Muammar: A note on my mother's nickname

My mom's name has been in the news a LOT lately. About six or seven years ago, at some point, she began referring to herself as "Muammar," a take on Muammar Ghaddafi's name, but we would most often spell it simply "Momar." If you hadn't guessed, this is more than anything a play on the word Mom, nabbed from a popular culture and global reference--my parents having been around during the '80s, the last time we had a serious confrontation with the rather loony man.

We are a family of nicknames, indeed. My parents have adopted several alternative names over the years, which always end up on their birthday cards and Christmas gift tags. My dad has been Clark, after Clark Griswold in the National Lampoon's films, for many years--it's a name my Mom really started many years ago (I was either young or not born yet). His actual name is Mark. And due to the operatic stylings she has been known to bust out, we dubbed my Mom "Blanche Munchnick," after Madeline Kahn's similar-singing character in one of our family's favorite movies, Mixed Nuts. As if you needed to shorten a one-syllable name, my brother Neil has become simply "Ne." Paul has been "Paulio" ever since his days of addiction to the Paulio string cheese brand. I began calling Carl "Carola" I think partly because of the Toyota Corolla, and that has caught on as well. Much of this playfulness comes from my Mom, who uses "Ralphie" as an interchangeable name to refer to or call any of the men in our family.

But Ghaddafi might be the one we've giggled about the most over the years, as an almost absurd title that wasn't supposed to stick quite as well as it has. I mean, there are many days when my Dad might answer the phone and say he's "passing me over to The Colonel," or simply to "Ghaddafi." Yes, we've adopted all forms of the wacky human-rights violator's name as a set of endearing names to call our matriarch.

Grotesque? I don't think so at all, because Muammar, as I have referred to for many years, has a separate persona entirely from, a handy nickname that fits and has detached long ago from an conjuring up of the face, or the history, even. That has obviously changed vastly in the last few months, and I do not mean to make light of an extremely grave situation in Libya, but it does give me a smile sometimes to think of how often it's in the news, this name I have used for many years in a very personal, loving way.

When we first began calling her that, I remember her having to explain who he was to me--that's how young I was when the name caught on. Then, for a long time, I imagined this far-flung African figure as someone who must surely have long-died, a tyrant the sort of which did not exist anymore, someone who maybe struggled for independence throughout the World Wars but had since become part of those sagas gone by.

So until recently, with him being largely out of the news for at least a decade, the name really didn't bring about thoughts of destruction and death, and crimes against humanity.

But for me, it rarely does this. His voice and his face and his actions create far more vivid a picture, of a man who has too much pride and confidence that he is what Libya needs to thrive. For me, the name belongs to someone else entirely.

I tell my mom nowadays, it looks like very soon she will be the only Ghaddafi left, and that sounds nice.

Please excuse my protracted silences

It is unbelievable the kind of things that are unfolding right now in the world. We've started air strikes in Libya, and uprisings continue all across the Middle East and North Africa, most recently becoming violent in Syria. (It is rather jarring to think that the tipping point--or rather, the catalyst--for all of this was a fruit vendor in Tunisia.) There was a devastating earthquake--the largest in Japan's recorded history--followed by a resultant tsunami and a nuclear disaster that continues now, though it has stabilized considerably. In the United States, a political drama played out in Wisconsin over government employee's collective bargaining rights. Remember just three months ago when Senator Gabriel Giffords was shot in Tucson? The ravages of a rough and tumble, war-torn, disaster-torn planet have made me feel I've aged a few years in the span of three months. For the first time in my adult life, the news on the radio really does sometimes overwhelm me, I turn it off. Or, the opposite, I listen to it so much that my brain is swimming with thoughts, emotions--things I want to remember, write down, repeat, blog about, research more deeply, share with a friend, not forget. I wrote a few weeks ago on how even though I empathize deeply with people in other parts of the world who are struggling with recent events, I feel so removed, I can't hug the man in the story who is walking his dog amidst what was once his city and is now a disaster site. I continue to feel that way, while also knowing I am not, ultimately, immune from anything. I am human just the same, living this life, and at any moment it could change forever. I live under no airs that I am somehow different. I live somewhere more stable than Libya, maybe, but that does not protect me from the fragility of the world, except that I live farther away from what is now a warzone. Don't get me wrong, I am very thankful for at least that security; in this place, I do not live each day with the worry of a bomb striking my home or my family.

