Flying Qaddafi Air

A glimpse of bizarre luxury -- and freedom -- aboard Qaddafi's private plane, with its Texas-made silverware and mirror over the bed.

TRIPOLI, Libya — My interpreter, Ahmed, is flooring it down an airport runway, giddy with enthusiasm. He keeps talking about how he's always wanted to push this hard on the gas, how he never thought he'd be driving his car on this vast flat asphalt.

But in Free Libya anything is possible. Including a visit to Muammar al-Qaddafi's personal plane.

TRIPOLI, Libya — My interpreter, Ahmed, is flooring it down an airport runway, giddy with enthusiasm. He keeps talking about how he’s always wanted to push this hard on the gas, how he never thought he’d be driving his car on this vast flat asphalt.

But in Free Libya anything is possible. Including a visit to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s personal plane.

Our car accelerates toward the Afriqiyah Airways airplane standing apart from a cluster of others like a giant white turkey in the recently secured international airport. We’ve been lucky enough to be offered a tour of the runways from Mohammed Saad, a 24-year-old engineering student now part of the Zintan Brigade, a western mountain rebel unit that has set up shop in the airport.

As we pull up to the Airbus A340, there’s a cluster of people milling about under the door, but no staircase to actually climb up into the plane, which looms high above our heads. A foreign TV crew decked out in flak jackets and helmets is swarming around it, trying to get aboard. We approach cautiously.

After we wait five minutes in the blaring high noon heat, the rebels wheel over a small metal staircase, which stops about 4 feet under the actual door. The TV crew bombs up the stairs to get into the plane, pulling themselves up gymnast-style, a gaggle of onlookers scrambling up behind them. Before long, at the bottleneck, a fight nearly breaks out between a group of local civilians demanding their right to enter before the foreign press, and the rebels, who are clutching their AK-47s and trying to enforce order.

It’s a small slice of the uncertainty that’s everywhere in post-Qaddafi Libya. The entire mass is yelling and no one is backing down. Everyone is packing heat. The mood is buoyant, but the possibilities for violence are endless. I had spent the day with Ahmed moving smoothly through checkpoints manned by grinning young men with Kalashnikovs — but when people start shouting, I have to wonder: Is everything about to unravel, right before my eyes?

At the airport, the shouting goes on for about 10 minutes until the soldiers finally subdue the angriest would-be plane tourist, who storms away from the line and begins shouting somewhere else, away from the melee. Then the rebels calm everyone down and after a pause decide to allow another journalist — me — onto the plane. Ahmed follows.

I scamper up the rickety stairs to climb inside the megalomaniac’s personal space. The interior is dark, cool, and done up in what looks like quilted satin with lavish rugs. As I move through the plane, there’s ample space for security details or guests to sit in business-class-type seats. Then there’s a lounge, and finally at the back, the quarters belonging to the big man himself.

Holding the flashlights we brought, Ahmed and I enter his bedroom. Someone had given a lot of thought to the color scheme, which is silver-on-silver with red and yellow throw pillows adorning the leather couches.

As we stand in the bedroom, which feels like the hidden lair of evil, we’re dead silent. The man who managed to stay in power for 42 years through U.S. air raids and now a NATO campaign spent his time sleeping in the air on a queen-sized bed with two pillows and a full-length mirror over the headboard (which none of the Libyan men quite get the point of, until I awkwardly explain.)

Ahmed can’t contain himself and leaps straight onto the bed. “How does it feel?” one of our rebel escorts asks him.

“Very comfortable,” he replies, grinning under the flashlight beams and begging me to take his picture.

My hands shake as I try to capture my new friend posed on the mercurial dictator’s bed. This was the only ruler he’d ever known. Now we are rummaging through his stuff.

Having had our fill, we’re filing out when Eissam Nassrat, an engineer in the civilian aviation authority, pulls me aside to show me something. At the back of the plane we look at rows and rows of silver trays that are labeled: Reese Design, Austin, Texas.

“I can’t believe it,” Nassrat tells me. “I couldn’t ever touch something like this before.”

He opens a cupboard next to the entrance to Qaddafi’s bedroom and pulls out plates and teacups with gold trim. “Hi-Luxe, 24 CT Gold” is inscribed on the bottom. Everyone laughs bitterly. Nassrat places them carefully back in the drawer.

This weekend, I watched citizens drag out anything of value from Qaddafi’s compound and space heaters from the notorious Abu Salim prison. But these guys were being careful to keep everything on Qaddafi’s plane intact. As we leave the plane and go back out into the sun, Nassrat tells me he hopes the airport will open again in a matter of weeks. “We’re going to work hard on this, inshallah,” he tells me.

Ahmed, meanwhile, can’t get over it. “Before we couldn’t do anything and now, I got to put my ass on his bed!” he exclaims as he gets back into the car, and then offers to drift on the airport runway.

Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @satopol.

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