The Toss of a Coin: Voices from a Modern Crisis

Rated 4.67 out of 5 based on 9 customer ratings
(9 customer reviews)


The Toss of a Coin: Voices from a Modern Crisis
by Rory O’Keeffe.

Ghaddafi’s Libya was home to a huge number of refugees. People who had escaped war, terror, repression, starvation and disease in their homelands flocked to the state to set up home (as Ghaddafi had invited them to do) or to use Libya as a stopping point on the way to refuge in the EU.

When Civil War broke out in Libya, those people were once again forced to flee.

In the Toss of a Coin members of this diaspora, tell their own stories, in their own words: what they suffered at home; what they risked to reach Libya; their struggle to survive in the Green Book state, and their second escape when war and terror broke out around them again.

Their voices are joined by those of Libyans, around whom war raged: those who fought as well as those forced from their homes, their wartime experiences, and their attempts to rebuild their lives, their homes and their nation. It also details what came next – the collapse of a state attempting to rise towards a brighter future, despite the efforts of its people to support it, and the contrast between its experience and that of Tunisia, the starting point of the Arab Spring and, to date, its sole success.

It is a story of victimisation, fear, murder and crime against humanity which is still taking place. It is also a story of hope, of talent, of triumph and of humanity.

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Additional information

Weight 820 g
Dimensions 240 × 168 × 25 mm
Number of Pages


9 reviews for The Toss of a Coin: Voices from a Modern Crisis

  1. Rated 5 out of 5


    War, pain and suffering. How would you cope?

    Beyond the hysterical headlines of the “crisis of Calais” what the world is facing is global refugee figures being their highest since World War Two. These innocent victims have faced years of pain, suffering and uncertainty and when once the Arab Spring seemed a symbol of hope it is now being portrayed by certain vested interests as a terrible mistake. This excellent book is written by an author whose humanity and perception shines through on every page. It is a tragic story but also one that inspires and informs. The book of the year.

  2. Rated 4 out of 5

    David Bryson

    This it seems is freedom.

    Rory O’Keeffe deserves both thanks and congratulations for providing an account of the so-called Arab Spring in Libya and Tunisia that is readable as well as being thorough and sensitive. Broadly, the book is in two main sections, firstly his own direct experience, over 5 or 6 months in late 2011 and early 2012, of the situation created by the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi; then a more reflective and analytic commentary on the picture as it presented itself in 2014. The actual title of the book seems to me a rather odd choice. It refers to a third theme altogether, the fate of would-be immigrants to Europe drowned in one of the all-too-familiar tragedies after the places in the boat had been allocated by the toss of a coin.

    The earlier section, giving us the author’s own experiences and impressions of a refugee camp in Tunisia (later burned down by its neighbours) followed by his trip along the Libyan coast with its devastated towns, warring factions and ruined lives traces, via interviews, the story of how Libya in Gaddafi’s day had actually been a haven for refugees from further south. The material is organised very well, starting with a detailed but clear account of the recent history of Chad that makes it very easy to appreciate just why Chad’s inhabitants might have wanted to get out. I also like the way O’Keeffe uses the second person ‘you’ to narrate his own thoughts and experiences, as if almost standing outside himself. As one reads on a perception that is frequently repeated is the unfavourable mention that the author gives to the work of NATO. He points to destruction of schools and hospitals and it is not hard to read a sense of disgust into his reports of NATO’s self-justifications. In particular he makes a point of NATO’s refusal to observe the no-fly zone, and this is a theme picked up in his later perspective from 2014.

    Rory O’Keeffe’s historical analysis in the latter part of the book both benefits, but also slightly suffers, from being so close to the events it is discussing. This is history still happening in Libya, although the current focus has shifted to Syria. The main picture is consistent with the news reporting I have become accustomed to, the picture of two powerless rival governments owing any legitimacy they might be thought to have to a supreme court that may well be unconstitutional itself. The real power in cases like this can be expected to belong with various militias (‘khetibas’), while the general populace have to get by without either a functioning national army or even a police force. There is a villain of the piece (other than NATO) in this author’s view, and he is General Khalifa Haftar, loftily characterised as the worst military leader Libya has known. On this view Haftar ensured ongoing chaos where there might have been a glimmer of hope for the re-establishment of order. Well, this is early days and obviously there are going to be different viewpoints as other historians produce their own insights, but what I appreciate here is being given a coherent and consistent picture, making at least some kind of sense of the overall shambles. One topic that I hope either O’Keeffe or someone else will try to make sense of is none other than Gaddafi himself. There is no attempt to pretend that he was not a murderous and arbitrary dictator. There is no attempt to reconcile the doctrines of his Green Book with what he did in practice. However Mr Reagan called him a ‘mad dog’ for his unpredictable incursions into other countries. One has only to recall not just the Iran Contras but various African ventures of the 40th President’s own to suspect that he regarded mad canine activity as being his job.

