Israeli Artist's True-to-form Tale of Incarceration in Libya

Despite his humorous approach, Rafram Chaddad's choice to tell his story in the present tense almost completely canceled out the distanced dimension that could have sparked readers' interest.

"Madrikh Rafram Lakeleh Haluvi" ("Rafram's Guide to Libyan Prison" ) by Rafram Chaddad. Am Oved, 292 pages, NIS 88

In "Rafram's Guide to Libyan Prison," Rafram Chaddad describes a situation that repeated itself frequently during his incarceration in a Libyan jail. Interrogators from the Libyan secret police summoned him for lengthy interrogations, in which they demanded that he recount (and later write, in his own handwriting ) a different story than the one he had told them, about how he, a Jewish-Tunisian photographer, had come to Libya in 2010 to document what was left of the Jewish community that once existed there. They apparently wanted another story, a more exciting one, about a Mossad agent, a conspiracy from the realm of espionage that would light up their gray days in the seedy detention facility in Tripoli. But Chaddad, 37, who lives in Jaffa, failed to invent a fictional tale of that sort. He despairingly repeated his true story, about his photographic journey - and the outcome was beatings, abuse, and once even electric shocks.

Reading this book, it seems that this situation reflects the gap between what seems at first glance to be the exciting and fascinating potential of this story (an Israeli in Libya, a quest to reveal remnants of the Jewish community, abduction by secret police and rescue via a billionaire's private plane ) and the way it plays out as somewhat monotonous and bland. For large sections of the book, especially those concerning Chaddad's time in solitary confinement, when he was denied of nearly all contact with people - the story is almost untellable. And that seems to be the paradox that trapped Chaddad: Had he touched up the narrative with fictional bits, it would no longer have been "a true story," and its power would have been lost. But by insisting on keeping the story "true," Chaddad guarantees a plot in which not much happens, one that might disappoint readers.

Rafram, a cultural entrepreneur and professional traveler with gourmet tastes (he is a practitioner of the Slow Food movement in Israel ), moves around the Mediterranean in a manner that inspires admiration and wonder. He feels veritably at home in Turkey, Egypt and Tunis. He speaks Arabic fluently. (He does not, however, read it, a fact he repeats several times, and this is important, I think: His apparent knack for communicating and winning the hearts of those who converse with him stands in contrast to his difficulty in maintaining his charisma in writing, in the language of literature ).

In any event, Chaddad has none of the fear of a stranger who steals over the border. He moves around confidently throughout Libya, and is not particularly troubled by his first interrogations by its secret police, after searching for a Jewish cemetery in the city of Darnah. This part of the book is dedicated primarily to wandering the streets of Tripoli in a quest for local culinary gems, as well as to visiting a list of forgotten cities in Libya where an extensive Jewish community once flourished.

Reality disappoints

But despite the great curiosity about the forbidden country, Libyan reality disappoints. The Jewish cemeteries are largely gone, and with them the synagogues. In most places, Chaddad finds nothing of Jewish interest, and when he does find something, it is usually a mute remnant that does not reveal much (sometimes the locals do not allow him to get near a site, or simply do not know anything about it themselves ). The local cuisine also turns out to be bland, and a letdown. Markets and stores are dominated by humdrum knockoffs made in China.

Still, the gap between romantic, adventurous anticipation and grayish reality - familiar to any tourist even in the most exotic places - does generate a few amusing moments. In general, credit is due Chaddad for the humorous, refreshing approach he takes to telling his story, which is decidedly different from the more official, psycho-logistic treatment such a saga of incarceration in an enemy country was likely to be given.

The second part of the book describes Chaddad's arrest on the day he was scheduled to depart Libya, and occurrences during the months he was held in solitary confinement. He is blindfolded during that period, has no human contact except with interrogators and jailers, and is trapped in a kind of endless maze of interrogations and total solitude, struggling to keep hope and optimism alive.

Upon first glance this seems like a thrilling narrative development. But as you read on, you discover that Chaddad's decision to relate the period of incarceration in the present tense - apparently aimed at bringing us into his cell - cancels out almost completely the reflective and distanced dimension that could have sparked interesting insight into the entire monotonous experience of imprisonment. Instead, we get a passive, almost objective, description of movements and dialogues (might this be the influence of photography on Chaddad's writing style? ).

At the heart of the imprisonment section of the book is the question of time. Whereas his Libyan jailers wish to break Chaddad by distorting his grasp of the passage of time by means of cruel psychological games, forcing him into their sort of circular chronological framework - he fights to maintain his sense of past, present and future. Sitting alone in his cell, he plans various cultural enterprises for when he is able to roam the world again, and dreams about the way he will recount the experiences he underwent in Libya, about the pictures he will post on Facebook.

You could say Chaddad won the battle. His Libyan captors did not manage to break his spirit, and the experience of imprisonment yielded a cultural product: a book in whose honor events are held that promote its author's work in general. But in the book itself the sense of time remains circular, monotonous. Thus, Rafram Chaddad - a charismatic character, a latter-day Oriental storyteller - reveals in it, perhaps by mistake, the gray, disobedient reality that hides behind potentially enchanting and exotic stories of this sort.