As Alkoat finishes, another Libyan Olympic official approaches with welcome tidings. "Hop in the car," he says, "and we'll go see the Engineer."
Speeding through the streets of even the most cosmopolitan sectors of Tripoli, a visitor will note many things inconsistent with the modern world. If you're looking for McDonald's or Pizza Hut, go to Cairo. The only golden arches a visitor will find in Tripoli were built by the Phoenicians around 5 B.C. The official's Honda Legend rushes through heavy traffic and arrives at a building that bears the interlocking Olympic rings on its facade. While several security men offer disinterested glances, the reporter is led up three flights of stairs to an anteroom. There he is detained for 12 minutes before being taken along a hallway and through a room that overlooks the soccer field and velodrome of October the 7th Stadium. En route somebody points out that it is past 9 p.m., that the Engineer has had a long day and that this will be only a get-acquainted session, a prelude to a formal interview that will take place at another time.
Mu'ammar Muhammad al-Gadhafi introduces himself. Moderate height, slender build. He wears a close-cropped beard. If the Engineer were the son of practically any other head of state and were he dating someone with blood ties to the British throne, the tabloids would tout him as exotically handsome. He doesn't seem to resemble his father, although that's difficult to ascertain because the Leader, who apparently has an endless array of headgear, never looks the same in any two photographs. The Engineer sits at a desk adorned with a computer screen the size of a JumboTron. The most prominent decoration in his office is a large portrait of his father. This likeness of the Leader appears to maintain eye contact with a visitor no matter where the visitor sits or stands.
The Engineer is single but engaged, and he says he hopes to get married soon. He says this through an interpreter, Adel Serrag. The Engineer speaks and understands English, the reporter has been told, but he uses an interpreter to give himself extra time to formulate his responses. The Engineer isn't compensated for his work on the Olympic Committee; he derives his income from an associate professorship at Al Fattah. Right now, he says, he lives with his mother. So why, at this stage of his life, would he choose to take charge of the country's Olympic program, a challenge that seems to be thankless?
"Believe me, it wasn't my idea," he says. "I was pushed into it by many of my friends on the committee. This is an enormous task, greater than I anticipated, and I took it on at the expense of my personal life. I wanted to make up for the losses of the last 10 years, when Libya was absent from the international arena. This absence had many reasons, but the main one was the sanctions imposed on our country.
"The second reason I became active with the Olympic Committee is my belief that sports is an important part of people's lives. It plays a vital role in each society, and I consider it the basic language that every country speaks and comprehends, the tool of communication between people and civilizations of the world. Sports is an effective tool for public relations. Through meetings and visits among the youth of the world, we'll give a truer picture of Libya, and counter and remove the picture that is painted by the Western media. I'm sure you saw things here that you weren't expecting to see, and for sure you weren't able to find some things you expected to find. We will try our hardest to utilize sports as a positive avenue."
What the reporter has seen is that a vast percentage of the male population under 30 seems to be perpetually involved in pickup soccer games in almost every vacant area in Tripoli, beneath the gaze of the Leader, who appears on nearby murals. The reporter decides to move to another topic, one not related to the Libyan Olympic effort. "So," he asks, "what's it like being the son of Mu'ammar Gadhafi?"
No interpreter is needed for this question; response time is less than one second. "I can't say my relationship with my father was 100 percent normal, due to the social environment and his heavy work schedule, and I admit that I didn't enjoy the normal relationship of son and father that other children experience," the Engineer says. He glances at the dozen or so men in his office—Olympic officials, bodyguards; it's impossible to determine who is who—and continues, "People have a certain image of me before they meet me. But from the first moment they meet me, they discover that I am a simple person. Maybe even simpler than the average man. It was important for me to live among people, whether it was in school, at the university or in any gathering. I never had any complexes. I never viewed people as different from me. On the contrary, I get annoyed when people treat me as someone very special. I get annoyed with protocols. I get annoyed when I walk with guards around me. I always try to fight and change this environment.
"I remember how, during my senior year in high school, my name and status affected me in a negative way. I studied diligently. I was determined to have the highest score [on the equivalent of the SATs] in Libya. However, when the final grades were posted, I found that I was fourth in the nation. I felt that my ranking should have been higher and requested to have my exams reevaluated. They discovered that they'd made a mistake and that I was number one in the country. However, they told me that since I was the son of you-know-who, I could not be first. Because of my name, they insisted on making me fourth. For a whole year I was upset about this incident."
All of a sudden the Engineer decides to call it a night. He instructs the reporter to return in two days. Tomorrow has been set aside for a 370-mile journey deep into the Sahara.