Learning from Libyan Youth, and Dispelling a Few Benghazi Myths

Working group session (picture courtesy of Abdulkareem Dwaini)

Working group session (picture courtesy of Abdulkareem Dwaini)

Recently I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop on the role of Libyan and Tunisian youth as agents of change in their post-conflict and post-transition countries (yeah, I know, buzzword-y title, but it was a UN event, so it was to be expected).

The main aim of the workshop was to draft youth-oriented strategies and projects for the next two years, focusing on four thematic areas; capacity building, policies, institution building and creating a productive environment. The projects were built around youth empowerment on an economic, social and civic level, with an eye on women’s empowerment and peace building. We spent two full days diligently working in groups on the issues that most affected us as youth.

What I most love about these kinds of events is that they give me the chance to meet and talk with Libyan youth activists from across the country. Aside from the brief insights we gain through social media, there’s very few chances for us to interact with our counterparts in other cities and regions. It’s interesting to hear about the issues faced by Libyans across a wide spectrum, to learn about the similarities and differences between our areas, and the work they’re doing in their own civil society communities.

There was a young man from Jufra who spoke about the cultural work his organization is doing despite the creeping ISIS threat from nearby Sirte. There were representatives of the Scouts of the Nafusa mountains who shared their amazing efforts to engage youth, as well as Red Crescent volunteers who have been tackling the daunting task of the migration crisis in Tripoli. Another young man from Derna spoke about the city’s revival in the wake of the ISIS overthrow, while a Sebha activist shared the human rights work her organization was conducting in Fezzan.

As representatives of Benghazi, we talked to other participants about the work we were doing without mentioning the outstanding political situation that the city was going through, in keeping with our stance of neutrality as activists. But the invariable questions about the war came up, although not quite what we had expected.

The most common question was, “isn’t Benghazi completely destroyed?” This question caught us by surprise because, obviously, Benghazi isn’t completely destroyed. But it’s not exactly in tip top shape either. We found ourselves having to give a detailed explanation of the city’s geography, front line areas and the role of the army, militias and extremist groups in the conflict. Benghazi residents know that the conflict here isn’t black and white, but describing the intricacies of a war is harder than expected to someone not familiar with the background.

What’s been happening, it seems, is that the media outlets have been airing pictures of a destroyed street in the Sabri district (part of which actually is destroyed) and portraying it as all of Benghazi. This is completely misleading, as Sabri is just one of over 20 large districts that make up our seaside city. But the picture is shocking enough to elicit the feel that, if this area has been completely destroyed, surely the rest of the city was affected. This is why other Libyans find it hard to believe that we’re holding workshops and other civil society activities, essentially living our lives the best we can. The situation isn’t exactly an easy one to cope with, but it’s far from apocalyptic.

Another strange rumor that’s been floating around is that people in the East want Khalifa Heftar to fill Gadhafi’s shoes. If you know the nature of Benghazi’s denizens, I don’t need to tell you how ridiculous that is. Nor do I need to tell you how utterly idiotic the other rumors are regarding tribes, separation and other controversial issues.

But like I mentioned before, Libyans almost never get a chance to properly interact with one another, meaning that common knowledge about my city is nearly inaccessible to other Libyans. So you can’t really blame them for believing what they hear through the media, and it helps to explain why the Libyan conflict has touched so many nerves and set off a slew of fights online.

Last year I attended a similar event, that time with youth from Misrata. Now, if the media is to be believed, the core of the problem in Libya is an intense and hostile power struggle between Misrata and Benghazi. But of course, the media can’t be believed. Us (the Benghazi gang) and the Misratis were initially a bit hesitant to interact (a small voice was saying, what if the media was right?) but after some ice breaking, both groups got along rather well. We all had the same vision and the same goals for our cities, and we were impressed by each other’s projects and passions. It drove home the realization that the conflict in Libya isn’t between Libyans; it’s between our depraved, asinine, power-hungry, arrogant, greed-driven politicians. And it’s no coincidence that these politicians all mostly happen to be old men.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Libya would be much better off if the aging politicians in power were rounded up and placed in a retirement home somewhere, and youth instead instated in positions of power. Regardless of the war, the country cannot move forward with fossilized thinking. The youth I met these past few days have reaffirmed my belief that we have the necessary people, they just lack opportunities.

Possibly the best part of the workshop was the final night we spent together as a group. We went out for dinner, and during the walk back someone began singing a Libyan limerick.  Pretty soon it turned into a full-fledged ‘keshk’ (similar to a singing circle), with people sharing bits of poetry and song from their regions. It’s a purely Libyan tradition, and it was fun to stand there in the night, sharing in that tradition together. We don’t get to do these kinds of things in Libya, especially now with the environment becoming more hostile. But you can mull over peace building and conflict resolution strategies in conference rooms for days, and ultimately, it’s those little moments that really create unity.

