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Lunching with Gaddafi

23 February 2011

3:32 PM

23 February 2011

3:32 PM

I counted Gaddafi in on a journey to Tripoli to interview him early in his reign and now I am counting him out.

At the time the young Libyan was still a mysterious newcomer to the international scene. For years it had been foretold that one day some unknown colonel would appear Nasser-like to overthrow the
monarchy and drag Libya kicking and screaming into the brutal world of Arab socialism. Now the prophesy was fulfilled by the arrival of the man of destiny, a Bedouin, a lieutenant-colonel who
modestly promoted himself only one grade.

After many requests and endless oriental coffees consumed, I finally received the summons to Revolutionary HQ in Tripoli for an audience with Brother Colonel as he then styled himself.

The oddest thing was that by the time Muammar Gaddafi finally got around to answering a few of my questions, he had changed his clothes half a dozen times. This performance made me feel more like a
fashion writer longing to ask for the address of his Roman tailor or his Parisian milliner rather than an old Middle East hand anxious about his relations with the old Soviet Union and his views
about Ulster and Nasserism.

By the end of May I had spent ten days chilling out in the hotel awaiting his pleasure, perpetually watched over by a team of agreeable young Libyans from the ministry of information whose mission
was to prevent me from spying. What they all dreamed of was a visit to England to study. Their main interest was to find out more details about the sinful city of Brighton and its nightlife.
Between visits to new state owned cement factories and suchlike boring enterprises, I did my best to paint a vivid picture of Brighton as a dream city populated with hundreds of beautiful though
lascivious virgins with open arms and thighs.

Finally, I delivered my ultimatum – “Take me to your leader, or tomorrow I shall be on a flight to London.”

The sirens of motorcycles, escorting a convoy of small white Peugeot cars, interrupted a final stroll along the corniche before heading to the airport. Out sprang the minister of information with
news: “Brother Colonel wishes to see you”.

And about time too, I thought as the taste of a soon- to-be enjoyed airborne gin and tonic faded from the palate.

The rest of the day was spent in the company of the eccentric, though compelling Gaddafi. It started at the walled compound of Revolutionary Army Command HQ later bombed by the US air force. In a
modest office by the parade ground, the leader greeted me with a manly handshake. Leaving me and the ministry men to our coffee, Muammar marched off to the garrison mosque opposite.

“He is just going to say his prayers,” explained one of the guides. Presumably that explained his first rig of the day, a plain robe and hood of startling white. OK point made –
he is a pious man. Here comes the spin!

An hour later he emerged at the double, took the wheel of a white Peugeot and sped off through the barrack gate, with the rest of the court in hot pursuit. It took a bit of time to catch him up at
a dusty crossroads outside the city where he had stopped for a bit of a chat (who knows what about) with an old chap driving a donkey cart. Man of the people stuff that our Tony would understand

The dogs bark, the Peugeots pass. “Where now?” I demand, exasperated. “To the Libyan peoples’ sewage farm.” came the reply.

It was not to be, for we lost him again and the man from the ministry said we should catch him at the mess of the Revolutionary Officers’ Cavalry Club, making it sound like an tempting lunch

Old Muammar was ready for us, smartly kitted up now in British style khaki SD with far out regimental buttons. He had once taken a young officers’ course in England with the Royal Signals
– loved the country, hated London as any good officer should. You can take the British army out of Libya, but you can’t take it of a Brit trained officer.

Again we shook hands – getting quite pally now. Coffee all round and off he went again. Still no sign of lunch.

The next item on the programme started with the arrival from behind some palms of a big grey Arab stallion led by a groom. After a pause Gaddafi returned stage left in full Arab prince gear,
el-Lawrence style. With a bit of help from the groom he mounted the beast and pranced about a bit.

Fair gob-smacked by the equestrian bit and at a loss for comment I applauded Gaddafi, son of the desert. After a final quick change, he emerged accompanied by his interpreter, and dressed now in
the manner and style of an Italian millionaire playboy.

He wore an exquisitely tailored blazer and slacks that a man of fashion might kill for, together with an original touch: Gucci slip ons worn without socks.

And so it came to pass that with his wardrobe finally stabilised we sat down together on garden chairs in the orchard of the cavalry club with blossom falling on our hair for a full and frankly,
not very frank discussion of world affairs.

Both of us placed tape recorders on chairs beside us. Whenever Moammar got agitated by a question or by giving a shifty answer his crossed right foot tapped my machine. At play back time the
machine served as a lie detector. For instance, when I asked why he chose to finance the IRA and give them weapons he denied it. Tap,Tap,Tap; three for a lie.

He did support the IRA which he called the Irish Liberation Army. But his views on Ireland were very confused and confusing, for he seemed convinced that England still ruled the whole of Ireland,
Dublin included. He gave money therefore to both Catholic and Protestants to help them jointly throw the English out of the whole of emerald isle, especially Dublin. Even a Paxman type interviewer
would have found it difficult to press in with further interrogation based on such unlikely premises.

Anyway my thoughts about life at the court of Brother Colonel and his mistaken attempts to make the Middle East a socialist paradise eventually appeared at length in the paper. Many of my 
comments were critical and disobliging to say the least.

It came as quite a surprise to me a few weeks later to receive a copy of the Tripoli newspaper with the whole of its front page taken over to print my piece in Arabic with my by-line in Roman. The
reason for this bold move became clear when I read the re-translation into English. The whole article had turned into a hymn of praise about Moammar Gaddafi, “the world’s greatest

This was the Tripoli version read by the ministers and probably by the great leader himself. He assumed that, as I was such an fan I must be the world’s greatest journalist. As a reward,
invitations back to attend notable events like revolution day kept winging their way to me with first class tickets attached.

On one such occasion I was placed on the platform alongside my new pal, the Colonel busy making his traditional seven-hour speech as his Soviet supplied tanks rolled past. A photograph appeared
showing of us both in proximity. For years it puzzled the better class of intelligence service operatives trying to make out who was the mystery British “adviser”.

It was too good to last. Slowly the magic went out of our relationship and invitations ceased altogether after publication of my terrorist book The Carlos Complex that detailed the activities of
Gaddafi, the “paymaster of Terror”.

On my final visit the official interpreter, a charming professor from Cairo University took me aside. “Mr Payne, I owe you a small apology for taking certain liberties in translating your
text to Arabic”.

Certain liberties, indeed!  He’d re-written the whole thing.

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