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.

The Death of Democracy in Libya

Yesterday, Libya’s House of Representatives held an urgent session in their Tobruk headquarters to vote on an issue of the utmost importance. No, not the peace process. Or the war. Or the terrifying ISIS threat. Nope, the issue that brought an unprecedented number of representatives together (ever since their first session) was, of course, extending their mandate in Libya.

For those of you with hazy memories, the House of Representatives was set up to replace the expired General National Congress, which, to no one’s surprise, also extended their mandate. The idea was that new elections would instill a better legislative body that the Libyan people could put their faith in – faith that the GNC had ripped to shreds.

These elections happened in 2014, right after the launch of Operation Karama in Benghazi. By that point, many citizens were fed up with the process of voting in new officials, hence the low turnout for the HoR elections. Those who did vote were the more optimistic citizens, who held on to the hope that a new governing body might pull Libya back from the abyss.

Elections were held, votes counted, and the HoR – which was to be based in Benghazi – was formed. However, certain political groups did not win as many seats as they had intended, and plans were set in motion to handicap the HoR before it had even begun working. Airports were attacked, representatives threatened, suspicion cast on the relocation to Tobruk (due to the conflict in Benghazi), etc. Ultimately, the GNC refused to hand over power, citing incredibly vague reasons that were a cover for their actual excuse, “Nu uh, we don’t wanna.” In order to cement their position, they strong-armed the Supreme Court into passing an order to dissolve the HoR, under duress by their militias.

I was one of the people cheering on the HoR, because I was fed up with the malicious incompetence of the GNC and their childish attempts to derail what was becoming an increasingly off-balanced democratic transition. Anything would be better than them, and a government that was closer to my own city might actually focus on the multitude of problems we were facing for a change.

But over time, the HoR lost the desperate trust of the people. Their repeated promises to fight terrorism and fix the country never materialized into anything more than bold words spoken through a microphone. The usual divisions predictably appeared within the HoR itself, and they repeated the same unprofessional gaffs as their predecessors. It became harder to defend their actions to those on the other side of the conflict. During one session – at the height of the war in Benghazi – members voted on raising their own salaries, a move that sparked universal fury (the first time all sides in the conflict agreed on something) and marked a steep loss in the tenuous support they had already had. But, the one fact that could be reliably turned to was that the HoR, despite their incompetence, were voted in democratically and recognized by the international community.

In the backdrop of all this was the threat (or, to some, the promise) of a military council, to replace the fragmenting HoR. This threat/promise continues to grow as the HoR’s mandate comes to an end.

According to the amended constitutional declaration of 2011, the HoR’s term ends with the completion of the constitution, or within 18 months from the start of the CDA’s work. In exactly 14 days from now, that 18 month deadline will be reached. We have no constitution, a government in the West that refuses to hand over power, and now a government in the East that is doing exactly the same thing that caused us to demand a new government in the first place. Hope, Libya’s last remaining hope, is a Government of National Accord, that combines the GNC, HoR, and nearly all the political factions in Libya fighting for a piece of the pie.

The HoR, as part of their Roadmap Committee, proposed a backup plan in the event that the national dialogue fails and a unity government isn’t formed; extending their mandate. Yesterday’s vote was a step towards ensuring that this plan was implemented, much to the ire of Libya’s enraged population.

The deadline to accept the national dialogue proposal is supposed to be October 20th, as it coincides with the end of the HoR’s term. By extending their mandate another six months, the HoR is basically inviting UNSMIL to extend this confounding process of forming a new government, which in turn will prolong the war.

Except, Libyans can’t wait another six months. We can’t wait another day. This plan should have been signed months ago so that the process of ending the conflict can begin, a conflict that is now entering its second year. The latest report by the UN indicates that over 2 million Libyans are directly affected by the war and need assistance. This extension is a blatant act of despicable, self-important selfishness that clearly shows how ignorant and insensitive the HoR is to the suffering of the country. Their excuse, that they don’t want to leave the country in a political vacuum, is an exact repetition of what the GNC said, confirming in the minds of Libyans everywhere that these government are just two sides of the same coin.

This move signifies something more than just another shameless power grab by corrupt Libyan politicians; it’s another nail in the coffin of Libya’s democratic transition. Every succeeding election saw a smaller turnout than the one before it, as every governing body we elect fails us. It’s incredibly common to hear citizens say “I’d rather cut my finger off than dip it in ink again” (a reference to dipping your finger in ink after casting a ballot). It’s one thing for your fellow countrymen to screw the country over while you look on helplessly, but it’s an entirely different thing when you know that you were the one who voted them into office to begin with. There is a phobia now surrounding elections, since our governments seem unable to hand over power without pointless extensions and wars. Libyans who staunchly supported the revolution now lament the loss of Gadhafi, and seriously discuss the potential benefits of reinstating military rule under Khalifa Heftar. The unity government itself is an un-democratic concept, as it centers around the distribution of power to political entities that had refused to hand it over.

