The Most Precious Piece of Paper I’ve Ever Carried

"Ibrahim Athmuna"

They were chanting, calling on Gaddafi. I chanted along, only because there was no other way to make my way through the crowds. They were taller than I was, and had more experience. The only way to advance closer to the frontlines was to come up with a new chant. Upon hearing the chant I had just invented, one of the protestors took me by the arm and said, “Boy, you might get hooked on those chants, and then you’ll never be able to quit them.” It had been my intention to deliver a piece of paper straight to Gaddafi. My hand seemed small compared with the rest of the hands raised in the crowd. My other hand held the note I wanted to give him–after all, I had promised my sister. We had spent a whole hour writing, crossing out, and re-writing the short note. 

I got there late, and yet Gaddafi hadn’t yet appeared. The location was the main road connecting the south with Jufra. I got out of the car and ran towards them. A big guy emerged from the crowds, carrying a list. He said that the leader would only meet with the people on the list–who were all members of the revolutionary committee in Samnu and El-Zeigin. I stomped my foot, frustrated with the man and his list. I considered calling out the names I had written down on my piece of paper. The big man started announcing the names, when one man–who appeared to me like a knight in shining armor–emerged from the crowds and shouted, “Who gave you people the authority to classify us as revolutionary or non-revolutionary? Who are you and what is your position here?” Watching him, I finally understood the meaning of standing up for yourself and your beliefs at the right moment. It is for him that I am writing about this event from 1980. His name was Al-Mahdi Al-Sharif Ganana–grandson of the poet Sidi Emohamed Ganana–and he hailed from the neighboring town of El-Zeigin. 

Al-Mahdi led us towards the folkloric house, which had been built out of palm fronds before being refurbished into a guest house for Gaddafi to visit every year. He proceeded, with a crutch in one hand and a rosary in the other, and gestured for us to follow him and chant louder. I was frail, my bones tender. I thought of screaming at them, and telling them all about my piece of paper and my just cause. But they were busy chanting, and as I saw it, they thought chanting in itself was a mission they had to achieve. I looked around for Al-Mahdi, hoping he’d push them aside to make way for me. By then, Gaddafi had finally appeared. But Al-Mahdi had disappeared into the crowds, and I feared I would lose my piece of paper as the masses pushed and shoved past me to reach the colonel. I tried to crowdsurf, and I almost made it, but they pushed me back, so my piece of paper and I were forced to the back. 

The piece of paper had the names of three of my siblings, who had been arrested and imprisoned by the intelligence. I tried to scream, but the crowds’ chants muffled my voice. I found myself laying flat over other protestors, like a piece of driftwood fleeing from the waves. At some point, while I was clutching the piece of paper tightly so I wouldn’t lose it, it occurred to me that it was probably falling apart. I had written it in my own handwriting, and made sure it didn’t have any spelling errors. I even remember swindling my sister, may she rest in peace, out of her original request; she wanted me to demand the release of our siblings, but all I wrote was: “We want to know where they are right now.”

Time passed, and everything ended, yet the piece of paper remained in my hand. As I walked away from the crowds, I saw the colonel’s cap flying off into the wind as his car sped away. He had left, and my piece of paper was useless. But I unfolded it and found it was still in one piece–the names still clear, Mohamed Othman Athmuna, Abu Bakr Othman Athmuna, and Al-Na’as Othman Athmuna. I couldn’t throw it away. I spotted a man who was carrying a large bag full of tandoor bread, which he wanted to give to the colonel and his bodyguards. I took his permission to stuff my piece of paper between the loaves of bread. Who knows, I thought, it might end up in the hands of a good man who would deliver it to the colonel. 

Born in the village of “Samnu” in southern Libya, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Sebha University. He is one of the founders and the chairman of the board of directors of “Dar Al-Buanis for Culture and Heritage.” He has several novels published.

Ibrahim Athmuna
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