Family May 2012

The Despot’s Child

Bad tidings reach Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saadi.

“There are pictures,” she said. “Go to your computer.” I looked across the compound toward Saadi, who was sitting in his usual spot, speaking casually into his phone, the sun beating down on him. I walked upstairs slowly, not wanting to seem upset, and opened my laptop.

I gasped. A beaten and bloody Muammar Qaddafi lay sprawled across the screen, his lips parted, his eyes vacant. I sat there, frozen in disbelief, until the thought of Saadi, outside with his iPhone, snapped me back. I hurried downstairs and across the grounds to where Saadi was sitting. I didn’t want to tell him that his father had died, but I had to make sure he didn’t see these pictures.

“Give me your iPhone,” I said, holding out my hand.

He handed it to me wordlessly, but as I turned to walk away, he spoke: “What do we know?”

“Nothing,” I lied.

As soon as I was back inside, I turned on the television and watched as a series of grainy cellphone videos cycled across the screen. I could take this in, the blood and the chaos and the ecstatic mob, but I wondered how a son would ever be able to watch any of it. Before I could figure out how to break the news to Saadi, though, the job was done for me. I heard footsteps outside, and walked to the window in time to see a group of Nigerien guards go over to him, their heads hung low, to deliver their condolences. He nodded a thank-you, then returned to sitting exactly as he had been before, staring straight ahead. A few of the Libyan boys who were staying at the compound had by now gathered at his feet. The wind rustled the trees and sprinkled the mattresses with dead leaves, but no one moved.

Saadi spent the rest of the day like this, sitting motionless, as people came and went, paying respects. Outside the compound, the world cheered the death of a tyrant. But here, in a small walled compound in Niamey, Niger, the man who had died was a father.

Saadi had talked to me often about his complicated relationship with Muammar. Despite a childhood of immense wealth and privilege, Saadi still lacked the thing he wanted most: his father’s approval. He had resented Muammar’s lack of support for his free-trade zone, and the rift between the two had deepened over the course of the war. They hadn’t spoken to each other in three months. Now Saadi appeared to realize that he would never have his father’s approval, or even another conversation with him. And so, while I privately celebrated Muammar Qaddafi’s exit, I grieved for this other man, a friend who in just six months had lost three brothers and his father.

At 10 o’clock that night, Saadi texted me again, from a different phone: “Come Please.” As I crossed the compound, time seemed to slow down, and I saw only shapes: the soft light that the windows cast over the trees, the blur of a white sheet covering Saadi’s legs, the dark silhouettes of boys still sitting in the shadows. I heard the buzzing of insects, and I smelled the fire burning next to him. The air felt heavy.

I collapsed in a chair, and we sat there, side by side but not looking at one another. Neither of us spoke. I heard him crying but did not look over.

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Jacqueline Frazier is a business consultant based in Paris.

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