It’s been said often since the end of the revolution that Libyans aren’t ready for democracy. I think the problem is that Libyans aren’t ready for politics. Either way, democracy can’t save Libya now, and the term itself has become a hated word. All that is desired is some semblance of stability, regardless of the cost. Some say that you cannot have a stable country without freedom, but Libya has neither stability nor true freedom. We are caught between greedy politicians, a growing terrorist threat and an indifferent international community. If the unity government is not formed, Libyans will not rally around the HoR, and we can’t keep waiting for perpetually unending dialogue negotiations. There are any number of scenarios that could happen by Oct. 20, each one more ominous than the last.

Roundup: Libyan Blogs You Should Be Following

I’ve written before on trends in internet usage among Libyans, and I consider myself lucky to be present at a time where online activity and social media usage has just taken off, because it offers a unique chance to see how a formerly isolated country is now virtually connecting to the outside world. In particular, it’s fascinating to see how this connection is affecting Libyan society on the ground.

Libyan social media migration has moved from Facebook to Twitter and now to blogging, showing an increasing tendency to share thoughts and opinions with a wider audience. Of course, much of these points of view revolve around the current (unfortunate) circumstances of the country. But my hope is that this trend increases and we’ll see more focus on social and development issues.

For now, I’d like to share my favorite Libyan blogs. The list is a mix of English and Arabic blogs with different fields of focus, offering (to me) a well-rounded look at life in Libya. In no particular order, they are:

6. Project SilphiumThis blog began as an initiative to raise the voice of Libyan women as they continue to fight for their place in society alongside men. It brings up issues faced by Libyan women, both young and old, and from various backgrounds. That’s what I really love about Silphium, they give women a chance to share their own stories and provide a safe platform for them to speak their mind.

5.  Mohammed Eljarh’s Blog: There’s something about reading analyses on the Libyan situation from foreign analysts that never feels quite right, as they are often oblivious to the underlying factors and motivators in the country. That’s why reading Eljarh’s takes on Libya are so refreshing; he is an authentic Libyan voice who focuses on the key issues, with an understanding of the political and social composition of the country. Sometimes it’s better to read it from an actual native, ya know?

4. Ahlam Badri’s Blog: I was fortunate enough to meet Ahlam Badri during a workshop here in Benghazi. She’s an active and energetic woman with an eye and an ear for interesting topics and current events. While the bulk of her blog posts focuses on the Scouts (she is a Scout leader), she also writes for other sites, such as HuffPost Arabi.

3. Showbak: Anas Benguzi is a young Benghazino with a wealth of talents. From film-making to graphic design, he shows remarkable skill and an eye for good art. And one of his talents includes amazing writing. What I love about Showbak is that Anas’s writing is like reading art turned into words. You need to know Arabic to fully appreciate this blog, and he captures the spirit of Benghazi and it’s people in their essence. Reading his blog posts is an emotionally grasping experience.

2. Wake Up Benghazi: The thing about a blog written by a practicing architect is that you get good writing AND awesome graphics, all in one post. Mutaz Gedalla, the author of Wake Up Benghazi, covers a wide range of social issues in the city, offering a blend of advice, analysis and the personal insights of a Benghazi resident. It’s one of my personal favorite Libyan blogs (yes, I am biased towards anything Benghazi)

1. Tawfik Bensaud’s Blog: There was a young man from Benghazi who had a way with words. He was active, passionate and left a lasting impression on all those who met him. He was assassinated nearly one year ago for his outspokenness. Tawfik loved writing and reading, and his mature writing belied his young age. The best way to honour his memory is to keep his thoughts and words alive.

Of course, a post on Libyan blogs wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Libya Blog initiative. Sponsored and run by a number of international media outlets and organizations, this initiative trained a large number of Libyans on blogging skills. You can find a list of the blogs that were set up on their site here: http://libyablog.org/

I really do hope that blogging continues to gain popularity in Libya, and I hope we’ll see further initiatives like Libya Blog to encourage more Libyans to utilize this medium of expression. If there’s one thing we’ve gained from the revolution, it’s free expression, and the best way to safeguard it is to use it.

If you have any suggestions for other Libyan blogs that deserve attention, please mention them in the comments!

