The green, black and red flag of pre-Qaddafi Libya is not the only thing flying high at the country’s Kalorama residence. So is the spirit of Naima Aujali, the Arabic-speaking mother of five, grandmother of four and the wife of Ali Suleiman Aujali, once Qaddafi’s man in Washington but since September the official ambassador of the new Libya.
This has been a highly emotional and exhausting year for the whole Aujali family — from the first peaceful demonstrations against the iron-fisted rule of Col. Muammar Qaddafi last February in Benghazi (the Aujalis’ hometown), to the wrenching decision and media glare surrounding her husband’s resignation shortly afterward, to his diplomatic limbo as fighting raged for months back in Libya, and finally to the transformation of Aujali as the top representative here for the National Transitional Council, the rebel-formed political body that is now trying to pick up the pieces after more than 40 years of dictatorship (also see “Qaddafi’s Man No More: Disgusted, Envoy Breaks Free of Former Boss” cover profile in the April 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
With two of her best fans by her side — her husband and oldest daughter Fatima — to translate Naima’s answers from Arabic to English, everyone had something to say during our interview, which evolved into a family conversation about life here in the Libyan Residence during a tumultuous year back home. Today, the family is adjusting to Ali Aujali’s new role, which will most likely be his last in a lengthy diplomatic career as he nears retirement age and looks to take a rest from the revolution of the past year.
“For eight days, I didn’t go out,” Naima explained, remembering how those original peaceful protests were met with escalating bloodshed. “I was watching CNN and Al Jazeera constantly. And answering phone calls, night and day, from friends and neighbors and so many members of the Libyan community.”
While relieved and extremely happy with the eventual outcome, Naima recalled how for the last nail-biting year, “no one could sleep through the night; the whole household was up. The TV and radio were always on. My husband would get calls in the middle of the night. We only took little naps. None of us got much sleep from the 15th of February to the 20th of October. We watched and suffered with the people. We cried and worried.”
“As long as Qaddafi was at large,” the ambassador jumped in, “Libya was not safe.”
With pithy quotes like that, the 61-year-old career diplomat emerged as a media darling after his sudden resignation, with regular coverage from the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, National Journal and National Public Radio, among many other outlets. But according to him, it was his wife who turned into “the real news junkie.”
“Ever since last February, she has been in front of the TV, night and day. She never even watched before,” he said. “Now, she’s addicted to the TV and the computer.”
“It was especially hard for us because we are both from Benghazi, where it all started, but for a long time we couldn’t reach anyone at home,” Naima explained. “I was used to talking to my brothers and sisters almost every day and checking on my 90-year-old mother. Both our families are there and we were worried about them, but also about all the Libyan people.”
Daughter Fatima, the mother of two of their grandchildren, added: “Overall, these months since the beginning of the revolution, I hardly did anything, go anywhere…. I stayed overnight in this house. We wanted to be together. It was scary,” she said. “Minute by minute, the situation kept escalating. My eyes were on Libya and what was happening there … every [Libyan] home has lost someone, either killed or missing. We were suffering with the people. We kept asking ourselves, ‘How can we help from here?'”
The family was in full agreement with Ali Aujali when he decided that after 42 years in the Libyan Foreign Service — having joined nine months before Qaddafi, then a 27-year-old army officer, led an uprising against King Idris I and subsequently abolished the monarchy — he had to resign. Aujali has always said of his long diplomatic career that he was serving the Libyan people, not Qaddafi, “and thought I could help” open the country up to the West.
But seeing Qaddafi’s harsh crackdown on the initial protests in Benghazi, “I became increasingly uneasy,” the ambassador said.
“I called and asked what was going on. [The government] told me that the problem was just some kids on drugs. That’s when I knew something was wrong and I didn’t call them anymore.”
For about a week after the initial attacks by government forces, the ambassador and his family still held out hope that further bloodshed could be avoided — until they heard the fiery words from Qaddafi’s oldest son Saif, educated in the West and once seen as a possibly moderate heir apparent. (Today, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi is in rebel control awaiting trial.)
“When he opened his mouth and promised ‘a river of blood,’ I knew it was Qaddafi’s attack on his own people,” Aujali said. “I knew then that I had to resign.”
“Our phones went crazy after that speech,” said Fatima. “Everyone was horrified.”
Several hours later, Aujali announced his resignation, followed by a flurry of major international broadcast and print interviews. Three days later, the old flag was raised at the residence amid public fanfare.
“We were very sad when he resigned,” admitted Naima, “but not because he was resigning. We were very sad about what was going on at home.”
“We were all afraid for my dad, for his life [after he resigned],” added Fatima. “But we all agreed that he had to do that, that he was the voice in the U.S. and if the cause of the Libyan people was to be taken seriously, he had to speak out. Our lives are not more precious. Why just watch when you can do something — when your voice is powerful.”
“I am not afraid,” said the ambassador, who for a brief period lost his diplomatic status in Washington, along with a cushy embassy, and wasn’t sure if he’d be forced to return to Libya, where he hadn’t lived since the late 1970s. “Hundreds of Libyans were dying every day. Why should my life be more important than theirs?
