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Gaddafi and the Bacchae

by PETER LEE

I suppose the Western media caravan has moved on, and there isn’t going to be a lot of interest in the latest footage of Muamar Qaddafi’s capture obtained by Global Post.

Basically, Qaddafi is brutalized for four minutes by a frantic mob. One triumphalist tries to stick something up his rear end. Everybody yells and shoots in the air as they stomp and pummel the terrified, blood-covered ex-supremo.

Then Qaddafi is bundled off to be shot in the head, killed in a crossfire, suffer a fatal slip in the shower, or whatever fate the embarrassed kibitzers of the NTC decide to cobble together to explain the subsequent appearance of his corpse in a meat locker in Misrata.

The video makes for rather depressing viewing for students of human nature, and also offers a sobering harbinger of things to come in the new Libya.

If I were in Syria, I would find these images dispiriting rather than energizing.

Poet Khaled Mattawa, however, looked at the same tape and had what could be termed a “wargasm”.

He is obviously heir to the ecstatic Dionysian strain of poesy, rather than the detached Apollonian ideal.

The LA Times published his poem After 42 years on its op-ed page. It’s pretty much everywhere now.

“What and who taught you O sons of my country to be so fearless cruel?
Him, they say, for 42 years, 42 years of him.

Their shrill Allahu Akbars exclamations of astonishment—
What have I done O Lord to deserve the honor of capturing the rat?”

If the brutal frenzy is embarrassing, well, blame it on Qaddafi:

“Perhaps he was a magnet and he drew evil out of men’s chests,
His hands, his hands saying wait, wait
Reached into their lungs and wound and knotted their raw souls,
A magnet now siphoning cruelty to itself.”

Let’s give the older generation a glorious share in the slaughter; in fact, why not ritually wet the hands of the whole country in Qaddafi’s blood, at least vicariously (though I noticed no grateful shoutout to the folks at NATO who made it all possible):

“To tear him to bits, my mother’s friend once said.
To tear him to bits, six million hearts had prayed –
O God grant me the sight of him dead!”

Heck, let’s just leave humanity out of it:

“The rabid beast, captured, kicked about and shot in the head.”

Obviously Mattawa really, really hates Qaddafi.

He’s from Benghazi, although his parents sent him to the US during his teens, where he has resided ever since. He is a distinguished poet with a raft of awards and grants, presumably for work better than the stuff quoted above.

Mattawa came out against Qaddafi in February 2011; his family was active in the Benghazi rebellion.

If not for the attention-hogging grandstanding of Bernard Henri-Levy, Mattawa might have the face of the Libyan revolution in the Western media. Now I suppose he must content himself with playing the role of the Kipling of the R2P movement.

Mattawa, who claims Misrata as his ancestral home, doesn’t seem to be above manufacturing outrage for effect.

When one reads After 42 Years, one is invited to assume that Gaddafi’s regime killed his father and brother (certainly the impression you get when Mattawa read this dramatic excerpt on PRI’s The World on October 26):

“I was five when the dictator took my brother away.
…five years old when my father was killed
standing in front of a hotel.”

Matter of fact, as an interview/profile with Mother Jones reported in February 2010, Mattawa and his only brother, Ibrahim, were sent to the United States in their teens, where they have resided ever since.

As for his father, a 2009 profile in the Kalamazoo Gazette ended:

“When Mattawa moved from his country in 1979, it was “to wait out Gaddafi.” Things have mellowed there lately, and Mattawa, now married to a woman from Libya and the father of a child, returns once a summer to see his parents.

“It’s sort of normal, in a weird sense,” he said.”

As Mattawa has frequently recounted in interviews, one of his dominant memories was not of his father’s demise; it was the humiliation of his terrified father driving around with his car plastered with a poster of Gaddafi that he dared not remove.

Normal, in a weird sense, to imply that one’s father, unmanned by Gaddafi’s regime, was “killed standing in front of a hotel.”

Psychoanalysts, start your engines.

To me, the interesting element of Mattawa’s resume is his current employment: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the same place that Juan Cole works.

I would not be surprised that the desire to keep up with Mattawa had something to do with Cole’s over-the-top cheerleading for the “Free Libya” forces.

You don’t want to be getting the stinkeye from Khaled Mattawa in the faculty lounge for going easy on the rabid beast on Charlie Rose the night before.

For those not yet surfeited with patriotic gore and interested in literature that mixes compassion with its passion, here’s a passage from Euripides’ The Bacchae (interestingly, Libya was one candidate for the homeland of Dionysus), in the Gilbert Murray translation.

Here the Bacchae, with an assist from NATO—I mean Dionysus–discover Pentheus, son of the high priestess Agave, spying on the proceedings from a treetop.

“…scarce was he beheld upon his lofty throne, when the stranger disappeared, while from the sky there came a voice, ‘twould seem, by Dionysus uttered-

‘Maidens, I bring the man who tried to mock you and me and my mystic rites; take vengeance on him.’” 

‘”Hither” cried Agave; “stand we round
And grip the stem, my Wild Ones, till we take
This climbing cat-o’-the-mount ! He shall not make
A tale of God’s high dances! ” Out then shone
Arm upon arm, past count, and closed upon
The pine, and gripped; and the ground gave, and down
It reeled. And that high sitter from the crown
Of the green pine-top, with a shrieking cry
Fell, as his mind grew clear, and there hard by
Was horror visible. It was his mother stood
O’er him, first priestess of those rites of blood.
He tore the coif, and from his head away
Flung it, that she might know him, and not slay
To her own misery. He touched the wild
Cheek, crying: “Mother, it is I, thy child,
Thy Pentheus, born thee in Echton’s hall!
Have mercy, Mother ! Let it not befall
Through sin of mine, that thou shouldst slay thy son! ”

But she, with lips a-foam and eyes that run
Like leaping fire, with thoughts that ne’er should be
On earth, possessed by Bacchus utterly,
Stays not nor hears. Round his left arm she put
Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,
Drew , . . and the shoulder severed ! Not by might
Of arm, but easily, as the God made light
Her hand’s essay. And at the other side
Was Ino rending ; and the torn flesh cried,
And on Autonoe pressed, and all the crowd
Of ravening arms. Yea, all the air was loud
With groans that faded into sobbing breath,
Dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death.
And here was borne a severed arm, and there
A hunter’s booted foot ; white bones lay bare
With rending ; and swift hands ensanguined
Tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead.

And, ah, the head of all the rest,
His mother hath it, pierced upon a wand,
As one might pierce a lion’s, and through the land,
Leaving her sisters in their dancing place,
Bears it on high ! Yea, to these walls her face
Was set, exulting in her deed of blood,
Calling upon her Bacchus, her God,
Her Comrade, Fellow-Render of the Prey,
Her All-Victorious, to whom this day
She bears in triumph … her own broken heart.’

Brutal times demand better–not more brutal–poets.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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