City Lights: Teaching and learning from a Libyan friend

I imagine she would still look the same.

My flatmate was in her early 20s when I saw her last, and less than a decade has passed since then. When I see crowd photos of the uprising in Libya, I scan the faces to check for hers — smiling or yelling or praying under a head scarf, or even proudly going without one.

It is odd, here in placid Orange County, to think I may have a friend in Libya as Moammar Kadafi's regime crumbles. More accurately, I may have a former friend there, as we have fallen out of touch. I can only guess if she is thinking of me as well, or if, in the wake of our government's recent intervention, she still hates the United States.

When I attended graduate school in England the year after 9/11, I lived in an international dorm with students from Germany, Japan, Canada, Sweden and even Iraq. At some point in history, my country had been at war with many of theirs. I heard the most sustained earful of anti-Americanism I ever hope to endure over those 12 months, even though their wrath was directed at my nation's leaders, not at me.

Midway through the year, a student moved out and the Libyan took the vacant room. She and I became fast, and unlikely, friends. She had flown to England to study accounting, and as a creative writing master's degree candidate, I proved a natural proofreader for her essays.

The new flatmate liked me, and she made no effort to hide that. When the proofreading sessions were done, she cooked meals for me, asked to listen to my CDs, taught me Arabic words and clapped when I remembered them.

I was the first American she had ever met. I was also the first one she hadn't feared and despised. In 1986, she woke in the night to the sound of the Reagan administration's bombing of Libya, and the experience, coupled with the steady stream of propaganda she heard in school and the media, led her to grow up viewing Americans as savage imperialists.

My flatmate told me that until she met me, she thought every American was like George W. Bush. To her, that was the most brutal insult of all. More than once, she told me she wanted to visit me in America, but insisted that the government would kill or imprison her for being a Muslim once she stepped off the plane.

On the other hand, she lionized Kadafi and even defended Saddam Hussein, whom she said the Iraqi people could easily depose if they didn't approve of him. Once, she and I got into a debate over whether 9/11 had been a heroic act. She had cheered it at the time and only retracted her opinion when I noted that I could have been on one of those planes.

Did I hold her beliefs against her? Perhaps I should have, but I didn't.

Whether we grow up under a president or a despot, many of us spend our first two decades — or longer — believing what our parents, societies and places of worship have taught us. I know just a handful of people who vote differently than the rest of their nuclear families. We are more creatures of habit than we often care to admit.

My flatmate and I parted ways in fall 2003 after I finished my master's, and I haven't seen or heard from her since. I don't know if she stayed in England or returned to Libya, if she still supports Kadafi or joined the opposition.

In any case, I hope to see her again someday. And while a picture in the paper would do, I would prefer to find her safe in America — after that landing at the airport, free of harassment, that I assured her so many times would happen.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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