“As a Muslim, I am not afraid of dying because we have faith in God and he’s the only one who knows when your time is up, when it’s your day. That day will come, even if you’re wearing bullet-proof vest,” he added, admitting that he was worried about his relatives back home, although in the end, “we all had to stand up for what we believe.”
Aujali recalled that throughout those months of working essentially out of a basement on behalf of rebels who seemed mired in a stalled civil war, Naima kept telling him: “No matter how long it takes, we will win. This is the people’s will. God is taking care of his people. This revolution is from God. The people are going to win with him.”
The ambassador noted, “We stayed in the residence because this is the Libyan people’s house, not Qaddafi’s.”
The entire family, including the grandchildren, joined regular Saturday protests in front of the White House urging greater U.S. involvement in NATO’s air campaign. Joining other women in the local Libyan community, Naima cooked, baked and made sandwiches during the months of fundraising bazaars at different area mosques, including the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue.
The ambassador said Naima is a natural diplomat whose cooking often makes friends for Libya wherever they have been posted — be it in Malaysia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada or Washington — since they married and left Libya together in 1979 to serve in their country’s Foreign Service.
“Naima is great support to me,” he said. “She makes my life easy. She’s giving the Libyan ‘flavor’ of life with her warmth and delicious food. She is very likeable, very good with the Libyan community, and always very warm with everyone.”
Naima and her husband both graduated from Garyounis University (now known as the University of Benghazi) but did not meet in class. She had just started as a social worker with student teachers for two months before she met her future husband.
“All her students liked her so much,” said Fatima. “Everyone kept coming up and saying that they had a cousin, a brother, that they wanted her to meet and marry.”
“One day, one of my favorite students came up to me and said her uncle, a young diplomat, was looking for a wife,” she recalled. “He came to my house and met my family. When I first met Ali I believed he was a good man. I was relaxed, as if I had known him for a long time. I agreed and we were married in 10 days…. It was all very fast.
“I don’t believe in [the concept of] boyfriend-girlfriend,” Naima explained, “but just when the right person comes along, that’s right. You don’t have to be in love but learn to love after [you are married].”
Less than three weeks after a traditional Muslim marriage, they were off to Malaysia where he served as deputy chief of mission and later as ambassador.
Besides Fatima, the Aujalis have four other children. Faris, 30, is a George Mason University graduate who is studying for his master’s in international business. Farah, 29, studied political science and lives in Toronto with her young family. Faruk and Fairoz, the youngest, are 26-year-old twins. Faruk is studying accounting here while Fairoz lives in Montreal, working with an international design firm.
Not surprisingly, Naima’s biggest joy is spending time with her grandchildren.
“She is much more patient with the grandchildren than she ever was with us,” quipped Fatima. “She was a real disciplinarian with us and we had to listen. With the grandkids, she is a loving and caring grandma who loves to take her grandkids to the mall and the zoo. She spoils them a lot. They love to cook together, pretending they’re doing a cooking show.”
“We make pasta and mini pizzas together,” said Naima, mentioning the Italian influence on Libyan cuisine.
Proud that her family and friends rave about her cooking, Naima prefers to do the grocery shopping herself when she has time. “I love to shop at Whole Foods. They have the best vegetables, all organic, and delicious lamb and fish,” both Libyan favorites.
“Nothing makes me happier than cooking for my family,” she said. “I like a homey atmosphere.”
When things were at their worst in Libya, Naima said she was comforted by “good friends who kept coming over bringing food almost every day, especially the wives of Djibouti [Amina Olhaye] and Algeria [Yasmina Baali]. My immediate next-door neighbor, Mary, an American, was so nice. She told me, ‘Don’t worry, Naima, you always have a home here with us.'”
Naima is also grateful to other American friends for helping Libyan refugees. She was quick to thank the individual Libyan doctors practicing here, some of whom traveled to the North African nation to help the wounded, as well as supporters like Marjorie Scott of the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C., who initially made the public aware of the immediate needs of the Libyan refugees who’d fled to Tunisia. Because of her efforts, the Rotary Club collected sweaters, food and medicines for the displaced Libyans living in Tunisia.
According to Scott, who is also the African liaison for the hospitality group THIS for Diplomats, “Naima is an outstanding, lovely, honest woman who sets a beautiful example of creating positive action at difficult times in our changing world and takes advantage of opportunities to explain and share the Libyan lifestyle to the rest of us.”
Naima is now on the verge of seeing the fruits of her family’s efforts. She is on the eve of her first trip home since the revolution and the formation of the new government. Although she is making the 10-day trip for a sad occasion (the death of her older brother Mohammad due to cancer), she will take comfort in seeing her homeland free from autocratic rule for the first time in decades.
She said she is excited “to see the free Libya for myself. I am sad because of the reason for my trip but I am really proud of being Libyan … and I can’t wait to see all those smiling faces.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.