Northern Irish politicians are campaigning for compensation from the Libyan government for their having armed the IRA. I wish them every success. But if they encounter a certain Colonel Juma, I’d love them to ask him if he remembers me.
In the early 1980s I taught English to conscripts of the Libyan Air Defence Forces.
One day I was with my class when a young three star officer came frantically into the class. The boys all stood sharply to attention.
The officer spoke a little English and a little French and conveyed the problem to me. Colonel Juma had arrived to inspect the metalwork class. I was to take the boys immediately to the workshop for a demonstration.
“No, I can’t do that. I don’t teach metalwork. That’s Peter Keller’s job. Go and find him”.
Three-star looked appalled at me. I had not understood how serious this was. There was no time to discuss it. He snapped at the boys and they ran out to the workshops. I would have to find Peter.
Peter was a towering man with ginger hair and a sneering sense of humour. He took his job seriously and was often complaining about slack standards in Libya.
I heard some movement in the room next to the main workshop classroom where the boys were frantically tidying their uniforms and gathering samples of their metal work.
Inside Peter was on his knees on the floor, in a blue T shirt and white boxer shorts, painting a yellow line to mark the perimeter of a large green machine.
“Go away, Malachi. I am busy”.
“Peter”, I said. “Colonel Juma is here and he wants to inspect the metalwork class. You have to help”.
“I do not have to help. This is my day off. I am not really here at all. I have come in my own time to catch up on work and I don’t have to do anything”.
“O.K.” I tried to be more diplomatic. “This is not a problem of my making either, Peter, and I can walk away too”.
“Then do it”.
I went back into the class room and the boys were now erect and stiff at their desks. Each held up a little piece of iron which had probably started out as square, but had holes drilled in it and angles cut into it. I had done some metal work at school myself and could judge how roughly some of these had been finished.
Right. Let’s just wait.
Then the door opened and in walked Colonel Juma, the second in command of the Libyan armed forces, accompanied by several others of similar rank and a fawning and wilting young three star officer.
Juma was a stocky black man. His epaulets had gold eagles as well as stars. The other officers had declining numbers of stars and eagles, and beside them our own top man, with no eagles at all, looked pretty meek.
I had no idea what to say. I was without words. Colonel Juma approached me with a warm smile and I said hello and gestured towards the petrified boys.
Juma was clearly puzzled by my behaviour but perhaps used to people wilting before him.
Then the door opened and Peter strode through. He was wiping his hands with a dirty cloth.
“Why is it that you can never get any fokking work done around here?” He flung the cloth aside and strode on past and out the main door.
I probably whimpered like a stricken beast at that moment. I might have been rallying myself to address Colonel Juma and the officers, but now I was thrown and could organise no words.
Colonel Juma and one of the senior officers, perhaps the third in command of the armed forces of the Libyan Peoples Arab Jamahiriya, walked the ranks of the class. The other officer elected to provide some kind of commentary, though what he could have known about Peter’s metal work class, I don’t know. They were civilly making do with a badly organised presentation, which made them seem to me to be the most adorable of men.
Peter then returned through the class door.
“Gentlemen! What can I do for you today”, he said.
The colonels all turned and smiled warmly, as charmed by him as I had been by them. They seemed to float towards each other, cushioned on an air of supreme confidence.
Peter turned lightly to me and said: “You are looking a little pale Malachi.”