Surviving War Between Semesters: Life of a Benghazi University Student

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

If I were to apply for graduate school right now, my summer activities list might look something like this:

  • Cultivated ability to identify the areas of a house least likely to be hit by missiles
  • Obtained negotiation skills to survive dangerous check-points
  • Learned to drive around careening tanks

Obviously these activities don’t actually involve architecture or urban planning (unless you count the house part, which I doubt many universities will). Part of being an ‘Arab Spring’ student is that much of our education involved learning skills that don’t raise our employability level so much as they contribute to staying alive, as we gain our academic credentials in almost bold-faced defiance of the reality around us.

But regardless of the circumstances, my academic life in Benghazi University has always been an unorthodox experience. Even before the revolution, students had to navigate the political and social complexities of Libya. Gadhafi’s face stared at us from the ‘Political Theory’ courses that were mandatory for all students, which we swallowed in bitter silence. His revolutionary guard lurked every corner; you never knew who was listening. Three-day conferences for all new university students about the ways of the Jamaheria were unavoidable, as men in badly tailored suits droned at us about respecting the system.

And then the revolution happened, layering the already politically saturated campus with even more confusing ideologies. Life on campus was, to me, a mirror image of our society at large. But the need to graduate and excel in our chosen field dominated over our interest in the political squabbles happening in the halls of the General National Congress in far-away Tripoli. We were all conscious that a degree meant starting a new phase of life, and every civil disobedience that stopped university for days delayed this phase, every fallen rocket threatened to destroy our futures.

Unlike most teenagers on the brink of adulthood, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I’ve always had a passion for visual design, and from a young age I would diligently pull out my accrued collection of art supplies and practice drawing. As I got older, I realized that architecture provided the balance I needed – flexibility and a chance to freely express myself, with a structure that appeased the mathematics-oriented part of my mind that I inherited from my engineer parents. “It’s final,” I declared to my friends one afternoon in the sixth grade. “I’m going to be an architect!”

And then we moved to Libya.

The education institution in Libya is not an encouraging system. Students memorize rather than learn, teachers are punitive rather than nurturing, and the end goal is not to acquire knowledge but rather to acquire a degree.

This is why I fully expected that enrolling at Benghazi University (at the time, Garyounis University) would not be the ivy-league experience I had envisioned for myself. I went to the entrance exams like a person condemned. What could I hope to learn in a place where the furniture was at least 30-years old and the professors a group of aging memories from better days long since passed?

Instead, I found myself in a system that challenged me, that pushed me into doing better, that stretched my limits and my abilities in a way that, I would dare to say, competes with top tier universities. Yes, our furniture was old and our resources were limited, but with the internet and the support between students, we honed our skills and fought toe-to-toe with the multi-headed dragon that is architectural education. Our professors were ruthless; they would expect nothing but the absolute best we could produce. They managed to take a group of students with no background in arts (some had never even made a simple craft before), and turned us into individuals that could define the dimensions of a room by sight, that could cut paper with millimeter precision, and who, with more practice, could become real architects.

My younger self would never admit this, but my education at the architecture department of Benghazi University is one of the richest academic experiences I had ever known.

We were on a semester break when the 2011 revolution happened. Benghazi was freed in five days, and no one knew what would happen next. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. The university was closed, only the staff were allowed inside as they determined what to do with the fate of thousands of students. But the students, being young and seizing the opportunity that freedom afforded them, were already engaged in several activities and projects in Benghazi’s burgeoning civil society. No one was really concerned about resuming our studies. The campus wasn’t going anywhere, and we were learning a host of new skills. Med students got a chance to turn theory into practice as they volunteered in hospitals, media students were being snapped up by the rapidly-growing collection of news channels and press. Others also got the chance to test out new fields, pursuing their true passions rather than whatever they were stuck learning at university. Like many other architecture students, I began using my design skills to produce graphics for various organizations, easily learning new software programs and skills on the spot in the charged atmosphere of the revolution. Anything felt possible in those days.

After the last stronghold in the country fell and the country was ‘officially’ liberated, we were informed that classes would resume.

An incident at university under the Gadhafi regime still comes to mind after all these years. The Gadhafi family had a row with the Swiss government, although the details of the incident were murky, as was everything related to the Gadhafi family in those days. One day soon after I saw two revolutionary guards marching up to the entrance of the library, a miniature coffin covered in the Swiss flag being carried on their shoulders. They put the coffin down and shuffled aimlessly about as students glanced at it in passing, perhaps afraid that even staring too long might rouse suspicion. However, I think the guards realized the comical pitifulness of the effigy. It was removed half an hour later.

