Libya: Marking Gaddafi's 41st year in power
September 1, 2010 marked Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi's 41st year in power. Everyone tells me the celebration was low-key when compared to last year, but it was by any accounts elaborate.‚ As part of the press delegation, Natalie and I had access to the official celebrations, which began at Rixos Hotel with a gala dinner, live music and dance performances. Colonel Gaddafi and several European and African leaders and diplomats were in attendance and they convened after the dinner in a closed session before heading over to the Harbor where the main celebration took place. A huge precession of musical bands, pep squads, traditional dancers and men on horseback kicked-off the co-ed celebration, parading around the racetrack in their traditional clothing, yelling out nationalist chants or marching to live music. Colonel Gaddafi watched from the bleachers though he did not speak, as a Libyan poet emceed the event, talking about how much better Libya is because of the 1969 Revolution. At the end of the celebration, which lasted several hours, Colonel Gaddafi walked down the stairs as young men holding The Holy Quran praised God blessed the leader. Gaddafi waved as security held back the crowd, before getting into his motorcade and driving through The Green Square. I've never been in Libya on September 1, or "Al Fatah," as it is commonly called. In Arabic, Al Fatah means The Beginning, (The first chapter of The Quran is called Al Fatiha). It was incredible for me to see so many Libyans convened in one place for one specific purpose, as I hereto have never participated in Libyan society on a massive scale. Up until last night, I've also never seen Colonel Gaddafi in the flesh. Pretty remarkable for any Libyan, especially when Gaddafi's image is plastered all over town and in the media. For forty-one years Libyans the world have known Libya as Gaddafi. For my 25 years, as a Libyan-American, I've never fully known what it's like to live under his rule. I grew up hearing Libyans and non-Libyans talk about what Gaddafi has done, and how that's impacted their lives. As a little girl, his image was the first thing I saw when stepping off the plane in Tripoli's airport (or in those days it was at Tripoli Harbor as we disembarked from our travels via Malta). Gaddafi's image is all over Libya. It hangs in every office building. It's on posters and billboards, it's on stamps, it's on keychains and watches and it's imprinted on Libyan money. Gaddafi "The Celebrity," is recognized around the world, and he's often the only thing people know about Libya. And so when I find myself standing in front of him outside the gala dinner, I can't help but watch him curiously, as he waits around for his car. I listen to him ask security about it in his mumbled speech and think he's probably annoyed he has to wait, though he doesn't show it. When we made eye contact he smiled, and at that moment, Gaddafi The Icon was simply a Libyan man waiting for his ride to show up.