Return From Exile
30 years later, Mansour El-Kikhia returns to Libya
Note: This interview was conducted in August 2011; therefore, several references in the present are now past tense because of the October 2011 death of Gaddafi.
On those rare occasions when Mansour
El-Kikhia happens to catch the scent of a pleasant ocean breeze, he is transported–if only for a moment–back to his youth in his beloved Benghazi, Libya.
In that instant, a flood of memories carries him to the African continent: Spending the day with family and friends at the beach and wading in the Mediterranean Sea, sharing lunches with cousins, aunts and uncles at relatives’ homes for weeks at a time before having a meal at his own house again, and, of course, the very generous Libyans, whom he said will give you their lives once they befriend you.
“What really sticks in my mind is the change in the weather in the afternoon,” said the 59-year-old El-Kikhia, chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography, sitting at his desk with a world map covering the entire wall behind him. “In San Antonio, the hottest time of the day is 5 o’clock in the afternoon.”
“The hottest time of day in Libya is around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. And so by 5 o’clock it begins to cool down, and you go inside and the sea breeze is coming in from the Mediterranean. It’s just being there that gives you a different sense of existence.”
He also recalled many occasions when he would slide down the stair railing for thrills in his family’s 40-room, Ottoman-style, palatial residence built in 1198. (The house has since been turned into the Bait-al Medina al-Thaqafi Museum.)
And then there was the dreadful day—one he will never forget—when he and his family left home for a two-hour shopping trip, only to return to find that another family occupied their residence with the express permission of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s government as punishment for El-Kikhia’s stirring up trouble.
The 28-year-old El-Kikhia had been calling attention to injustices by visiting government offices to voice his opinion about public hangings, suspension of basic liberties and widespread poverty in an oil-rich nation.
“It was very difficult to live in a country where you could see the murder, the injustice,” he said. “And you have two choices. Either speak up or shut up. And I could not shut up. I had to speak up, but the more I spoke up the more my life became endangered.”
In February of this year, civil war broke out between military forces loyal to Gaddafi and the rebel opposition, many of them ordinary citizens who are fighting to the death to end the tyrannical 42-year rule of the despised colonel in hopes of a new and better life.
Upon hearing news of the dissidents’ determination to kick Gaddafi out of office, El-Kikhia could not have been happier. He had yearned to set foot on Libyan soil again ever since he fled the country in 1980 seeking safety in America, leaving his entire family behind.
When pressed as to how he escaped from Libya, El-Kikhia chose not to disclose that information, and only remarked that “it’s a long story.”
In April, after 30 years away from home, El-Kikhia finally returned to Benghazi, where he served as an advisor to the opposition after military forces abandoned the city. Since then, his counsel has been sought by the White House, as well as by heads of foreign governments, regarding the situation in Libya. His return from exile also made national news and led to appearances on CNN News, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Geraldo at Large.
As the fighting continues for control of the Libyan government, the professor spoke about the crisis in the North African nation, his jubilant return home, and his interest in maps.
When did you first come to America? I came to America in 1977 to go to school at the University of California, Santa Barbara to study political science. I went back in 1978 and could not leave until I escaped from Libya and came back to California in 1980.
Why wouldn’t the government let you leave? Perhaps they saw me as more of a threat outside—that I would talk about what’s going on. I spoke up against killings, hanging of people in the streets, which I saw happen before my very eyes. Once you go through this and see this, you cannot live in a society that is governed by such crazy people.
Where did you work when you went back to Libya? I couldn’t find a job. I was blacklisted as an enemy of the people.
What was it like to go home after all these years? You have no idea what it was like. It was like “Alice in Wonderland.” I can’t explain to you the sensation of seeing people you haven’t seen in 30 years. The funny thing is that it hurts. It hurts very much because you have an image in your mind, and suddenly that image is thrown away and another image appears. Sometimes, the second image is not something you want to see. It really does something to you about your sense of right and wrong, but then it [makes you realize] that you must devote your life to making people’s lives better.
Were you able to communicate with your family during those 30 years in exile? Only by phone. They were [being watched]. My family members cannot leave the country. If one family member leaves, another one is held by the secret service until that person comes back.
What did your father do when you were growing up? My father was the pasha (high-ranking official) of Cyrenaica (a coastal region of Libya) and advisor to the prince and first prime minister. He was also head of the Libyan Senate. My mom was a homemaker.
Do you see yourself having a role in forming a new government or holding office? Yes. I do see myself playing an important role in the new constitutional government. I see myself as doing both. Indeed, I’m already doing the first and will get to the second when Libya is free of Gaddafi.
Can you give me an overview of what the real problem is in Libya? It’s really very simple. [Gaddafi] needs to go. He’s been in power for 42 years [and has been] abusing Libya’s finances and people and land and water for the last 42 years. And it’s about time the Libyan people said no. No more, we’ve had enough of this nonsense. We don’t want you anymore. We want you out of our country and out of our lives. We want stability. And they have to fight. Ultimately, the people said there is no choice for us over here. It’s either winning or death. There’s no in-between.
Why do you believe Gaddafi refuses to let go of power? Do you think he’s mentally disturbed? He’s been [mentally disturbed] for many years. And he has seven sons who are even worse than he is.
What do you think the freedom fighters need from the U.S.? First of all,
recognition … Most countries of the world have recognized them as the legitimate authority in Libya except for America. America needs to recognize them.
What do you see in the future of your country once Gaddafi leaves? Anything is possible. After experiencing Gaddafi, I don’t think anything can be worse.
What do you think is going to happen to Gaddafi? I hope death. I have no sympathy for people who destroyed the aspirations and dreams of so many people.
Would you say he stole your dreams? He stole more than 40 years of my life. In the end, I am grateful to the United States for giving me the opportunity to become an American and live here and learn from it … and I learned what freedom actually means, and how it’s important to set up a system that guarantees freedoms and rights of people of all types and shapes and colors. But, ultimately, Libya can make much more use of my talent. In the United States, I’m one in a million. In Libya, I’m one in 25.
I was reading an article in which you describe Libya as a child. Can you elaborate on that? It’s a new birth for the country. It’s like being reborn and we have to learn how to do things right, how to build, how to think, how to do things for ourselves. But, most importantly, we have to learn how to respect ourselves.
I’ve noticed that you like maps. Tell me about that. Besides reminding me of our limitation, they provide me with the urge to learn about humanity, let alone travel. Thanks to maps, I have been to more than 60 countries across the globe. This might sound a little mushy, but maps are like a delicious meal with so many different plates. I want to experience all the plates and parts of the world. They’re like a huge feast and just tasting the different plates is wonderful. Maps remind me of the whole and that we’re all interconnected.