Grassroots vs The Gucci Activist: Class Division in Libyan Civil Society

Civil society has been getting a really bad rep in Libya these days. That’s not to say that this particular sector has always received adoring praise in the past – far from it, civil society has been the target of universal hate, and the only thing warring factions can agree on is that it should be stifled. But the waves of hatred since 2015 have been tinged with very credible threats of violence, with kidnappings, assassinations and even restrictive legislation, all which has led to the rapidly shrinking space of activism in Libya. This has caused many to disengage, leaving the room open for those using civil society as a means to make profit or leverage political favour.

I don’t like talking bad about civil society even when I do see negative attitudes and practices, mainly because this is one of the few spaces we have left for genuine empowerment, and it doesn’t need another cynical voice. But it pains me to see that civil society – the same one which contributed to my own growth and empowerment as a young woman – make the unfortunate transformation into a monopolizing money-making machine (transliteration not intentional). Back in my day (I know I know, I’m not 50, but bear with me) civil society was made up of – admittedly naive – people who genuinely wanted to make a change. Those people have either grown up and moved on, left the country, lost hope (raises hand), have been scared into being quiet, or instead transformed into one of the machinists. And maybe that’s just the natural progression of these types of spaces, especially in the Libyan context, make money to survive or die.

Libyan civil society today made up an interesting array of characters, each playing a role in the continuing evolution of our country’s particular form of civil society. To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these groups/individuals are “good” or “bad”, only that they are motivated by their own personal interests and contexts. To give you a rough idea, they consist of:

  1. The Not-An-Activist Activist: This type of person is normally a very active member of their community, someone who knows where everyone lives, the one who distributes fresh bread to the neighbours early in the morning,  who brings in the electricity company when there’s a fault wire, and the one who collects donations when a member of the community isn’t doing too well off. This person will be horrified if you call them an activist. “I don’t do that Facebook flashy stuff,” they will indignantly tell you, because in their mind (and the mind of many Libyans today), civil society is synonymous with meaningless shows of altruism. Taking care of your community, they will say, is a citizen’s obligation.
  2. The Scout Leader: The Scouts in Libya are by far the institutions that has produced the most active, conscientious citizen leaders in Libyan society. That’s the whole vision of the Scout movement in Libya, and many people who are members of the Scouts go on to become important community leaders. Also a group that shuns the ‘activist’ title, the Scouts are purely focused on awareness-raising and diligently avoid politics to preserve the integrity of their institution.
  3. The Charity Aunts: We all have that aunt who is part of a charity and who spends family gatherings reminding you to donate your second-hand clothing. They are often known as سيدات المجتمع “the ladies of society”, well respected and tirelessly working to help those less fortunate. So well respected, in fact, that many of these CSOs were able to get licenses to work independently under the Gadhafi regime. Each CSO focuses on a number of families who rely on them for assistance and – more recently – have received vocational training to help them support themselves.
  4. The Grassroots Group: Normally a group of young friends who wanted to do something more with their time, the grassroots activists are sometimes an evolution of the first category, people who are well connected and have an urge to mobilize those around them into action. Like the charity aunts, they also focus on mainly helping the poor, but over the years these groups have gotten into human development and advocacy.
  5. The Gucci Activist™: You know who I’m talking about. Perfect English-speaking, haute-couture brand wearing, jet-setting to importance conferences across the world, self-important expert on *all* things Libya, this is the activist that INGOs love. They look great in front of the camera and make the best success-story material. This person started working in civil society and by virtue of certain privileges (and great application-filling abilities) was able to catapult themselves to de facto representative of Libya’s civil society. Are they actually representative though? is a question they often find themselves faced with.

Now, this is obviously just a light-humoured list that can include other such characters as the Angry Academic, the Entitled Expat and other fun alliterations, but in seriousness, the fabric of Libyan civil society is as varied and diverse as the people themselves. I would (shamefully) categorize myself as the last group, because I have been that person that goes to every conference and finds myself speaking on behalf of people whose backgrounds and contexts I don’t know well enough about, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been reducing my involvement in civil society. In any case, I wrote this out to expand a bit on the last two groups, where the source of tension has always been.

Essentially, the Grassroots Group are Libyans who come from a much less privileged social class and whose activism and empathy comes from a place of understanding the value of community movements on a personal level. The Gucci Activists, on the other hand, are mainly very ambitious people who see their delegate status as an extension of their social standing (perhaps the legacy of the political bourgeoisie under the Kingdom). Of course these are generalizations and there are exceptions, but broadly speaking these two camps highlight what I believe is a strange and fascinating divide in our civil society. It seems to be a general trend across the MENA region but I’ve yet to see it elsewhere, and probably says more about how deeply rooted our social divisions and inequalities are than anything else. Gucci activists tend to mock the work of grassroots activists as being less sophisticated than what they can produce with their high-end graphics and INGO funds, while Gucci activists are vilified as being all show and no substance. This has created an environment of resentment and hostility.