Flying While Libyan

السفر قطعة من العذاب” – سيدنا محمد”

The infamous green Libyan passport, soon to be a relic of a bittersweet era

The infamous green Libyan passport, soon to be nothing more than a relic of a bittersweet era

Libyans don’t agree on much these days. But there is one thing that seems to be universally accepted; the quality of life in the country has dive-bombed after the 2011 revolution. Aside from the physical struggles to achieve the most basic day-to-day tasks, or the staggering loss of life, there’s another more abstract concept that Libyans yearn to have; leadership. Or, to put it another way, a strong sovereign nation.

The void of a national authority that has some respect (or at least sway) on a global level is most felt when travelling abroad. Since the revolution and subsequent wars, it has become increasingly difficult to fly in and out of the country. The number of countries that allow Libyans to enter visa-free can be counted on one hand, and even to these nations, heavy restrictions have been placed.

Historically, the ease of travel in Libya has fluctuated between simple enough to horribly frustrating. There was a time (or so we’re told by our parents) where Libyans could travel to most countries easily and be treated with the utmost respect. The Libyan passport used to carry significance abroad. Fast forward to the Gadhafi-era sanctions imposed on Libya, and all flights in and out of the country were completely stopped. Anyone who wanted to travel abroad had to take a car or bus to a neighbouring country (often Tunisia or Egypt) and fly from there. During the more difficult trips I take now-a-days, my parents like to remind me that they once had to drive the 24+ hour trip from Benghazi to the Tunisian border, and get searched by border guards, often in extreme weather conditions.

Fast forward to just before the revolution, and aviation in Libya was picking up. International carriers offered flights from Libyan airports to a wide range of destinations, including London, Rome and Malta. Libya was beginning to reconnect once again to the rest of the world. Sure, our hand-written bright green passports elicited a few raised eyebrows from customs, but no one had any reason to think badly of Libyans flying to other countries.

And then the revolution happened, and the aviation industry went down the drain. Benina airport has been closed for over a year, Sebha airport for almost two years, while Tripoli International Airport has been reduced to ash-covered arches standing in the middle of smoldering rubble. Many of the planes belonging to the Libyan Arab Airlines, Afriqiyah Airways and Buraq Air (the three biggest Libyan airlines) were lost in the attack by Fajr Libya on Tripoli’s airport. (Meanwhile, a new airline has miraculously appeared, going by the name of Libya Wings. Its history, like its sudden appearance, is shrouded in mystery and controversy).

The few smaller airports that still function in Libya (Maetiga, Labrag and Tobruk) are woefully unequipped to deal with the number of passengers and flights that have suddenly been forced to resort to them. Labrag airport in particular has gained a notorious reputation due to the staff’s tendency to randomly prevent passengers from flying for any number of personal reasons. Maetiga airport, purportedly run by a militia, has enacted a primitive rule whereby young women are not permitted to travel alone unless a male relative signs a consent form. A few airports in the South (Ghat, Temenhint and Kufra) are still limited to local flights, which are anyways still badly needed as the roads in and out of Fezzan become increasingly dangerous. The only international flights available to Libya these days are to Istanbul, Amman, Tunis, Khartoum and Alexandria.

These cities, which are jokingly referred to as “the new Libyan capitals”, (on account of the high influx of Libyans who pass through them), have recently put in motion more restrictive measures for Libyan citizens. Istanbul, shortly followed by Amman, now require visas for Libyan citizens. Tunisia has “temporarily” rerouted all Tunis-bound flights to Sfax airport. Aside from these destinations, many countries will not grant Libyans a visa due to the current state of affairs in Libya.

Another facet of difficulty was added when it was declared that new electronic passports were to be issued for Libyan citizens. The green passport will soon be obsolete (any passport issued pre-2008 is already obsolete in Tunisia) and citizens need to get the new passport as soon as they can. This has proven to be a Herculean task, as the online registration site for a passport appointment is either overbooked or filled with glitches, and people have begun resorting to bribery out of desperation, adding another unneeded layer of corruption. I’ve heard of bribes reaching up to 3000 LYD for a single passport. Even ‘wastas’ (connections) are no guarantee of getting a new blue passport. If you don’t have the older green passport, you’re essentially stuck inside the country until you can somehow miraculously get a new passport. For Libyans who depend on overseas medical treatments (which, considering our local heathcare system, is a lot), this passport crisis can be fatal.

