Suddenly, a Refugee
I was nineteen years old, working my first summer job at a British engineering company in Tripoli, Libya. One very warm day in the office, as the air conditioner hummed monotonously and I typed some technical documents on my Olivetti typewriter, Mohammed, the company driver, suddenly barged into my office, his eyes full of rage. Banging his fist on my desk, determination in his voice, he barked menacingly, “Don’t expect me to take you home today!”
It was June 5, 1967, the beginning of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I was alone in my office, surrounded by strangers—Europeans, mostly British Christians, who could neither comprehend nor understand my fears.
Jews in Libya were barely tolerated, living in constant fear of attack even under ordinary circumstances. All this even though Jews had lived in Libya for over 2,500 years. The Libyan government, moreover, was single-minded in the way it persecuted us: Arbitrary arrests were common, we were stripped of basic human rights, and we were divided from the rest of the Libyan population. I knew a war with Israel would further inflame anti- Jewish sentiment and resentment, giving mobs carte blanche to indulge their worst instincts.
The sharp ring of the telephone broke the heavy silence that had fallen in my office. It was my mother, her voice quivering. “Don’t come home! Mobs are rioting in the streets. They have burned your father’s warehouse to the ground, and now they have come to burn our house down too….”
Brian, one of the British engineers in the firm, agreed to take me home to stay with him and his wife. As we left, I could see a cloud of smoke coming from the warehouse district where fire was fiercely consuming my father’s warehouse, like a wild beast consuming its prey.
For over three weeks, Brian and his wife Deidre gave me a safe place to live. They took me to work with them and tried their best to make life as normal as possible for me. In the evenings, however, our silence was laced with anxiety. Time stood still.
Each night, I lay in my small bed in their home. Nothing in the room looked familiar, and I felt disoriented. The only things I recognized were my turquoise dress and the sandals I had worn the day I went into hiding.
The prospect of never seeing my family again kept me awake, frightening me more than the drunken violence outside. Shadows gathered in my room in the stillness of the warm night. I dreamt of leaving Libya with my family. My dream filled me with hope, but I never allowed myself to collude with the conspiracy of my dream; I was afraid it might shatter. Predawn light finally caressed me to sleep, and every morning I awoke to the smell of scrambled eggs and buttered white bread.
Brian and Deidre barely knew me and had never met my family, yet they opened their home to me at their own personal risk. People helping or hiding Jews were often threatened and harassed. I felt a heavy responsibility for having placed Brian and Deidre in possible danger.
I often wondered why they helped me. I guess they did it for the same reason my Muslim neighbor had saved my family’s life by staving off the mob: Despite the evil surrounding us—the murder of innocents, the torching and looting of properties— there was still goodness in some people.
During one of our phone conversations, my mother told me that a school friend of mine had been raped and murdered, and that her family, including eight brothers and sisters, was shot to death. Deborah had been a shy nineteen-year-old, with a mass of brown curls and a slender figure that moved with the elegance of a dancer.
As I hid in Brian and Deidre’s home, Libyan soldiers had come to Deborah’s home, claiming they were going to escort the family to a refugee camp. The soldiers claimed it was for the family’s own protection, since it was increasingly dangerous for Jews to stay in their own homes. Deborah’s family packed a few belongings, then disappeared forever.
Toward the end of June, three weeks after I had gone into hiding, I received a call at the office from my cousin Moris. His voice full of excitement, he informed me that the Libyan government was allowing all the Jews to leave the country. The government was freezing all of our assets—properties, lands, homes, and bank accounts—and they would permit us only to take a few suitcases and a little bit of money, but we would be free to go.
A few evenings later, I walked into my home. I was greeted by mustiness, mingled with the lavish scent of my father’s pipe tobacco. The shades were drawn, the house was dark. My father sat mute at the edge of his bed, smoking his pipe, his face haggard and unshaven. His eyes looked at me blankly. The family’s tower of strength now sat silent, beaten, and powerless, a wounded tiger in retreat. I wanted to say something to him, but my voice broke. I tried to swallow the sob in my throat.
My mother greeted me warmly, but her voice was grave, and her eyes welled with tears. Her dark hair was pulled tightly into a bun on the back of her head. “We can’t open the windows,” she cautioned me, “or in any way show that we live in the house. The man the mob left is still outside, watching us. You must walk and talk very quietly during the day. At night, the watchman is gone, and it’s all right to make noise.”
Nonno, my grandfather, put his shaking hand on my head… As he sobbed, he blessed me by reciting a Hebrew prayer: “Baruch atah athonai eloheinu melech ha’olam…” This ritual, a symbol of his religious observance, reconnected me with my Jewish heritage.
At times, the silence was so strong, I could hear it—the silence of fear. I spent many hours alone in my room, immersed in my thoughts. I felt as though my youth had been snatched away from me, ripped out of my hands and broken like fragile glass, shattering into pieces all around me.
