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In Libya, a long-dead hero rises again in east

Omar Mukhtar, a resistance fighter executed by Italian occupiers 80 years ago, has become the spiritual leader of the Libyan revolution.

May 06, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A billboard bearing the image of the late Libyan revolutionary Omar Mukhtar overlooks an intersection in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
A billboard bearing the image of the late Libyan revolutionary Omar Mukhtar… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — In eastern Libya, the spectral image of an elderly, bearded man in a skullcap or Bedouin cloak is everywhere — on bumper stickers and posters, military vehicles and checkpoints, even press IDs issued by the rebel government here.

"He is the godfather of all of us," said Salim Ismael, a retired army officer now training rebel recruits. "He is our inspiration, the spiritual leader of the Libyan revolution."

The figure is Omar Mukhtar, a 20th century resistance hero executed by Italian occupiers 80 years ago — and, improbably enough, depicted in a 1981 Hollywood all-star epic, "The Lion of the Desert," starring Anthony Quinn as Mukhtar. A box-office flop, the film has a devoted cult following here.

"General, bring me back Mukhtar!" Rod Steiger, playing Benito Mussolini, bellows to a subordinate before dispatching him across the Mediterranean. "Bribe him or break his neck."

Mukhtar is a kind of Libyan Che Guevara, another doomed revolutionary, but without the Cold War baggage and crass commercialization.

Here in the east, where he based his guerrilla war so long ago, Mukhtar has displaced the once-omnipresent likeness of Moammar Kadafi, who has been relegated to crude caricatures as a murderer, madman and Zionist stooge.

The clashing iconography says much about the profound changes that have swept this North African nation in just a few months.

Libyan insurgents are fighting a war for control of their vast, oil-rich country, but they are also keen to reclaim their national pride and history after more than four decades of submission to Kadafi's mercurial vision. Even though the war is mired in an uneasy stalemate, a sense of psychological liberation abounds in the east, where the guerrilla-vs.-tyrant theme resonates deeply.

And a humble teacher-turned-freedom fighter who swung from the gallows long before most people here were born has come to epitomize it all.

"Omar Mukhtar is a symbol for everything that we are living through at this time," said Athia Makzoum, a historian at the University of Garyounis in Benghazi who has studied Mukhtar's life. "Mukhtar is one Libyan of whom we can all truly be proud."

Even Kadafi embraced Mukhtar — up to a point.

The Libyan leader put his image on the 10-dinar note and, in a rare display of modesty, placed his own face on the 1-dinar bill.

Kadafi also financed much of the $30-million cost of "The Lion of the Desert," a kind of Arab "Ben Hur" filmed mostly in the Libyan desert and Rome. The two-hour-40-minute film features almost nonstop battle sequences: exploding tanks, assaults on horseback, a blown-up bridge or two. The central protagonists are Mukhtar and Rodolfo Graziani (played by Oliver Reed), the Italian general who shares Il Duce's drive to restore the triumphs of the Caesars.

Even though the general and Mukhtar are implacable adversaries, the cultured Italian comes to acknowledge a grudging respect for the Libyan.

"This old man is good," Graziani sighs after observing through field glasses as Mukhtar's men on horseback wipe out an entire Italian column in a brilliant desert ambush.

After Mukhtar is captured, the two rivals finally meet in the general's elegant offices in Benghazi. The captive dismisses an offer to become an Italian pensioner.

"Money, like glory, is not permanent," Mukhtar says. "We will never surrender. We win or we die."

You will be hanged publicly the following day, the general declares.

"The rope of your justice is always hanging in front of me, general," Mukhtar replies.

Neither history nor Google records what Kadafi thought of the film. But opponents in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold, say the man who dubs himself "the leader of all leaders of the Arabs" and "the king of all the kings of Africa" eventually became uncomfortable with the notion of another Libyan vying for the hearts and minds of his subjects. Even a long dead one.

"I don't think Moammar Kadafi liked the idea of Omar Mukhtar getting the glory that he thought should be all his," said Mohammed Omar Mukhtar Omar, 90, the sole surviving son of Mukhtar. He lives in a modest Benghazi home where the walls feature likenesses of his father, including a famous, sepia-toned photo of him in chains, appearing serene, even knowing what awaits him.

As a child, the younger Mukhtar recited the Koran with his father before being sent away to Egypt to escape the violence. Fighting on horseback and often hiding in caves, his father and his bands of mujahedin battled a modern, mechanized army that utilized air power, tanks and artillery. Incredibly, the relentless Mukhtar held off the Italians for 20 years, despite a punishing occupation that featured mass detentions and frequent hangings.

Mukhtar was approaching 80 (his exact age is a matter of dispute) when he was finally captured by the Italians in the mountains east of Benghazi.

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