Hasan Dhaimish

From Benghazi to Burnley: Hasan Dhaimish

by Northern Life

Hasan Dhaimish lived a double life. By day he was your typical, hard working man but by night he was Alsatoor – a celebrated political artist producing work daily for Libyan opposition magazines. In later years, Hasan was a popular teacher in the Graphics Department at Nelson and Colne College. Sadly, Hasan died at the age of 60 in 2016. Now, his son Sherif has organised an exhibition in memory of his father. Breezin’ will celebrate Hasan’s life and will look at both his political work and his love of music. The exhibition will run from 23rd March to 2nd April at Pendle Heritage Centre. Here, Sherif tells us all about Hasan’s journey from Benghazi to Burnley…

In 1975 Hasan Dhaimish was fresh from his mandatory military service. Like most fit, young
Libyan men he managed to complete his stint under an invisible cloak. That same cloak would come in useful over the next few decades as he worked as an artist, concealing his identity from Gaddafi’s regime and the British Home Office – but never out of fear. Instead, Hasan turned his paintbrush into the ultimate weapon of social and political dissidence.

Hasan Dhaimish

The socioeconomic reforms that followed the 1969 coup d’état in Libya were vehemently opposed by many. In Hasan’s home city of Benghazi, a place with an extensive history of
anti-colonial rebellion, youth were tainted with a profound sense of disillusionment in the face of stagnation prompting many to migrate abroad. After being courtmartialled, Hasan chose self-exile. ‘I remember one officer asking me to join the air force,’ Hasan remembered, ‘and I agreed knowing somehow I was going to get out’. Leaving the country seemed like the only viable option at the time.

Breezin' - Celebrating Hasan Dhaimish life and worksAs a child, Hasan would watch his father, Sheikh Mahmoud Dhaimish, draw pigeons on the tiles of their home. The boy was captivated and soon discovered his own artistic talent. ‘I remember my sister getting engaged’, he recalled. ‘I was angry about it so I started drawing cartoons of her on the walls of our home. I never got in trouble… I think my dad saw I had talent. After that, I started drawing pictures of Gaddafi in my room. Soon afterwards my brother-in-law found them and took them to local security forces. I was furious, but he said they had a good laugh at them so there was nothing to worry about.’

Clad in dapper outfits consisting of flares, denim, and tailored shirts, and sporting a giant afro, he certainly looked the part. At the age of 19, Hasan arrived in London with no intention of staying. Like many who left Libya in the mid-seventies, he believed Gaddafi would soon be deposed and that he would return home to the warmth of Africa. Stepping into cold England wasn’t exactly what Hasan had envisioned – but the country soon became his playground. He’d run wild at reggae festivals, Glastonbury and psychedelic parties. As Thatcherism was on the horizon, he’d taken up quarters in Bradford, a city that suffered greatly under the Tory Government. However, The Home Office was hot on Hasan’s heels and he once again had to look for a way out.

“Hasan had gone from Benghazi to Burnley where he met Karen, whom he married in 1979”

Hasan Dhaimish in 1977

Hasan in 1977

‘I was in a café and was introduced to a guy called Sa’ad. I asked him where he lived, and he replied, “Burrrrnley”. I’d never heard of the place, but after he assured me there was a college I could enrol in, I put my record player and rucksack in his Morris Minor. The next thing I was in Burnley for the next 35 years.’

Hasan had gone from Benghazi to Burnley where he met Karen Waddington, whom he married in 1979. ‘She’s been my rock since day one’, Hasan told me. ‘I wouldn’t have made anything of myself it weren’t for her. She stuck by me through all the turbulence.’

On a trip to London that same year, Hasan spotted an Arabic newsstand, ‘An orange magazine caught my eye from afar so I picked it up, and realised it was for the Libyan Opposition. It was four pages, with no contact information. I wanted to get involved with my cartoons. Luckily, the bright blue magazine next to it had exactly the same articles inside along with contact information. I bought both, took them back to Burnley with me, and wrote to them.’

A couple of weeks later, his mother-in-law, Enid, arrived at the couple’s flat. ‘A Frenchman called for you and left this number’, she told him. Of course, the man wasn’t French at all: he was Libyan.

