When Israeli artist Rafram Chaddad visited Libya to document its once-thriving Jewish community, he was accused of espionage and put in jail. Now free, he tells of his five months in captivity.
Late last March, a series of confounding and conspicuously opaque news reports began to appear in the Israeli press regarding an Israeli citizen who had vanished in North Africa. While the initial reports were hazy and facilitated an inevitable surge of innuendo and speculation, they were eventually all suppressed by the government censor, who decided to enforce a complete media blackout on the story.
That changed in early August, when, out of the blue, the Israeli Foreign Ministry announced that a 34-year-old citizen by the name of Rafram “Raphael” Chaddad, who had been held captive for five months in Libya, had just been released and was on his way back to Israel. At the same time, details behind his disappearance began to emerge: Chaddad, a Tunisian-born Israeli who maintains dual citizenship, had been arrested by Libyan officials in Tripoli while on assignment there for Or-Shalom, an Israeli non-government organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the 2,500-year-old Jewish community in Libya. Despite efforts by Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, and Nicolas Sarkozy, it was the well-connected Jewish-Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff who ultimately secured his release. Having flown Chaddad out of Libya on his private jet, Schlaff brought him to Vienna, where he was met by Foreign Secretary Avigdor Lieberman. With Shlaff’s mediation, Lieberman had apparently orchestrated the entire deal behind closed doors.
Although the exact nature of the agreement that brought about Chaddad’s release is still unknown, the deal reportedly included Israeli permission to transfer Libyan aid supplies into Gaza (as well as $50 million from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s charity foundation, marked for rebuilding houses in Gaza). “These have been reasonable demands by Libya,” announced Lieberman upon Chaddad’s return. “Libya’s responsible behavior was a pleasant surprise.”
Greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by a swarm of reporters, the otherwise serene, gentle, and extremely amicable Chaddad was noticeably taken aback by the microphones stuck into his face during what was supposed to be a private reunion with his family. Accordingly, he hastily thanked all those who had helped secure his release, gave a few token remarks to the press, and made his way home without ever revealing what he had been through in Qaddafi’s prison. But last month, exactly six months after his return, Hadad agreed to finally break his silence and discuss with Tablet Magazine what he jokingly refers to as his “spa vacation” in Libya.
“This is the first time I am discussing it,” he tells me in Hebrew as we sit down in a Jaffa coffeehouse next door to one of Israel’s most popular hummus joints. “It still feels weird to suddenly be talking about all that happened there.” For the next two hours, he lets his memories flow virtually uninterrupted, recalling with both sobriety and humor everything he could—and some things he prefers to forget—in a somewhat cathartic monologue about events that had evidently begun to take a toll on him. Although the Israeli foreign ministry has yet to confirm these events—and the Libyan government has not formally denied them—Chaddad’s vivid, detailed, and emotional account of what happened to him in Libya appears not only genuine but incredibly difficult to challenge. Baby-faced and bespectacled, Chaddad, who looks much younger than his age, is dressed in a homemade T-shirt with Qaddafi’s portrait printed on it in the style of the well-known Che Guevara stencil. Rather than suffering from Stockholm syndrome, it was actually a fitting example of the good-natured, almost Panglossian, optimism that seems to suffuse Chaddad’s entire Libyan adventure.
When the authorities came to arrest Rubashov, the legendary hero from Arthur Koestler’s dystopian novel Darkness at Noon, he had been expecting them. Chaddad, on the other hand, had been sitting in his Tripoli hotel room waiting for his flight back home, watching a Simpsons rerun without the slightest idea of what was about to take place. “At 12 o’clock sharp on Saturday, there was a knock at my door,” he recalls. The hotel receptionist and bellhop, escorted by three suited men who introduced themselves as being “with the office,” took Chaddad’s luggage and insisted on driving him to a nearby building. “I immediately understood who they were,” Chaddad says; they were Libyan officials.
The men started interrogating him about his cameras and his travels in Libya, and they informed him that they were confiscating his film. Apparently more disappointed by the fact that he would not have the chance to taste chraime, Tripoli’s legendary spicy fish stew, than by missing his flight out of Libya, Chaddad was then instructed to wait at the hotel for his passport to be returned to him. “At this point, I am still sure everything is all right, and I figure I will just fly out the next morning, and try to get the film back afterwards,” he says. That night, after Chaddad missed his flight out, two young men from the security services returned to pick him up. “They had brilliantine in their hair and were wearing black jackets,” he recalls. Unsuspecting, he got with them into the car, as one of the men entered the driver’s seat, and the other sat beside him in the back. Chaddad relays what happened next: “Suddenly, as we are driving around Tripoli’s coastline, the guy next to me pushes my head down while the car starts speeding up. The next thing I remember is finding myself in a detention camp. Once there, they started screaming at me to take off my belt and shoes, and ordered me to empty my pockets. The moment the yelling started and they threw me out of the car and into a prison cell is when I understood I was in big trouble.”
