Sunday, June 14, 2009

Old Mad Dog, thanks for the memories (sort of)!

That old former Mad Dog of international terrorism (as defined in the 1980s by Ronnie Reagan), Col. Muammar Gheddafi, hit Rome the other day for a three-day state visit, his first-ever to the Bel Paese, some 40 years after his military coup in Libya.

His arrival was somewhat spectacular in that he came down the airplane steps decked out in his military regalia and with a picture on the right side of his chest. A picture you may ask? Yes, of Omar al-Mukhtar, the old “Lion of the Desert” who had been eventually hung by Italy`s General Graziani (during Italy`s less-than nice colonial occupation of Libya from 1911 to 1943. Some 100,000 Libyans died during that Fascist occupation, something that Gheddafi had not forgotten when he kicked out Libyan-born Italians shortly after he had come to power).

On the bottom of the steps to greet him was none other than our Great Leader, Silvio Berlusconi, who was all hugs and kisses with the crazy old Colonel (close-up tv shots of him showed someone who was evidently propped up with more than one amphetamine!). Berlusconi apparently was not to have been present at his arrival as he had complained of sore neck muscles (!!), but so as to not irritate even further Gheddafi (and push him to open even wider the doors of illegal migrants who wash up on Italy`s shores as they transit through Libya), the Great Leader was there full of smiles and hugs (I personally equate the picture escapade to Obama`s recent visit to Saudi Arabia: out of respect for his hosts, the U.S. President didn’t show up with a long list on his jacket lapel with the names of the 3,000 victims of 9/11, seeing that 11 out of the 15 highjackers were in fact Saudis!).

So why the memories for me? Well, one fine day back in 1982 (circa) at Winnipeg`s University of Manitoba when I was doing my French conversation course, the prof asked me if he could see me after the class. I thought that perhaps I spoke too much. Instead, he asked me if I had heard of the news that some 400 Libyan students who were to enrol in aeronautical schools in Libya were on their way to Canada to learn English. A small group would be coming to Winnipeg and my prof wanted to know if I wanted to run the English language lab and to teach these guys (all young men by the way). At the thought that in 1981 I`d be earning 10 bucks an hour, well, I naturally jumped at the idea. The 400 students had initially wanted to go to the States to study but there was NO way that Reagan, given also American public opinion, was going to allow 400 supposed “terrorists” come to the U.S. to study, so Canada got them instead (and I`m sort of glad because I earned a bucket of money trying to teach them English!). News had even slipped out that Libyan terrorists, who had arrived amongst the students, were ready to travel to Washington to assassinate Reagan. The then Canadian foreign minister (who just happened to have hailed from Winnipeg), Lloyd Axworthy, went in front of the national cameras to dispel the ridiculous news that Canada had allowed entry to some 400 terrorists (we ALL ended up knowing later that, according to the late, great Pierre Trudeau, Reagan saw communists and other subversives EVEN under his very own bed)!

The fellows? I felt that three-quarters of them were brainwashed by Gheddafi. In fact, one was such a staunch supporter of the man (as I found out when I`d poke fun at the Colonel) that another student told me that he was born in the same town as Gheddafi, and the Colonel had helped his family! Others though didn`t have the same opinion: one of them even got his hands on Larry Flynt`s “Hustler” magazine. At the last page of the porn mag, Flynt had a picture of a donkey`s ass with in the middle the picture of someone famous. The title of that page was: “Asshole of the month”! The Libyan student looked at me and in English said: “Hey Mario, who`s the asshole of the month this month”? I looked at him and said, knowing very well where he got the idea from, “Where did you find out about that”? He looked and smirked. I said I didn`t know who the asshole of the month was. Seeing that amongst the students there had also been spies from Gheddafi`s regime in order to keep an eye on these guys who for the very first time in their lives were savouring democracy, he whispered: “Gheddafi”!

And how were they as English students? Camels were actually much more intelligent! In all the years that I`ve taught English, both in Canada and in Italy, I don`t think I`ve ever come across a collection of bigger brick-heads than the Libyans! Apparently, a few had even managed to literally rape one of our female teachers, a specialist in the teaching of English as a Second Language who had come in from Toronto (I was told that back home in Libya, the sisters of many of these male students couldn`t even go downtown WITHOUT a male chaperon by their sides. Just imagine when in a place like Winnipeg they`d see women of all ages calmly walking about on campus or downtown alone. Their hormones basically went berserk)!

