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Heart of darkness

History is replete with stories of debauched kings and their ignoble ways. As college students we learnt more than a thing or two about emperors with hundreds of concubines. Not many would have forgotten Mohammed Shah Rangeela, and his merry ways. He is said to have danced in his court for long hours with his companions, not all of whom were women.

In fact, so given to hedonistic ways was Rangeela — the word ‘rangeela’, meaning colourful, was added to his name in consonance with his personality — that he is held partially responsible for the decline of the Mughal empire. Indeed, as history tells us, guilty pleasure has its moments but it exempts none from the consequences.

These thoughts about our merry-making men struck my mind while going through a book on the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. For the innocent, Gaddafi was a man who believed in serial love, if one must be polite. He often treated women not much better than necessary appendages for personal pleasure. When he was alive there were whispers about Gaddafi, about how he used to keep women confined to his harem, about what it meant for a young girl if his gaze fell on her, and how these girls were reduced to life-long sex slavery. Rape, violence, humiliation was a daily ordeal. Yet there were no authentic reports until Gaddafi breathed his last.

Then despatches started trickling in. Many journalists tried to get to ground reality; all the men ran into a wall. Then came Annick Cojean, a noted French journalist, who managed to reach where no man ever did: one-to-one with Libyan women. Of course, being a female journalist had its advantages: she had access to everybody in the society and not just to one gender. What she discovered was a tale of real bravery, a story of survival against all odds, and a rare ability to scoff at death. Women, it turned out, were the most opposed to Gaddafi, they fed the rebels, even equipped them. They had a ‘personal’ account to settle with the Colonel.

Among them was Soraya, a courageous girl, who related her story to Annick. This was to be the starting point for an incredibly brave new book, appropriately titled Gaddafi’s Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya. It is a book that initially nudges you, maybe even cajoles you to read on. Soon enough it has you in its grip as Annick’s work reminds you of a pitcher plant that sucks in all that comes its way. Annick reveals the story of a hapless young girl in the harem of the dictator and how she was trapped, not allowed to even call up her parents and reduced to a prisoner in a golden cage. That is not all. There were countless other girls, similarly distressed. The girls were fellow sufferers, who slept with Gaddafi when the mood overtook him, and were often silent recipients of his anger, his violence, his unprovoked abuses. Many, like Soraya, were confined to a basement for weeks, getting to see the sun only when the dictator chose to shift them to another location for a few days! Medieval? Maybe. Barbaric? Certainly. Yet the girls were not always tied by bonds of sorority. Intrigue and jealousy marked their relationship.

Yet Annie could have done better. She is a shade short on details, and not always accurate with her expressions. For instance, she tells us that Soraya, hailing from a traditional household, observed Ramadan. For all the religiosity in her blood, Soraya would have observed fast — Ramadan is the month of fasting, not the fast itself. Incidentally, it is here that Gaddafi comes across as a monster, a man who respected none, not even the sacred commandments of his own faith. On the first day of the holy month, he imposes himself on the vulnerable girl, ignoring her pleas that one is forbidden from intimacy from dawn to dusk. “The only thing that’s forbidden is eating,” he says. Similar was the story of young Khadija. And others. All tales within tales. There is a predictability to the stories. Yet every chapter has a sting, every woman’s sorrow singes. And with each passing chapter of Annick’s book, you wonder, why didn’t it all come out earlier? As for Gaddafi, we all know how fate extracted its price for all his pleasures.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 2:40:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-columns/heart-of-darkness/article5482701.ece

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