Truthfully, I don’t remember much about campus life after the revolution. What I do recall is the enthusiasm of the students and teachers alike. It could have been the 9-month vacation that rejuvenated everyone, or the abstract notion of freedom that still made us giddy. I threw myself back into my work with renewed enthusiasm, developing my abilities as an architect. There were subtle but noticeable changes in the university itself, as students became more vocal about their rights and the administration attempted to boost the reputation of the university. Every grievance was fronted by the question, “Why did we have a revolution if this kind of thing is happening?” Another change was the posters that adorned many of the buildings. On these posters were the names and faces of students who fought and died in the revolution, and each department honoured their fallen comrades.

But it wasn’t long before the deteriorating security situation of the city began to reflect on campus life. There was a sense of general uneasiness, and the campus would clear out by the afternoon. Before, we were wary of the guards, but now we were concerned about something not as tangible; the uncertainty of the situation we were in. Uneasiness also returned on a political level, as the factions forming in Libyan society were also forming among the student body. As the political problems escalated, people were discussing their beliefs less and less, the one tried-and-tested mechanism we knew of to protect ourselves. The backdrop to this tense environment was the ominous sound of rockets from the nearby militia base, which kept everyone on edge. Why did we have a revolution?

The instability in Benghazi came to a head after the army forces decided to fight back against militias and extremist groups. United under the banner of Operation Karama, fighting escalated in many parts of the city. Because of Benghazi University’s proximity to the February 17 militia base, this meant rockets launched by the militia against fighter jets invariably landed in our campus. Just as they had done three years previously, classes were indefinitely suspended.

We thought that the suspension wasn’t going to last more than a few months, but we had underestimated the intensity of the situation. Unlike the revolution, where the fighting happened in other parts of Libya, this was going on within our city. Passing by the empty university, I could see militia cars parked next to the gate of our campus.

But it wasn’t until October 15th that we realized how bad it was going to get. Benghazi University became a battle ground, as army forces attacked the militia groups hiding inside the campus itself. Picture after picture of the campus buildings on fire and in ruins dotted social media as we collectively mourned the loss of our university. The administration had assured the students that all their records were safely moved and were available in a temporary location. But it didn’t quite lessen the blow we felt. Benghazi University was the first university established in Libya, and it was up in flames.

It’s September 4th, 2015, and Benghazi University has been closed for one year and four months. Tomorrow classes will resume. The university has designated several public schools across the city to be used temporarily. The medical college campus is still intact, as it is located in another part of the city.

I’m overcome by feelings of happiness and despair at the thought of returning. Happiness because I finally have a chance to graduate, but despair in knowing that it won’t be the same. Many students have left, either transferred to another university or unable to return because of the war. Many professors, too, have gone.

I won’t get to present my thesis in the studio where I had learned to become an architect. I won’t get to take a graduation photo in front of our department building with the rest of my class, and I will never get the chance to take once last stroll through the faculty as a student. I know these are minor, almost negligible grievances, especially compared with what many others have lost during this war. But it doesn’t hurt me any less.

They say college life is supposed to be the best years of your life, but for us they were years mixed with anxiety and hardship and fear. We didn’t see students hanged on campus like our parents before us had witnessed, but we’ve experienced our fair share of horror. I guess Benghazi University has had a more turbulent history than most other universities.

I’m sure that one day, in the future, the buildings will be repaired, the campus will be cleaned up, and new books will line the library shelves. The university will continue to produce doctors, lawyers, engineers and others professionals for Libya. My only hope is that these new generations will not have to experience university life the way we did, and that campus life will finally reflect a city at peace.

A Benghazi Resident’s Take on Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” Movie

Benghazi just can’t catch a break. As if an all-out war isn’t enough, the city is being vilified nation-wide by those who see the war as a misdirected endeavor, and the people of Benghazi are being accused of, yes, destroying their own city! I won’t point out the insensitivity and blatant ignorance of this stance. If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll be familiar with the slippery slope that led our city to the circumstances it’s in today. The war is horrific and it’s hurting us, but it was also an inevitability brought about by the same people currently pretending like there were other options.

One of the very first incidents that sparked the descent down this slope was the killing of American ambassador Chris Stevens. This event launched the start of Benghazi’s international vilification, as pundits and citizens alike decried the Libyan revolution and the international intervention that bolstered it. “We shouldn’t have gotten involved at all!” they screech, oblivious to the fact that if NATO hadn’t intervened on March 19, 2011, there would be a pile of cold ash where I’m currently sitting. Vacuous terms like BenghaziGate and Benghazi Truther were coined by people who most likely could not point out Benghazi on a map. Possibly most comical of all, my city’s name has become almost permanently linked in the media with Hilary Clinton, a politician who hadn’t even seen Benghazi.

