During the 1950s and 1960s, following the end of colonial rule, most of the Arab countries fell under the sway of military dictatorships.
In Egypt and Iraq for example, pliant pro-Western monarchies were overthrown in the 1950s by army officers who raised slogans of nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialism. The legacy of these coups – which in Arab countries were usually referred to as “revolutions” – still haunts the Arab world today.
The original nationalist and socialist slogans have long been abandoned or become meaningless but the authoritarian military-backed regimes which came to power in the 1950s and 60s still hold sway across much of the Arab World, even after the 2010-11 Arab Spring which for a time seemed to offer the promise of democratic reform.
“The Libya which took shape after the 2011 revolution was far removed from Ashour’s ideas of a democratic Islamic society”
Libya was one of the last countries in the Arab World to undergo a military-led “revolution”. Its pro-Western king Idris Al-Sanussi was overthrown in September 1969 by a young, previously unknown army officer, Muammar al-Gaddafi, who initially modelled himself on Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser but was later to institute one of the most eccentric, erratic, and violent dictatorships in the Arab world
Thousands of political dissidents were forced abroad by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and The Colonel’s Stray Dogs looks at the legacy of his tyranny from an original and little-discussed perspective – that of their children.
The world that director Khalid Shamis grew up in was a million miles away from the one his father, Ashour Shamis, who became an active and outspoken opponent of Gaddafi’s dictatorship, left behind in Libya. The Colonel’s Stray Dogs benefits from a first-person perspective intimately portraying the family life of its director and his father.
This portrayal is quite unique but the experience has been repeated in the lives of hundreds of migrants and refugees from the Middle East who were forced to flee to the West, leading perhaps better lives there, but raising families with little connection with their countries of origin.
“I feel that the film points sideways to the experience of the second generation emigrant whose parents came out of a pan-Arab, pan-Islamic political exile, as opposed to the earlier wave of migrants from the [South Asian] subcontinent who came due to their relationship with Imperial Britain,” Khalid Shamis told The New Arab.
Growing up in the UK, Libya was “a closed place, a place of mystery” he says. “We grew up in a much more mixed Islamic space and at the same time were heavily confronted with figuring out our British identity.”
Ashour, however, dedicated his life in exile to overthrowing Gaddafi, becoming a prominent spokesperson for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), an opposition group formed in 1981 which sought to replace Gaddafi’s regime with a democratic government and used both political and military means to achieve this goal.
In February 1980, Colonel Gaddafi made an announcement saying that all Libyan government opponents abroad – who he called “stray dogs” – had to return to Libya or face “physical liquidation”. This was no idle threat. Two months later, Ashour’s friend Mohammed Mustafa Ramadan, a BBC journalist, was shot dead in London’s Regent’s Park Mosque by Libyan agents. Mahmoud Nafa, a dissident Libyan lawyer, was also gunned down in his office in central London a few days later.
However, Gaddafi’s threats and the murder of his friend did not serve to intimidate Ashour but instead motivated him to involve himself more in anti-Gaddafi activities.
Ashour had a mission and purpose which consumed him totally but which he could say very little about and which could potentially expose the whole family to danger, and this defined Khalid’s childhood. As he says in The Colonel’s Stray Dogs, “it felt like killing Gaddafi was more important to my dad than living with us”.
However, Ashour and the NFSL’s ambitions were much more complex than just “killing Gaddafi”. The NFSL’s ideology was somewhat vague but Ashour characterises it as based on democracy and representative government while also being influenced by moderate Islamism.
In the 1980s Ashour and the NFSL believed that freedom from the colonel’s tyranny was just around the corner and that a combination of military and political activity aimed at destabilising Gaddafi’s rule would cause the Libyan people to rise up and overthrow him soon. Gaddafi’s erratic foreign policy and the hostility of both western and Arab governments towards his regime helped encourage this belief.
Ashour’s work with the NSFL took him all over the Middle East but his family knew very little of what he was doing and this is illustrated poignantly in the film – it was only after the 2011 Libyan revolution that Khalid found out the full extent of his father’s activities, and it was only then that he got to know his father’s Libyan family – whose main method of communication with him in the pre-Internet era was through smuggled cassette tapes.
However, the mystery around Libya and Ashour’s activities with the NFSL leads to many humorous situations in The Colonel’s Stray Dogs. At one point Khalid and his mother Shamela have a tongue-in-cheek discussion about whether Ashour was a freedom fighter or a terrorist and whether the fact that he was a religious Muslim working for an organisation that used military means to achieve its aims made him ISIS or not. “The Colonel’s Stray Dogs is about exile, estrangement, and alienation – all injected with a good dose of humour”
Contrary to the hopes of the NFSL – which seem somewhat naïve today – Gaddafi’s regime was to survive the 1980s and would remain in power until 2011, although after the imposition of UN sanctions following the 1989 Lockerbie bombing, it would lose its ability to persecute and murder its opponents abroad.
Gaddafi survived the NFSL’s disastrous attempt to attack his compound in Tripoli in 1984 – his brutal revenge is shown in the film – as well as the 1986 American attack on Tripoli and long years of Western sanctions. It was only the 2011 Arab Spring that overthrew him. As The Colonel’s Stray Dogs explains, advances in communication meant that by this time Gaddafi had lost the ability to control what Libyans saw and heard and what they could say to each other.
The Colonel’s Stray Dogs is about exile, estrangement, and alienation – all injected with a good dose of humour. While Khalid’s separation from his father’s homeland and struggle is a theme throughout the film, the Libya that Ashour left behind in the mid-1960s no longer exists in 2011. He returns to Libya where political culture has been damaged by more than forty years of Gaddafi’s tyranny, where exiles like him have been marginalised and where a confusing array of competing militias are in control.
The Libya which took shape after the 2011 revolution was far removed from Ashour’s ideas of a democratic Islamic society and it is difficult to watch his life’s work be sidelined by the harsh reality of the chaos and division which took hold in Libya in the years following Gaddafi’s overthrow.
The Colonel’s Stray Dogs does not offer any closure to Libya’s tragedy but its themes of exile, identity, and ideals colliding with reality will resonate with first and second-generation Middle Eastern and North African communities in the west who fled their homelands due to war, conflict, and tyranny and whose dreams of a better future were thwarted by events on the ground.
The Colonel’s Stray Dogs is due to premiere in the UK later this year.
Amr Salahi is a staff journalist at The New Arab with a focus on Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan affairs.