    At one point Rory O’Keeffe yields to a familiar writer’s urge to quote some poetry, and he picks (perhaps too predictably) Shelley’s Ozymandias. This is about the Sahara certainly, but otherwise its depiction of a long-lost empire buried under the eternal sands is not very apposite in my own view, but it tempts me to adapt a couple of lines from Wilde to convey my feeling that this book (laudably to a great extent) tries to cram a bit too much into one volume. Try
    And he who tells more tales than one
    More books than one should write.

    I certainly hope that after doing so much to educate us among the general public about a situation that is still with us and is likely to give us ongoing problems Rory O’Keeffe will develop and expand his insights. Oddly, I think that the small vignette of the doomed immigrant boat is one thing that would be better removed, even if it means finding a new title for a reprint. Such stories are the daily fare of our news bulletins, and sadly I think compassion-fatigue may be setting in: this book is otherwise about expanding our understanding, and it would be best sticking to that aim. If the author is looking for a new heading he could do worse that use one from his own page 128 that I have lifted for the caption to this review ‘This, it seems, is freedom.’

  3. Rated 5 out of 5

    Chris Wilson


    ‘For two days, Gaddafi’s soldiers were surrounding the city.We carried on as normal, because there was nothing else to do.’

    Toss of a Coin is full of quotes like this, using first hand accounts to give an insight into the Arab Spring and its aftermath like no other. Rory O’Keeffe not only writes about the Uprising but also Libya’s desperate and largely unsuccessful attempts to move forward afterwards. It is an at times uncomfortable yet thrilling experience, and one which deserves to be read.

    Highly recommended.

  4. Rated 5 out of 5

    Mr M O Kinsella

    Relevant, necessary, and very interesting.

    The author meets and tells the stories of people caught up in the Libyan crisis of 2011. Some of these people are Libyan citizens, but many have traveled from other parts of Africa, fleeing conflict in their home countries. Visiting refugee camps and war-ravaged cities, meeting locals and migrants, school children and militia men, the author helps give these people a voice and show the human face of migration and war. Blending these human tales with historical and political analysis, the book is part in-depth journalism, part-travelogue. Relevant, necessary, and very interesting.

  5. Rated 5 out of 5


    It achieves so much without even trying to…. A remarkable book.

    The first 3/4s is a book in its own right, flicking between interviewees harrowing accounts of living in a country(ies) at war and the authors own, at times amusing, and others, delicately subtle recollections. It humanises people, that our media at best treats as numbers and at worst actively demonises. With his own observations, he brings clear the hypocrisy of the west’s talk of “military” targets and our method of bringing peace through dropping bombs more clearly than books that have the expressed aim of doing so. When at one point I thought to myself, I wish he would address more throughly the Ghaddafi regime, I found it on the next page, when reading the chapter Leptis Magma, I found myself thinking it was, not poor, by any standards, but a little saccharine maybe for the pages that proceeded it, to finish on. Only to find one more chapter, the one that inspired the title of the book, a short chapter that left me as jaw dropped just as much as I’m sure it did when Rory was hearing it first hand, a chapter that finished it perfectly.
    It achieves so much without even trying to do so, it is, in short, a remarkable book.
    The final quarter changes tone, it’s certainly a readable but also in depth look at the “current” situation and what happens after western powers focus moves elsewhere, but for obvious reasons it lacks the human touch of the first and perhaps a little purpose too, but it certainly doesn’t distract from the triumph of the first, it only adds to your understanding of what it actually means to live in a country that went through a revolution for all the right reasons, aided without major complaint by our own government for reasons we (as a populace) never really demanded, and now struggling for all the wrong reasons, allowed to do so, in a small way, because of the short memory of ourselves.

    My final comment is this, the book made me care for Libya, it’s people and it’s future… I too hope for its future. Which, ultimately, I believe was Rory’s aim in writing it and therefore he should be proud of his work.

  6. Rated 5 out of 5

    Tony Higginson

    What can I say about a book that shouldn’t have to exist, other than I’m glad it does?

