When Israeli artist Rafram Chaddad visited Libya to document its once-thriving Jewish community, he was accused of espionage and put in jail. Now free, he tells of his five months in captivity.
Late last March, a series of confounding and conspicuously opaque news reports began to appear in the Israeli press regarding an Israeli citizen who had vanished in North Africa. While the initial reports were hazy and facilitated an inevitable surge of innuendo and speculation, they were eventually all suppressed by the government censor, who decided to enforce a complete media blackout on the story.
That changed in early August, when, out of the blue, the Israeli Foreign Ministry announced that a 34-year-old citizen by the name of Rafram “Raphael” Chaddad, who had been held captive for five months in Libya, had just been released and was on his way back to Israel. At the same time, details behind his disappearance began to emerge: Chaddad, a Tunisian-born Israeli who maintains dual citizenship, had been arrested by Libyan officials in Tripoli while on assignment there for Or-Shalom, an Israeli non-government organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the 2,500-year-old Jewish community in Libya. Despite efforts by Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, and Nicolas Sarkozy, it was the well-connected Jewish-Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff who ultimately secured his release. Having flown Chaddad out of Libya on his private jet, Schlaff brought him to Vienna, where he was met by Foreign Secretary Avigdor Lieberman. With Shlaff’s mediation, Lieberman had apparently orchestrated the entire deal behind closed doors.
Although the exact nature of the agreement that brought about Chaddad’s release is still unknown, the deal reportedly included Israeli permission to transfer Libyan aid supplies into Gaza (as well as $50 million from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s charity foundation, marked for rebuilding houses in Gaza). “These have been reasonable demands by Libya,” announced Lieberman upon Chaddad’s return. “Libya’s responsible behavior was a pleasant surprise.”
Greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by a swarm of reporters, the otherwise serene, gentle, and extremely amicable Chaddad was noticeably taken aback by the microphones stuck into his face during what was supposed to be a private reunion with his family. Accordingly, he hastily thanked all those who had helped secure his release, gave a few token remarks to the press, and made his way home without ever revealing what he had been through in Qaddafi’s prison. But last month, exactly six months after his return, Hadad agreed to finally break his silence and discuss with Tablet Magazine what he jokingly refers to as his “spa vacation” in Libya.
“This is the first time I am discussing it,” he tells me in Hebrew as we sit down in a Jaffa coffeehouse next door to one of Israel’s most popular hummus joints. “It still feels weird to suddenly be talking about all that happened there.” For the next two hours, he lets his memories flow virtually uninterrupted, recalling with both sobriety and humor everything he could—and some things he prefers to forget—in a somewhat cathartic monologue about events that had evidently begun to take a toll on him. Although the Israeli foreign ministry has yet to confirm these events—and the Libyan government has not formally denied them—Chaddad’s vivid, detailed, and emotional account of what happened to him in Libya appears not only genuine but incredibly difficult to challenge. Baby-faced and bespectacled, Chaddad, who looks much younger than his age, is dressed in a homemade T-shirt with Qaddafi’s portrait printed on it in the style of the well-known Che Guevara stencil. Rather than suffering from Stockholm syndrome, it was actually a fitting example of the good-natured, almost Panglossian, optimism that seems to suffuse Chaddad’s entire Libyan adventure.
When the authorities came to arrest Rubashov, the legendary hero from Arthur Koestler’s dystopian novel Darkness at Noon, he had been expecting them. Chaddad, on the other hand, had been sitting in his Tripoli hotel room waiting for his flight back home, watching a Simpsons rerun without the slightest idea of what was about to take place. “At 12 o’clock sharp on Saturday, there was a knock at my door,” he recalls. The hotel receptionist and bellhop, escorted by three suited men who introduced themselves as being “with the office,” took Chaddad’s luggage and insisted on driving him to a nearby building. “I immediately understood who they were,” Chaddad says; they were Libyan officials.
The men started interrogating him about his cameras and his travels in Libya, and they informed him that they were confiscating his film. Apparently more disappointed by the fact that he would not have the chance to taste chraime, Tripoli’s legendary spicy fish stew, than by missing his flight out of Libya, Chaddad was then instructed to wait at the hotel for his passport to be returned to him. “At this point, I am still sure everything is all right, and I figure I will just fly out the next morning, and try to get the film back afterwards,” he says. That night, after Chaddad missed his flight out, two young men from the security services returned to pick him up. “They had brilliantine in their hair and were wearing black jackets,” he recalls. Unsuspecting, he got with them into the car, as one of the men entered the driver’s seat, and the other sat beside him in the back. Chaddad relays what happened next: “Suddenly, as we are driving around Tripoli’s coastline, the guy next to me pushes my head down while the car starts speeding up. The next thing I remember is finding myself in a detention camp. Once there, they started screaming at me to take off my belt and shoes, and ordered me to empty my pockets. The moment the yelling started and they threw me out of the car and into a prison cell is when I understood I was in big trouble.”
Chaddad’s odyssey had begun a few weeks earlier, when he was contacted in Tel Aviv by representatives of Or-Shalom. Would he be willing to take on a special assignment and photograph the remnants of the long-gone Jewish community in Libya? A Tunisian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel in his youth, Chaddad, who is fluent in Arabic and well-traveled throughout the Arab world, did not hesitate. A respected artist who has exhibited his installation work in the prestigious Venice Biennale, Chaddad is also well known in Israel as an accomplished chef who once cooked a meal for the crown prince of Lichtenstein and is a coordinator for the Israeli slow-food movement. For a romantic adventurer like Chaddad, the opportunity to experience the exotic sights, sounds, smells, and especially tastes of Libya was too much of a temptation to resist—not to mention the fact that he would also be able to do something in which he believes. “I decided to do it because preserving Jewish heritage in Arab countries is a cause dear to my heart,” he tells me. “I deal with this theme in my art and my food. And I felt as if I would be doing a mitzvah.”
Chaddad left Israel for Tunisia, where he dropped off his Israeli passport with relatives before continuing on to neighboring Libya. After all, despite occasional gestures toward rapprochement, Israel and Libya continue to be on hostile terms, so much so that Israelis are forbidden by law from traveling there. Qaddafi, who remains one of Israel’s most vocal critics, has in the past funded Palestinian terrorist groups and often chastises Arab states that conduct diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2009, he blamed Israelis for engineering the crisis in Darfur and declared that “Israel is responsible for all the conflicts in Africa.” In light of these tense relations, Chaddad made sure to strip himself of all traces of his Israeli identity before crossing the border.
After his successful response to a massive snow storm helped burnish Rahm Emanuel’s candidacy for Chicago mayor, the local press is trying to find ‘Bad Rahm’ hidden inside the new, well-mannered version