If you can manage to get a new passport, and a visa to the country you need to visit, and you managed to book a flight (which will probably be delayed by several hours, which is the norm), you will then need to tackle another beast; the black market currency rate. Since the Libyan dinar is no longer a hard currency, you cannot convert dinars at other airports. With the banks closing off most financial services, Libyans are stuck with the black market exchange, in which the value of the dinar has been steadily plummeting. A US dollar is now worth over 3 LD, meaning any trip you plan could end up clearing your savings. If you run into any trouble while abroad, whether financial or otherwise, there’s no guarantee that our ineffectual embassies will help you out (one embassy per government, in some countries) as they are too embroiled in the legitimacy crisis.

Picture for a moment the feelings of the average Libyan citizen, who, after suffering through a dictatorship, war, and terrorist invasion, is now treated sub-humanly by other countries, because they either don’t want you in their country for too long or because they fear that you might harm them. Imagine being utterly helpless to even get a new passport for your ailing parent who needs medical treatment abroad. Imagine losing most of your life’s earnings over what should be a typical trip to a neighbouring country, or having to sleep in an airport because of the constant flight delays. Just like the days of the sanctions, Libyans are being treated like pariahs and are forced into isolation. It’s a humiliating experience to be told to stand in a “special” line and watch as everyone’s bags (whether old, young, sick, handicapped) are thoroughly searched, enduring scornful glances from the local authorities because you happened to be born in the wrong country. Especially for Libyans, who have a lot of pride (perhaps the last remaining evidence of a better time) this kind of treatment is hurtful.

There is one type of Libyan who hasn’t experienced much trouble with travel, however. At Labrag airport recently, I saw members of the House of Representatives, the Transitional Government and the Constitutional Drafting Assembly, all milling about waiting for a flight to Tunis (no doubt to cozy up to the new president of the GNA). In their hands was the red diplomatic passport, just another symbol of the ever widening chasm between the average Libyan citizen and their representatives. Their obliviousness to the struggles of the citizens they represent is only too apparent in these kinds of situations.


The aim of writing this post isn’t to set up a pity party, but rather to raise attention to this issue. The media, government agencies and even the airlines themselves are indifferent, particularly since they don’t hear a unified voice calling for improved conditions and hell, even just for a modicum of respect and help. Libyans deserve better than this, and war or not, things can, and SHOULD, get better.

Please Keep Your Emotions and Reactions Inside the Ride at All Times

Here’s another thing they don’t tell you about war; it’s not a phenomenon with a linearly ascending timeline of bad to good, or bad to worse. Instead it follows a pattern similar to the line you see on an EKG monitor. Things seem to be picking up, and everyone’s thinking ‘this is it, the war is nearly over!’ But then something happens which brings down morale, and this cycle continues in varying degrees. It’s an emotional rollercoaster which leaves you mentally exhausted.

Fighting had stopped in Benghazi for the past few weeks. We usually get these periods of calm once in a while in between the clashes. Death and destruction is a tiring business, and both sides need a break every so often. During this lull, a video was posted on Facebook depicting the Engineering Faculty of Benghazi University, up in flames. The video then jumps to a later scene, where the flames have died out and the burned hulk of the building is visible; broken windows, blackened twisted metal, roofs caving in.

I’m going to skip over the part here where I’d normally try to articulate my feelings upon seeing the video, because the internet doesn’t need any more human bleakness. Instead, I’ll tell you that I avoided social media for the rest of the night, and went to class today in the school our Faculty is using temporarily. Although after the video, the term ‘temporarily’ might not be very accurate anymore. No one knows when exactly the fire happened, but we’ve all taken it as indication that the end is still very far off.

To say that people in Benghazi are fed up with this nightmare is an understatement. The highs and lows of the war, the unexpected shortages and missiles, and the prolonged waiting has all been very agonizing. Even the latest announcement of a new (newer?) unity government and the signing of the UNSMIL peace agreement has been met with almost complete indifference. Keesh square is empty except for children playing in the park and student drivers practicing in the parking lot. Social media posts range from “well, let’s hope it works out this time” to “meh, whatever”.

Elementary schools have resumed in Benghazi, which has brought some small measure of happiness. But the reopening of schools has meant horrible traffic congestions, which kind of negates the happiness.

Civil society is around too, trying to fill in the gaps left by the government, which has proven to be a difficult task after the recent threats made by government officials accusing civil society activists of treachery, implementing foreign agendas and other equally ridiculous claims. What’s not ridiculous is having an intelligence officer calling you out of nowhere and demanding documents and other details about your work. That shit is scary. It doesn’t matter which MENA country you live in, when mukhabarat call, you panic. No one wants a file with their name on it sitting in one of their file cabinets.

A year ago I was fueled mainly by anger, indignation and vitriol. I hated everyone who ignored Benghazi or, worse, people who judged us from afar and stole our narrative online. It felt so good to rage, breathing self-righteous flames of fury on anyone who crossed my path. Being in Benghazi felt like a badge of honour that shielded me from blame for my destructive behaviour. Today I’m mostly numb. I don’t have any feelings, just because it’s given me peace of mind. I think the same can be said for most people here. Unlike the soldiers and fighters on the front lines, we can’t just take a break from the war.