    This is a story of despair and the frailty of the human condition, and people forced to try for something that really doesn’t exist, and I am so glad it was Rory – rather than someone else – who was there, saw what he saw and says what he says.

    In this book, he gives voice to many people: the voices that would otherwise be unheard. We see and hear the political rhetoric; Rory and this book gives us the human perspective and the meaning.

    It raises questions for us to consider, including in reference to Libya: ruined by Ghaddafi, then equally ruined by what came after, what we as civilised society thought was right – how wrong can we ever be?

    The stories he tells are reported with a sort of abject realism and disbelief, and made me sift through many memories to think, what would I do? His ability to be both dispassionate and objective and yet, still passionate and objective is an example of how to ‘do the right thing’.

    He really has been, seen and tried to make a difference. I only hope that now this book exists, many will read it and care and try and do something positive, not just about the horror and terror of misery in far off places, but also at home, where you can do something, prove you are worthy of being a human.

    We are one; we are the same, whatever the colour it’s all basically black and white.

    By adding colour to the unshaded images we have been presented of the Arab Spring and Libyan Civil War, Rory really makes it just like the most striking documentary you ever watched – sometimes harrowing, but always affecting – and hopefully one that stays with you and you talk about for a long time.

  7. Rated 4 out of 5

    Andrew V M Young

    A timely Book

    This is a timely book written by Rory O’Keefe. Sincere and revealing interesting research, it has been well documented and tells a credible human interest story in a still evolving African and Middle Eastern world at a troubled time.
    Written from the heart, yet dispassionate, it tells the story of two brothers and the part sheer luck plays in lives. The excellent illustrations and photographs that accompany the text give added value to what is really a very good book on a number of different levels.
    Mr O’Keeffe clearly feels that this is a timeless story that needs to be told, especially when the tragedy of refugees and migrants looks set to colour the next decade. I found it a moving and honest book.

  8. Rated 4 out of 5

    Max RG

    A fresh perspective on the Libyan revolution

    Having read several books on ‘the Arab Spring’ and the Libyan Revolution, this book really stood out to me as presenting a side of the conflict that I hadn’t read before. The book covers life in Libya in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, as people tried to adapt to the new reality of life in their country and tried to assess what the future held for them. It shows the consequences of war on ordinary people not only during the conflict but also as Libya started to try to rebuild and a shape its new identity. As a result, it presents a snapshot that is at times desperate but at others hopeful – and one that is made more sad in light of what is now going on in the country.

    Its focus on telling the stories of ordinary people living in the country helps to create a sense of understanding, and hits home at the reality of life on the ground. The author has done a good job of presenting a broad range of perspectives – from pro and anti-Gadaffi fighters, to refugees living in the country and minority groups suffering at the hands of victorious militia factions. I would definitely recommend this book for those interested in the consequences of the ‘Arab Spring’ on the lives of everyday people who have lived and are living through an extraordinary and desperate time for Libya.

  9. Rated 5 out of 5

    Bob Stone, Write Blend

    This is an important book.

    In a world where it seems everyone has a view on what is generally referred to as “The Refugee Crisis” and governments can be elected on the basis of their immigration policy, there is a need for information and fact to inform the opinion.

    Rory O’Keeffe spent time at Choucha Refugee Camp in Tunisia interviewing refugees, and then moved on to Libya, interviewing the citizens of Sirte, Tripoli and Benghazi.

    This book presents the stories of these people told in their own words. They are stories of survival against desperate odds, but above all they are the stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

    The book also takes the reader on a tour of the camps and the cities as a backdrop to the stories and presents a wealth of information about the Arab Spring and the Libyan Civil War.

    As well as being an important book, this is also a very good book. It informs without preaching and shocks without sensationalising. The use of the second person narrative, which, to me at least, can sometimes make the reader feel they are being manipulated, is in fact highly appropriate and very successful in this case. It provides an immediacy, as if the reader is viewing the scene through the lens of a camera. This is due to the author’s voice which calmly leads us on our journey and makes the narrative highly accessible.

    The refugees’ stories themselves are both disturbing and enlightening, with a pervading sense of bewilderment that the interviewees have found themselves in such a situation. The stories are inspiring because they are told by people who survived, but heartbreaking because one is inevitably reminded of all those who did not.

    Anyone who seriously believes that refugees are leaving their homes and making desperately dangerous journeys to enjoy a life of luxury at the British taxpayer’s expense needs to read “The Toss of a Coin”. But even readers who are already sympathetic can learn a great deal too. The book is essential reading and Rory O’Keeffe provides the perfect voice to write it.

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