Chaddad’s odyssey had begun a few weeks earlier, when he was contacted in Tel Aviv by representatives of Or-Shalom. Would he be willing to take on a special assignment and photograph the remnants of the long-gone Jewish community in Libya? A Tunisian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel in his youth, Chaddad, who is fluent in Arabic and well-traveled throughout the Arab world, did not hesitate. A respected artist who has exhibited his installation work in the prestigious Venice Biennale, Chaddad is also well known in Israel as an accomplished chef who once cooked a meal for the crown prince of Lichtenstein and is a coordinator for the Israeli slow-food movement. For a romantic adventurer like Chaddad, the opportunity to experience the exotic sights, sounds, smells, and especially tastes of Libya was too much of a temptation to resist—not to mention the fact that he would also be able to do something in which he believes. “I decided to do it because preserving Jewish heritage in Arab countries is a cause dear to my heart,” he tells me. “I deal with this theme in my art and my food. And I felt as if I would be doing a mitzvah.”
Chaddad left Israel for Tunisia, where he dropped off his Israeli passport with relatives before continuing on to neighboring Libya. After all, despite occasional gestures toward rapprochement, Israel and Libya continue to be on hostile terms, so much so that Israelis are forbidden by law from traveling there. Qaddafi, who remains one of Israel’s most vocal critics, has in the past funded Palestinian terrorist groups and often chastises Arab states that conduct diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2009, he blamed Israelis for engineering the crisis in Darfur and declared that “Israel is responsible for all the conflicts in Africa.” In light of these tense relations, Chaddad made sure to strip himself of all traces of his Israeli identity before crossing the border.
Continue reading: A 6-by-6 cell and the early interrogations. Or view as a single page.
With the exception of one relatively benign and short interrogation by authorities in the port city of Derna, Chaddad’s rigid 10-day schedule in Libya was uneventful. He was able to survey the vast and picturesque desert landscapes across the country and catalog the relics of what had been one of the most culturally affluent Jewish communities in North Africa. During his wide-ranging travels there, he experienced what he now understands to have been a false sense of security. “I eventually came to realize that every second person I met in Libya was working for the secret police,” he says. “At my trial, I even encountered a security agent who had acted as my taxi driver a few days earlier.”
Thrown into his prison cell by the two agents who had picked him up from the hotel, Chaddad had plenty of time to reassess the various people he’d met. The cell in the prison where Chaddad spent his first weeks of captivity was about 6 by 6 and constructed out of barren concrete. With nothing but a chewed-up mattress with broken springs poking through it, a broken toilet, and no company but the family of cockroaches in the corner, Chaddad remained confused but optimistic. A small barred window facing an illuminated hallway allowed him to retain a sense of time.
The initial interrogations, he recalls, were relatively bland, mechanical, almost boring. A young and cologne-scented investigator named Imad questioned him repeatedly about his comings and goings in Libya. Sitting in a room with nothing but two chairs and a desk, Imad would write down every word Chaddad said. “The first alarming question he asked me was regarding the last time I visited Israel,” Chaddad remembers. Saying that he was currently living in London, Hadad did not veer too far from the truth; he explained he was a Jewish-Tunisian photographer chronicling the remains of the local Jewish community. “I didn’t want to push it, so I admitted that I visited family in Israel a few times,” he says. Rather than dismay him, the questions about Israel apparently only heightened Chaddad’s sense of optimism. “From this I understood that they were clueless,” he says. (After all, he had been living in Israel most of his life.) “I started to believe that I would come out of this in a few days.”
One remarkable thing about Chaddad’s surprisingly precise recollection of the events is its culinary foundations. Rather than remember the course of events through a sequential narrative of days, he remembers it through the various meals he ate. The first Sunday there was “a nice tuna sandwich, with some delicate harissa,” a Tunisian chili. Similarly, he can describe the flavor of the stuffing in the meat, the sweetness of the oranges, and the spicing on the macaroni he was fed in prison. In Libya, he didn’t always eat—in fact, he went days at a time without food—but this appreciation of even the most quotidian of things is a testament to the vitality that also helped him survive the ordeal.