As much as my family and I wanted to leave the oppressive environment surrounding us, we recognized that our perpetrators would dictate the terms of our departure. We would be given no time to plan or make provisions for the future, a reality that caused in me a strange mix of feelings, from a sense of deprivation to one of relief.A few days after my return home, a firm knock on the door broke the never-ending silence. Fearful, we didn’t open it. Minutes later, however, we heard our neighbor’s voice, “Open up, it’s me.” I opened the door.
Our neighbor was accompanied by a uniformed officer. He asked for my father. I stepped back, allowing him to enter our dark, musty living room. The officer told my family that if we wanted to leave the country, we needed to give him our travel documents. He would procure exit visas for us and return the documents in a few days.
My father went to the safe to get our travel documents. Jews were not allowed to have passports, because we were not recog- nized as citizens. Without proper passports, we were severely restricted from traveling outside of Libya. My father returned, holding the documents in his hand, a worried look on his face. He hesitated. Didn’t Deborah’s family also surrender their iden- tification papers to the police?
After a few minutes, he handed over the documents and whispered to the officer, “Please follow me. I want to speak with you privately.” The officer followed him to the living room, and my father closed the door behind them. Later on, my father told me about their conversation.
“I can make out a check for you,” my father had said. “You can cash it today, in exchange for providing my family and me a police escort, to see us safely to the airport.” The officer became excited. “Sure, sure,” he replied, “you can count on me!” He left with the check in his hand.
A few days later, the officer returned with our visas. A month had passed since the Six-Day War, and Radio Cairo had reported Egypt’s victory over Israel. Occasionally, my father was able to tune in to the BBC. The government jammed it constantly, but we were able to hear that Israel, in fact, had won the war and taken Jerusalem. We did not know what to believe. In the midst of this confusion, we found out that the few planes leaving Tripoli were full, as a result of the panic the riots had created. Brian and Deidre came to the rescue, calling on their friendship with the British Airlines director. By taking off seven British passengers, the director was able to secure seven seats for my family. Destination: Malta, a small island and British protectorate off the North African coast. We were finally leaving.
I was allowed only one bag. Should I just take clothes? What about my school diplomas and other mementos, which were so much a part of my life? And the photographs! I picked up my photo album and slid my fingers over its black-lacquered cover. It was hand-painted, with the image of Tripoli’s castle in pale pink, a grayblue mosque next to it, and a calm turquoise seascape with white surf hitting against the sea walls. “Souvenir of Libya” was painted in gold letters at the bottom. This serene cover was such an ironic contradiction to the political turbu- lence plaguing my country.
Leafing through my album, I saw photos of myself in boarding school in Switzerland, with my closest and dearest friends, and I saw photos of myself posing with my cousins at Giorginpopli Beach. The black-and-white photo brought back the summer days I had spent swimming in the warm water, eat- ing yummy panini be’tonno u felfel—tuna sandwiches with hot peppers—that Nonna, my grandma, used to pack for me.
These photos were my memories, and I knew I had to take them with me. I walked toward my bag, took out my only winter sweater and replaced it with the photo album. Shortly after, my mother walked into my room and said, “Make sure you take some warm clothes with you.” I nodded. I knew my friends and cousins would keep me warm.
At 5:00 A.M. the next morning, the doorbell rang. Two soldiers wearing fatigues and army boots stood at the door, with machine guns strapped around their shoulders. In a monoto- nous tone, one of them said, “We are taking you to the airport. We are the escort you asked for. Yella. Let’s go.” The soldiers ran downstairs to wait for us, their boots making a staccato sound as they moved with agility down the tiled stairs.
A military truck with another two soldiers waited outside our house. These soldiers greeted us with hostile silence and penetrating stares. Were they really driving us to the airport?
The military truck drove only a few blocks, leaving us outside a hotel on the outskirts of town. The officer my father had bribed was waiting there. My father approached him. “Why are your soldiers not escorting us all the way to the airport?” my father asked. “Remember, you and I had a deal.” The officer’s face turned red, and his veins swelled at his temples. In a rage, he shouted, “Do you think that we have nothing better to do than to protect Jews? You want to go to the airport, take the bus!”
The officer boarded the military truck, where all the soldiers laughed and jeered at us, leaving us stranded on the street with our suitcases. Shortly after, an airport bus pulled up. As my family boarded, I noticed that the driver and the conductor (in charge of bus fare) were the only other people on the bus.
As soon as the bus took off, the conductor asked to see our passports and airline tickets. As his fingers slid across the pages of our documents, I whispered to my mother, “It’s unusual for a bus conductor to check passports, don’t you think?” She nodded. Something was not right.
Suddenly, without warning, the bus stopped. I shot up out of my seat and walked to the front of the bus. “What’s going on? Why did you stop?” I asked the conductor.
“There is something wrong with the engine,” he answered. “I will have to go and call a taxi for you.” He got off the bus and squatted down, looking under the engine. Drops of perspiration trickled down his nose. When I called down to ask if he knew what was wrong with the bus, he waved his arms around his head but remained silent.
