2 Apr 2012

Why write a book?

The story of Libya’s revolution demanded to be told, says Lindsey Hilsum, who has written Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution.

As the Libyan rebels took Tripoli last August, we filmed an old man who had come out onto the road to greet the fighters driving past in triumph.

He fell to his knees. “This is my country! These are my people! And these are all my sons!” he wept.
It was a perfect scene for television news – a moment where we could see history happening right in front of our eyes.

But all the way through the Libyan revolution, I had been feeling that conveying the moment wasn’t enough. I needed to understand more about this place and these people. I was hearing so many extraordinary stories from Libyans I met while reporting for Channel 4 News, but in a TV news broadcast you can only include a few short clips. So I decided to write a book.

There’s a brief period after a war or a revolution when people tell their stories for the first time. It happened in Iraq when Saddam was toppled – people would come up to us on the street and demand that we report what they had to say, because they had never been able to say it before. It was the same in Libya. After 42 years of repression, where to say anything against Gaddafi was to risk death, everyone had a story they were desperate to tell. What better time to be a writer, chronicling the inside story of the revolution?

So I returned to Libya to seek out some of those I had met during the year, and to meet new people.

I sat down for hours with Wanise Elisawi, an eye-witness to the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, whose story I had told on Channel 4 News when I had met him on his first return to the prison. I found Mukhtar Nagasa, the fighter who had broken into Saadi Gaddafi’s house, who had been a dentist in Bath in a previous incarnation, and who had made viewers laugh when he promised me earnestly, on camera, that he was going to return the painting he had taken as a souvenir from the dictator’s son’s house. I discovered women whose stories I had failed to tell on TV, because they were working quietly behind the scenes, passing intelligence, running secret hospitals, providing food and money for the fighters. I met people who had worked for Gaddafi, who loved him still, and some who were being abused by the rebels because they had supported the regime.

Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution is an account of the revolution and the Gaddafi years largely through their eyes. There’s also history, and background and lots of detail on the Brother Leader and his dysfunctional family – they turned out to be even crazier than I had realised. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that I loved going to my study every morning and writing for eight, ten, twelve hours a day. I think that by the end of last year, my head was ringing with so many experiences I needed that quiet time to try and make sense of it all.

Sandstorm is my first book. I’ve nearly written several other books, based on my reporting over the years, but always got distracted by the news, flying onto something else in that butterfly way journalists have. Libya made me settle for a while. How could I not, when people had entrusted me with such extraordinary stories of suffering and bravery, told with such intensity and humour? I just hope that I have done them justice.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.

Extract from Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution

One day in May, the rubbish began to sing. People walked past, some staring, others hurrying on. It was so loud people driving past could hear. Curious, they slowed down – and then accelerated, fearful that Gaddafi’s spies had spotted them, because the pile of black plastic bags on the street corner in the genteel suburb of Fashloum was singing the national anthem written at Independence in 1951, banned by Gaddafi and subsequently adopted as the theme tune of the uprising. “We will never go back to fetters, we have been liberated,” sang the rubbish. “And we have freed our homeland: Libya, Libya, Libya.”

It was a Free Generation Movement stunt. Nizar, the oral surgeon from Cardiff, and his sister Mervat, had started a campaign of civil disobedience, an attempt to show the regime in non-violent ways that the people were not with Gaddafi. They had recorded ten minutes of silence, followed by the anthem played multiple times, then uploaded the recording onto four sound systems, which they had placed in black plastic bags.

On Thursday, the day everyone in Fashloum carried their rubbish out on the street for collection, Niz put out bags like everyone else, quickly driving off. By the time the music started to play, he was long gone, and no-one could know who had brought which bag. Mervat felt nervous that morning. She found herself thinking back to when she was 15, coming into the living room as the TV was showing the hanging of Sadiq Shweidi, the young man accused of plotting against Gaddafi, who was finished off by the fanatical Gadaffi supporter Huda ben Amr swinging on his legs. She could still hear him screaming. She banished the memory, got into her car, and parked opposite one of the rubbish bags, carefully placing a small video camera inside a tissue box with a hole cut in it for the lens.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I could see people were singing along. The shops put down their shutters. A kid shouted “It’s in the trash” and a truck came to pick it up, but someone shouted ‘Put it back!’ so the man put it back again.” Mervat reversed into a side street and adjusted the camera. People had not heard the anthem for 42 years – playing it, even humming it, could get you sent to Abu Salim. Eventually the soldiers figured out where the music was coming from, and picked up the rubbish bags, but by then the point had been made: Tripoli was not all with Gadaffi as he proclaimed. Opposition could spring up anywhere, and they could not control it. Mervat drove off.

That evening she showed her husband the video. “That’s our car!” he said. “I recognise the dashboard. You filmed it, didn’t you?” She confessed that she had. He knew there was no way he could stop her now. “I had lost my fear,” she said. “I think it was because I knew all those young men were paying with their lives and I hadn’t been able to do anything for 42 years.”