The Kingdom of Libya was established after the declaration of independence on December 24, 1951. Its capital was the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. It was initially called the United Kingdom of Libya until1963, when it was modified to the “Kingdom of Libya” after the abolition of the federal system that combined the three Libyan states of Tripoli, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. That kingdom continued until the coup led by Muammar Gaddafi on September 1, 1969 which ended a promising period in Libya’s history. An era that may have ended but we continue to revisit it today with endless questions. Especially the generations that didn’t witness it.
I spent the last decade searching for answers about my own country’s history that I was deprived from for so long. It was and still is a journey that I personally consider a lifetime journey of research. It doesn’t have an expiration date and it will continue with me as I grow older. When I created this platform four years ago, I didn’t imagine it to grow to what it is today. However, I am very grateful to everything.
In this article, I am sharing with you another story linked to Libya’s Kingdom through an important figure who witnessed that period. I am humbled to have gotten the chance to interview Queen Fatima’s private Secretary from 1968 to 1969. She spent a year, in the kingdom, full of many details and memories that she cherishes dearly to this day. I found her name while reading the book written by Mr. Adel Dajani whom I interviewed previously sharing his family’s story in Libya in the 1950s and 1960s. Get to know the details of Mrs. Sahar Rifai’s life in the Kingdom of Libya.
Who is Sahar Rifai? The Kingdom
Sahar Rifai was the Queen’s private secretary from 1968 to 1969 until the coup d’etat by Muammar Gaddafi which ended the Kingdom era in Libya. She comes from a political family in Jordan. Her uncle Samir Al Rifai was the prime minister from 1944 to 1963 then he held the position of president of the senate of Jordan from 1963 to 1965. His son, Zaid Rifai, held the position of Prime Minister as well.
Also, her uncle Abdel Monem Rifai was the former Prime Minister of Jordan then the minister of foreign affairs during her house arrest. He also held the position of the special adviser to King Hussein. During the time of exile for Libya’s king and queen, he worked as the Jordanian ambassador in Egypt. Mrs. Sahar studied in an English school in Jordan then she went to England and studied in Oxford University.
The previous secretary before Mrs. Sahar was Hadla Ayoubi. She was a living testimony to the lives of both the King and Queen before and after the coup. Mrs. Hadla was a friend of the Rifai family and she informed Queen Fatima that she will find the new Private Secretary to start working in 1968. Especially that such position requires high level of responsibility, great communication skills, and trust.
Upon her arrival to The Kingdom
Mrs. Sahar was then informed of her travel date. However, given the fact that she barely knew anything about Libya, she decided to go for two weeks to understand the nature of her role and the Royal family as well. Mrs. Sahar explained that she received a grand welcoming from the King and Queen themselves upon her arrival. From that moment onwards, she decided to stay and take the position. She arrived first to Tobruk then a private jet took her to Tripoli. After that, she informed her family back in Jordan that she would stay and take the role.
Tobruk Palace was built for formal events and official gatherings. The Royal family spent summer vacations in Tobruk. The formal visits were carried out in Tripoli Palace. However, you may think that the movement between east and west was carried out by private jets but in fact, they were always by car. That meant they passed by many cities in between like Misuratah and Sirt. It is important to understand that the palaces where the king and queen lived were more of simple villas than the exact definition of a palace.
Greening The Desert the kingdom
One of the key aspirations of King Idris was to turn the desert into a green paradise. Following this vision, the kingdom hired Occidental international corporation to work on Kufra project and they renovated the king’s house in the oasis. The project aimed to grow different varieties of crops in the desert harsh environment. The king insisted on this project and Mrs. Sahar’s fiancé at that time, Mr. Marwan who is her husband now, was the one who managed this project with the kingdom. I think that the king and the queen time in leading the country was in many occasions undermined.
The Trip That Changed Everything the kingdom
There were many occasions that showed how the king wasn’t around power or luxury during the kingdom era. One of which was when the king had to go on a trip for medical purposes to Bursa in Turkey. He decided to pay for the trip from his personal finances and refused to let the state cover the expenses of the trip. The ship was owned by a Greek man named John Latsis whom you can see in the picture below with his family.
Nonetheless, the kingdom
Officials from the kingdom then approved and they went to Turkey. The welcoming was very sophisticated by the president of Turkey, Cevdet Sunay . He was the president from 1966 to 1973. Then they went to Greece and King Idris sent a formal letter to Abd Alhamid Alabbar who was the head of Senate informing him that he wishes to resign from his position and to return to Libya as a regular citizen to live in Kufra.
