Enoch is a creature from the myths of Jewish apocrypha: one of the rebellious stars, punished for refusing to shine at God’s command. Of all his kin, he alone was given the chance to work for his parole. He’s spent millennia of protecting humankind from its endless follies, but this time – Libya, 2011 – the threat comes from another star like him. The song of rebellion rises into the world again, stirring every soul against the tyrants of Heaven and Earth.
I finally got my smoke. I enjoy them for the ritual, not the nicotine. A little fire, a brand-new drop of ash, the same little destruction every time.
Plus, it makes some mortals impatient.
“Lot of people counting on us,” Maryam said.
This piece is inspired by one of the most touching and terrifying pieces of reporting I’ve ever read, a walk through the ruins of 2011 Tripoli, in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall. It took me years to be ready to write the piece that this story deserved, and years more to find a home for it. Nowadays, with Libya mired in civil war, Memories of Fire has grown darker. But I hope the story still contains hope and truth enough.
This story also has neuroscience and psychology hidden in its core. But like the reporting, I don’t want to cite details yet. Too many spoilers! Why don’t you go read the story first? Once you’ve done that, keep on reading for story notes about history, science, and forgiveness.
The foundation of this story is The Surreal Ruins of Qaddafi’s Never-Never Land, published in the New York Times in September 2011. A chilling story, both for good and for ill, about the first months after a revolution.1 Even if you never read my story, read this article.
If you don’t want to read the article’s full 7700 words, here’s the part that inspired my story. Content warnings: murder, rape.
One volunteer told me about a prisoner in the hospital who admitted to killing for Qaddafi in the final days of the war. Her name was Nisreen al Furjani, and she said she executed about a dozen rebel prisoners with a pistol, possibly more. When I met her, she was lying on her back in a hospital bed with a broken pelvis and leg. She said it happened when she leapt out of a window trying to escape from the Qaddafi soldiers. She was a slim, sweet-looking woman of 19, with wide-set eyes, full lips and plucked eyebrows. She had a rebel flag spread over her body like a protective blanket. A guard with a rifle was posted outside her door. Furjani said Qaddafi soldiers had forced her at gunpoint to carry out the executions. She was raped repeatedly during the time she served with Qaddafi’s Popular Guards, she said, and was dragooned into service in the first place, against her own and her family’s wishes. She wept as she told her story, narrating the killings in graphic detail in a tiny, almost inaudible voice. “They brought the prisoners to stand in front of a tree,” she said. “Three men stood around me, one behind me, one on two sides. They made me shoot them.” A pediatrician named Rabia al Gajum, sitting near Nisreen’s bed, bolstered her story, saying she had spoken to Furjani’s mother and heard similar accounts of women forced to commit crimes by Qaddafi.
Furjani’s story of rape and forced execution became a minor sensation. A photograph of her, taken by Agence France Presse in June when she was with Qaddafi’s Popular Guard, made the cover of The New York Post. In the photo — apparently rediscovered in the archives after her story emerged — she is smiling and holding a gun, standing alongside two other camouflage-clad women members of the Popular Guard. The story hit a popular nerve, in part because it matched the legends about Qaddafi’s female bodyguards and his regime’s habit of training women for brutality. I had heard my share of stories about ruthless brothel madams who recruited snipers for Qaddafi, about routine rapes in government offices and drug-fueled parties at which orphans would be recruited into the Brother Leader’s army.
But a few days later, when I visited Gajum at her own clinic, she said she had concluded that Furjani was lying and had killed voluntarily. Many of the details of her story didn’t add up or seemed implausible. I went to the building where she said she had killed the men and could not match it with her description. It turned out that Furjani’s mother — who had called during one of my visits to her hospital room — was a member of Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Committees herself, Gajum told me. The rebels in charge of the hospital where Furjani had been held also concluded that she was a willing executioner and had transferred her to a prison. But the strangest part of her story was this: Furjani was her own accuser. No one else witnessed the executions. In the end, all I could be sure of was that Furjani had been part of something awful, and now she was struggling to hide from its consequences.
Nisreen al Furjani. She was a real person, whose story and words I used to create Shamrani’s tale in Memories of Fire. She is almost certainly dead by now.
I have mixed feelings. I hope I’m not exploiting the dead. Ultimately, Memories of Fire is about sympathizing with her. About understanding how we all redefine our selves and our memories, and try to see ourselves as the people we wish we were.
The New York times article doesn’t try to explain Furjani’s motives, but I do. To me, her experience echoes a well-known finding from the psychology of memory: that memories are constructed not recorded. They are malleable, and constantly changing. We redefine them around our mood and self-image. In other words, our memories do not define our personality – instead, our personalities define our memory.
Maybe this is what Furjani was doing. It’s what we all do, every day. None of us want to believe ourselves worthy of abandoning a friend, of murdering captives, of a dance that would shake the universe apart.
Be kind to yourself. And just as importantly, do the work of penance. Maybe you don’t think you deserve it. But who knows what sins you’ve forgotten?