Thursday, August 19, 2004

Omar Mukhtar, 1931 -- perseverance personified

I'd had a chance to watch Moustapha Akkad's 1980 classic Lion of the Desert (aka Omar Mukhtar) starring the masterful Oliver Reed and Anthony Quinn. Quinn played the role of the famous Omar Mukhtar of Libya, leader of the Libyan resistance during the Italian Fascist occupation of Libya from 1911 to 1931. Mukhtar was eventually captured and hung by the occupiers, but his story bears a proper accounting as a lesson in leadership by example.

At the time of his capture, Mukhtar was in his seventies. Here was a man who as a septuagenarian was still galloping across swaths of the Sahara on horseback, sometimes for hours on end! Mukhtar was an educator, by training. All he wanted was to lead his small village on the Libyan coast, tending to his flock, and teaching the young boys their Sharia (Islamic law) lessons until the end of his days.

When the Italians under Mussolini -- under the aegis of his emissary, the dreaded General Rodolfo "the Butcher" Graziani -- tightened the noose around their "Greater Rome" colony in North Africa, Mukhtar took his band of freedom fighters and guerrillas to the mountains. They fought successive pitched battles with antiquated rifles against Italian armour and artillery, and confounded and thwarted Graziani's battle plans until a twist of fate had Mukhtar surrounded.

Needless to say it was a successful film, and one of Oliver Reed's most prolific roles -- parts of which he brought to his portrayal of Proximo in 2000's Gladiator. But leaving aside Hollywood's dramatisation of it for a moment -- what made Mukhtar such an inspirational figure? Mussolini was an unrepentant chronicler of the times. It is said that the Italian invasion of Kufra, for example, was very well documented -- over documented, some would say...the Fascists in Italy were expert archivists (guess where the Nazis learned it from?). Images of the captured and shackled Mukhtar abound, and we get a sense of the character from seeing Quinn in the title role.

Deconstructing the lure of Omar:

** Maintain a Principled Approach: Omar refused to abscond to then British-protected neighbouring Egypt. Despite the fact his relatives had done previously so, and, as collaborators with the Italians, dispatching a mission to the mountains to attempt to get Omar capitulate - he refused. He refused to shanghai his men for the luxuriant bribes of the collaborators.

** Get Your Hands Dirty!: Mukhtar fought in every battle he'd plotted. And despite his age, Omar always rode shotgun. He laid along the trench to fire at the Italian invaders. He engaged with the Italian field commanders. He called the shots. He was - in short - a constant presence. In modern parlance -- he was a 'player-coach.'

** No Detail Is Ever Too Small: Mukhtar always cited God as the reason for the Italians presence in Libya. He also cited Him in calling for their withdrawal, saying that God would alone decide when it were time for them to leave. These principles he'd stuck to in the field, even after he'd been captured. The scene between Raf Vallone's Diodiece and Mukhtar in the prison is so poignantly done. In it, Mukhtar is about to pray, but realises he cannot, for he hadn't any water for his ablutions before Muslim prayer.

** Always Keep an Open Mind: Even after 20 years of pitched battles against waves of invading Italian hordes, Mukhtar was still willing to entertain peace overtures - however contrived and one-sided they were. He would still assemble with his entourage in the middle of the nowhere (the desert) to meet with an Italian delegation tailor-made to initiate negotiations with the rebel leader.

In summary:

** Always Maintain a Principled Approach --> without our principles, we're like a tree without roots, blowing in the wind.
** Get Your Hands Dirty! --> if you haven't done your time, how do you expect your direct-reports to rally around you? (unless you're holding a gun to their head).
** No Detail is Ever Too Small --> the little things count more than the big things. Anyone can start something grandiose, but who can maintain consistency over the long gruelling haul?
** Always Keep an Open Mind --> the ability to rapidly assimilate new information and approaches keep leaders on top of their game and flexible.

And, um, the movie wasn't half-bad, either...(running time: 2.5 hours).


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