So you can imagine my ire one afternoon when I received a message from a friend with a Youtube link and the message, “watch this and start tweeting.” The link was for the trailer of the new “13 Hours” movie, based on the book by the same name. I had heard rumblings about this movie before, knew that it was being filmed in Malta, but other than that I dismissed it as just another attempt to cash in on the Libyan revolution. There have been myriad books and movies made dramatizing and/or analyzing the events of 2011 onwards, mostly from  Western journalists who seemed to have left their professionalism at the airport when they walked into this country. But this movie takes unprofessional and irresponsible Western arrogance one step further.

Pictured: Above, the actual city of Benghazi.  Below, NOT Benghazi.

Pictured: Above, the actual city of Benghazi.
Below, Malta, I guess? Basically some place that ISN’T Benghazi.

Right off the bat, the film starts off so very wrong. You get an overhead shot of a seaside Middle Eastern town. How can you tell it’s Middle Eastern? Why, there’s a dome and minaret! And all them Middle East places look alike, don’t they? It’s not like Benghazi has it’s own unique and rather gorgeous architectural composition accrued from various eras in its history. Nope, just show people a dome and tell ’em it’s Benghazi, same thing.

The opening shots are followed by a scene of Americans being stopped by armed men, who accost them in the standard “Hollywood Arab” accent. This scene sets the tone of the rest of the trailer, an explosion-laden standoff between “the good guys” (our valiant Americans) and the evil Benghazians who like to eat Westerners with their breakfast sfinz. It’s basically a sausage-fest filled with heavy artillery, fire and well-groomed beards. So, yeah, a typical Michael Bay flick.

Benghazi Boy Scouts, marching during a culture parade in the city. Not pictured: Flip flops

Benghazi Boy Scouts, marching during a culture parade in the city. Not pictured: Flip flops

Interspersed through the movie are clips of disheveled children wearing grimy flip flips, standard scenes for any movie on this region. If you don’t have domes and dirty kids in flip-flops, your audience may not recognize where the movie is taking place.

I think what primarily bothers me about the movie is that the people of Benghazi are either the gun-wielding terrorists or confused onlookers. What about the Libyan guards that lost their lives defending the compound? What about the regular citizens who arrived on the scene and tried to help the Americans? What about the medics who tried to resuscitate them? What about the protests the next day decrying the heinous and barbaric attack? Benghazi is well-known for its hospitality and kindness to guests, especially those from abroad. The terrorist attack that night was a shock to the entire city, it wasn’t just another day-in-the-life-of-an-Arab-city.

Scary Benghazi residents wielding frightening weapons. Cuz there's only one type, right Mickey?

Scary Benghazi residents wielding frightening weapons. Cuz there’s only one type, right Mikey?

What the movie will also probably ignore is the repercussions that the incident had on Benghazi. International organizations and offices all packed up and left, leaving the government with no real reason to resolve the security problem. On the contrary, they continued to indirectly support Ansar Shariah and the other militia groups, leaving Benghazi’s residents at the hands of unstable murderers. Our name was smeared in international media, becoming synonymous with conspiracies and chaos. Instead of being helped, we were shunned and ignored, left to combat terrorism on our own. This is a fight we’re still fighting to this day.

I know people will tell me not to jump to any conclusions til the movie is released, that it is, after all, just a movie. But many others have already pointed out that the release of this movie will coincide with Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign launch. So it seems that this entire movie boils down to the spoiled bickering of Americans as they grapple for power, using the murder of a good man to gain political leverage over one another. Not unlike Libyan politicians, then. Between all this, a beautiful city, my city, is reduced to so much hyperbole in a debate that lost relevance long ago.

Benghazi is not anyone’s conspiracy theory, and it sure as hell isn’t just a single unfortunate incident that defines a city with a rich history. Benghazi is Euesperides, a prosperous Greek city founded centuries ago. Benghazi is Berenice, a city named after princesses and queens. Benghazi is ‘the mother of the orphans’, lovingly named so by the orphans that make up this eclectic, strong, resilient city. Part of me is almost glad that the depiction of Benghazi in this movie is so hilariously inaccurate, because then people won’t associate the real Benghazi with it.

And who knows, maybe in the future, it an ironic twist, the term ‘Michael Bay’ will be adopted into colloquial Benghazi speech to refer to a colossal, factually incorrect screw up.