My Classmate Saif al-Islam

He sat across from me as our professor lectured us on political theory. I wondered if he was an altruistic banker who decided to go back to school. I never would have guessed he was the son of a dictator.
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It was the beginning of the school year at the London School of Economics and there was one student who caught my attention. He was slightly older than the rest of us and would always come to class in perfectly-fitted Prada suits. I never understood how he managed to arrive just as the lecture was about to begin, never a minute too early or late. He sat across from me and listened intently as our professor lectured us on moral and political theory. I wondered if he was an altruistic banker who had decided to go back to school. I never would have guessed he was the son of a brutal and crazy dictator.

We were the only two non-Caucasian students in the class and I could tell by the way he looked at me that he was wondering where I was from. Despite his professional and charismatic demeanor, there was something about him that rubbed me the wrong way. In my mind I nicknamed him "the Hitman," and would become visibly uncomfortable anytime he'd look my way. He noticed my discomfort and I could tell it bothered him; it was as though he were used to being blacklisted and was sensitive about it.

One day I was late for class and remembered thinking, as I entered the classroom, "Great, the only seat free is next to the Hitman." As I sat down next to him, he turned to me with a warm smile. I forgot my notebook and asked him for paper; it was the first time we had spoken. He handed me a hard covered notepad that I commented looked liked it belonged to an architect. Saif told me with pride that he is in fact an architect and opened the book showing me his beautiful sketches of buildings. He added that he owns a building company in Tripoli. I was surprised. I never would have guessed the mysterious man in my class was a Libyan architect. "Isn't life very hard for people of Libya," I asked him.

"No" he replied surprisedly, as though Libya were the freest and most peaceful place on earth. I mentioned taking a summer course at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and how I found urban design and architecture to be challenging. He suddenly stared at me as if I were the smartest woman on earth. "You studied at Harvard?" he asked in complete awe. I explained that it was just for summer school but it didn't matter. From that moment on I was a genius in his eyes. When he asked me, with genuine interest, whether Harvard was better than the LSE, I told they were both good schools, though perhaps at LSE one could get an understanding of the world outside of an American lens. I noticed that my "outside the American lens" comment excited him.

He wrote down all of his contact info, emphasizing not just his first name, Saif, but his last name, Gaddafi. Suddenly it all made sense, his views on life in Libya, the fact that he was able to own a company there, his fascination with attending Harvard (the one jewel in his crown he could not buy), and his excited agreement over my suggestion that an American lens on the world wasn't always the purest outlook to have.

As he handed me his contact info, he told me to feel free to call him anytime and then asked me where I was from in a way that was meant to foster solidarity. When I told him my background is Pakistani he opened up his notepad once again and showed me all these numbers in Pakistan that he claimed to regularly call. He began telling me how he loves Pakistan and visits it often. I wanted to immediately distance myself from the conversation, a Gaddafi suddenly befriending folks in Pakistan -- I knew there was something not quite right about this and didn't ask any questions about who he was contacting there or why.

As I got to know Saif better over the course of the year, I found him to be a highly sensitive and less than discreet individual. I told Saif how my uncle, who was a senior member of the Pakistani police force, was assigned to guard his father, Moammar, when he visited Pakistan decades ago. My uncle said that Moammar went on about how he was not afraid of anything, especially the United States. His dad took a liking to my uncle, granting him a life-long visa and an open invitation to visit Libya anytime -- something my uncle never did. As I told Saif the story, his eyes began to tear up. He was his father's son indeed. He laughed about his father words regarding the U.S., and frowned when I mentioned countries like Saudi Arabia that were foes of Libya. It was clear that his issues with these countries went beyond differences in political views; it was personal for him. At the end of the school year Saif decided to host a party for the entire class. I was contemplating whether or not to go: would socializing with a dictator's son someday come back to haunt me? My professor was going so I decided to attend. As we were dining on lobster, our drunken professor gave a toast. He started to mention how this course was great because of Saif. Saif looked visibly touched and waiting to hear more. But the professor paused and suddenly had nothing more to say, because, in truth, there was nothing more to add. Saif never spoke in class and there was nothing about him being in the course that made it any more special, except perhaps for the lobsters.

Suddenly, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Saif. What an awful fate it is to be the son of a dictator. How terrible it must be to love a father who is a murderous lunatic. How sad it is that a person whose passion in life is architecture not political philosophy has the terrible fate of working alongside a father who's a dictator and has lived most of his life isolated.

As I was leaving Saif's dinner party, he took a break from his unsuccessful attempts to hit on a young woman from his program. He told me about his last trip to Pakistan and how the then-leader Pervez Musharaf asked him to go to the northern areas and meet with militant mullahs to try to convince them to take a more moderate approach. He got really frustrated, he was trying to remember the name of a particular mullah but told me he was too drunk.

Of course, Musharraf was deposed not long afterward, suffering the same fate as so many dictators in the region, Saif's father included. Before I left, I ran into Saif's personal tutor. I asked him point blank why he was working for the Gaddafis. He looked down and smiled saying, "Well you know, sometimes these things happen."

Shortly after Mubarak fell and the Libyan rebels began their attempts to oust Gaddafi, I saw this same tutor's profile pop up on Linked-in. I take it he knew he had to look for a new job now.

This story was originally published in Aslan Media

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