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Ben Maghrebi's family are Saharan Berbers in a line going back a thousand years, but we go back only a few to explore memories of his childhood. In 1967, when he is nine, pan-Arabists rip the Maghrebi family apart. With his mother and sister,Ben is evacuated via Rome to south Chicago. They reckon the four grandfolks and twin little brothers perish in Tripoli, but as his father was trawling the Med on the day of the pogrom, Ben clings to the hope that Baaba might still be alive. When we come across him, Ben is in the US military, and - thanks to his knowledge of Arabic and army studies in psychiatry - seconded to the CIA on a covert mission in Chad, central Africa. A savage attack on him there presents a perfect opportunity to sneak north by a devious route and look for his father. The CIA are pleased to enable it. The leader in Libya at the time is a colourful character called Gaddafi. Ben's brief from the spooks who embed him as a sleeper in Tripoli is simple: make friends with the Colonel. He talks his way in. Embedded in Tripoli's military headquarters, the CIA sleeper known as Ali al Kufra displays all the qualities you would expect in a twenty-something-year-old man: it pleases him to exceed his brief and befriend not only the Brother Leader, but also his female guard Hanna, one of the Colonel's step-daughters. Gaddafi has his own reasons to encourage this uninvited wanderer to stay close at hand. He instructs the Imam to marry them. But not everything in Tripoli is so loving. As his three-month mission grows into years, Ben maintains a delicate balance, play-acting his role as the son of a simpleton based at military HQ there. He ducks and weaves among the unorthodox governance the Brother Leader displays to the world. At one time or another, Gaddafi goes to war with almost everyone he meets. Ben's adventures take him to Rome to complete his marriage, but he is still in search of his pa. He follows and is followed by spooks of all shades, in the maze we discover is the playground of more than one of the Colonel's upper ranks. Sleeping with the Colonel is fiction woven around a long list of things that really did happen in the 1960s in Gaddafi's theatre of war in and around the Mediterranean. It all comes to a surprising end, which leaves us and the dramatis-personae primed for a second adventure, and a third...
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In the 1960s, when hippy-trails and back-roads to everywhere were still thought safe, I bummelled a couple of years by thumb, in charabancs, on international steam-trains bequeathed by nations far beyond, by bike and on shankses across Europe, through Arabia and around the world beyond. Writing so-called fudge for newspapers topped-up meagre funds. By desert roads I laid my litter to sleep among everybody else's; in switch-back Himalayas, where a small coin bought luxury, I lay night-long, proving atop the village bread-oven. Black tea ran. The trek was feast or famine, getting by on what the locals ingested, or didn't.
Through the sands and shells of the Med, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, early digital communications (a pointed finger and a smile) led to tours wide-nostrilled of what passed for kitchens. Friendly concoctions bubbled up, to fend off western hunger. Where tribal chiefs and salarymen sup, rich victuals were borne aloft for an impromptu English lesson or a napkin sketch. Geography, economics, politics and diplomacy came on the hoof, close-up, wherever mountains tip water, views and minerals across borders, where militia still practise their medieval ways in newscasts, reopening memories of family meals hosts could not afford but shared, or border-posts sorely remembered for ribs beaten blue by Kalashnikov-butt.
Years later, a career jetted this storyteller back to lands first met on foot. I was fed and watered by local businessmen, offered smorgasbords by dignitaries and political wheeler-dealers atop their borrowed fragment of the world stage, under the gaze of lumpen guards. In this be-suited period my jottings became yellowing memorabilia, corralled unseen.
This novel comes from such confabulations, tossed into multi-bite pots, sprinkled with imagination, and stirred. Today, amidst white hair and grand-children, traveller's tales gloop to the surface and float towards you. Extend a digit towards Sleeping with the Colonel. Bon appétit!
When he is nine, an Arab purge splits Ben's Libyan family in two. Evacuated, he loses touch with his beloved father. Fifteen years' later he's back as Ali, a sleeper embedded in Tripoli by the CIA. Befriend the Colonel, they tell him.
Friend or foe? Tripoli asks. To find out, the Brother Leader turns to his new female guard...
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