There’s a military checkpoint that was set up somewhere near to where we’re living temporarily (the same ‘temporary’ stay as the university). This checkpoint had two kiosks on either side of the road for the soldiers to sit in when they switch shifts. The road was divided by old tires and empty ammunition boxes, to control car movement. The grass nearby was littered with debris from the soldiers; old fire pits, a small chicken coop, sofas with upholstery that had seen better days. Needless to say, it was not exactly a sight for sore eyes. One days, as we were driving past, we noticed that everything was gone. The kiosks, the tires, the chickens, everything. It was as if there was never a checkpoint there at all. I don’t know why they left, but we took it as a sign that, when the war is over, all the artifacts and debris will be taken away over night, and it’ll be like there was never a war to begin with.

Benghazi’s Neighbourhoods and Their Ideologies

Most big cities around the world are organized based on a system of streets and districts. Neighbourhoods are often formed on the periphery of busy commercial centers, in quiet residential areas where familiarity between people doesn’t extend beyond physical recognition and a formal head-nod.

But of course, Benghazi breaks that tradition. Rather than adopting big city idiosyncrasies (impersonal, enormous, chaotic), it has instead developed a hybrid of urban culture and small town quirks.

Take, for example, the layout of the city. Benghazi’s core is its downtown, located on a jut of land overlooking the Mediterranean, since the city’s economy was historically dependent on its sea port and salt trade. Later, Greek town planner C.A.Doxiadis drafted a vision for the city to promote a concentric-circle plan, with the downtown being the core. The concentric circle design is a standard template in urban planning, and is beneficial for cities experiencing rapid growth.

But while Benghazi’s downtown is (or, was) a commercial center, it never quite shook off the neighbourhoods that had existed in the area. These include El-Sabri, Sidi Khraibeesh and Souq El-Hoot, districts that once housed Benghazi’s oldest families and contained a medley of architecture styles and landmarks that extend as far back as the Ottomans. (If you notice a switch in my use of present and past tenses, I still have trouble reconciling the fact that we’ve ostensibly lost our downtown in this war).

Most of the old families had long moved out of these areas, but the buildings they left behind still bore their names. The Kanoun building, the Benkato mosque, the Kikhia house, etc. all form a downtown that is familiar in the minds and hearts of Benghazi’s older generation. My favorite part of walking through the downtown with my parents is hearing them reminisce on old memories. My father riding his bike around the Silphium plaza or haggling with Jewish merchants in Souq El-Jareed, my mother studying in the Manar Palace (temporarily used by the university) and eating lunch with her friends beneath the horseshoe arches of the terrace.

Benghazi expanded to the North, South and West, but the traits that made up the old neighbourhoods did not dissipate. Instead, they moved with the families, creating neighbourhoods across the city where people know each other intimately, where strangers asking for directions are invited inside for food and tea, where a wedding or funeral tent is set up in the middle of the street and no one complains, because the neighbourhood celebrates and mourns together. Some say that, because the people who came to Benghazi broke away from their tribes and became part of the diverse social fabric of the city, they recreated the tribal system they were familiar with. In Benghazi, there isn’t much that separates family, friends and neighbours.

Today, the neighbourhoods in Benghazi can roughly be described as “upper” or “lower” class, although the description isn’t universally accurate. Gadhafi’s systematic destruction of the city created an even playing field, economically speaking. That is to say, lower class ‘sha3biya’ areas can house university professors and other intellectuals, while many upper class areas have no working sewage system.

El-Wahayshi is considered Benghazi’s “slum”. Containing mostly old housing developments, the area has a high drug-trafficking rate, and many immigrants coming from impoverished countries live there. Tabalino, on the other hand, is considered a “rich suburb”. A relatively new area, most of the houses are impressive marble-encased villas surrounded by high walls. But aside from the houses, the districts are almost imperceptible from one another. Both have the same small shops selling vegetables, cigarette kiosks and mobile phone stores. Both have public schools with the same architecture and the same level of education. Both have potholes that fill with rain water in the winter.

I remember reading an article that described the Hadayek area as “affluent” and laughing at the description. Hadayek is a relatively nice area, paved streets and sidewalks and trees (the name translates to ‘the Gardens’), but it doesn’t contain any features that make it particularly affluent, or distinguishes it from ‘less affluent’ areas. I guess maybe it’s because I’ve lived here for so long, but the shabby facades and accumulated dust and debris from years of neglect have made all the districts in Benghazi similar to me.

The neighbourhood mindset has had a certain degree of effect in the current war. I’ve seen many articles analyzing the political, cultural and economic factors that have come into play, but I have rarely – if ever – read an analysis that including the anomaly of Benghazi’s urban composition.

