In the winter of 1978, soon after I entered my teens, I began seeking solitude on the roof of our leaky house in Benghazi. I'd head up with a few thin books and a pack of cigarettes, and the wide horizon and dramatic skies of our warm winters were all mine to contemplate. I also began contemplating the Pakistani beauty who lived in the three-story apartment tower behind our house.
She was a few years older than I, so there was no chance of a relationship. And though I never got a close look at her face, I am certain that it did my growing aesthetic sensibility much good to study the straight lines of her slim figure dressed in various designs of shalwar kameez. She often lay in her neat bed with her back to me, and I studied the dip in the waist, the discernable climb of the hips and her feet arranged, right heel tucked into the arch of the left, like the yin snug inside the yang.
A week after I first saw her, I looked toward her balcony to find a huge portrait of Moammar Kadafi blocking the French doors. Her father, a painter, had placed it there to dry. Others followed. The father and I exchanged greetings now and then, but seldom more. Then, one day as he was lighting his pipe, he turned to me and asked, "So what do you think of the great leader?"
That was not the first time that Kadafi's image proved a menace, nor the last. A few months earlier on April 7, 1977, members of the revolutionary committees had plastered a poster of Kadafi's image on my father's car. On that same day they had, under the dictator's direct supervision, publicly hanged several dissidents in Benghazi.
On the day of the execution, the Ghibli winds blowing from the desert filled the air with dust and turned the sky into a reddish-gray canopy. I'd taken a bus with a friend to catch a movie downtown. Nearing Shajara Square, the bus simply turned around and took us back to where we had come from. Later that evening, state television repeatedly broadcast the hangings. I went to our garage to peel the dictator's poster off our car. It took an interminably long time.
Along with millions of other Libyans, I have never stopped trying to peel Kadafi's image from my life. Even after I came to the U.S. in 1979 to continue my education, the dictator seemed to follow me. He was the one Libyan most people had heard of, and they wanted to talk about him. I used to be enraged when women told me how handsome he was. To me he was the face of evil itself, the face of separation, exile, thuggery, torture and lies.
In the 1980s, the decade Kadafi's bouffant was reportedly coiffed by hairdressers flown in from Paris, his agents assassinated dozens of Libyan dissidents in Europe. Returnees from the West were thrown in jail for years without any charges ever brought against them. When my mother would call on the phone from Libya, she talked to me in a code that left me puzzled as to whether a relative had gotten married or arrested, beaten to death or had recovered from an illness.
In the 1990s, as Kadafi's hair frizzed up, the mole near his nose grew more prominent and his eyes peered like two coals from behind huge, flame-hued sunglasses, friends or colleagues made statements such as, "Your president, he is so [pause] interesting. We have not heard much from him lately. What's he been up to?"
What was he up to? No public hangings appeared on television in the 1990s, but many died under torture. Prisoners fell to tuberculosis by the hundreds. Jails had special sections for political opponents whom the courts had judged innocent. And on June 28, 1996, supervised by the dictator's brother-in-law, the Abu Salim prison massacre took place. An estimated 1,270 prisoners were killed in cold blood.
Having grown tired of exile, I began to visit home again starting in 2000. The dictator's style then consisted mainly of African robes made of fabrics fit for movie scenes set in cheap bordellos. Amid the talk of reforms and a return to the international fold, his absurd attire and demeanor seemed to mock all that was being said around him. The facial lines on his cheeks deepened; the sacks around his eyes made him seem perpetually squinting; the long, thin lips seemed set in a curl of boundless contempt. Not a single gray wisp could be seen in the mop of wild hair dyed coal black, nor even in his goatee.
Watching the homicidal clown and his offspring — one ghastly daughter and several murderous-looking sons dressed in Italian suits or army uniforms — 6 million Libyans asked themselves daily: These are our leaders?
How sweet it is now to see my countrymen rise to shake off decades of fear, defensiveness and shame, to see them burn and tear poster after poster, billboard after billboard depicting one of history's most loathsome figures, the man who has oppressed and humiliated them for four decades.
Despite the unbearable losses incurred these last two weeks, and those certain to come before the revolution succeeds, Libyans are finally exercising their collective potential. The stakes are enormously high, and the dictator has made clear he won't go quietly. But our country may finally become ours at last. A beauty we have never fully seen is turning to face us straight on, giving us a new lease on life.
Khaled Mattawa is a poet and a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan. His latest book of poetry is "Tocqueville."