Many people have said that we should see less of the Gucci activists who are seen at every event and more from those working on the grassroots level who are actually working on the ground. But others would argue that delegates are important to articulate the work happening in Libya in a way that the international community can understand and respond to, and to serve as a medium between the two. There are many ways to argue this, but I will quote one of my professors who said, “We have to work with what we have and start building bridges. We can’t reinvent our societies.”

It would be nice if we could eradicate class divide and live in a happy world with rainbows and cupcakes. But sadly that is not the case, and in Libya it’ll be a long time before we reach a level of stability in which we can meaningfully tackle social inequality. What I find myself frequently thinking about is the new generation of young people, and who will be there to pass on the torch of activism to them. Ultimately they will find their way to one of these groups, and to me that is still much better than to find no one at all, and join the apathetic masses who never became engaged.

And it was this odd grouping of people who, after much lobbying both on a grassroots and international level, helped in the release of jailed activist Jaber Zain, who was imprisoned for almost two years in a militia jail. If there’s one thing I can still put my faith in, it’s that civil society is still learning and growing, and that with time it will ultimately find its bearings. It is, after all, an inherently resilience sector, and successful projects do continue to thrive as activists use their ingenuity to find room for maneuver in what is an increasingly hostile and terrifying atmosphere.

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The Lost Humanitarian Principle

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A oddly arranged picture from some of the UN’s promotional material which prompt questions: Who are these 90,000 people? Do they actually need the food? Why a picture of an old woman in a traditional cloak who could literally be anyone’s grandma?

I’ve found myself reading quite a lot about Gadhafi’s early days of rule and the vision he had for Libya. Growing up in an anti-Gadhafi household meant that I was never able to see past his brutal regime, but in the wake of Libya’s destruction I have found myself questioning so much of what I used to believe, and that includes a more nuanced and critical view of the Gadhafi era. What I found most notable was his passion for a country that was completely autonomous, one that meaningfully tried to heal from its colonialist legacy. I believe that many Libyans who today long for the days of Gadhafi are most nostalgic about that feeling of true sovereignty and independence away from the meddling of outside actors.

This interference has become the target of a growing wave of anger and discontent from Libyans at the way embassies, development organization and NGOs are conducting work in and about Libya. It is dawning on many citizens that the political stalemate in the country is being prolonged by various nation-states who have competing interests in Libya, as the country has become the site of a proxy war. This can also been seen in the type of programs implemented by international cooperation agencies and where they do (and don’t) work.

It can also be witnessed in the “Twitter diplomacy” of some countries. No one can easily forget the bizarre antics of the American ambassador “Safira Debora” of a few years ago, who posted teenager-style tweets from within high-level diplomatic discussions. And the current Italian ambassador and embassy frequently write very ham-fisted tweets, including how the days of Italian occupation in Libya were a glorious time for the country, ignoring the fact that Libyans were dying in Italian concentration camps during that same period. Indeed it appears that the Italian policy in Libya is to blatantly step all over the nation’s sovereignty.

Recently it has been the work of aid organizations that have enraged Libyans across the country. Pictures of UNICEF distributing light-blue backpacks emblazoned with their logo were circulating last week, with objections coming from all sides. Most people lamented on the depths Libya has reached that we rely on international organizations to give our children backpack. But others still were angry at the prominent size of the logo and the demeaning way in which the photo op was conducted. Among other things, the depiction of beneficiaries as weak and helpless is frowned upon in NGO circles. But in the case of Libya, it is also creating resentment among a nation of proud people towards these agencies and their hand-outs.

Another inflammatory picture by WFP depicted a young boy in what appeared to be a camp, with the caption (I’m paraphrasing here) “We asked why this young boy wears his Eid clothes during food distribution days, and his mother said it was because these are days of celebration!” While one can debate the size of logos and importance of documenting aid distribution, the above example cannot really be justified. To depict a family as being so happy to get food distribution that they dress up for it is not only humiliating and demeaning, it also erroneously portrays food security as an issue in Libya.