For example, when the war begin, one of the first districts to be liberated was El-Selmani. Selmani is an old, high-density area comprised of a maze of narrow streets. It isn’t so much a large swath of houses as much as it’s one house, with children and women and men walking the narrow streets like hallways to play or borrow ingredients or just to stand on the corner and chat. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Selmani who didn’t know their neighbours in at least a four street radius. And so, when the war began and the extremists began fighting army members for access to various districts, the people of Selmani instinctively knew who was whom. And due to the Selmani residents’ overwhelming support for the army, the extremists were weeded out and fighting stopped in the area after three days.

But in Laithi it was the opposite. Laithi is another old neighbourhood, expanding across much of West Benghazi and containing a mix of new and old buildings. Before the war, the district was humorously referred to as “Laithi-stan” due to the overwhelming number of people who were pro-Ansar Shariah (dark humor, I know). When the war began, the men of the area closed off the main streets, snipers were positioned in key locations and those who supported the army inconspicuously left. When the fighting began, all their strategizing was put in motion and it remains a site of continuous battle to this day.

Now, what makes a neighbourhood predominately pro-Ansar or pro-Army? It’s obviously not just a coincidence that people with similar ideologies happened to live near each other. As mentioned previously, neighbours are akin to family for many people. People who grow up next to each other are bound to have their beliefs influence one another. What’s become apparent in this war is that many families with those who have a member in the fight will ferociously defend that side, and so the same seems to go with neighbours.

Another anomaly in the war is the fact that we have military bases located in residential neighbourhoods. The February 17th militia base is across from the university quarters and the Rafallah Sahati militia base is in Hawari. Not surprisingly, these areas have been evacuated (or people were forced to leave under threat of violence). The number of displaced families has reached a little over 46,000 registered IDP families, and the relocation and humanitarian assistance for these families has proven to be one of the biggest problems in the crisis. The psychological damage of the displacement is probably the worst. There are fears also that the ideological reasons for the war and the tribal elements are tearing apart the social fabric of the city.

It’s this humble (sort of) blogger’s opinion that this last fear is not as worrying as it would be if we were talking about a city other than Benghazi. Our society is, if not many other things, at least resilient. This is not the first war or the first crisis that we have ever faced, and while tensions may be high now, I don’t believe (or hope, at any rate) that we’ll see any lasting damages.

A Tale of Two Cities

By the fourth year, the bombings and assassinations had become common in Benghazi. The sounds blended into the city’s background noise. Traffic horns, supermarket crowds, booms. We never accepted it, but there it was anyways.

These sounds, familiar to us, took Paris by surprise this week, shattering the pattern of the city’s busy existence. Terrorism is a hideous thing, but it’s made more horrifying when it catches you unaware, filling your surroundings with violence and bloodshed.

But unlike Benghazi, there’s a system in place, a procedure to follow, to protect the city from falling into further chaos. Also unlike Benghazi – where our own young men turned on us – these men came from somewhere else, filled with unexplained anger and blood lust. While nothing has been properly confirmed yet, there’s a lot of speculation that these attacks were carried out “in revenge” for France’s role in combating ISIS. Why they would target innocent civilians who have nothing to do with the jets over Deir al-Zour, nobody speculates on, because this is not an ideology based on rational thinking. It’s built on reactionary propaganda and the manipulation of emotion.

This wound will hurt France now, but its pain will continue to affect the refugees, Muslim or otherwise, long after the last bullet-ridden window pane is fixed. And it wasn’t just France that lost people. Morocco, Spain, Tunis, nationals from many countries were killed in the attack, “in revenge” for something they had no control over.

And Paris is the kind of city where people come together, a hub for travelers from across the world, discovering a beautiful city with a rich history, remarkable architecture and a good-hearted people. On my first trip there, I was slightly anxious. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were reports of hate crimes against Muslims, so I didn’t know what to expect. But my fears were alleviated on arrival; everyone was kind, helpful, welcoming. Which makes these attacks, to me, all the more heinous.

Social media, as usual, has misdirected the incident and broken it down into a series of talking points, arguments and other irrelevant drivel. Suddenly Paris is about defending “true Islam”, suddenly its about the bombing in Beirut, it’s about the forgotten Palestinian cause. A whole host of flags of different Arab countries become profile pictures, trying to out-number the France-flag picture in some kind of twisted competition. Those flags should be accompanied with the slogan “I only express solidarity with Arab countries when a Western one is attacked.”