Hasan’s caricatures of Gaddafi and his associates were received with adulation from members of the Opposition, and it was then that he adopted a moniker and gave to the
world ‘Alsatoor’ (‘The Cleaver’ in Arabic). As the only Libyan for miles around in Burnley, Alsatoor operated covertly and blended into his new hometown as best a foreigner could. In the midst of the 1980s, when Gaddafi’s notoriety was at its peak, anti-regime activists like Hasan were at great risk. Despite this Hasan maintained his doubleidentity with an air of defiant coolness. His friends in England knew little about Alsatoor and the mischief his satire was instigating.

As an active member of the Opposition, Hasan attended rallies around the UK including the infamous one where police officer Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead outside the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984. Alsatoor persevered even after the Opposition crumbled, working to his own rhythm while also trying to make ends meet. ‘I went through many jobs in Burnley from kebab houses to nightclubs. I’ll never forget the Italian restaurant I worked in that couldn’t afford my wages. The chef gave me two sirloin steaks at the end of the night as payment.’

In spite of the economic pressures he was under and unfettered by life’s harsh realities, Hasan’s creativity continued to flow. When not penning political satire, he’d paint to the sounds of musicians like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon. In the meantime, British satire from Private Eye, contributed to the development of his own unique satirical style: rhythmically witty, acerbically insightful, and playfully relentless.

In the nineties, Hasan trudged through his A-levels and a degree whilst waiting tables at Carlo’s Restaurant in neighbouring Colne. In 1995, he began teaching at Nelson & Colne College’s Graphics department. ‘Has’ was a popular figure there amongst students and staff known for his unorthodox approach to art and curricula. ‘You’re Hasan’s son! He’s the man!’ many people used to tell me. Still, they had no idea who Alsatoor was.

The rise of the Internet brought a pivotal turn: Alsatoor became global. After the teaching day was over, he’d glue himself to his desk watching Arabic-language news picked up from the array of sketchy satellite dishes he’d accumulated. Hasan began to manipulate screenshots and sound bites, majestically mocking Gaddafi through political satire. Stylistically, his work transformed over the decades in accordance with technology, but his staunch opposition remained unshakable until the very end.

“He was the buzzing fly Gaddafi had failed to swat”

Hasan found it hard to maintain hope and fervour for political change in Libya, particularly after the 2003 disarmament. Perhaps it was the online response that spurred him to carry on despite the bleak realities. It wasn’t until 36 years after leaving Libya that the fight seemed worthwhile. During February and March 2011 he sketched notes and cartoons as he received calls on his landline and mobile phones, sometimes simultaneously. Tinged with coffee stains and cigarette ash, this collection epitomises Hasan’s experiences during the early stages of the Revolution. Still stashed away from the public eye, the work narrates the sporadic disjointedness of the Revolution while never reaching a conclusion.

My dad never chose to integrate with the Libyan Diaspora. This wasn’t because he wasn’t sociable or felt he didn’t belong, but because he was an anomaly, a deviant, an eccentric. He was the buzzing fly Gaddafi had failed to swat. Even though Hasan had pledged to stop drawing him once his regime fell, his daily publications continued to criticise Libya’s debilitated political landscape. With the advent of social media, Hasan aroused laughter, hatred, and
controversy amongst his followers. The burning zeal he had for the cause he’d fought for during his early days as an asylum seeker in England lived on, and his flame continued to burn.

During his final years, my father’s artistic flair was subsumed by Libya’s poisonous political
landscape. His ambition was always to promote education, creativity, and individuality amongst youth, and he fulfilled this. First and foremost, he was a teacher; he was a black sheep in all the right ways, and anyone who spent time with him became enlightened somehow. Truth be told, Alsatoor became a burden to Hasan. All Hasan wanted to do was paint under the blue skies of the Mediterranean and the grey clouds of Lancashire; but his selflessness and zeal for a free Libya were stronger than his desire to paint. But forget all that. When I step into his studio, I can still smell incense and paint, hear J.J. Cale’s lo-fi sound, and see my father on the sofa, shackled to a sketchpad.

Hasan Dhaimish