TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyans are eager to put the long and strange reign of Moammar Gadhafi behind them, but they say his fugitive status only bolsters the mystique of a ruler who never missed a chance to embarrass them on the world stage.
"When we traveled, we stopped saying we're Libyans because everyone on the outside thought we dress in drapes and live in tents," said Amal Emsaed, 20, a student at Tripoli University.
Only "death or capture," she and other Libyans said, would finally put an end to Gadhafi's larger-than-life persona at home and abroad.
For most of the past four decades, Libyans cringed at Gadhafi's flamboyant get-up, his self-proclaimed "king of kings" title, his gun-toting female bodyguards and the Bedouin tent he pitched on official visits to New York, Paris, Moscow and Rome.
Gadhafi's epic arguments with fellow Middle Eastern rulers once prompted him to declare that he was "divorcing" the Arabs. The breakup was widely welcomed, and revolutionary Libyans are hoping for the same as they emerge from Gadhafi's shadow determined to erase their nation's status as a laughingstock and remake Libya's image in the international community.
"Every time he opened his mouth or wanted to drag his tent somewhere, we'd say, 'No, God, please don't let him do it,' " said Sondes el Zaidi, 22, an aspiring fashion designer in the eastern city of Benghazi. "On Facebook, I would never admit that I'm Libyan, but now I'm so proud. We're laughing about him these days, but, my God, it was embarrassing."
So far, Gadhafi has eluded a nationwide manhunt that, at various times, has tracked tips that he was in the vast southern desert, hiding out among loyalists in his last strongholds of Sirte and Bani Walid or had slipped across the border into neighboring Niger or Algeria, where several of his relatives have fled.
From time to time, a Syria-based loyalist TV station airs bombastic audio recordings from him, but he hasn't been seen in weeks.
In the meantime, Libyans are taking great pains to distance themselves from their bizarre former leader and his perpetual bad hair day, which earned him the Arabic nickname "shafshoufa," roughly translated as "frizzhead."
Fledgling politicians in dapper tailored suits tout their advanced degrees and cultural sophistication as proof that the country contains an abundance of human capital along with its vast oil resources. Revolutionaries are closely monitoring the formation of a caretaker government, on high alert for anyone else with the potential to steer the country back to its pariah status.
Gadhafi's many domestic atrocities, only now coming into focus after his regime collapsed last month, were largely overshadowed by his antics on the global stage. For a conservative country where strict religious and tribal codes of conduct prevail, Gadhafi's over-the-top behavior was deeply humiliating.
Yet Libyans were powerless to challenge the madcap image he projected of their country, not to mention the even more devastating label as one of the world's most prolific state sponsors of terrorism.
"It's why he has to die," Lisa Anderson, the president of American University in Cairo and a noted Libyan expert, said bluntly in a recent interview.
Until Gadhafi is gone, Libyans will be seen as hailing from "this lunatic place," she said. Gadhafi's cult of personality was deeply ingrained among Libya's population of about 6 million, the vast majority of whom have never known another leader.
"Many people cannot imagine life without him because he's played this supernatural role in a very perverse way," Anderson said. "It's their grandparents who remember something else, not even their parents."
When they were asked this month what was most embarrassing about the man Ronald Reagan famously branded "the mad dog of the Middle East," several Libyans exhaled deeply before answering: "Where do we start?"
Then they'd shake their heads while recalling his ill-defined "Third Universal Theory" from his notorious Green Book manifesto. Or his buxom Eastern European "nurses." Or his ludicrous proposal for resolving the age-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict: a single country called "Isratine."
"That crazy man," marveled Mohamed Senussi, 22, after summarizing what he called "the dark years."
More recently, there was Gadhafi's assertion that the uprising against him was hatched by 17-year-olds high on hallucinogens sprinkled into their instant coffee. It didn't help that on one of his final days in power he delivered such invective while holding a parasol and emerging from a motorcycle-drawn carriage known in the Middle East as a tok-tok.
"On a rambling call to a TV station, Gadhafi ranted about his enemies and blamed others for his problems. He said he feels fine and is ready to go back to work. He's now the Charlie Sheen of Libya," the late-night host Jay Leno cracked on the air.
Young Libyans in particular bristle against the stereotypes about their country because online social-networking sites, which they accessed through programs that circumvented regime censors, provided them a conduit to the world that previous generations never enjoyed.
"A Saudi girl I met on Facebook asked me if I had a BlackBerry," said Zaidi, the fashion designer. "I had to tell her no, Moammar never allowed us even that."
On a recent afternoon, students at Tripoli University blasted hip-hop and Arabic pop music as they scrubbed Gadhafi-era slogans from the walls. With classes suspended because of the upheaval, they're spending their free time sprucing up the campus with fresh paint and trash removal. Someone had scribbled "Gadhafi's home" on a garbage can.
The students are giddy with possibility these days. They're launching civil-society groups and saving up for trips to the West. They proudly announce their nationality to pen pals on Twitter and Facebook, and delight that the revolution has made them objects of admiration rather than derision or, worse, pity.
"They used to think we were ignorant and backward, but we're going to show them Libya's the best," said Zakariya Filfil, 20, who joined several fellow medical students in painting a campus sidewalk.
The students pointed to a crane outside a half-constructed building that was supposed to have been the new dentistry school but had languished for four years as an eyesore.
"They were too busy building tunnels, I guess," Filfil muttered.
The mention of tunnels, however, sobered up the cheerful group. They were immediately reminded that Gadhafi remains at large, his whereabouts the subject of nationwide speculation.
One of the students wondered aloud whether Gadhafi was, at that very moment, ensconced in some underground bunker under the university campus, perhaps even right under their feet.
The students stood silent for a moment. Then they got back to work.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011