At age 15, Soraya was spotted by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi when he visited her school. She was quickly abducted from her home in Sirte by his bodyguards and made his sex slave, joining many other girls who had been taken over the years. In this excerpt from Gaddafi’s Harem, she first encounters the colonel and learns about her new life.
We drove for quite a while. I had no idea of the time but it seemed interminable. We’d left Sirte and were tearing through the desert. I was looking straight ahead, not daring to ask any questions. And then we arrived in Sdadah, in a kind of encampment. There were several tents, more 4x4s, and an immense trailer, or rather an extremely luxurious camper van. Mabrouka headed for the vehicle, motioning me to follow her, and in another car that was turning back I thought I noticed one of the girls from school who’d also been chosen to welcome the Guide the previous day. That should have reassured me, and yet the moment I entered the camper an unspeakable sense of dread grabbed hold of me. As if my entire being was fighting against the situation. As if it knew intuitively that something very bad was being hatched.
Muammar Gaddafi was inside, sitting on a red massage chair, holding a remote control. He looked imperial. I took a step forward to kiss his hand, which he extended halfheartedly while looking away. “Where are Faiza and Salma?” he asked Mabrouka in an irritated voice. “They’re coming.” I was dumbfounded. Not even a glance at me. I didn’t exist. Several minutes went by; I didn’t know what to do with myself. He finally stood up and asked: “Where is your family from?”
His face remained expressionless. “Get her ready!” he commanded, and left the room. Mabrouka motioned for me to sit down on a bench in a corner of the room, which was set up to look like a living room. The other two women came in, at ease, as if they were at home. Faiza smiled at me, approached me, and unceremoniously held on to my chin. “Don’t you worry, little Soraya!” she said, and then laughed and quickly left. Mabrouka was on the phone giving instructions for someone’s arrival, perhaps another girl like me, since I heard her say: “Bring her here.”
She hung up and turned to me: “Come! We’re going to take your measurements to get you some clothes. What is your bra size?” I was stunned. “I … I don’t know. Mama always buys me my clothes.” She looked annoyed and called Fatiha, another woman—well, actually, a strange person who had the voice and shoulders of a man but the imposing bust of a woman. She sized me up, then patted my hand and gave me a big wink. “So this is the new one? And where does this one come from?” She put a measuring tape around my waist and my chest, pressing hers beneath my chin. Then they wrote down my measurements and left the camper. I remained all alone, not daring to call out or move. Night was falling, and I didn’t have a clue. What would Mama think? Had they alerted her to the delay? What was going to happen here? And how would I be getting home?
After long minutes of waiting, Mabrouka reappeared. I was relieved to see her. She took me by the arm without a word and led me to a corner lab, where a blonde nurse took my blood. Then Fatiha dragged me to a bathroom. “Get undressed. You’re hairy. We need to get rid of all that.” She rubbed a depilatory cream on my arms and legs, then shaved me, adding: “We’re leaving the pubic hair.” I was nonplussed and embarrassed but, since I had to make some sort of sense of it all, I told myself it must be a hygiene thing for anyone who was to come near the Guide. They wrapped me in a robe and I went back to the living room. Mabrouka and Salma—the gun still on her belt—sat down near me.
“We’re going to dress you properly, put makeup on, and then you’ll be able to see Papa Muammar.”
“All this just to greet Papa Muammar? And when am I going home to my parents?”
“Later! First you have to greet your master.”
They handed me a G-string—something I’d never seen before—and a white satiny dress, slit at the sides and low-cut at the neck and back. My hair, now loosened, came down to my bottom. Fatiha applied makeup and perfume, then added a bit of gloss to my lips, something that Mama would never have allowed me to do. With a sternly critical eye, Mabrouka inspected the result. Then she took me by the hand and led me down the hall. She stopped in front of a door, opened it, and pushed me in.
Gaddafi was on his bed, naked. I was terrified. I covered my eyes and shrank back in shock, thinking: “There’s been a horrible mistake! I’m not meant to be here now. Oh, my God!” I turned around and saw Mabrouka there on the threshold, her expression unrelenting. “He’s not dressed!” I muttered, completely panic-stricken and thinking that Mabrouka must not have realized this. “Go in!” she said, pushing me back inside.
Then he grabbed my hand and forced me to sit down on the bed beside him. I didn’t dare look at him. “Turn around, you whore!”
That word. I didn’t really know what it meant but I sensed it was an awful word, a vulgar word, a word for a despicable woman. I didn’t budge. He tried to turn me toward him but I resisted. He pulled my arm, my shoulder. My whole body stiffened. Then he forced me to move my head by pulling at my hair. “Don’t be afraid. I am your Papa—that’s what you call me, isn’t it? But I am your brother as well, and soon I’ll be your lover. I’ll be all of that to you. Because you’re going to stay here and be with me forever.” His face came close to mine—I could smell his breath. He began to kiss me on my neck, my cheeks.
I remained as stiff as a piece of wood. He wanted to embrace me but I moved away. He approached me, but I turned from him and began to cry. He went to grab my head. I leaped up, he pulled my arm, and I pushed him away, so he got irritated, wanted to force me to lie down, and we got into a struggle. He was growling.
Mabrouka appeared. “Look at this whore!” he yelled to her. “She refuses to do what I want! Teach her! Educate her! And then bring her back to me!”
He headed for a small bathroom next to the bedroom as Mabrouka dragged me to the lab. She was white with rage.
“How dare you behave like that with your master? It is your duty to obey him!”
“I want to go home.”
“You’re not budging! Your place is here!”
“Give me my things, I want to go see Mama.”
She slapped me across the face, which made me reel.
“Obey! Or else Muammar will make you pay for it very dearly!”