In my own life, there are a thousand things on my mind each day as well. As I said, there are simply so many things happening right now, I think of about ten things I want to get home and start writing about, and when I get home at night, what little energy I have left needs to go to homework--finishing readings, papers, projects, for my classes. It feels like months have passed since I last wrote something down and posted it on the internet. I now have two jobs, one in the history department at Georgia State (which I've had since August) and the other at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) southeast regional records center. We hold any federal bureau's records that they may want kept, until they want them destroyed--and then we do that. We serve the ten southeastern states. It's not a glamorous job by any stretch of the imagination, but it is good extra money and does relate to several big historical and archival issues in my field. I thought I was crazy for taking two jobs, that occupy four full workdays and leaving me far less time for my schoolwork, and I still think I am crazy. I get less sleep, and can literally only find time for the gym two days a week (three if I'm really creative), but now I know I can do it.

Being so busy does make the weeks go by so fast, which is why I feel like it's been years since 2011 began. I've planned a trip to Cuba (my history department job), spoke at my first history conference, read about ten books, started a new job, bought an iPhone--and I really enjoy my life. But it feels like I have been working at the records center for at least six months, when it has really been six weeks. My parents have been working hard to sell nearly everything in their home, including the home itself, and are moving out now, hoping to be done by the end of the month. They will be empty nesters in a few months, when my youngest brother starts the summer program at University of Georgia, and they have downsized considerably into a brand new loft in a converted downtown building in Dublin, Georgia, where they live. My brother Neil (one of two brothers in the Navy) assumed his station at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base a week ago today, where he'll remain for eighteen months. Paul is still on hold up in New London, Connecticut, but he seems happy and content. We have all been so engrossed in our lives, in all the things happening, and also happening across the world.

I think what I wanted to say today is that I have a hundred things I can and want to blog about, put my take on it down in writing, but there is SO MUCH, that it cancels itself out. I don't know where to start, when I get home, and then I think about all the other things I need to get done and how much I really want to just go to sleep. (Or watch Parks and Recreation, the best show on TV.) Especially in this stretch to finals, the next four weeks, I fear an extended absence from this website, but it will certainly, absolutely, not be from a lack of things going on in my mind or in my life. Or in the world, as we have seen.

Guilt, a luxury; and other emotions of someone watching Libya from afar

As I listen to the newscasts each day on the radio, and watch from afar as the world changes abruptly across North Africa and the Middle East, two things have struck me. The first is that somewhat cynical adage, hiding very near in the shadows in the wake of Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Egypt: "meet the old boss, same as the new boss." No one had confirmed this for me, but I felt there was a good chance, with military running the country now, that a new regime might turn out looking suspiciously like the old one. I hope not, but time shall tell. A news story from yesterday's broadcast confirmed my thought--actually quoting the exact same adage--and related Egypt's revolution to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-05, in which protesters largely quit their progressive work too soon and things returned to much the same as they had before. (Listen to that here: Lessons for Egypt from Ukraine.)

The other has to do with my distance. A week or two ago, an American schoolteacher who had been living and teaching in Libya at the American school there was interviewed for a news report after she had landed somewhere in Europe, and she was talking about the collective sigh of relief that had arisen from all the passengers aboard as the plane finally lifted off the ground, spelling their imminent escape and safety. I was relieved for her two, as Libya is engrossed now in an all-out civil war, Muammar Gaddafi's forces and supporters, against those who want his more than forty-year regime to end.

I was also stricken by the fact that I would have the option to leave, I may have been so lucky. I am watching this at a very comfortable distance, not forced to watch as my neighbors are killed, and I must chose to leave my home and take my family to flee for Tunisia, or Egypt--and begin life as a refugee, the kind that end up on the covers of magazines, that the world takes on as a human rights issue or as the plight of whatever country has been good enough to offer me sanctuary. If I were lucky enough to get away.

