I have been writing this for days. Weeks now. Almost a month. How much is mine to tell.
Today I can barely find a word of news. If I could hear it, could I really hear it. I only want to hear ... what I want to hear ... just this once. At least this once.
Gaddafi, Gadhafi, Kaddafi, Khaddafi, Qaddafi. How many ways have we learned to spell his name. How many ways have we learned to ignore what we ought to have known. How many ways have we allowed ourselves to look away. How many countries, people, lives have we refused to see.
I speak to myself here perhaps more than I speak to anyone else. I walked for a while in this land. Why did I not know.
I watch the news. I can’t watch the news. I want every bit of news. I can’t take any more if it in. I watch enough to know why it is never enough to watch only one network’s coverage of anything. Mostly I wake up at 0400 to listen to BBC. 0400 here. 1000 in London. 1200 in Libya. 1600 here. 2200 in London. 0000 in Libya.
BBC reporters rarely wade in and announce a detail until they are reasonably sure, have sources, some sense of clarity. This was as true in Egypt as it is in Libya. Just now they seem to have so little access that nothing is coming live. If I listen to Al Jazeera, at least there is something. I find myself looking at every face. Would I know his eyes.
I could wander away in a thousand directions here. I am not feeling very measured about any of this. I will try to be measured here.
21 Dec 1988. I had been four months at the college. Most everyone else was in the air or had already flown home to the States for the holiday. My home was England then and so I was, momentarily, left in charge. That morning we had checked the student rooms to make sure no one had been missed. Officially the college was closed. That afternoon I was home when news broke. Lockerbie. Pan Am 103. How does such shock register. I see the screen and watch smoke rise. I see the crater. Some other sense alerts. Were any of the students ours.
I rang the college and was put straight through. The chief guard who had walked with me that morning through all the rooms had then met with our one student still needing to get home. His ticket had come to the school. Our guard couldn’t find it. For once, error saved this student’s life. He missed the flight that failed.
Time moved on. I spent a summer session working with four students who needed to learn to write in a language not first their own. The spelling differences call me here. One student from Oman wrote often of the desert. My Egyptian seemed always to write about his country and his culture. My Spanish woman wrote about most anything and stretched us all. My last student, my Libyan, began always by writing about his country’s leader. He began the name with a Q.
Most of our international students arrived able to converse well enough in English. Mostly they could understand and be understood. Writing a language is more difficult. Most days we spent the three hours discussing writing and actively writing. Often we met in the evening in my counselling office when they brought their papers to me. By the end of the term, we knew each other well.
Everyone knew our Libyan. He was a gentle charmer with his sparkling eyes and humble smile. During his first full year with us, he worked closely with an American woman. She had come just for the year and then needed to return to the American campus. Her parents wanted her to come home. In the end it was decided that our Libyan would return with her. Because of Lockerbie, security and clearance were tight. Papers needed to be signed. Financial securities had to be in place. He had talked with his parents and all was agreed.
Then August came. Our American woman was already home and making plans for his arrival. I came on campus one early evening. I learned immediately that he was looking for me. He found me steps away on the ground floor. I needed no words from him. The pallor of his skin said all. We climbed the stairs to my turret office. No one would hear or disturb us there.
His eyes had been looking for me. They never left my own that night.
If I had suspected something might go wrong, I would have thought governmental exigency. His government or one of mine. I was wrong. No one foresaw the wrench that came.
How often did I come to learn behind my office door in the quietness and safety the space allowed of cultural differences, traditions, of family expectations and demands of loyalty. Mine was to listen and learn and then to help, if I could, whoever it was to try and look at all they could see of what their truth was in order to find their own way through.
Before that night, my student had told me about his world. I had some sense of his role at home, some sense of what that meant. By the time he began to speak his words that night, I think both of us became only eyes. As he spoke and as I listened, our eyes kept searching for sense.
Later, he shared his story with a particular class. Let me break no confidence here even as I may not be perfectly clear.
He had been told his family would allow his dream, his hope for happiness. As they spoke these words to him, his father prepared and put in place a totally different reality, a choking, limb destroying, spirit suffocating reality that would become legally binding for him within hours, almost as soon as daylight arose. They didn’t need his physical presence. They didn’t need his signature. They needed nothing. He had no way to resist.
I kept thinking, hoping that there was a question I did not see, had not asked, something that would take all of this away. There was nothing. All was happening as he had been told hours earlier by his mother, the mother who had loved him so. Somehow she had been broken. He had heard that in her voice. She could not save herself. She could not save her son.
Fathers rule. When they speak, you will do as you are told. There will be no wings to let you fly. Even now. Even here, when a father has only until now let his family’s honour down. When he speaks, you will obey or you, in turn, bring dishonour on your family.
He had spoken of this before, but now it became far more real. Now his father’s word, his father’s will ensnared the father’s eldest son.
Dawn came. The hour passed. Legal documents had been put in place. Eyes closed until they could see again.
When he found me again, he had calmed. He was no longer seeking a way out. He was the elder brother. His younger brother’s future was no future if he chose in any way to further besmirch their family name. And so his path was clear. He would rescue honour if he could not rescue himself. I watched as he laid down his boyhood and with newfound courage, calm and dignity accepted what he had not chosen.
I look for his face, his name as I watch all that is happening now. As I watch, I remember one who looked straight in the eye of paternal oppression, faced it by choosing what he saw to be right. If he could choose courage, so might others now. Some have stood, spoken, risked all to walk free of power’s silencing.
But now, will they stand, can they stand. Do we stand with them, and if so, how do we let them know. How do we help them dream their dream. Or do we simply watch as a father will not allow his children the air they need, as a father seeks to destroy his children’s will. Where are all our eyes.
We are all to blame, someone said to me not so long ago while we waited for one country to make a choice we hoped it would make. It did not. I knew he was right then. I know he is right still. Why, when there might be time, do we choose not to open our eyes.
Still we wait or we ... what. What if they were our children, our families, our futures. Well, wherever they are, they are ours. Just as much as we are theirs. Either we believe in peace and hope or we believe in nothing and may someone have mercy on us all.
It is not ours to tell them what they need, to worry about our interests or to step foot on their soil. First, we must listen as they attempt to speak, but can we not stand somehow with them as they seek to find their own ways through. I am not looking for answers here. I simply offer my voice and give it air and hope my tiny energy will reach theirs.
I let myself believe that my eyes have been open, but I have failed to look and I have failed to see. I have allowed myself not to look beyond. If I could see his eyes now .... If I could see his eyes now, I would see all I need to see. If I could ....