In the fall of 1971, I was a sophomore at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, studying, among other things Italian language and literature. Hoping to improve my fluency, I attended a weekly “Italian Table” held in one of the school’s dining halls, where conversation was held exclusively in that language. It was there that I met a charming and intelligent young man named Shukri, who told me he was newly arrived from Tripoli, Libya, and wondered if perhaps I would be kind enough to show him the sights in Boston.
I agreed, but when I showed up for his “tour,” he rather arrogantly informed me that there really couldn’t be anything of interest to see in a city that was, what, perhaps 400 years old? He admitted that he was just hoping to get me to agree to a date with him.
While I had my misgivings (including the fact that I was a closeted lesbian), he was, as I said, both charming and intelligent, and so I agree to go out with him. On our very first date he told me that he had worked for OPEC, where his special talent was pricing oil to maximize both sales and profits. I asked him what he was doing in the United States, a country he seemed to disdain. He launched into a diatribe like nothing I had heard before, about how amazingly stupid my country was, how they had invited him, a patriotic Libyan and profound enemy of the U.S., to come here to study — for free! — at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Why, I asked him, if he hated the U.S., had he agreed to come here? His response was, “Learn things, wear blue jeans, date pretty girls? Why not?’
Thus began our year-long relationship. Shukri loved to tell me about how much he loved his homeland and how much he despised the Italians who still colonized his country when he was born. He told me, with tears in his eyes, of his first day of school, of how he, part of the first generation of Libyans allowed to get an education after Libya’s liberation from colonial rule, marched to school through streets lined with people who shouted encouragement or ran up to him to press candies or coins into his hands.
His feelings of love for his country and culture were obviously profound, although his interpretation of his Muslim religion probably wouldn’t have sat well with Muslims holding more fundamentalist views. For example, when I asked him why he drank hard liquor — wasn’t that against his faith? He explained that Allah was great, all-loving and all-powerful, and that he by committing a little peccadillo was giving Allah a chance to demonstrate his magnanimity by forgiving his sin.
When I asked him how he felt about being dedicated to a country ruled by a madman, he replied that if one were a small, relatively powerless country, constantly threatened by larger, more powerful countries, might it not be prudent for the leader of the weaker country to seem more capricious, less predictable, and hence more dangerous?
On occasion he would order me to show up wearing a “nice dress,” and he would take me to a party at the Fletcher School, where I would juggle his cigarettes and drink, and listen to the amazing array of diplomats, military officers, teachers, and government workers who would mingle and exchange ideas. Shukri’s roommate, when I knew him, was a U.S. Air Force officer, a Mormon from Utah. Regardless of how much Shukri railed against the U.S., he was living cheek-by-jowl with Americans, and even dating one.
Why am I sharing my reminiscences of my long-ago dalliance with a U.S.-hating, Muslim Libyan? Because long after I knew him Shukri Mohammed Ghanem went on to become prime minister of Libya, and while he was in that office, he worked to “thaw” and improve Libya’s relationship with the United States.
Many Trump conservatives would probably agree with the 28-year-old Shukri that the U.S. was “stupid” to let him into our country and educate him for free, but would they be right? If Shukri never came here, would he have worked to improve Libya’s relation with us? This idea that keeping all of our potential enemies out of our country makes us markedly safer ignores the reality that to know a country and its people is the only way to begin to build bridges. As the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, said, “Hatred never ends through hatred.”