My hand on my burning cheek, I looked at her, baffled. “You pretend you’re an innocent little girl, you hypocrite, but you know perfectly well what’s going on! From now on you will listen to us, to Papa Muammar and to me. And you will do what we tell you. Without a word of complaint, you understand?”
Then she disappeared, leaving me by myself in that flimsy little dress, my makeup smudged and my hair all over the place. I curled up into a ball in the living room and cried for hours. I didn’t understand a thing, nothing at all. It was all too perplexing. What was I doing here? What did they want from me? I thought about how Mama must be worried to death, how she must have phoned Papa in Tripoli; perhaps he’d even returned to Sirte. He would be bombarding her with accusations for having let me leave—he never let me leave the house. But how could I ever tell them about that ghastly scene with Papa Muammar? My father would go crazy. I was still shaking with sobs when a blonde nurse, whom I shall never forget, sat down beside me and gently caressed my face. “Tell me what happened,” she said. She spoke with a foreign accent, and I later found out she was one of the Guide’s Ukrainian nurses, and that her name was Galina. I wasn’t able to say a word to her, but she guessed and I could tell she was furious. “How could they do that to a little girl? How dare they?” she kept repeating as she lightly touched my face.
I finally fell asleep, and it was Mabrouka who woke me up the next morning around nine. She handed me a jogging outfit and I began to have some hope again.
“So I’m going home now?”
“I told you no! Are you deaf ? I told you very clearly that your old life is finished once and for all. Your parents have been told, and they understood, so why can’t you?”
“You phoned my parents?”
I was shattered. I gulped down some tea, nibbled at a cookie, and looked around. Lots of girls in soldiers’ uniforms were coming in and going out, glancing at me with curiosity—
“Is that the new one?”—and talking about the Guide, who was apparently busy in a tent. Salma approached me. “I’m going to make some things clear to you: Muammar is going to sleep with you. He’s going to open you. From here on in you will be his possession and you’ll never leave him. So stop making that face. It’s no use resisting or wishing things were different—that won’t change anything here!”
Then that woman Fatiha came in, turned on the television, and whispered to me: “Let them do what they want with you, that’ll make it a lot easier. If you don’t resist, you’ll be fine. You just have to do everything that’s asked of you.”
I cried and lay there motionless. So I was a prisoner. What could I have possibly done wrong?
Around one o’clock Fatiha came to dress me in a very short blue satin dress; actually, it was more like a negligee. In the bathroom she wet my hair and then puffed it out with some mousse. Mabrouka checked my appearance, took me firmly by the hand, and once again led me to Gaddafi’s bedroom. “This time you’ll satisfy your master’s desires or else I’ll kill you!” she threatened, then opened the door and pushed me in. There he was, the Guide, sitting on his bed in jogging pants and an undershirt, a cigarette in his mouth, as he slowly blew out smoke while looking at me coldly. “You’re a whore,” he said. “Your mother is Tunisian, which makes you a whore.” He was taking his time, looking me over from top to bottom and back up again, and blowing smoke at me. “Sit down, close to me,” and he pointed to a spot on the bed. “You’re going to do everything I ask you to do. I’ll give you jewelry and a beautiful house, I’ll teach you how to drive and give you a car. One day you may even be able to study abroad if you want. I will take you wherever you want to go. Do you hear what I’m saying? Your every wish will be fulfilled!”
“I want to go home to Mama.”
He froze, put out his cigarette, and raised his voice.
“Listen to me carefully! Stop that, you hear? Stop that business about going home. From now on you’ll be here with me! And you must forget everything else!”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. It was beyond all comprehension. He pulled me to the bed and bit me on my upper arm. It hurt. Then he tried to undress me. I already felt so naked in that tiny blue minidress; it was horrible—I couldn’t let him undress me. I resisted, clinging to the straps. “Take it off, dirty whore!” He pulled my arms apart; I stood up; he caught me again and flung me on the bed; I struggled. Then he got up in a rage and disappeared into the bathroom. Mabrouka was there in a second. (I found out only later that he had a little bell near the bed with which to call her.)
“This is the first time any girl has resisted me like this! It’s your fault, Mabrouka! I told you to teach her! So get it done or you’ll pay the price!”
“My master, forget this girl! She’s stubborn as a mule. We’ll throw her back to her mother and I’ll find you some others.”
“No, get this one ready! It’s her I want!”
They brought me back to the lab, where I stayed, there in the dark. Galina slipped in for a moment and with a pitying look gave me a blanket. But how could I sleep? I was reliving what had just happened, trying to find an explanation for what I was going through. What had they told my parents? Surely not the truth, that wasn’t possible. But what, then? Papa didn’t even let me go to the neighbors’ and always told me to be home before dark. So what was he thinking, what ideas could he have? Would they believe me when someday I told them what had happened? What explanation had they given to my school when I didn’t show up? I didn’t sleep at all that night. At dawn, just as I was beginning to pass out from exhaustion, Mabrouka came in. “Up you get! Put on this uniform. We’re leaving for Sirte.”
Oh, what a relief ! “So we’re going home to Mama?”
“No, somewhere else!”
At least we were leaving this horrible place in the middle of nowhere and going closer to home. I hurriedly washed, put on my khaki uniform, which resembled the clothes of Gaddafi’s bodyguards, and went back to the living room, where five other girls, also in uniform, were absentmindedly watching television. They were holding cell phones and I was dying to ask them to call Mama but Mabrouka had her eyes on me and the atmosphere was glacial. The camper van pulled away. I let myself be carried off—it had been a long time since I’d had any control over anything.
GADDAFI’S HAREM © Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2012; Translation copyright © 2013 by Marjolijn de Jager; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.