But the best was yet to come as 1982 would be indeed a very, very special moment for Italians all over the world, including the kids of Italian immigrants such as yours truly: the World Cup in Spain which would eventually give Italy its 3rd World Cup title. And where`s the connection with the Libyan students? Well, most of them were actually pretty damn good soccer players and they also had a love for Italy as they`d get to pick up Italian news and Italian lifestyle via satellite (I actually got some to play for a local 1st division soccer club in Winnipeg. It had been my very first contact with the Ramadan period: amazing, in the heat of the summer they`d play 90 minutes without touching a single drop of water either before, during or after the match! For us non-Muslims we naturally thought that it was purely nuts to try to play soccer in 35 degree-heat WITHOUT drinking any water! And it showed as in the 2nd half of the matches they`d just slowly wither away!), so when it came time to watch the two epic matches for Italy against Maradona`s Argentina and Falcao`s Brazil, here I was in a room at the U of M in front of the tv set surrounded by Libyan students who, knowing my Italian roots, were ALL out of spite (but not out of hatred as they loved everything which was associated with Italy) cheering AGAINST Italy! One can only imagine what I had to go through…

But on with Muammar`s visit to Rome. The Italian president, Napolitano, who greeted the Colonel at the Quirinale , the presidential palace, was seen to have had a rather strange look on his face as he saw the Libyan leader approach him with the strange picture on his chest. No doubt Napolitano was certainly NOT amused. Gheddafi`s entourage was comprised of some 300-400 people, including his faithful female bodyguards. The Colonel, always an eccentric fellow (very memorable was the time when in the 1980s as Arafat and his PLO combatants were holed up in the north of Lebanon as the Israelis were bombing the hell out of him, Gheddafi had given his Muslim brother the following advice when Arafat`s options of a quick exit from a rather dire situation were getting slimmer by the moment: “The best thing that you and your troops can do is that of committing suicide”! With friends like that, who indeed needs enemies (Arafat and his cronies would eventually be whisked off by ship to nearby Cyprus) ended up staying not in a downtown Roman hotel, nor at his embassy, but in a Bedouin tent in the middle of Villa Pamphili, which is Rome`s largest public park!

They say that the art of diplomacy was “born” some 2,500 years ago in the kingdom of Ebla near the Mediterranean coast in what we would call the Middle East in the kingdom of Hamazi in what is now Northern Iran. Modern diplomacy instead has its roots, coincidentally, in 15th century Italy where permanent embassies were first established. And while the Obama administration has no doubt looked on the recent Gheddafi visit to Italy with some level of scepticism (will Obama indeed be meeting next month Gheddafi in L`Aquila during the G8 Summit seeing that Gheddafi is currently the head of the Organization of African States?), the Italians are no doubt masters of the art of getting along with former tin-pot dictators like Gheddafi, the Americans and also the Israelis: Muammar and his fellow compatriots (still) sit on loads of oil and natural gas deposits which are very, very dear to ENI, Italy`s state run petroleum company which is present in 70 countries around the world. Not only is oil and natural gas dear to the Italians and to Gheddafi`s cash registers, but the old Mad Dog also controls the taps on those thousands and thousands of illegal migrants who come up from such desperate and failed states as Sudan , Chad and other Third World countries (in a public debate, Gheddafi no doubt sent shivers down the spines of more than one politician as he asked: “Do you want 1 million, 10 million or 50 million illegal immigrants arriving in Italy”?). And as other European countries know very well, many of these poor and desperate migrants eventually use Italy (where they land on the island of Lampedusa which in 1986 saw Libya`s missiles practically land on its shores. More on that later…) as a simple springboard in order to make their way north to Germany, France or England.

On a final note, Gheddafi`s Rome visit brings back one final memory: in 1986, somewhat exasperated after Gheddafi had allegedly been behind the terrorist bombing of a disco in Germany (which killed several U.S. army personnel), Reagan decided once and for all to put the Mad Dog back in his kennel. He proceeded to bomb the hell out of Tripoli, killing along the way also one of Gheddafi`s (adopted) daughters. Well, in that very same period and moment I had just landed a job (right after my MA in Hispanic Studies at Queen`s) at the U.S. Consulate-General in Winnipeg! Yes, I still recall that we had been put on high-alert as a result of that bombing by U.S. warplanes (it now turns out many years later that the Craxi government, somewhat back-stabbing the Americans along the way, had warned Gheddafi of the imminent bombing. The missiles fired at the island of Lampedusa near Sicily weren’t in fact aimed at Italy. Apparently, back in the 80s on the island itself the Americans had positioned a very sophisticated radar station there which monitored Soviet submarine activity in the Mediterranean. This bit of somewhat intriguing news came out awhile ago by that old master himself of Italian diplomacy, seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who at age 90 was present during Gheddafi`s conferences in Rome). I still remember that we had had members of the RCMP patrolling outside the consulate and we had been even told to be careful when heading home after work in case we were followed by Libyan agents! It was all good stuff for the makings of a great James Bond movie (I`d go through something similar at the end of the 80s in Montreal when the U.S.S. warship Vincennes blew out of the sky an Iranian Airbus, and then again in 1991 while working at the U.S. Embassy in Rome during the first Gulf War)!

The ol` Colonel is notoriously famous for making his hosts wait endlessly for him. On one occasion, poor King Abdullah of Jordan had to wait and bake under sun and under the airplane steps 3 hours for Gheddafi to descend from his plane. Another European leader was made to wait instead a whopping 10 hours for the arrival of the Mad Dog. Well, Rome was no exception either to Gheddafi`s strange whims: Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the Parliament, after waiting uselessly 2 hours for Gheddafi to show up, said to hell with the conference (and with him) and proceeded to cancel it! Gheddafi`s excuse? That he was holed up at his embassy in holy afternoon prayers!

Yup, never one to let down an international audience that old Mad Dog of international (lunatics)!