Published in The Friday Times April 8, 2011

It was the beginning of the year 1969 in Tripoli, Libya. There were rumors that King Idris was being made to step down. Later it emerged that an army official by the name of Colonel Gaddafi was one of the main conspirators against the king and had had the support of many junior army officers.

Libya has exceptionally abundant oil reserves. This is mainly why it was an Italian and later a British-French Allied colony for many years. These presences were not only political; they could also be seen in daily life. You saw the foreign influence in grocery stores, pizza shops, patisseries and the way the tailors mastered their suits, all of it reeking of colonization.

Though oil brought about an increase in the estimation of Libya’s wealth, it was nothing but detrimental for Libya’s socio-political development. This was undertaken by King Idris himself when he took over from the colony. It was in his reign that the Libyan constitution was born. (Later, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser came to have a severe influence on Colonel Gaddafi, who was King Idris’s successor, and the former’s ideology of pan-Arab nationalism or Nasserism spread to many parts of the Arab world.)

My father had taken my mother to the hospital, where she gave birth to my eldest sister. Shortly after her birth, within less than 24 hours, Qaddafi’s coup had occurred and my mother had to be immediately sent home since there was a great deal of speculation and apprehension as to what would happen next. The hospital was kind enough to send a nurse with my mother for three days. The coup, according to my mother’s memory of it, was bloodless and carefully planned.

Libya would never be the same under Gaddafi’s rule. The Libyan Constitution ceased to exist. Whatever words Qaddafi uttered, with immediate effect they became the law. No one could refute it; what he said was as good as done. Because he was publicly opposed to Western influences, all foreign languages were removed from the curricula of local schools. This was a big blow to my eldest sister’s education. (There were, at that time, just a handful of Pakistanis residing in Libya.) Luckily my parents found a small British school in Maadi and in another neighborhood a slightly bigger American school. (Despite Gaddafi’s rhetoric about the menace of Western influences, some international schools and companies remained in Libya, though on a smaller scale.)

My father was in those days working for a British company in Libya, and the size of his office was decreased significantly. Most of the Europeans had left in a hurry; in this randomness my father was promoted to manager. He then had to do a lot of traveling to neighboring countries, especially Tunisia. Its capital Tunis was developing very rapidly in those days and was known for its historic charm, development in education, and high growth prospects, turning it into a clean and attractive metropolitan city.

A few years later my second sister was born. By then Gaddafi had become a supporter of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). He allowed many Palestinians to start living in Libya and make it their home. He instructed the Libyan people to welcome them. This caused a round of sudden problems for locals as well as foreigners working in Libya.

If Palestinians would see an empty house or an “extra” house owned by a Libyan, they would just walk in and say: “We are now living here.” There was very little the locals could do about this. My parents used to live in a rented house. An old Palestinian man would very fiercely harass my parents to “get out” so he could move in. Either he would turn up at the house or harass them on the phone. One day, while he was on his way to work, my father said to my mother: “Take care of it!” When the Palestinian called and started misbehaving on the phone, my mother’s response was: “This isn’t our home, we have rented it, we have told you many times before we are not moving out of here. Leave us the hell alone!” The old man was taken aback; he wasn’t expecting such a response. His tone immediately changed and he said: “I’m sorry Madame, please don’t be upset, you see my family is scattered everywhere in different places. If I get a place to live we all can be together.” My mother said: “I’m sorry but there is nothing we can do, like we have told you before we have rented this house legally, I suggest you talk to someone else.” Now he said: “Okay Madame, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to upset you.” Later, in 1995, Gaddafi expelled some 30,000 Palestinians who were living in Libya. This was his response to the peace negotiations between the PLO and Israel.

Despite the harshness of that time, my recollections of Libya and its people are edged with fondness. Libyans, though the stereotype has them down as a lazy and work-averse people, are very warm, loving and welcoming, and give a special importance to the family as an institution.