In this tangle of self-righteous expression, the message of global solidarity against a merciless terror is lost. Yes, Islam doesn’t advocate senseless slaughter, but clearly some Muslims believe it does, a problem we ignore in our scramble to reassure the rest of the world that we’re not secretly murderers. Instead, prove it to the world by working to prevent another massacre. Yes, the Beirut bombing was severely under-reported, but why would you take that out on the fallen in Paris? They didn’t ask to be gunned down and get media attention, so pay your respects and direct your anger to the wider problem. Yes, Syria and Palestine and Libya are all forsaken, but they won’t be remembered if you only bring them up to prove a point about misdirected media.

If one thing is to be concluded from all this, it’s that we’re all suffering, whether prolonged in years or in a sudden bursts. Instead of turning on each other, it would be wiser to turn on the enemy. Not the young men who are brainwashed and confused, but to the radicalization process itself, to the vacuum of opportunities and the lost chance at a decent life.

To Benghazi, all this arguing and anger and confusion blends into the background, along with the explosions. We’ve given up on profile pictures and empty hyperbole a long time ago, and have taken matters into our own hands. We are, very slowly, recovering, having to do it, as usual, by ourselves. Paris will recover too, and probably faster, because they have more support. I don’t resent them for that, I’m glad that they do, because I’ve had to witness the same nightmare first-hand and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. We’re both cities made up of a rich diversity with a passion for culture, we’ve both experienced the same shock and heartache from the same sick, twisted ideology, and we’ll both, in time, move on.

On Choicelessness in Libya, or Why Developing Countries are All the Same

It seems like the only books I can really dive into these days are those that relate, on some level, to Libya. I’ve started at least half a dozen books this year, only to lose interest about a third of the way through. While philosophically-rich love affairs, the expansion of the universe and dragon-filled fantasy all make for interesting books, they just couldn’t grasp my interest.

Part of my travel rituals include buying at least one book from the place I visit. And so, rushing through a bookshop in Paris right before my flight home, I picked a book from the shelf with a familiar title – Americanah. I can’t remember where I had heard of it (probably social media) but I remember it had caught my attention.

Americanah is a love story, a fictional memoir and social observations, all wrapped into one. It tells the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who moves to America because her university studies had stopped due to political instability (well, doesn’t that sound familiar?). In America she discovers an unfamiliar culture and, even more unfamiliar, the sudden distinctiveness of race. She goes through the typical immigration struggles before finally establishing herself as a “non-American black” blogger, writing insightful and sardonic posts about her daily observations. But when she starts to feel unfulfilled, she travels back to the motherland to start a new life and reclaim her old love. But her return has revealed that she’s changed; she’s no longer a Nigerian but an Americanah (or, in Libya-speak, a double shafra).

Now before you go looking for your own copy to read, keep in mind that it may not everyone’s cup of tea. It hit home for me for obvious reasons, but it speaks through the perspective of a very niche demographic; those wandering, identity-confused souls who come from different countries. Conversely, it is a good way to put yourself in those travel-warn shoes, so read it with those disclaimers in mind.

With some of my older blog posts (like Double Shafra Culture or What It Means to be Libyan), I was getting comments from people across the globe saying that they, too, faced similar experiences in their own countries. Most of these people came from developing countries like Libya. It’s interesting to discover that our situation is not really that unique, and that developing countries seem to face the same obstacles, albeit in different degrees.

In Americanah, tyrannical military leaders were overthrown, but replaced with a corrupt system that elevated the rich and created a poisonous class division that debilitated the nation’s development (where have I heard that before). The aspirations of the youth became intrinsically tied to getting a visa and leaving the country to build a better life abroad (Libyan youth today). For Obinze, Ifemelu’s love interest, having his visa expire plunged him into an endless cycle of fear at being caught and desperation to find a solution that would allow him to stay. Ifemelu was never perfectly comfortable in America because the issue of race dominated, and because she was always looking at the culture from outside the “circle”, being unable to fully immerse herself in it. And yet, when she returned to Nigeria, she found aspects of her old culture that she could no longer stomach, being torn between here and there. This is the biography of every expat caught between two places.

To reuse a tired cliche, the world seems to be divided into two; people who live in developed countries, and people who aspire to one day live in developed countries. It is, after all, much easier to leave your problems rather than try to fix them, especially problems on the scale of war and national corruption. Those who do end up making the journey from developing to developed aren’t always entirely happy; the myth of the “silver platter life” vanishes once you start working a minimum-wage job while trying to support a family, navigating through real and imagined discrimination and spending your nights gripped in deportation fears.

And the developing countries? They experience dictatorship, coups, revolutions, war, eventually attain some years of tenuous stability, and sometimes go on to make something of themselves. But the roots of the problem still remain, and the cycle eventually repeats itself. In Americanah, Obinze observes that,

“…everybody in this country has the mentality of scarcity. We imagine that even the things that are not scarce are scare. And it breeds a kind of desperation in everybody. Even the wealthy.”

I could fill this blog with half the book’s text because it’s very quotable, but instead I’ll focus on the observations that really hit home. What most stuck out for me was Ifemelu’s observations on choicelessness.

