Joan Smith: For bad taste you can't beat a dictator


Joan Smith
Sunday 28 August 2011 00:00 BST

The closest I've come to a Kalashnikov was when someone presented me with a glass replica of an AK-47 filled with vodka. It's the kind of thing a dictator might like to display on his sideboard but I couldn't help thinking there were far too many genuine AK-47s in Tripoli last week, even as jubilant rebels wandered awe-struck through the opulent villas of Colonel Gaddafi's eight children. One young man from Misrata stripped to a pair of shorts and launched a yellow kayak into a swimming pool belonging to Hannibal Gaddafi, who beat up his pregnant girlfriend in Paris in 2005, but he didn't let go of his rifle as he grinned for the camera.

Other members of the rebel forces sprawled on a gold mermaid sofa in the atrium of a house belonging to Aisha, the dictator's only biological daughter, or gaped at the circular white bed in the beach-front retreat of his fifth son, Mutassim. The latter is one of the regime's most detested figures, having commanded his father's forces in Brega with characteristic savagery, but his house, built on stilts in a resort on the outskirts of Tripoli, would not look out of place in a European celebrity magazine.

Hot-tubs, infinity pools, stables, a show-jumping course and even a scuba-diving school have been revealed as opposition forces stormed into the family's mansions, where exercise videos and smashed champagne bottles attested to a hedonistic but health-conscious lifestyle.

While Dad was an inveterate camper – remember the fuss he made about erecting a Bedouin tent when he visited European capitals? – Mutassim went for that tricky (unless you have an army of cleaners, or maybe just an army) monochrome look in his dining room. Aisha's pool complex reminded me of my local gym.

The monumental mania of dictators' families in the 20th century seems to have given way to a bland, deracinated, rich-kid cupidity: not so much bad taste as no taste at all.

If you ignore the broken glass, smashed furniture and ever-present young men with weapons, these villas could belong to a hotel chain or a random collection of celebrities from international sport and the film industry. They're luxurious but not exactly on the scale of Ceausescu's vast unfinished palace in Bucharest or Saddam Hussein's project to rebuild the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon on the ruins of the original, thus wrecking one of the world's most significant archaeological sites.

Saddam had more than 80 palaces, throwing them up at a spanking pace after the 1991 Gulf war and wasting more than £1bn in the process. One of his Baghdad residences boasted four giant cast-iron heads of the dictator in a style that might be characterised as Soviet-Assyrian, prompting as much mockery as Colonel Gaddafi's monumental fist crushing an American fighter in his Bab al-Azizia compound. The Assad palace in Damascus is built on a hill and looms over the city, an ever-present reminder of the power of the dictator's family, but the late Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett noticed a huge crack in the Presidential loo when he asked to use it during an official visit.

Twelve or so years later, it's hard to think of a better metaphor for the sordid Assad regime than a cracked toilet bowl. And I suspect that one of the most striking images of the downfall of the Gaddafi clan will be those excited young rebels from Misrata, swimming with Kalashnikovs.

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