Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya


Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya by Annick Cojean, Translated by Marjolijn DeJager
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Source: Library
Buy the Book: Amazon
Summary: "In 2011, Annick Cojean, senior reporter at Le Monde and special correspondent for Tripoli, wrote a shock article, titled 'Gaddafi's sexual slave', which told the story of Soraya, a twenty-two-year old Libyan woman who had been kidnapped and held captive since the age of 15. Soraya was a schoolgirl in the coastal town of Sirte, when she was given the honour of presenting a bouquet of flowers to Colonel Gaddafi, the Guide, on a visit he was making the following week. This one meeting - a presentation of flowers, a pat on the head from Gaddafi - changed Soraya's life forever. Soon afterwards, she was summoned to Bab al-Azizia, Gaddafi's palatial compound near Tripoli, where she joined a number of young women who were violently abused, raped and degraded by Gaddafi.

In 2012, Cojean returned to Libya to continue her investigation. Her book, Gaddafi's Harem, takes Soraya as its starting point to recount the fates of so many other women. She has gone to remarkable lengths - rape is the highest taboo in Libya - to collect these women's stories. Heartwrenchingly tragic but ultimately redemptive, Soraya's story is the first of many that are just now beginning to be heard.

In Gaddafi's Harem, Le Monde special correspondent Annick Cojean gives a voice to Soraya's story, and supplements her investigation into Gaddafi's abuses of power through interviews with other women who were abused by Gaddafi, and those who were involved with his regime, including a driver who ferried women to the compound, and Gaddafi's former Chief of Security.

Gaddafi's Harem is an astonishing portrait of the essence of dictatorship: how power gone unchecked can wreak havoc on the most intensely personal level, as well as a document of great significance to the new Libya."

Review: If you only know me virtually, you probably don't know that I've got a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which basically means that I really struggle being happy in these awful, cold, dark winter months.  These winter blues also influence my reading choices.  So, when January rolled around, I found myself reaching for more serious subject matter in my reading choices.  

And let me tell you, Gaddafi's Harem is about as serious as it gets.

I was not a fan of Gaddafi before (obviously) but I had no idea the scope of his corruption. Rarely have I been so disgusted at a fellow human being. It made me angry, SO ANGRY, to learn how terribly Gaddafi treated the Libyan people, and especially the women who he claimed to be emancipating. To hear accounts of women who were manipulated, threatened, blackmailed, and continually raped and beaten, and who now live in a culture that blames the victim, was heartbreaking. It's so sad to know that only a few of these women will even testify of these crimes committed against them, for fear that they will be killed (maybe by their own families!) if their pasts are revealed. 

I wish this book had more specific details, but understand that it is impossible to get those details while Libyans stay largely silent on the issue. I hope their culture changes in a way that would allow them to speak out on this issue without fear. I hope this book helps them along that path. (In fact, I am extremely curious what this book's reception is in Libya, where I hear it is now being circulated.) Thieir stories and experiences deserve to be told, and their perpetrators brought to justice.  So while it is not a perfect book, it is still a powerful book, and really should be read on a wide scale.

I am aware that I am privileged to be a woman in a first world country, but rarely have I felt that privilege so profoundly.  I am so glad that a few of these Libyan women aren't staying silent, and hope that their voices give courage to others, and help their country gradually change from one that blames the victim to one that blames the perpetrator.  

Review in a GIF:
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Bottom Line: This is a difficult but important book to read.  These women have important stories that need to be heard, but they won't be heard in their home country.  Therefore I feel it is the duty of those outside their country to be their listeners and their victors. 

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