“[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

The war in Libya has definitely been a catalyst towards the exodus we’re now seeing of Libyans to other countries (Tunis, Amman, Cairo and Istanbul are often described as Libyan states because of the number of Libyans who now live there), but this choicelessness has always existed. While life under Gadhafi is more preferable to the current hell, it still had that choked feeling of helplessness. There’s a reason why self-actualization and esteem are on the top of Maslow’s pyramid, and while we’ve been demoted a few levels on that pyramid, young Libyans (and other youth in developing countries) still strive for self-expression and personal growth. Ifemelu reflects, during on of her first nights back in Lagos, as she tries to sleep in the extreme humidity due to a power outage, “A painful throbbing had started behind her eyes and a mosquito was buzzing nearby and she felt suddenly guiltily grateful that she had a blue American passport in her bag. It shielded her from choicelessness. She could always leave; she did not have to stay.”

She did not have to stay, but many Libyans have to. I think some of the spite towards double shafras comes from the fact that they are “shielded” from this reality, that they’re not stuck here. And, sometimes not intentionally, double shafras act superior for it. That was one of the criticisms that Ifemelu faced when she began expressing her disdain over aspects of Nigerian society; that she was being judgmental and lording over others. Even valid criticism can be de-legitimized if it’s said in the wrong tone. She herself is critical of other Nigerian returnees, writing in her blog, “…we spend all our time complaining about Nigeria, and even though our complaints are legitimate, I imagine myself as an outsider saying: Go back where you came from! If your cook cannot make the perfect panini, it is not because he is stupid. It is because Nigeria is not a nation of sandwich-eating people…It is a nation of people who eat beef and chicken and cow skin and intestines and dried fish in a single bowl of soup, and it is called assorted, and so get over yourselves and realize that the way of life here is just that, assorted.”

Now, I don’t know if I would use something like couscous as an analogy to the way of life in Libya (maybe 3usban, because it sounds bizarre when you describe it and looks worse, but really isn’t that bad), but her criticisms are a good example of the friction between returnees and locals. If (when?) Libya stabilizes, we might see a lot more of this, as those who left now might come back one day, and they will invariably find themselves in a Libya different from the one they left. To avoid the mistakes we’ve made in the past with regards to returnees, I think we need to find a new, more tolerant dynamic that both sides should adopt.

I’m hoping I can get back to just enjoying regular literature without Libya-esque symbolism and analogies, because those kinds of books always lead me through a cycle of wonder to frustration to hopelessness and back. I think I find these books fascinating because I still don’t have that whole live-in-a-war-zone/returnee/Third-Worlder identity thing down yet, and it’s insightful to read how others have dealt with it. If you’re the type to still hope, it also offers a promise that this is just a phase our country will eventually get over. My next book is Welcome to Night Vale, which is about an otherworldly fantasy town with sinister goings-on. And yes, I’ve already created a connection to Benghazi.

Tribalism in Post-Revolution Libya

“شن قبيلتك؟” (What is your tribe?)

Get stopped at a checkpoint in any region in Libya these days, and this question will invariably come up. A tribe has become more than just a moniker in Libya after the 2011 revolution; it’s a form of identification, used by others to determine where you come from, what your political beliefs are (or should be) and where your loyalties lie.

Every Libyan belongs to a tribe. Whether it’s a small family in an obscure desert town, or a million-strong clan that spans the nation, the tribe forms part of the core of the Libyan identity itself. A person who does not have a tribe is not Libyan, not really, and is given one of the numerous derogatory labels that have been cultivated in the Libyan vernacular, a result of the heightened (exaggerated) pride at our Libyan-ness. (Of course, these labels are only applied to those poor souls from surrounding countries, Chadiaa, Tunsee, Masri, never to a person from, say, Europe or North America).

Prior to 2011, tribalism was buried deep under the surface, at least in my hometown of Benghazi, perhaps to counter Gadhafi’s manipulation of tribal sentiments in order to stay in power. One notable example of this is the renaming of the Eastern town of Tokra to ‘Al-Agoria’, after the Agori tribe that live as a majority in the area. Many speculate that the cause for this name-change was to sow discord between Eastern tribes, who have historically always been united.

But Gadhafi only used what had already existed. Tribal alliances, feuds and migrations go back much further in Libyan history, and still influence the country to this day. The age-old conflict between Misrata and Bani Walid, the story and background of ‘tajreedat habib’ (تجريدة حبيب) in Derna, the East-West divide, the geographic tensions between the Tebu and Tuarag, etc.; all affect, to some degree, the Libyan situation.

