Local man helps create Libyan historical treasure

By Avery Cropp and Bob Rupp


A book co-produced by a Stillwater man is considered a national history treasure in Libya.

An international community of strangers driven to highlight the human struggle for freedom during the Libyan revolution earlier this year catapulted Ilya Gorodisher and his international connections to their first published book.

The book, “Voices 4 Libya,” is a story of the Libyan revolution in blogs, tweets, and letters by ordinary people from all over the world as well as freedom fighters in Libya at the time. The almost 100 stories were gathered, selected, edited and translated by an international team that included Gorodisher; his co-editor in New Zealand, Coralie Daniel; and Zorica, their Libyan contact, and a whole host of other people who volunteered their services to get this book compiled.

“Getting involved was a no-brainer,” Gorodisher said. “Libya is about the size of Minnesota. It has six million people and 300,000 men of fighting age, of whom one in 10 has perished.”

A Russian Jew born in St. Petersburg, Gorodisher came to the U.S. in 1976 and moved to Stillwater in 1990 and felt he had a kinship with the Libyan revolutionaries. After U.S. media and BBC coverage regarding Libya dropped off, Gorodisher turned to Al-Jazeera’s English-language broadcasts for the latest information on the Arab Spring’s progress. He lent his voice to Facebook, on Twitter and on Internet blogs and eventually, after writing with generic usernames on the blogs, he switched to the pseudonym of Moussa Koussa.

“He was a thug in Gaddafi’s foreign intelligence department and he defected near April Fool’s Day in the U.S. and I thought it was very Seuss sounding,” Gorodisher said.  “I pride myself on my sense of humor and I felt that it was time to inject a little humor into a bleak situation so I wrote all of my comments as official proclamations from him in verse.”

He gained a following from his Moussa Koussa posts and eventually connected with people on a deeper level although they had never met.

When Al-Jazeera began pulling away from their hour-by-hour updates Gorodisher feared he would lose contact with the friends he made. So he created his own website in April 2011 and invited the people he had contact with to continue to follow him there. The website had 100,000 hits in less than one year.

There were two parts to the website, the part that anyone could access and the part that only a select group of people could access. Gorodisher’s friends and Libyan contacts were allowed into the private section of the website and required a password. This gave them a level of secrecy that was very important at that time. One of the website’s early visitors was Gorodisher’s co-editor Daniel.

“I was ‘45south45’ on the public blogs and ‘Charlotte’ on the private blogs Ilya created,” Daniel reported in a recent email.

“We learned to know each other only by those fictitious names,” she continued. “I mention this for two reasons: First, when we began working together and trusting each other, we had no way of knowing Gaddafi would be defeated. If he hadn’t, he would have had a very long arm of retribution. Second, we came to trust each other purely on the blogs without being able to verify each other’s credentials. For me, that illustrates the importance of ‘consistency and attitude’ and ‘sincerity of intent’ in establishing trust and honesty between people, which our world desperately needs.”

The website is also where Zorica, the individual who helped gather stories for “Voices,” came into contact with Gorodisher. The wife of a Libyan doctor at Hawari Hospital in Bhenghazi, Zorica had in-person contact with wounded freedom fighters in Libya and was introduced to the website by Daniel. After Tripoli fell in September 2011, most people believed the fighting was done but the wounded kept coming.

“The hospitals were full of wounded freedom fighters, most of them barely older than children, the oldest only 24,” Gorodisher said.

To increase morale, members of the private website sent messages to the freedom fighters telling them why what happened in Libya was important to them. The letters were compiled into a pamphlet in Arabic.

“You can’t believe all the letters we’ve received from the freedom fighters telling us that this was the first time they knew the west cared about Libya, and now they consider us friends,” said Gorodisher’s wife, Susanna.

This was the genesis of “Voices.” Zorica wanted to collect stories from Libyans and compile them into a book along with the letters that were sent to the Freedom Fighters. From there the idea took off and Libyan stories began pouring in. Everything was done online with email and chats. Strict systems and rules were developed for the chain of translating, selecting and editing stories while making sure to keep the voices of the writers as true to the voice of the author as possible.

“I’m a pretty emotionless white guy,” Gorodisher said. “But there were some stories that I couldn’t get through without crying.”

The goal was to finish the book by New Year’s 2012, but the group admits on the book’s website that they were naïve in thinking that could work. The book released in April, and the Libyan Ministry of Culture hosted a launch party. The book is going to be printed in Arabic soon and a second project, “Voices 4 Libya 2” headed by the Libyan writers is underway.

The book can be purchased at Valley Bookseller or online at www.voices4libya.com. The book costs $20 and portions of the proceeds go toward organizations that support the war orphans of Libya.