Raphael Luzon sits in a hot and stinking Benghazi prison cell. He has escaped a lynch mob and been abducted by a militia. He has recently had a kidney transplant and his medication has been seized from him, along with his possessions. He is not sure that he will get out of Libya alive. Until the Italian consul comes along to whisk him out to safety and back to London.
This is the dramatic opening chapter of Libyan Twilight, a short but vivid and well-written autobiography made up of snapshots of Raphael’s life, interspersed with memories of religious rituals and festivals joyously celebrated during his childhood. Born in Benghazi, Raphael is one of a community of 38, 000 Libyan Jews forced to leave Libya. Today not one of them remains. Libya is judenrein.
In 1967, everyone — from the cleaning lady to the barber’s assistant — predicted that Jews would be targeted by a raging mob in the aftermath of Israel’s Six Day War victory. The schoolboy Raphael had to flee the hall where he was sitting exams, scooping up his sisters on the way home. The family were evacuated to a military base and thence to Italy. The Jewish boys in his Rome school were unfriendly. Exile took its toll on his broken father. Raphael’s later life was scarred by ill health and the death of his first wife from a brain tumor.
Yet Libya still exerts a fascination for Raphael, so much so that he paid three return visits there, twice at the invitation of colonel Gaddafi, and the last in 2012 in the full flush of the “Arab Spring.”
What drives a man, especially one who has family responsibilities in London and is not exactly in the pink of health, to risk his life by returning to his country of birth? A clue can be found in Libyan Twilight’s introduction by Roberto Saviano (an Italian journalist with a Jewish mother): “A deep desire for reconciliation and dialogue between different religions, a dialogue that relies on equality.”
The book carries the subtitle: “The story of an Arab Jew.” This too is a clue. Running a North West London “salon” for Libyans in exile, Raphael has reconstructed himself as a Libyan nationalist of the Jewish faith, no different from a Muslim or a Christian. He wants justice but not revenge. He wants to reclaim his rights as a Jew in Libya: his grandfather fought alongside nationalists in Misrata.
But when brought face to face with Gaddafi, his demands are modest. He is not after compensation for seized property — that is for other Jewish leaders to demand. He wants Gaddafi to erect a plaque identifying the old Jewish cemetery. He wants a plaque on the mass grave where lie eight of his Tripoli relatives, shot by an errant army officer in 1967. And he wants a memorial service for them. No wonder Gaddafi readily agrees.
Raphael is not the only Jew gripped with the urge to help rebuild a new, democratic, pluralistic and tolerant Libya in the wake of the Arab Spring. David Gerbi returned to his native Tripoli with the modest aim of re-opening the Dar al-Bishi synagogue — an act which Raphael has described as ‘a provocation’. Like Raphael Luzon, Gerbi was bundled out of the country by the Italian authorities before a lynch mob could tear him to pieces.
The lesson both these naive idealists ought to derive from their brushes with death is that no Libyan Jew is advised to demand their rights in their country of birth when their very existence as Jews is considered a provocation.
Libyan Twilight by Raphael N Luzon, translated from Italian by Gaia Luzon (Darf Publishers, 2016 – £8.99)