Libyan Chill

03.27.13

Bernard-Henri Levy: Have I Become an Undesirable in Libya?

Bernard-Henri Lévy fought tirelessly for Libya’s liberation. So why does he suddenly feel unwelcome in the country he loves—all because of his religion?

At first, you’re shocked.

You run across a story in Rue89, a French online newspaper, with the headline “BHL, the Jew, Will Not Accompany Sarkozy to Tripoli.”

You tell yourself that it’s not possible, that you’re having a bad dream, because no one has ever referred to you, with or without the scare quotes, as “the Jew.”

You write to the editor.

You tell him that the article is a crock, you had not planned to make any such trip, and that the title, above all, is unworthy—or, rather, it is worthy only of a modern version of Je Suis Partout, the French fascist newspaper of the 1930s.

The editor apologizes.

The headline is changed to “BHL Will Not Accompany Sarkozy to Tripoli Because ‘He Is Jewish.’”

But the reporting, based on the same vague words, carelessly checked and sourced, remains unchanged.

You note, in passing, that the original title, the most injurious one, the one in which you were “the Jew” and that remained online for hours, provoked no reaction, no protest, no sign of surprise or indignation from any quarter.

And so begins an inner dialogue to get at the truth. Have you or have you not, Jew or no, become an undesirable in this country, Libya, that you love and for whose liberation you so ardently fought?

At the most basic level, you know that of course you haven’t become persona non grata.

You have a recent visa for Tripoli duly issued by the country’s consular authorities.

You can’t quite persuade yourself that ingratitude is the vice of great nations or that these friends may simply have been using you for as long as you remained useful to them.

A few days earlier, on the first night of his official visit to Paris, you had a good meeting with your friend Ali Zeidan, who, in 2011, accompanied you on nearly every leg of your travels through war-torn Libya and is now the country’s prime minister.

You recall the panache with which, on the day of his swearing-in, Zeidan rebuffed the Islamist who mused in Parliament about the new prime minister’s relations with a “Zionist.” That man is a friend of mine, Zeidan responded in substance. Without him and people like him, you and I would not be in this democratic chamber debating today.

You remind yourself that you have other friends in Libya, a lot of them, politicians and military personnel, officers and humble soldiers alike, whom you filmed discussing the strategic turning points of the war: the recognition by France, the opening of a second front in the Berber mountains of Jebel Nafusa, and the subsequent opening of the third front in Misrata—not to mention arms purchases from Turkey, the trip to Dakar that broke Gaddafi’s iron grip on Africa, and the contacts with the U.S. State Department.

And you can’t quite persuade yourself that ingratitude is the vice of great nations or that these friends may simply have been using you for as long as you remained useful to them. Because weren’t they still there, alongside you and your crew, when The Oath of Tobruktheir film, in which they are the characters and the heroes—was shown as an official selection at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival? You think back to their arrival that day, to their undiminished pride. You relive, through the sound of their voices at a memorable press conference, that extraordinary and fraternal adventure lived by Libyans and Frenchmen united by the love of freedom, without distinction by national origin or (even less) religion. And then the solemn majesty of the Libyans’ words when the time came to pass the flame to the Syrian fighters whom Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes Festival, also had invited.

And yet some troubling details of more recent origin spring to mind.

The film, for one thing, which, now that you think about it, still hasn’t been shown in Tripoli.

The stirring poster for the film, depicting a group of men who were fighters in 2011 and who have now become the leaders of Libya, all gathered in the shadow of the Cross of Lorraine that marks the graves of the French soldiers buried in the little cemetery of Tobruk—didn’t you hear that the poster stayed on the wall in the Benghazi Corniche for no more than a day before it was torn down?

You haven’t heard for a while now from Mustafa el-Sagizli, leader of the fighters of Cyrenaica, with whom you shared—you’re sure because, again, you filmed it—the desire to dispel the awful specter of the “war of civilizations.”

Or from Abdel-Hakim al-Assadi, the hardened Islamic radical who is shown in the film bursting into laughter when you tell him you’re Jewish: “We know that! The anti-Semite Gaddafi reminds us constantly on state television!”

Could it be that the report in the French online newspaper contained a grain of truth?

Could there be, within the Tripoli city government, officials irresponsible enough to have said the visit of a “Jew” might, in today’s climate, cause tensions, unrest, or even the revival of this or that militia?

The idea overwhelms you, fills you with sadness—and anger.

And telling yourself that this is the way things go in the war between the two Islams, a war about which you have so often spoken and in which you appear, regrettably, and like so many others, to have become part of the stakes—far from bringing consolation, such ruminations just compound your sadness.

At best, you feel strengthened in your resolve to carry on, both at home and in Libya, alongside your true Libyan friends.