June 1, 2023 | Rome, Italy

8. Travel to Spain: French Pirates in Libya

By |2023-03-25T02:06:53+01:00March 24th, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
Libyan Arab Airlines, ready to board.

hen the time came, leaving London became a story about a corrupt king. But as all matters in my young life, it came to be that way indirectly.

My father had planned a bit of European hopscotching that would take us through Paris to Madrid, our final destination. There, an apartment awaited, and for my father a job as an advisor to the Spanish government headed by a delightfully grizzled general by the name of Franco.

But I get ahead of myself.

In Paris for a time, it did what it never does in Paris, my birthplace: it rained. And rained. Plans to take a boat along the Seine and visit a friend of my father’s, a writer who lived near as-yet-unburned Notre Dame, were put off. This was not rain but what Americans called a downpour, which always made me think of the salt chute in the round cartons of Morton’s Salt we’d buy at the Washington supermarket.

I watched rivers of water from our hotel window and my father heard on the radio that Orly, the main airport of that period, was closed. No matter, because we were to leave the next day.

But the rains had fouled up so much that workers decided to go on strike, or this is how it was explained to me by my father. They sought higher wages. This I understood, but wages from rain?

My father began a dissertation on the politics of the Arabian world, as if anointed Father of Arabia.

In any event, our neat little Iberia flight from Paris to Madrid was canceled, and if one thing drove my father mad, it was a cancellation. He refused them the way someone in a hospital with a fractured arm might refuse that diagnosis, insisting they probe more carefully because it was really just a cold.

Something had to be done. He would not accept a day’s delay (fewer flights in those days). Instead, he spent hours at the travel agent concocting schemes. As always, he found one.

We would fly that same evening first to Rome, and then westward to Madrid. Back at the hotel, he shouted about how much he loathed connecting flights. To me, another novelty. I imagined the planes glued together, better even than the imagined Qantas jet.

What airline would on short notice lift us from Paris to Rome and then to Madrid? Ah, this is where tales of the shady kind began.

Libyan Arab Airways.

I knew nothing of Libya but I liked its sound, with “ya.” As soon as I said this, my father began a dissertation on the politics of the Arabian world, as if anointed Father of Arabia in the absence of T.E. Lawrence. What I got from all this was that Jews in Israel and Arabs were in constant war, in part because of the (right but wrong) English who produced the Balfour Declaration, a parsing of land that to me sounded like a World War I canon.

In any event, Libya was ruled by an indolent and wastrel king who America was working to oust, to replace him with an army man who would be their friend in the war on evil communism. For the record, that friend was a kid named Gaddafi, and he did in fact take over a few years later, very much with tacit U.S. help.

As for the king, his name was Idris and he’d been in charge since 1951, not really a king but an “invented” king, since kings were still popular. He was mostly a lackey to the British and the French, an interesting bit of information, had I known the meaning of the word lackey. Though a devout Muslim, the king fell into league with oil companies and pocketed most of the incoming funds to bolster friends and allies. A “crook.” Or so my father called him, and he’d run afoul of nationalist Nasser in Egypt, all of which complicated the situation further because America had begun worrying about which side Arab rulers in oil states would take, that of Moscow or Washington. In other words, the king was in hot water, and as soon as I understood this underlying reality I returned to playing with my two toy cars as my father went on to describe what he thought would be the future of the so-called United Arab Republic, a fiction, he insisted, that would only serve as a springboard for war with Israel. In this he was right.

The pirate told the passengers he’d once piloted a plane overturned by a thunderstorm, an experience he called man-knee-feek.

All of this led my father to tell me we were about to embark on a dangerous adventure. The Libyan airline was rickety, with old jets, but these old jets were piloted by French mercenary pilots, an explanation I misunderstood to include the word pirates. So Frenchmen paid by corrupt king lackeys would fly us to Rome and Madrid on rickety planes that would arrive because they were guided by French pirates my father apparently believed in.

The plane from Paris to Rome was in fact rickety, an old British Comet with a foul smell of cigars and a few seat-belts missing. The pirate, however, was a joyous soul, who had much to say about his meal the night before. We arrived.

My regard for French pirates rose even higher with the next flight, in a Martin prop plane, in which we flew through storm clouds the pirate called “little disturbances of wind that are of no consequence.” He told the twenty or so passengers that he’d once piloted a plane overturned by a thunderstorm, an experience he called man-knee-feek. I was enthralled and enjoyed all the bumping around. If he felt at ease, why shouldn’t I? I waited only to be flipped like a pancake, so I could tell my mother, but this never happened. After a long stretch of turbulence, all turned smooth and we landed in Madrid safely at 10 p.m., well past my bedtime.

Leaving the plane at the Madrid airport called Barahass, or that’s how it sounded to me, I told the stewardess the pirate had been wonderful. She smiled and looked up at my father.

Pilot, he said. Pilot.

Which ruined the whole experience, but there we were, in Madrid, Spain ruled by the iron fisted dictator Franco, or so he was called in the papers.

Any country run by a man who possessed an iron fist must be interesting, I thought. And so it began.


About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.