Former Gadhafi interpreter remembers the Libyan tyrant

The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — As a young man in his 20s, Abubaker Saad was taken in by the dashing, 27-year-old Moammar Gadhafi, who seized power in Libya in a bloodless coup in 1969.

“It was not only me. Most of the young, educated guys were really excited. … We thought this is the bright future for the country,” said Saad, who worked closely with Gadhafi for nine years as a diplomat and, at times, his personal interpreter. “He’s going to promote the country and development.”

But within a few months, Saad, who is now a professor at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, and others who worked closely with the new leader, saw Gadhafi’s dark and brutal side.

“He was horrible, very horrible. Very rude,” Saad said. “You didn’t know which word you say is going to tick him off. He was very rude, very impolite. He used to spit in people’s face.”

“There were occasions, we would be sitting at the Bab al-Aziziya (Gadhafi’s palace and headquarters). We used to work there at his offices, and if he walks in, you always pray that he will talk to somebody else, not you,” Saad said. “Basically, the best expression I could use: ‘walking on eggshells.’ When you are around him, you are walking on eggshells. If you crack one, you’re done.”

After about a year, Saad said, the people of Libya caught on. The first of many foiled coup attempts took place and Gadhafi found the people behind it and had them killed.

“That’s really when the reign of fear began,” Saad said. “The majority became afraid of him because he was really brutal.”

With the death of Gadhafi last week, Saad has been in demand by national and international media for his insights on the despot and his reflections on the future of his native land. Saad, who has been teaching Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Western since 1996, fled Libya for the U.S. 34 years ago, gaining status here as a political refugee. He’s now a U.S. citizen.

For nine years, Saad worked closely with Gadhafi, managing to avoid his wrath most of the time. But, he said, there were moments when he did rile him.

Once when Saad was translating Gadhafi’s words into Italian for a dignitary, he did not translate a “cuss word” into the Italian equivalent.

Gadhafi realized this and lashed out at him: “You little monkey, I told you to say this.” Saad said he apologized, continued with his translation, but he said, “I pride myself on never translating the cuss words.”

“He acted crazy to make you think he was crazy, but he was one of the shrewdest people you can encounter,” Saad said. “One of the most devious people you could encounter. He was very calculating. He actually put on that crazy facade.”

Although he didn’t like what he observed, Saad said he continued to work for Gadhafi.

“I stayed for the hope of change. That was the tradition at the time,” Saad said. “And I couldn’t speak out for fear.”

That was until 1976, when an event triggered Saad’s outrage. Some young people had set fire to government cars in Saad’s home town of Benghazi. Three of the offenders were hanged, including a 17-year-old. The traffic was routed around Benghazi so that all would drive past the bodies. “When I saw the sight of that 17-year-old kid, that did it for me,” Saad said. “Really that one flipped me over.”

Saad voiced his anger to someone who told him of a coup in the planning stages. Saad decided to help; 500 people were part of it. Two days before the coup was to launch, Gadhafi’s secret police learned of it. A friend who worked in Gadhafi’s office told Saad that his name was on a list — a list that Gadhafi had not yet seen.

Saad fled the country immediately, leaving all of his belongings behind, without a chance to say goodbye to his parents, his three brothers and three sisters. No one at the airport suspected that he was fleeing because, as a diplomat, he frequently left the country.

“It worked very beautifully at the time,” Saad said of his escape.

Of the 500 in on the aborted coup, he knows of just seven survivors besides himself.

In the U.S., Saad received refugee status and enrolled at Portland State University in Washington to get his master’s degree; then on to the University of Washington in Seattle for his doctorate in history.

For more than 30 years, he had no direct contact with his family in Libya, fearing that if he contacted them or vice versa, they would be tortured. He communicated only through friends, learning of his parents’ death in a car crash about seven or eight days after it happened.

“Over the years you get used to it,” Saad said of the lack of contact with his family. “It becomes a fact of life. You learn how to live with it. It’s a matter of survival.”

In February, when Benghazi fell to the rebels, Saad, who has a 17-year-old son here, was again able to talk to his family in Libya. He hopes to visit them, but says he will wait for a while as he expects the country will face some rough going ahead.

“There’s going to be infighting,” Saad said. “There were some people in Libya who were benefiting” under Gadhafi. “Let’s not be blind about it. These people feel that all of their privilege and status were taken away. So they’re going to retaliate. I’m hoping it won’t be on a large scale … but you could find nasty assassinations and things like that.”

Of his concerns about the revolutionaries, Saad said he hopes that the investigation of Gadhafi’s death shows that he was killed in crossfire — as some say — rather than having been executed by his captors.

“If they did execute him, it would be stain on their revolution, a dark spot,” Saad said. “They are not supposed to do that.”

It will be a huge challenge, Saad said, for the Libyans to establish a new government in a country that has had “no sociopolitical institutions at all for 42 years. They are starting from scratch.”

“Everyone will fight for power, for who gets what, who is represented in the government and who isn’t,” Saad said. “My hope is that they keep it as a family squabble” rather than “really going at it in a civil war with each other.”

With the country’s huge oil wealth, Saad said, “Everybody should really be able to live comfortably there, but the problem is human greed. Greed is going to play a game, so I am anticipating some bumps in the road. I hope those bumps don’t turn into a big crater.”

The only foreign assistance the Libyans need, he said is “know-how. They do have the money. … They need the know-how. That’s where they need the help from the United States and Europe.”

He said the most urgent problem is the lack of medical care for the estimated tens of thousands who have been wounded in the civil war. “The war has destroyed everything. They don’t have the medicine. … People are laying there, some in the corridors of the hospitals. … Some have to be lifted out of Libya.”

Saad said he is very happy in the United States and has no desire — as he might have decades ago — to return to Libya and play a role in the new government. But, he said, “I am so pleased the Libyan people have accomplished what I attempted 30 years ago. I am very happy for them.”

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