No one knew about this decision even the Queen had no clue. The decision came out of a sudden and it had nothing to do with the coup that happened later on. At the end of August and while they were still in Greece, the Queen knew of the king’s decision and asked Mrs. Sahar to go to Libya to conduct some tasks. Before the news were announced to Libyans and ”a revolution would embark”, as she stated. Though, the revolution was not linked to the coup committed by Gaddafi and his officers. Before Gaddafi took over the country, there was a planned coup against King Idris from within the kingdom circles.
The Dawn of the Coup
When Mrs. Sahar arrived to Tripoli, she was supposed to go within two days to Tobruk. However, the Queen delayed Sahar’s trip to Tobruk for about 6 days which was supposed to be on September 1, 1969. It marked the day Gaddafi announced Al Fatah Revolution. The night before, the former minister of media in Libya in the kingdom era, Ahmed Salheen Elhuni, was spending the night with Mrs. Sahar and her fiancé.
Later that night,
Mr. Marwan was driving Mrs. Sahar to Swani Palace. Half way through the road, the car was stopped and not allowed to head to the palace by unknown men. They drove back in complete confusion. The next morning, Mr. Marwan left to work and he heard the coup speech on the radio.
”It was a white coup, not a single bullet was shot”Mrs. Sahar explaining the nature of the coup’s morning of September 1st, 1969
He drove back to the house and told Mrs. Sahar what he heard on the radio. She rushed to call Chief of ceremonies and chief of staff. They all informed her to stay home as they had no idea about what was happening. From the balcony, they were seeing military cars that were passing by empty and driving back full of people. No sound of bullets and only silence prevailed. It was completely scary. Her fiancé jokingly said ”they are close to us, we are next”. But the joke turned real a few hours later.
In the afternoon,
Omar Almheishi, who was was a Libyan army officer and a member of the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council that ruled Libya after the coup d’état, came to her house with three men to arrest her. Mr. Marwan opened the door and they directly asked for Mrs. Sahar to go with them.
Mrs. Sahar told me that she was extremely scared when she heard the door knocking. Then, she was taken by the military men and they didn’t even allow her to prepare herself before leaving. Taken in the back seat of the car with a gun pointed on her head from the back, she thought she was going to die. In fact, she wasn’t the only one arrested, Sulimah, the king and queen adopted daughter was arrested as well.
Mrs. Sahar could steal a glance from the side and she saw a truck full of military officers. They were heading to Swani palace that Mrs. Sahar and her fiancé were not allowed to go to the night before. It all made sense at that point. On another note, Omar Almheishi didn’t even know who Sahar and Suleimah were and asked them about their identities. After Mrs. Sahar confirmed their identities, he announced that they were both in house probation.
The Shocking New Reality the kingdom
The term ”house probation” was strange and new to Mrs. Sahar especially that she was in her early twenties when she was arrested. He explained to her what it meant and they were then led inside the palace. They entered and they were asked in which room they wanted to stay. Mrs. Sahar asked to stay in her room while they marked the rest of the palace with red wax. Gaddafi’s men were shocked that the palace was very simple and couldn’t comprehend the reality.
Mrs Sahar said that she and Sulimah only lived on consuming fried aubergines and potatoes for two months while arrested. Adding to that, her family didn’t know she was under house arrest. They saw the famous picture of the king leaving the ship and thought that Mrs. Sahar was with him by default. However, three days later, the Rifai family read on a French magazine that King Idris asked Egypt’s president Jamal Abel Nasser that he only wanted Sahar and Suleimah to be released.
The Release of the Private Secretary
When the Rifai family knew that Mrs. Sahar was arrested. The negotiations began with many leaders around the region. The Royal family of Jordan interfered. Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian National Authority from 1994 to 2004, interfered heavily in the negotiations of the release requests. In fact, his interference caused the eventual release. After that, Gaddafi and Abdulsalam Jalloud went to the palace accompanied with a big military force. But Mrs. Sahar didn’t even know who they were as she was disconnected from the world.
Only the Sudanese guard was the one who brought the information to Mrs. Sahar. They lived in harsh conditions and Mrs. Sahar asked for the Jordanian ambassador to come and she explained everything to him. Gaddafi was very focused on the relation of the king with Al-Shalhi family. Al-Shalhi family – the wife and children of the late Ibrahim Al-Shalhi, special advisor to King Idris – were the closest people to the King. For example, Lutfia and Omar Al-Shalhi seized control on many great business deals during the kingdom period and they were highly leveraged.
After the release,
Suleimah went to the king and queen in Egypt where they were sent to exile. Yasser Arafat, or as called Abu Ammar, phoned Mrs. Sahar’s mother and she was shocked that she didn’t believe it was the president himself who was calling her. He told her ”I am Abu Ammar” and she replied ”Abu Ammar of Palestine?” and he laughingly confirmed. Her fiancé was also kept hostage in Al Waddan hotel in Tripoli. He was then sent to Jordan and explained Mrs. Sahar’s situation to her family.
