he had to leave Libya; he’d seen too many people disappear after criticizing the regime. "Do I know someone who got vanished? I know a lot who got vanished! I’ve got friends who got vanished, cousins who vanished! What you talkin’ about, man? I used to live in Libya! I almost got vanished! I was active even in Libya. I heard that my name was being mentioned."
The war in Libya is, for Billy, an all-or-nothing proposition in a way that it simply isn’t for the NATO forces helping wage it and the journalists and foreign-policy commentariat in London constantly debating it. Talk of cease-fire and other halfway measures wither his patience very quickly. "Do you think Libya will be divided to two?" he asks in an effete voice mocking an interlocutor he did not care for. "We are civilized people. It’s not just the east people who are fighting [against Qaddafi’s forces]…. All of Libya struggles under that regime. When the British went to America," he adds, "they were at war there. It wasn’t a civil war; it was a revolution! People wanted to be free!"
He also doesn’t expend much worry on such details as, say, the attitude toward black Africans behind the opposition’s lines; as far as he’s concerned, those who haven’t fled by now are all mercenaries. "We never had a problem with them," he says. "We never thought they were going to fire on us one day, because we treated them nicely. We never said, ‘Oh, you’re not Libyan — fuck off.’ But now, I’m telling you, if anyone African passes these days — especially [in] Benghazi — they’re gonna kill him … or take him to prison. It’s not going to be for good, but right now, no African people can go to Benghazi. They are not welcome." After a few moments, however, he reconsiders this statement and adds, "For sure [the opposition forces] are not going to kill them, because they’re evidence" of pro-Qaddafi interference by Libya’s neighbors.
There are clearly blind spots in his political vision, but Billy espouses the liberal-democratic dream more passionately than just about anyone I’ve ever met in London. And yet the hopes he expresses for Libya are modest: "We will have a better life," he told me toward the end of our conversation. "Libya is not going to be a very developed country very quick, because of all these 42 years of damage. To destroy is easy, but to build is hard. But every year is going to be better than the year before. The main thing for me is that people will never have fear again."
As midnight approached following a full day of protest, and with nine hours of night watch still ahead of him, he found energy to demonstrate his ideals all over again. "We had a meeting here from day one, choosing who’s gonna be there, who’s gonna be there, who’s gonna be there. We have rules here," Billy says proudly. "I’m responsible for the house, and I’ve been voted to be doing this. I always sit with [the others] and say, ‘What do you think of this?’"