Remembering when I met Qaddafi, with addendum for Marie Colvin

Posted on October 20, 2011 by Alexandra Avakian

Today Libya's revolution has peaked with the death of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. When I was a hard news photographer I loved being present at the peaks of revolutions. Now as a documentary photographer, I love photographing the aftermaths: every bit as fascinating.

I remember meeting Qaddafi, the man former U.S. President Reagan called "the Madman of the Middle East." The region was so different then: truly ossified, except for the Palestinian Intifada.

It was the 1988, the first time I covered PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (for a NYT Mag cover story.) Journalist Marie Colvin and I flew into Tripoli on Arafat's plane, loaned to him by Saddam Hussein. Arafat was to meet with Qaddafi the next day, but Qaddafi stayed out in his desert tent and made himself unavailable. For about two days Arafat stewed in the PLO villa. Even his aides and hard-bitten guerillas were afraid to talk to him, he was so angry. He did let me take his pic when he was bald though, having breakfast. His body guard controlled his Cornflakes so they would not be poisoned. He loved Cornflakes.  

Finally Arafat was so furious with Qaddafi at making him wait, he used Marie and I in a feint:

He had his guards put us into his car, with all his baggage and his dry cleaned uniform on a hanger, and sent us to the airport in a ruse signaling Qaddafi that he was leaving in a mighty huff. At sunset on a highway clogged with traffic, a  Palestinian guerilla forced us off the road and told us "The Colonel (Qaddafi) has called for you!" Marie dug her fingers into my thigh and said "Whatever you do, whatever they do, don't leave me alone with him!" She meant Qaddafi.  I promised I would not leave her alone with him but that I wanted to know why later. 

Off we rushed to Qaddafi's barracks, Bab al–Aziziya.

We waited for some time in a luxurious waiting room with high ceilings and soft ornate couches. One of Arafat's advisors, Abu Daoudi, told Arafat I’m Armenian. Arafat stared at me with big eyes and almost breathed the sound "Ahhh," as if now he understood me. Then, to my embarrassment at the time, Abu Daoudi told Arafat I had a dream about him and I was forced to tell my dream to Arafat. "Well, we were swimming in the ocean---you were doing a breast stroke and were surrounded by swimming bodyguards---I had a long lens on my camera and I kept trying to get a shot of you but I couldn't manage with the bodyguards blocking my view." Arafat said in his high, little voice, "Sank you, sank you, sank you." He meant thank you, of course. Arafat believed in dreams. After this trip for many years I had the best access of any non-Arab photographer to Arafat---I flew with him to Morocco, Washington D.C. for the signing of the Oslo Accords, and Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize.

SO...finally we were ushered in to see Qaddafi. I took some pictures of the two of them hugging and kissing hello, and we were introduced to him. He flirted with us but Marie was safe by my side.

Then we were ushered out while Qaddafi and Arafat got down to business. I photographed Qaddafi several times over the years. He was always dressed in something spectacular, whether an Italian suit or desert robes, puffing up for the cameras.

Arafat and Qaddafi are gone. 

And the Middle East is more interesting than ever. Much of the rest of the Arab world hangs in the balance as revolutions, civil unrest and also oppression go on. The rest remains to be seen.

PS: Marie later explained her apprehension when Qaddafi demanded our presence. Qaddafi had tried to seduce her by having her locked in a room by female bodyguards who told her the Colonel had ordered her to change into the traditional white wedding dress laid out on a bed, as well as the tiny green satin shoes laying there. She refused and managed to talk her way out.


Addendum: The writer I was with was the late, great war reporter Marie Colvin who died under fire in Homs, Syria yesterday. This was our first big adventure together. Rest in peace, old friend. And deepest thanks for the times we spent together.

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