During Chaddad’s first days in prison, not only was he not accused of any specific crime, but even more distressingly, he was not even told where he was or who was detaining him. “All this time, I could only keep thinking about my mom, and how she must be worrying about me,” he recalls. After all, no one had any knowledge of his whereabouts, and for all anyone knew he could be dead. Despite pleading unsuccessfully with his captors to inform his relatives in Tunisia of his arrest, word of his detainment would eventually reach his family by way of another prisoner who was interned with him. Chaddad remembers that in one of the adjacent cells, there was a prisoner with a distinct English accent, who was constantly bellowing in pain. Having prompted a conversation with him by singing some choice Beatles hits, Chaddad came to learn that the young man, who went by the name of Mathew, was a British citizen who had come to Libya, fallen in love with a Muslim girl, and was now awaiting deportation. On the eve of Mathew’s departure, Chaddad had the sense to drill his sister’s email address into Mathew’s memory by repeatedly singing it in a catchy tune. Despite Chaddad’s initial suspicions about Mathew’s identity—“I was sure he was planted there by the Libyans,” he says—the British man ended up delivering. The night he returned to England, Mathew sent Hadad’s sister an email that eloquently depicted Chaddad’s grave situation. It read: “Your brother is in deep shit.”
Although Chaddad’s family eventually got word of his fate and could set in motion the momentous diplomatic pressures that would eventually bring about his release, his immediate fate was about to take a turn for the worse. What Mathew had neglected to tell Hadad for fear of unnerving him was that the Libyan security services had their own diabolical ways of extracting information from their prisoners—as Hadad was about to find out. Having checked a fake email account Chaddad had specifically created for the trip and given them, his investigators demanded the password to his real email account. “That’s when I understood it was time to spill it,” he says. “One week exactly after my arrest, I tell Imad, ‘Listen, I have something for you that will knock you off your feet: I am Israeli.’ ”
The retribution was swift and painful: “An older investigator, Ali, comes in and tells me, ‘I am now going to beat you, because you lied to us,’ ” Chaddad says. “I thought he was kidding. But then they tied my hands behind my back with handcuffs, grabbed my legs and lifted them up, and started beating the soles of my feet with a wooden stick. This went on for about 20 minutes, during which I was constantly asking myself, ‘What the hell is going on?’ and convincing myself that this is not really happening to me.” A day after the beating, Chaddad recalls, Ali put his hands on his shoulder and comforted him, “‘Don’t worry, it’s part of my job. The pain will pass in a few days.’”
From this stage onward, Chaddad told his interrogators every last excruciating and paltry detail about his life: where he was from, what he did, where he grew up, where he traveled to, who his friends were, and with whom he had slept. This lasted through the following week, which happened to be Passover. Repeatedly interrogated about the same things by alternating investigators—he had nicknames for some of them—Chaddad was now questioned about his alleged Mossad rank and underwent cruel psychological mind games. Meanwhile, his captors kept reassuring him that his release was imminent.
Continue reading: Qaddafi, Sharansky, and a life-changing experience. Or view as a single page.
After Chaddad had spent 12 days in prison, his interrogators were apparently not satisfied with his answers. “It’s not exactly easy to explain to the Libyan security services that you are a contemporary artist working for an Israeli NGO,” Chaddad says. His captors decided to increase the pressure and pain. “They wrapped a thin turquoise blanket over my head so that I couldn’t see what was happening. Then they told me, ‘You are going to have a rough three days, so you better tell us everything you know.’ ” Chaddad could not have imagined how right they were: For the next 72 hours he underwent a grueling series of physical and psychological tortures. He was forced to raise his limbs and hold heavy objects for hours at a time. He was not allowed to sit or lie down and was prohibited from relaxing his muscles. “All this time my body is aching and I keep asking them, why, why, why?” he says, pausing momentarily as if to gather strength. “The final day was the worst. They tied me up again and began to hit my soles and knees with an iron pipe. After that, they made me take my clothes off, and sitting in my underwear, they connected a car battery to my fingers and administered electric shocks. All I wanted to do was sit down. I literally lost any sensual experience.”