It was only after 2011 that the extent of tribalism in Libya came to light. A person who was born and raised in Benghazi would point to a city in West Libya that was fighting Gadhafi and say, “That’s where I came from”, indicating their tribal lineage. Protest signs would declare things like ‘the Tarhouna tribe stands with the revolution!” and “Werfella for February 17th!”. Of course, this didn’t really alarm anyone; if anything, it was encouraged, because it showed that Libyans from all tribal backgrounds were united, and that it was Libyans, not outside actors, who stood against Gadhafi. Nothing is more Libyan than a Libyan tribe, after all.

But it didn’t take long for old tribal grievances to appear once again. Clashes became common between Zawiya and Wershefana, Misrata was flexing its muscles in Bani Walid, and the federalist movement in the East used tribal alliances to gain influence.

Many critics of the federalist movement who claim that it would cause the country’s division seem oblivious to the fact that the country is already divided along tribal and regional lines. Even if its not part of the official legislation, there is a distinct triad of identities in the country; Bargawi, Tripolitianian and Fezzani, and each has a strong basis in tribalism.

But do you need to be part of one of the tribes of the region in order to embody its identity?

This is where the Benghazi anomaly comes in. Benghazi is a tribeless city, that is, no tribe is from Benghazi. A commercial city built on its sea port and salt trade, merchants came from across the country and turned the city into a thriving metropolis. This is where the nickname “رباية الذايح” (upbringer of the wanderers) came from, and its been estimated that around 190 tribes are represented in Benghazi’s million+ population. Much of the city’s inhabitants can trace their ancestry back to Misrata and Bani Walid. And yet, Benghazi sits as the de facto capital of Barga, the Eastern region, and those in and around the city exist in harmony, exemplifying a tribal equilibrium.

My own tribal background is a mix of various origins. My fathers’ parents moved from their tribal hometown to Benghazi before Libya’s independence, to start a new family and a new life. My mother’s grandparents each found their own way to Benghazi, each from a different city, each drawn towards this Eastern beacon. Ask around, and you’ll find that this is the background of most Benaghza. Some are ‘new’ to the city, while others can trace their family’s presence here from the time of the Ottomans.

And this, according to many, is part of Benghazi’s downfall today.

Tribalism in Libya’s current turbulent situation is a double-edged sword. In the East, it has been a unifying factor, while in the West and South, it has fueled the fighting. Benghazi, without a clear tribal focal point, continues to face an ideological war that is forcibly being re-narrated as tribal and regional. Where we were once all Benaghza, we are now Misratis, Tobrukis, Sebhawis, etc. The city has been broken down into its constituent parts and each is careful scrutinized, measured and judged. If you’re from that tribe (and therefore from its respective city), then you must support this side, right? At the height of Operation Karama, a malicious rumor began circulating that people of West Libyan origin were being kicked out of the city, despite the fact that the instigator of Karama is himself of West tribal origin, despite the fact that both sides in the conflict are made up of a mix of tribes, and DESPITE the fact that at least half of Benghazi is from West Libyan origin.

Tribalism makes a good scapegoat for those who want to deliberately twist the reason for the East’s instability, but what’s sad is that many people have stepped into these roles, turning rumor into reality. Your tribe did not initially determine the side you chose to support, but it has slowly come to do so now. And really, can you blame someone for being with or against a certain side when they hear their tribe or city insulted across social media pages and the media?

In Mansur Bushnaf’s ‘Chewing Gum’, he writes, “Libyans are attached to their tribes, each dragging it like an umbilical cord behind him.” Even those we call “huthoor” (حضور), those whose families were brought up in the cities and who have no tribal affiliations, have felt the pull of a tribe, a force reaching in through centuries, which now colours the interactions and outcomes of their lives. I could once tell people my name without having it mean anything other than who I was. But now, my name is attached to a host of pre-conceived suppositions, even if none of them are actually true. You come from this city, you are sympathetic to that political party, you follow these customs. No, don’t try to deny it, your name gives it away.

On a very real level, tribalism has become a gateway in Libya to some very ugly discrimination and some very primitive practices. Politicians are voted in based on their last name rather than their skills, and there is an outcry when a certain tribe isn’t “represented” on a committee or governing body, and nepotism is more widespread than ever before. People from certain tribes are now afraid to travel in certain areas, and your experience at a checkpoint could hinge on the name printed on your ID card. What positive aspects there were of a tribal system in Libya – social protection, a form of restorative justice, etc. – has been overshadowed by the negative aspects. A civil country cannot be built on a system that categorizes people based on something as arbitrary as a last name.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of tribalism in Libya. It is a very complex, extensive topic, and it requires a contextual understanding of Libyan history to really grasp how ingrained this phenomenon is in our country. As the conflict continues, tribalism is getting more or more radical. While I’m sure that cities like Benghazi, formed by all of Libya, will survive, I definitely worry about the consequences of the fighting today and the legacy it will leave for future generations.