Time took its toll on his health and strength, showing in the wrinkles on his face and the white that tinged the hair on his head. But this had no impact on his love of music, song, theatre and art in all its many forms and guises.

Time took its toll on his health and strength, showing in the wrinkles on his face and the white that tinged the hair on his head. But this had no impact on his love of music, song, theatre and art in all its many forms and guises.

In the living room of his modest house in Ard Sharif, a working class neighbourhood in the Eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, sits 58-year-old Hussein Khaled, stretching out his leg—covered in stitches and full of metal—and cradling his first and greatest love: his oud. He strums out the melody of memories, tells tales that wring his heart out with pain from which he sometimes tries to flee with a laugh that almost stops him breathing or a cough that interrupts us for a while, until he is able once more to resume his story, a story he had never expected to be telling to anyone.

 Ambition and enthusiasm

Hussein Khaled, a young man enthusiastic for everything, a devotee of all that was beautiful, loved singing, acting and dancing and joined the popular theatre in 1973. However, in 1975, his love of art led him drop out of his second year of media studies at Benghazi University.

“Radio seduced me and bewitched me,” he says: “So without hesitation I left everything behind me and went for it.”

In the music department of Libyan Broadcast Association, Hussein was certified as a “class one” singer by a committee made up of the big names in the Libyan music scene. At around the same time another committee certified him as a stage actor, this one headed by the late Egyptian actor Omar Hariri, whom Hussein considers to be one of his great inspirations in the world of theatre.

“When I was made a singer by the Broadcast Association,” he remembers, “I assumed this was the first step towards glory and fame, but not long afterwards I realised that the road was long and surrounded by dangers.”

 Gaddafi and art

About half way through his career, Hussein and most of the music department at the Libyan Broadcast Association were forcibly transferred to a state-owned company where they became government functionaries responsible for distributing flour and rice and other foodstuffs to citizens from vast state-owned markets. Despite this and other hindrances, Hussein pursued his artistic career for more than two decades, during which time he was active on radio, television and the stage, working with poets, authors and directors… until the moment came in which everything in his life would change.

 The moment

Hussein recalls: “One summer’s day in 1996 a friend of mine, a fellow artist, offered me a ticket to Tripoli and an envelope containing 100 dollars. He said it was from an official in Radio and Television called Ali Al Kilani and that I was being asked to present a music programme for television called Oud Concert in which the cream of Libyan and Arab talent would take part.”

 Unable to believe a word of it, Hussein picked up his oud and a small suitcase to the Libyan capital to start on his new project. But after recording two episodes of the programme, and during filming for the third, as an enthusiastic young Hussein was trying to give his opinion and make a few observations of his own, in walked the senior official responsible for artistic production in Libya, the lyric poet and internal security officer Ali Al Kilani, Gaddafi’s nephew and a member of his closest circle.

“I hadn’t even finished making my observations when Ali Al Kilani swept his outstretched finger from my head to my feet and said, ‘You trying to tell me what to do?’ then let loose a stream of insults. ‘Professor Ali,’ I said, ‘It’s just my point of view and I only want to make the program better. After all I’ve got a fair bit of experience in this field.’” At which, “Ali Al Kilani threw an ashtray at me, so I lost my temper and told him, ‘Have some self-respect’.”

Hussein had hardly finished his sentence when he found himself waking up in his Tripoli hotel room. He’d lost consciousness from the severity of the beating handed out to him by the Internal Security men in Al Kilani’s retinue.

 “All I remember about that night is waiting for morning I crept out of the hotel and went straight to the airport, watching my back all the way and unable to breathe until the plane touched down in Benghazi. I went home, trying not to think about what had happened.”

 Three days later, Hussein went back to work as a government employee at the Al Sahari Bank, and there he found men from Internal Security waiting for him. They led him off to their headquarters, near the courthouse in Benghazi’s Freedom Square.

Hussein spent four days in a dark room, subjected to the very worst tortures and physical and psychological degradations, and fed the most disgusting types of food and drink, until at last the cell door was opened and one of the guards shouted: “Don’t eat if you’re not hungry. Put on your sandals and come here.”

