Looking slightly bedraggled and extremely tired, Rajab A. Azzarouk hunkered down in the plush leather of the Delegates' Lounge and explained almost apologetically that as Libya's man at the United Nations in this time of crisis "it is my duty to attend to the grievances of my people and my country through this forum, the only one we have in which to raise our concerns about the foreign policy of the United States."
The charge' d'affaires had spent all night on the phone to Tripoli (with one eye on the television screen), had delivered to the Security Council a scathing yet relatively low-key denunciation of the American air strike against Libya, had shuffled through the line with his lunch tray at the U.N. staff cafeteria and was about to embark on a round of lobbying before the next marathon council session, which stretched on into the evening.
Azzarouk, 43, is not a reflection of his widely vilified charismatic leader, Muammar Qaddafi, or even of his once and future boss, Ali Treiki, the firebrand U.N. ambassador who served for a time as Libya's foreign minister and is due back in New York later this week to take over once again as the permanent representative of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya to the United Nations.
Diplomats who know him (most of whom like him) say that Azzarouk is, instead, a mild-mannered career diplomat trained in international law at home and in the Hague, a shy man who finds himself incongruously and uncomfortably in the diplomatic spotlight.
Unlike Treiki -- or Zehdi Labib Terzi, the Palestine Liberation Organization's ubiquitous representative at the United Nations -- Azzarouk is not a mover and shaker in the private counsels of the Arab group, says one of his colleagues there. "He is always calm, and he tries to help reach group decisions without excitement or pressure."
In the corridors, where the real business of resolution-building is done, Azzarouk is not often seen bustling and buttonholing.
One reason, diplomats explain, is his lack of ambassadorial status. Another is that he appears to work only under instructions, which limits his initiative. And this style seems to match his nature.
In the quieter waters of the U.N. General Assembly's legal committee, western diplomats describe Azzarouk as a useful citizen who can deal intelligently with the esoterica of international trade law, making the case for Libyan interests, but not making trouble for its own sake. During last fall's maneuvering on a legal committee resolution condemning all forms of terrorism, for example, Azzarouk initially pushed for some textual reference to "state terrorism," implicitly critical of alleged Israeli and American practices. But diplomats say he eased off when it became clear there was little support for it in the Third World caucus -- unlike the Cubans, who pressed on bluntly after the battle was lost. "I work quite well with him," said one western legal maven. "He's a very, very nice man."
In the Delegates' Lounge, wearing stylish shaded eyeglasses above a bushy black mustache and a dapper (albeit rumpled) gray striped suit, Azzarouk spoke quietly about his frustrations both on and off the job.
He tries, he says, to get the American people "to understand our grievance," but contends that the U.S. mass media are biased "to a certain extent" against Libyan and Third World interests. "I hope people can open their heart and mind to understand, but the mass media isn't helping." Americans, says Azzarouk, have "emancipated themselves from British rule and should understand Libya's revolutionary principles."
More frustrating are the personal limitations under which he and other Libyan diplomats operate. Because the State Department says that some of them are involved in terrorist actions against Libyan exiles in the United States, they are restricted to the borough of Manhattan -- a far tighter leash than any other U.N. delegates have. This means, he says, "I am not allowed to socialize with ambassadors who live outside Manhattan."
After almost two years at the United Nations, he and his family have come to know every inch of Central Park, one of the few recreational spaces available to them. In less busy times, Azzarouk patronizes the opera and the concert halls and enjoys eating out with his wife and three children at a favorite midtown restaurant that features northern Italian food.
He displays no bitterness and insists there have been no untoward incidents involving irate New Yorkers. His daughter and elder son "have no problems with schoolmates" at the branch of City University they attend. His younger son is still in public school here, and the family expects to stay on, with Azzarouk as Libya's number two man, after Treiki returns. It seems that for Azzarouk, who served his country quietly in Algeria, India, Austria and other posts, this return to the anonymity of the United Nations' back benches will be more a salvation than an exile.