Mohamed Elhantati spills a drop of his coffee as he punctuates his words with the mug.
“He’d show up to events like an emperor and people would beg for favours,” he says. “This was Gaddafi’s main propaganda.”
“Gaddafi had such a strong grasp over the country,” his brother Zakaria adds, “It was hard to believe that people were standing up to him. I mean, you had your right to an opinion as long as it wasn’t about the government.”
When the revolution was in full swing, the Elhantati family put a massive Libyan Tricolour on display in a bedroom window of their rented house in Blanchardstown. They took it down after a while because it blocked the light, and taped up a smaller plastic one in its place.
Moe studies dentistry and Zak engineering– both are second-years at Trinity College Dublin. Mohamed is the eldest; a skipped Transtition Year and a CAO error leave him in the same graduation year as his brother who is two years younger. Born in Libya, they spent most of their lives following their dad’s work as a gynocologist around Ireland – Belfast, Drogheda and finally, Blanchardstown.
Zak and Moe spent almost every summer of their youth in a Libya under the foot of the Gaddafi regime. “You could have a quick laugh about the government, but you kept it on the down-low. Later on, people would get away with a thirty-second tirade, and then people would get uncomfortable and put an end to it. That was in Benghazi, you’d never have gotten away with that in Tripoli.”
Their family comes from Benghazi’s Al Fwayhat district, just ten minutes’ drive from the touchstone of the revolution: the Birka Barracks. As dissent took over Benghazi last February, a civil servant loaded his car with explosives and drove it into the gates of the compound. The rebels, who until then had clubs and crude bombs, looted Al-Birka’s armouries for assault rifles and machine-guns.
YouTube and TV news showed the brothers a very different city to the one of their summer holidays. “Benghazi was completely upside-down; a sick scene. There were tanks and bodies everywhere,” Zak tells me, “I’d know all the Benghazi streets, so it was really weird.”
A cousin of the Elhantatis walked out of his home in Benghazi to join the fight. Yousef Bassyouni trained with the rebels and fought – and was wounded – in Misrata.
“He just decided to get up and fight,” says Zak, “His dad was skeptical, and his mam was dead set against it. They tried to talk him out of it, but he stuck to his guns.” He laughs. “Literally.”
Despite taking a gunshot wound to the arm, Yousef was there when rebels stormed the Gaddafi compound. Moe shows me photos: Youssef posing with a Kalashnikov, and another of his name spelled out in bullets on the rebel flag.
“I was afraid for him too,” says Moe,“I just wanted to say to him ‘Dude, you’ve been shot! Give the “Kill Gaddafi” thing a rest for a bit.’ But the man’s a beast – I knew I’d never be able to dissuade him.”
It wouldn’t have been very impossible or improbable for Zak or Moe to join the fight themselves. Mehdi Harati, an Arabic teacher at the Clonskeagh mosque in South Dublin rose to prominence in the revolution. Sam Najar left his home in Firhouse to lead a reconnaissance unit of the Tripoli brigade – a rag-tag group of expatriates who came back to Libya for the fight.
“There were a load of Libyan guys wanted to go and fight – but their parents stopped them.”
Some weren’t stopped. Mohamed and Zakaria named four of their acquaintances who dropped out of college in Dublin to join the rebels.
“You felt proud, but sort of useless. I never thought of joining the fight myself – with college and family here, there were better ways for me to help,” says Zak. In spite of the feeling of a great adventure to liberate Libya however, Moe and Zak stayed as their their cousins, friends and teachers were rushing off to fight.
“It goes through your mind, but you rationally can’t,” says Moe, “I would be called an eejit if I did.”
Moe quotes some Lupe Fiasco lyrics — “the ink of a scholar is worth a thousand times more than the blood of a martyr.” Turns out these are words from the Qu’ran.
Instead the Elhantati men got stuck into the revolution from home. “Every Saturday at the Spire on O’Connell Street we had a big protest for 15 or 16 weeks straight. There were these fuindraising dinners, and collections for clothes and medecine,” says Zak, “Everyone was involved.”
Their family is considering a return to Libya, which would leave the brothers in the weird situation of having home move away from them as they finish their college courses in Dublin. They now see a possible future in a free Libya for themselves.
“You don’t want to come off as naive,” says Moe, “but as long as they do a better job than Gaddafi, I’ll be happy.”