The weirdness of Colonel Mu'ammar Gaddafi's first-ever visit to Italy was evident from the moment he descended from his jet plane at Rome airport last Wednesday. Not only did the de facto leader of Libya look like Michael Jackson in an ill-fitting, gold braided military uniform, but pinned to his chest he had a representation of Omar al Mukhtar, the Libyan resistance leader who was hanged by Italian colonial forces in 1931.
His visit was to celebrate the end of recriminations over the colonial era, but Gaddafi was underlining past misdeeds. He also lectured his hosts about democracy ('dispense with elections') and compared the American bombs on his tents in 1986 to the Osama Bin Laden attack on New York.
The trip was a consequence of the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apologising for Italy's colonial misdeeds (Italy had Libya as colony from 1911–31) and giving $US 5 million compensation. Libya has promised to help Italy stem the flow of illegal African migrants.
The visit had a substantial business aspect: Italy imports a quarter of its petrol from Libya which is also a good market for Italian goods. Libya invests in Italian firms such as Fiat and is expected to boost its investments as a result of the visit.
During the visit, critics of Libya's denial of human rights contrasted with Rome soccer club supporters keen for Gaddafi investment. A few years ago his son was registered as a Perugia A-grade club player and was allowed on the field for five minutes at the end of an unimportant match.
Those annoyed that Gaddafi was given a free hand to criticise all and sundry, without anyone tackling him on the Libyan-sponsored Lockerbie plane bomb or the Libyan missile fired ineffectively against Italy, were pleased when Gianfranco Fini, the Chamber of Deputies President, cancelled the colonel's visit to the Chamber after he had kept everyone waiting for two hours.
The Libyan explanation was that Gaddafi was praying in the tent he had erected in the Doria Pamphili park, although his 400 camp followers, including female bodyguards, were in Roman hotels.
One Gaddafian pearl was that Islamic forms of government should not be criticised since the Vatican is a theocratic State. This took me back to the first Libyan-Vatican meeting in Tripoli in 1976, where a discussion was held between Vatican Islamic experts and theologians and their Libyan counterparts. Seated at the back of the hall before the discussion I spoke with a European resident in Tripoli. He predicted that Gaddafi would enter after the meeting began and sit at the back.
So it was: he sat ever so humbly behind me. It was more dramatic than if he had appeared onstage. Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, the affable head of the Vatican Secretariat for Non Christians, streamed down from the platform, beaming, arms outstretched, entreating 'His Excellency' to replace him as chairman of the meeting.
Gaddafi did so. It looked like a mediaeval tableau of the Sultan and the wise men. Gaddafi was enigmatically silent until he cut through the cultural comparisons to ask 'what is the Vatican State?'
Monsignor Pietro Rossano, the secretary of the Secretariat for Non Christians, began a painstaking explanation with 'Rome is built on seven hills'. His point was that the Vatican was not a theocratic State, but recognised a separate civil sphere within its boundaries and international laws beyond it.
'So', said Gaddafi at the end, 'you haven't managed to establish a theocratic State.'
That evening all the Conference participants were invited to a reception at what had been the palace of Italo Balbo, the Fascist-era governor. When we lined up to meet Gadaffi, I found myself next to Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Toure, self-styled Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. It made the queue more bearable because Trinidad-born Stokely shared my passion for cricket.
After meeting the Colonel the guests left to allow a conversation between him and Pignedoli. I remained, standing against the wall among the guards. Perhaps the Libyans thought I was a Vatican guard and vice-versa.
What ensured was less a conversation than an examination. Pignedoli tried to convince Gaddafi of the utility of diplomatic relations with the Holy See but mute Gaddafi simply stared at him with intense eyes. In the meantime the Islamic and Vatican experts prepared and issued a statement which was considered so anti-Israel that it dented Pignedoli's chances of succeeding Paul VI.
By the time he reached Rome last week it seems that Gaddafi had forgotten the conclusion regarding the Vatican which he drew from the Tripoli meeting. Will he remember the undertakings he has made to help stem the flow of illegal African migrants from Libya to Italy, or ask more money before doing so?
Desmond O'Grady is an Australian author and journalist resident in Rome. His most recent book is a novel about a Sydney journalist, Dinny Going Down.