These thoughts were not very developed in my mind, but I keep returning to them, in their ameba form, as the terrible situation continues to unfold and worsen across Libya. The American women who was interviewed had remarked that she expected her school and home would be overtaken, that she may not ever be able to return. I remember thinking at the time that surely she was overestimating the thing, this would play out instead much as it already had across the African north. A few more briefings on Libya's past--and how deeply it differs from that of Egypt's or Moroccos--and I'm chastised. A few weeks of watching Gaddafi rage like a lunatic--who makes Charlie Sheen look like a kitten, and I'm again embarrassed to think of my naivete of a few weeks ago.

Then, there in a book I happened to pick up, was a passage that got at this lingering pang in my head, and my heart: this distant emotion, this lack of connection, symptomatic of being a concerned citizen in the world, who is also only relatively aware of the danger and uncertainty that plagues many places, a kind of madness that I myself, as an American living a truly blessed life for being here, will never quite be able to understand. I am convinced it takes a great deal more faith to live in many other places on this earth, and Libya is the actualization of pain at this moment.

Spring break last week gave me some time to read some non-school items, and I have been absolutely engrossed in Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I am honestly truly impressed with Obama's writing, the way he can write a flowing, complex emotion or experience out into words. He has also had a fascinating life, and it was in the midst of his years in Indonesia as a young boy, watching his American mother assimilate and attempt understand this island nation, the homeland of her second husband, Lolo, that he recounts exactly the evocative words I could not myself write.

Innuendo, half-whispered asides; that's how she found out that we had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times. The idea frightened her, the notion that history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood that had once coursed through the streets; the way people could continue about their business beneath giant posters of the new president as if nothing had happened, a nation busy developing itself. As her circle of Indonesian friends widened, a few of them would be willing to tell her other stories--about the corruption that pervaded government agencies, the shakedowns by police and military, entire industries carved out for the president's family and entourage. And with each new story, she would go to Lolo in private and ask him: "Is it true?"

He would never say. The more she asked, the more steadfast he became in his good-natured silence. "Why are you worrying about such talk?" he would ask her. "Why don't you buy a new dress for the party?" She had finally complained to one of Lolo's cousins, a pediatrician who had helped look after Lolo during the war.

"You don't understand," the cousin had told her gently.

"Understand what?"

"The circumstances of Lolo's return [to Indonesia, from Hawaii, where he met Stanley, Obama's mother]. He hadn't planned on coming back from Hawaii so early, you know. During the purge, all students studying abroad had been summoned without explanation, their passports revoked. When Lolo stepped off the plane, he had no idea of what might happen next. We couldn't see him; the army officials took him away and questioned him. They told him that he has just been conscripted and would be going to the jungles of New Guinea for a year. And he was one of the lucky ones. Students studying in Eastern Bloc countries did much worse. Many of them are still in jail. Or vanished. You shouldn't be too hard on Lolo," the cousin repeated. "Such times are best forgotten."

My mother left the cousin's house in a daze.

. . . .

Power. The word fixed in my mother's mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undistinguished, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he'd escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn't his own. That's how things were; you couldn't change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting, just as his brother-in-law had done, making millions as a high official in the national oil company; just as another brother had tried to do, only he had miscalculated and was now reduced to stealing pieces of silverware whenever he came for a visit, selling them later for loose cigarettes.

She remembered what Lolo had told her once when her constant questioning had finally touched a nerve. "Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can afford," he had said. "Like saying whatever pops into your head." She didn't know what it was like to lose everything, to wake up and feel her belly eating itself. She didn't know how crowded and treacherous the path to security could be. Without absolute concentration, one could easily slip, tumble backward.

He was right, of course. She was a foreigner, middle-class and white and protected by her heredity whether she wanted protection or not. She could always leave if things got too messy.

((Italicized portions are my own emphasis.))