It was then, on the brink of Chaddad’s collapse, that the interrogator formally announced: “Welcome, you are in custody of the Libyan secret police. We are the worst secret police in the world. If you had heard stories about us, you would kill yourself now. You are all alone. No one knows you are here. We told the Tunisian embassy that you died in a car accident. So you better cooperate with us.” When the torture finally subsided and he was allowed to return to his now totally empty cell to lie down on the concrete, the ever-optimistic Chaddad found himself on the verge of despair. “I couldn’t eat, sleep, or even cry. I didn’t want anything. My feet were drenched in blood, and I could barely walk. I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
While still recuperating from the blows, Chaddad was once again and without warning blindfolded and transferred to another prison, where he would spend the next four months. But rather than the beginning of a new nightmare, this move turned out to be the beginning of the end. With the Libyans apparently realizing Chaddad’s innocence, he was taken to a new holding facility where he would remain in solitary confinement until the diplomatic moves being made on his behalf played themselves out. In the four months he spent there, Chaddad quickly established a rigid routine: He awoke with the muezzin at dawn and exercised by running around his cell and lifting his water bottles. In the afternoon, he would have an hour of what he called “urban fantasy” by strolling in Paris in his mind; at night some erotica. In addition, he gradually began to reengage his aesthetic inclinations and made art from the tinfoil and plastic trays in which his meals were served. “I decided to rebuild my life and said to myself that this is my chance to become a better person,” he recalls. “Like [Natan] Sharansky, I built a chess set from bottle caps, made a calendar, and decorated my cell.” Still confident that eventually he would be released, Chaddad kept telling his interrogators, who by now were summoning him barely once a week, “Just bring me to Qaddafi, and everything will be OK.”
Chaddad was eventually brought in front of someone who was introduced to him as a judge—the man was wearing jeans. Even so, Chaddad maintains that he was never actually charged with anything despite myriad allegations that included heading a counterfeiting ring and performing espionage for Israel, Tunisia, Italy, and al-Qaida. In retrospect, he has learned a valuable lesson about Libya that he wishes he had known beforehand: “The police there don’t arrest you because of any specific reason. They just do it because they can.” Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam has since publicly admitted that Chaddad was actually not suspected of espionage because “Israelis don’t send other Israelis to spy on their behalf.” Instead, Saif al-Islam explained that the Libyan authorities knew Hadad was on a “cultural mission,” and the Libyans had simply decided “to reap benefits.”
Chaddad’s release came just as fast and unexpectedly as his detention. In August, five months exactly after his arrest, Imad suddenly presented Chaddad with his Tunisian passport and told him to count the money that was in his wallet and sign a document confirming that all his belongings were accounted for. These actions were filmed. Although Imad refused to say whether Chaddad was being released, some of the more sympathetic guards seemed to confirm this. Considering the previous deceptions he had experienced, Chaddad’s sense of hope was immediately tinged with paranoia. Thrown into a car yet again and blindfolded, Chaddad’s imagination got the better of him. “I actually wished for an accident, because I could not undergo any more torture,” he says.
As the car drove on, Chaddad heard the surprising noise of a plane’s engine with the sound of waves in the background. Imad asked him how he felt. “Like crap,” Chaddad said. “How do you think I feel?” Removing the blindfold, Imad said, “You should be happy. There is a plane here to take you home.” Then Chaddad saw a familiar-looking man coming down from the plane bearing an Austrian flag. “Hello, I’m Martin Schlaff,” the man said. “Do you want to get on the plane?” Chaddad boarded but remained disoriented. Schlaff reassured him. “Everything is now OK,” he said. Schlaff’s tearful assistant photographed Chaddad, explaining that the commemorative picture was for his daughter, Lilly.
Despite the beatings, torture, psychological mind-games, and nearly 150 days in solitary confinement, Chaddad seems to show no anger. Instead, he exhibits an almost unfathomable sense of complacency toward his captors, with a degree of understanding, warmth, almost respect, that seems uncanny. This might explain why the last thing he did just before boarding Schlaff’s plane, was turn back to Imad, give him two jocular slaps on the cheek, and wish him an easy Ramadan.
His stoic ability to calmly embrace his fate not only helped Chaddad survive his Libyan captivity; it actually allowed him to learn something from it. He is currently compiling an eclectic memoir about his experiences that will exhibit the various art works and recipes that he was inspired to come up with while in prison. Despite the trauma he underwent, he assures me that things have almost returned to normal for him, all too fast. As we parted, I asked Chaddad if his Libyan captivity was a life-changing experience. “It wasn’t really,” he hesitantly remarked, as if still pondering the question. “But it was definitely one hell of an experience.”
Correction: Mr. Chaddad prefers the Hebraized spelling of his surname, rather than Hadad, which this article originally used. It has been changed to reflect his preference.
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