Mrs. Sahar explained that Gaddafi and his men were not aware of the environment in Libya. For example, on their way to the airport, Gaddafi’s men missed the road many times because they didn’t even know where it was exactly. In addition, they were full of hate and grudge towards the King that they didn’t believe that he lived a simple life when they entered the palace.
For example, when they entered the office of the king, they saw a bottle of a medicine and one of the men sarcastically said ”Look, the king consumes alcohol and Mrs. Sahar corrected him right away and told him that it was a medicine”. It is important to understand that Swani Palace was not used much by the Royal family yet it was like any other ordinary house in Libya. At some point, Gaddafi’s men asked for pictures of the Queen wearing swimming suit. The only thing Mrs. Sahar managed to save was pictures but Gaddafi and his people took over all personal belongings of the king and queen.
Not Fully Released
Gaddafi’s men brought media to talk with Mrs. Sahar after she was released so she could falsely speak about the king and queen but she refused. After that, she went to the airport escorted by Gaddafi’s men and the Jordanian Ambassador along with her personal belongings. The plane took off from Tripoli to Jordan. However, another surprise happened. When the plane was above Benghazi, it was ordered to land. Mrs. Sahar was the only person asked to leave the plane and airport workers told that her belongings cannot go with her.
They took her things from her and she told them that she doesn’t want to take anything. All she demanded was to go home. She then took a plane to Beirut, Lebanon and from there to Amman, Jordan. It was a total of 13 hours of delay. Through the arrest horrible experience, Mrs. Sahar lost about 14 kilos.
Sadly, her family didn’t recognise her when she arrived to Amman. The next morning after her safe arrival, the king and queen called her to check on her. After that, she spent about 9 years spending every Ramadan with the king and queen in Egypt. She remembers her walks with the Queen in Cairo and how the queen told her how good freedom felt.
A Life Spent in Exile
King Idris and Queen Fatima spent the rest of their lives in a palace located in Maadi in Cairo. They were watched by the Egyptian intelligence and lived under the mercy of the Egyptian authorities. Mrs. Sahar never forgot the humanity of both the king and queen. She remembers them with big hearts, down to earth individuals, and loving by all means. During my interview with Mrs. Sahar and when I asked her to describe them, I could sense the profoundness of her feelings towards them and how she truly loved them.
”They were truly king and queen without the crown”
The circle around the king may have harmed him but he didn’t mean any harm to Libya or the Libyans. There was this story when a man ran after the parade of the king, the guards stopped and picked up the old man. He had a paper with him to give to the king. After that, the king noticed the old man and asked about him. Mrs. Sahar was then asked to check on the case and to bring him to see the king. The old man handed the letter to the king and he answered the man’s request. the kingdom
The Simplicity of The King & Queen
Libyans don’t really know the humanity and authenticity of both king Idris and Queen Fatima. Gaddafi managed to erase everything related to the kingdom of Libya. By erasing it from the memories of Libyans who witnessed that period and to never let it be in the memories of those born after 1969. Sadly, many generations have been brainwashed by the regime and we can clearly see it today.
Libyans barely knew anything about the kingdom, let alone, the King and Queen. Life was very simple for them, Mrs. Sahar added. For example breakfast was nothing sophisticated, the king liked to have tea with dates, honey, and butter. They had meals all together as one family. They spent afternoons in a tent so the queen can make the tea for the king. Life was purely simple and beautiful at that time.
But There Was Always a Price to Pay
Gaddafi captured many people linked to the kingdom. Except, those who were put in jail and released were only released under certain conditions. For example, Gaddafi put Abdul Aziz Shennib, who was a political opponent, in jail for about five years. The condition of his release was to be the ambassador of Libya in Jordan. The surprising appointment was not a gesture of reconciliation with the old regime. In fact, he was appointed an ambassador so he could assassinate King Hussein. Mr. Shennib couldn’t eventually do it and informed King Hussein of the plot against him. Following that, he held a conference and asked for political asylum in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Aziz had always asked Mrs. Sahar to open one of Um Kalthoum’s famous songs, Alatlal. This song had a verse that said ”Give me my freedom, I gave what was left”. After the conference, Mrs. Sahar understood why he asked her to open this song specifically. Mr. Shennib lived under a pressure he could no longer bare. This only leaves me thinking of the kind of conditions asked by Gaddafi to those who were once jailed by his regime.
Mrs. Sahar today lives with all the memories she had in the Kingdom of Libya. She feels great sense of sorrow that a beautiful era ended way too soon. She hopes this piece could transfer the feelings and beauty of that time to Libyans. Revisiting the past doesn’t mean we regret our present but we could further use it to understand our reality today and shape our future. I would love to sincerely thank Mrs. Sahar Rifai for her time, openness, and sincere emotions to give me the opportunity to share her story.