Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Col. Moammar Kadafi's portraits hang from the walls of the middle school. All of the walls.
He's on horseback. He's in uniform. He's a young army commander. He's a fatherly leader of the nation.
His words, spelled out in the collection of occasionally incoherent aphorisms called the Green Book, are woven into weekly lessons. His praises are sung by the students, who chant pro-government slogans for the benefit of a group of visiting journalists, as well as the teachers overseeing the classrooms at Zahra Fatah middle school in central Tripoli.
"We teach them that the power is in the hands of the people," said Najia Arabi, a political guidance counselor who serves as one of the school's ideological minders. "Kadafi gave us the freedom, and I feel the freedom."
But that freedom, apparently, does not mean the freedom to think differently, or even to just be a carefree kid.
The United States and its European and Arab allies now militarily confronting Kadafi will face not only Libyan antiaircraft batteries, but also a pervasive ideological system that begins at the earliest age.
When 11-year-old Nasrine Wahid stood up in her English class to answer a reporter's question about what she likes, she responded: "I like Americans. I like my country, Libya. I love my school. I love my beaches. My favorite toy is Barbie."
A teacher nudged her. "All the people love Moammar Kadafi too," she added, a little awkwardly. "We love Moammar Kadafi. He gave us everything."
Other students perked up at the mention of the name of the Brother Leader, who took power before many of their parents were born. "The people want Moammar the colonel!" they began to chant, louder and louder. "The people want Moammar the colonel!"
The students said they began returning to class March 8, more than two weeks after a political uprising against Kadafi tore this nation in two, even as government officials insisted to reporters that schools were never closed.
"A very small number are staying at home and not coming to school," said principal Souad Sultan, a claim that was impossible to verify during a visit to the school organized by official minders.
Even the short trip provided insight into Libya's view of itself as a longtime victim of imperial powers now being menaced again by the same Western forces.
"Today I am talking about how England invaded the Arab countries," explained history teacher Fawzieh Sayeh. "The Turkish entity, the Ottoman Empire, ruled the Arabic countries for 400 years, and after Turkey became weak, they gave the Arab nations to the European countries like France and Britain. By jihad we got our freedom back from them. We resisted the invasion."
The Green Book is taught for 45 minutes each week in the equivalent of civics classes. A specially designated and vetted teacher expounds upon Kadafi's 1975 oeuvre.
"Women, like men, are human beings. This is an incontestable truth," Kadafi pontificates in the book. "Women are different from men in form because they are females, just as all females in the kingdom of plants and animals differ from the male of their species.... According to gynecologists, women, unlike men, menstruate each month.... Since men cannot be impregnated, they do not experience the ailments that women do."
In the book, Kadafi derides parliaments, political parties, referendums and an independent press as antidemocratic. In his Third Universal Theory, he argues for the establishment of popular committees and popular conferences to make decisions. "Both the administration and the supervision become the people's, and the outdated definition of democracy … becomes obsolete," the book says. "It will be replaced by the true definition: Democracy is the supervision of the people by the people."
Kadafi's Libya puts a special emphasis on "supervision." Even a visit by journalists to a middle school is closely monitored by minders and teachers, who urge students to insist that everything is miya-miya, meaning 100%, or excellent, in the country.
One student dared to speak out, describing economic troubles and security fears.
"Almost half of our class is not here," said the student, whose name is being withheld for her protection. "They are maybe scared. We've been away from school for, like, three weeks or more and we've missed a lot of lessons."
She said she refused to watch state television because it was always "green," the color denoting Kadafi's loyalists, "and always saying the same thing."
She referred to the "system" hiring people from "outside" the country to make trouble, but quickly clammed up. "I can't give a statement," she said. "People are watching, and they're going to be watching. I just don't...."
The classes on the second floor gave way to noisy chanting. Students were ushered into the hallway to stage a deafening rally. "God! Moammar! Libya! And that's it!"
Later, journalists sought reassurances that neither the outspoken student nor her family would be punished for her honesty.
"It's not like that," said Sultan, the principal. "There is a committee. If you have a problem at home we try to find out why. And if you are against the system we will sit with you and talk to you and try to find out why."