Libyan-American Writer Remembers Benghazi

The battle between those who support the government of Moammar Gadhafi and those calling for him to step down rages in the city of Benghazi, Libya. That city is the birthplace of Khaled Mattawa, an Arab-American writer and assistant professor of creative writing at the Univeristy of Michigan. Mattawa talks about how it feels to watch the events in his home country from so far away.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, Moammar Gadhafi is still the longest-serving non-royal leader in the world, 42 years now. And at the beginning, says Daniel Kawczynski, who wrote a biography of Gadhafi, his message resonated widely.

Mr. DANIEL KAWCZYNSKI (Author, "Seeking Gaddafi"): I think certainly when the revolution took place in 1969, the propaganda that he was spouting, the anti-Western rhetoric, the anti-American, anti-British rhetoric, went down well in certain quarters because, don't forget, Libya had been occupied for many years by the Italians, Mussolini.

And there were foreign bases in the country, which he closed down, and he nationalized foreign assets. So there was this spirit of nationalism, which I think tapped into a lot of people in those early years. But ever since that time, it's gradually gone downhill because of increased repression, but also a catastrophic mismanagement of the economy.

RAZ: Gadhafi banned political parties or any opposition, for that matter. In fact, Libya is a country without a parliament. So if Gadhafi is ousted, how will it be governed?

I asked Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan-born poet and scholar, who teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Professor KHALED MATTAWA (University of Michigan): Well, that's still an open question. The leadership is sort of emerging from Benghazi at the local level and perhaps at the national level.

There is some hesitance about starting a new national provisional government because there is fear that that would be tantamount to separating the east from the west, which is - would fall right into what Colonel Gadhafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, would probably wish to happen. That would be probably their -the best scenario is for them to call it a secession and to just try to hold on to the west and try to rile up the people of the west against the east in a de facto manner around them.

RAZ: Khaled Mattawa, Libya, your birth country, is a country with no parliament. There are no political parties. There are no real strong civil institutions. It's basically a country dominated by the cult of Gadhafi. Can you explain how it functions? I mean, are government ministries like mini-statelets?

Prof. MATTAWA: They're not really like mini-statelets because they don't have that kind of independence. But they are really opportunities for pillage.

There aren't many ministries - Ministry of Health or Ministry of Education -that are operating in a functional mode. They're somewhat decentralized, where, let's say, the Ministry of Education has a billion dollars to run the whole national apparatus, and a portion of that money is given, let's say, to the district of Al Bayda.

And what happens is that the salaries would go through, and the salaries in Libya, I should note, have been frozen for almost 30 years for most of the government employees, and they are the bulk of the working force in Libya.

As far as projects and rebuilding schools and fixing them and so on, the money is never really accounted for. So the bureaucrats that are serving in education and health and so on, they end up hiring their own relatives. They end up keeping the money in their own pockets.

RAZ: Libya, unlike in Egypt, has a small population in comparison, only about six million people, a higher per capita GDP than some countries in Europe. It's a fairly well-educated and large middle class. It almost makes you wonder how Gadhafi managed to stay in power so long.

Prof. MATTAWA: Well, as you've seen, it's clearly through the use of torture and violence against the population. The great political theorists of the past have said there is nothing easier to control than a small, rich state.

And with a small population like that, you can easily overpower them if you have the money, and Gadhafi is counting on that to the last minute. So threats, torture and money and violence are clearly the approach that the regime has had about any opposition.

RAZ: Khaled Mattawa, you were born in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, a town that is now widely assumed to be under control of the opposition. How do you feel? I mean, did you ever - could you ever have imagined something like this happening in a country that was so dominated by one man and one man's family?

Prof. MATTAWA: I feel rebirth, greatly honored to be from Benghazi. I feel slightly ashamed at having distrusted the people or my fellow citizens at not being able to rise. And I feel a great sense of solidarity with the people of my city. I'm overjoyed.

RAZ: That's Khaled Mattawa. He is a Libyan poet born in the eastern city of Benghazi. He teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Khaled Mattawa, thank you so much.

Prof. MATTAWA: Thank you for inviting me.

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