Hussein struggled to describe the moment: “I was absolutely convinced that they were going to kill me and I almost fainted from fear. They brought me into the director’s office and there I saw the army officer and composer Sabri Al Sharif, who was in charge of all military music, and with him the Internal Security officer and poet Othman Al Wazari, both waiting for me. The blood returned to my veins and I knew I was going to be okay, because I had a very good relationship with Sabri. He was a wonderful man and it turns out that he’d asked after me at the bank where I worked—and where he was a customer—and my colleagues had told him the story. It was as though fate itself had sent him to save me from certain death.”

 Officers and artists

The two officer-artists removed Hussein from prison and handed him a letter from the authorities that stated that the artists Hussein Khaled was forthwith forbidden from working in radio, television or theatre, or from engaging in any form of artistic activity for the rest of his life.

Under Gaddafi, artists had to become members of Internal Security, or what was known as Revolutionary Security, or otherwise work on the Revolutionary Committees that constituted the leader’s unofficial political party. They were also obliged to produce work in praise of Gaddafi and his Little Green Book. Failure to do these things made progress impossible.

For more than fifteen years the men of the former regime prevented Hussein from living in his chosen life, and the seafront in Benghazi was the only freedom he knew. He spent most of his spare time on the shore, fishing and humming melodies that never made it to the ears of Internal Security, though neither were they heard by the audiences he longed for; melodies that reminded him of the artists that still inhabited his soul.

“I would walk along the road at the back of the bank where I worked and sneak into my office, because the bank faced the Radio and Television building on Abdel Moneim Riyadh Street and ever since the incident I had a phobia of such places.”

 An unexpected return

Like many other Libyans, Hussein never believed that the Libyan people would turn on Colonel Gaddafi. But in the early days of the uprising, in February 2011, he found himself among the angry crowds in Freedom Square where the headquarters of Internal Security loomed, the place in which Hussein Khaled’s talent had been condemned to death all those years ago.

Hussein thinks back to the things he witnessed in those early days of the February Revolution: “A young man alongside me pulled out a piece of paper on which he’d written words that were, for all their simplicity, very true: ‘See how sweet my country is, see how sad, they die in great numbers for its sake…’ Without thinking I put a melody to them and sung them and the boy was delighted. He said we should record it, and I laughed and turned him down, but he was so insistent that in the end I agreed. That was the first song I wrote since my enforced retirement nearly a decade and a half before.”

 A second youth

Despite all the suffering he endured and the injuries to the left sideof his body, which he sustained when he fell down the stairs at the Tibesti Hotel (in an attempt to rescue his son, who worked there, after he’d heard that Gaddafi’s son Al Saadi had surrounded the place and was killing people at random in an attempt to abort the uprising before it could spread)… despite all this, here he is today, given a second life, touring between radio stations and recording studios in Benghazi, playing his new songs and bringing his old tunes back from the dead, and furnishing the arts scene in his home town with new ideas and projects, as though he were an up-and-coming performer in his twenties.

He is proud of himself: “Here I am, Hussein Khaled, expelled from the art world because I refused to sell my dignity and bow and scrape before the former regime like so many of my peers who handed over their honour and principles for a handful of dinars, or a new car, or the chance to record their songs in London or Paris or Greece or Syria.”

“I’m not gloating,” he continues, “but where are they now? Where is Ali Al Kilani? Where’s Abdallah Mansour? Where’s Mohammed Hassan? All those who hitched their wagons to Gaddafi in exchange for wealth and influence have met Gaddafi’s fate, whereas I’m still here, singing for my country, for its people and for love. I am breathing this freedom and I can say whatever I want to say.”

As for the current instability and chaos that Benghazi is going through, Hussein says: “I’m very optimistic. I won’t leave the city like others have. Benghazi is my love, my eternal passion. I can’t leave her for more than a week at a time, and when I travel I have trouble breathing, and I can’t sleep. I am certain that Benghazi will return better that it ever was before, that Libya will stabilize and flourish and will rebuild itself. This is my message as an artist.”