I approached the conductor. “If you get us to the airport, I will get my father to compensate you well,” I said with a trem- bling voice. “We can make a deal.”
“You Jewish whore!” he spat accusingly. “You are killing our brothers in Palestine!” His face was red, eyes intense with rage. He dismissed me by raising his arm toward me, then got off the bus and disappeared in the distance.
A knot grew in my throat. Where was he going? I turned to my mother and told her I was going to get help. I looked around furtively, then darted off the bus. As I ran, my stomach burned, and my legs quivered. My face and neck dripped with sweat. My fury kept me going. I approached a gas station, and the pungent smell of gasoline invaded my nostrils. I asked the attendant if I could use the phone. He looked at me with curious eyes, then pointed to a small cabin. When I entered, I thought my heart would stop. The bus conductor was using the phone. “Yes,” I heard him say, “everything is under control.”
He saw me, and his face turned ashen. He hung up but kept his hand on the receiver.
“I need to use the phone,” I said. Narrowing his eyebrows, the conductor gave me a stern look and kept his hand on the receiver. The room was small, dusty, and silent. A naked bulb hung on an old electric cord, gleaming a dim light.
I stood motionless, facing the conductor. I had no desire to look at his cold, questioning eyes. I simply wanted him to go away, to leave us alone. I prayed that he would not physically assault me, for I knew I would fight back, even if I had to pay with my life. My throat was tight, my eyes itchy, my head pound- ing. Our only way out was through a phone call.
I snatched the receiver from the conductor’s hand, turned toward the wall to avoid his gaze, and dialed, calling Brian’s English neighbor. “We are in danger,” I said, speaking in English as fast as I could, for fear the conductor would understand what I was saying and sabotage my only escape plan. “We are on the road to the airport, about a kilometer away from the first gas station as you leave town. You must tell Brian. You must come quickly. We are in danger! We are in danger!” As soon as I heard, “We’ll be there,” I hung up.
I turned toward the door to leave, but three men blocked the exit—the conductor, the gas station attendant, and a third man. The conductor was in the middle. He stared at me. The air was thick, suffocating. There was a moment of stillness.
Freedom was on the other side of that doorway.
With a burst of energy, I pushed my way through the men and ran, noticing the expression of surprise and bewilderment as I passed. I ran and ran and ran. Although it took me about twenty minutes, it seemed as though I were running for hours. By the time I reached the bus, I was completely out of breath.
As I approached, the first thing I noticed was the driver standing near the bus. Trotting closer, I saw a pool of liquid beneath the vehicle—gasoline that the driver had discharged from the tank! I realized the plan was to set the bus on fire, and my heart hammered. My family was still inside, silent.
The driver was holding something tightly—a box of matches.
As my gaze traveled from the matches in the conductor’s hand to the road behind the bus, where I scoured the landscape for Brian’s jeep, everything seemed to move very slowly.
Suddenly a jeep appeared on the horizon, followed by another jeep, and I began to sob. Brian and his friend raced up to the bus, saw the pool of gasoline, and motioned to me to get my family off immediately.
At the airport, a young man looked at our documents and exclaimed in disbelief, “Bublil family?! You are not supposed to be here!” If we had any doubts about a plot to kill us, they were promptly dispelled.
The porters refused to load our luggage onto the plane, because we were Jews and we therefore had to load our own bags. The officer in charge of passport control additionally commanded my father, “Hand over the keys to your car and tell me where it is parked. I have a big family, I need a big car.”
My father did as he was told.
Finally, we all boarded the plane. As the steward closed the plane door, I counted the members of my family. My uncle was missing. “Stop!” I yelled. I ran back to passport control, where my uncle was standing in the center of the room, encircled by porters and airport workers. They were spitting at him and wav- ing their fists, laughing cruelly. I grabbed my uncle’s hand, cold with fear, and said, “Let’s go! The plane is leaving!”
Forty-five minutes later, we landed in Malta. Forty-five minutes from oppression to freedom.
Nurses, doctors, and stretchers greeted us. The crew did not know what had happened to us before boarding the plane, but just by looking at our faces, they decided to radio in for an ambulance. Struggling through sobs, we tried to express our gratitude to the nurses and the plane crew. My mouth felt dry. When I tried to ask the nurse for water, words would not come out; I felt as though I were being choked.
In Malta, we boarded a plane to Rome. We saw a large, friendly crowd waiting for their relatives. They were waving their arms, talking and laughing. A handsome young man winked at me and with a dashing smile said, “Ciao!”
Then I looked up and saw the most beautiful sight—a sign which said Benvenuti a Roma!
Gina Bublil Waldman is co-founder and president of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, and a recipient of the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award for her work on Human Rights.
This essay is excerpted from Waldman’s chapter in The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, edited by Loolwa Khazzoom.
Art credit: “This Ungraspable Whole” by Karey Kessler