I might need to put up some disclaimers here. Firstly, I come from a middle-class family from Benghazi, and the extent of my knowledge is obviously limited when it comes to Libya’s marginalized groups living under the poverty line. I also worked with an international NGO, and we weren’t perfect when it came to our programming and communication either. However, after working with and various groups across the country, I can say that we never encountered food security to be a prominent issue, for several reasons. The first is that local charities, the zakaa system and the CSR office of national companies already covers the basic needs of vulnerable groups. Secondly, basic food items are subsidized in Libya, making it still relatively affordable. But more crucial than all of this is the fact that WFP has been trying to import food assistance to Libya since 2014, and it has usually come in spoiled and unfit for human consumption, and is routinely thrown out. And yet, despite this massive inefficiency in management, Libyans haven’t starved without their assistance.

There is always the constant speculation over what is gained by such depictions in the communication material of these agencies. Libya is definitely suffering from severe problems including infrastructure failure, a weak education and healthcare system, but these are problems caused by a corrupt and mismanaged administration, not lack of money. Instead of addressing these key issues, why deliver bags of food? The unsatisfactory answer is that it’s easier to employ band-aid solutions than to spend years addressing root causes. The easy answer is that the aid industry relies on this system in order to provide jobs for thousands of expat workers. But there may still be a more insidious answer in the realm of conspiracy theories on how a weakened Libya serves certain interests.

In any case, the growing anger is leading to more and more NGOs and agencies being denied a license to work inside the country, and could potentially put their employees at a higher risk. More discretion, and a return to the principles of humanitarianism, are definitely required.

Film Review: Freedom Fields, and the Perpetual Struggle for Choice

I’ve been in London for three weeks now, and I’m already dreadfully homesick for Libya. I know right now that every Libyan’s dream is to get out of the country, but there is so much emptiness (at least for me) outside the enclosure of our society. There’s no familiarity here, and it’s probably a side-effect of the war but I’m finding it difficult to bond with people who haven’t been through that same experience that I have. I’m probably being annoyingly pretentious to my Libya readers (my double-shafra-ness is showing *hides in shame*) but there you have it. Home is home, even if it’s broken.

I got a chance to briefly go back when I attended the screening of the documentary ‘Freedom Fields’, which chronicles the struggles of the Libyan National Women’s Soccer Team (“football team” for you annoying non-North Americans). I got a ticket by being my Libyan self and looking for a wasta (connection) because it sold out quite quickly. I’m sure you’re digging through your memories right now and remembering ‘oh yeah, there was a thing about a women’s soccer team a few years ago’. There was a lot happening in Libya back in 2012 and after the sensation died down we didn’t hear about the team anymore.

This film covers what did happen after the huge controversy, and follows the lives of these women over five years. Specifically it covers three main storylines; Na’ma, a Tawerghan woman living in a camp in Tripoli who’s circumstances have given her a nothing-to-lose iron will; Halima, a bombastic and passionate doctor-to-be; and Fadwa, an ambitious and headstrong young woman.

I think the film is geared more towards foreign audiences, to give them a rare glimpse into the lives of Libyans, but it really struck a chord with me as a Libyan viewer, simply because even we don’t have access to the kind of media that gives us a perspective on how different Libyans across the country live (how many of us have seen the inside of a Tawerghan camp?) but also how similar we all are (that constant societal pressure for women to get married and ‘settle down’ affects us all regardless of tribe or social class). The women portrayed in the movie could have been anyone I know, neighbours or friends or colleagues. For this reason the movie felt so personal to watch.

This point is particularly notable for me (and I believe for other Libyans) because I’m sure many people never looked into the issue of the women’s soccer team, we never realized that behind the controversy and Facebook wars, there were regular Libyan women who just wanted to play soccer (which is not that outlandish an idea, women have always played sports in Libya, it’s just that they’ve never played so visibly before). It’s incredibly sad to realize this in hindsight but the lost battle of the team set the tone for all the struggles that activists fought after the revolution, as our rights as women and citizens were put on the chopping block. If we had known this now, I think more people would have been vocal about this cause back in 2012.

The filmmaker is British-Libyan Naziha Areibi, who came to the premier decked out in a farmela and silver ‘abroug jewelry. She is completely invisible throughout the movie, acting only as a camera, but I’m sure that her relationship with the people played a large part in how she was able to shoot (and because Libyans aren’t the kind of people who would let you just passively watch but get you involved in the conversation), and it would have been interesting to see behind-the-scene footage into how the women interacted with this documentary process.

What I admired most about the structure of the film is that it is free from any kind of political or social statement. To be sure, there are a lot of political undertones in the film, but only in how it immediately ties with the lives of the players, and always told through their voice. You hear of the frustrations they have with a revolution that didn’t fulfill its promise of freedom, of the increasing isolation Libya faced after the 2014 war and all the restrictions that came with it. Even with the social aspect, you just see Libyans living their everyday lives, without any sensationalism or exaggeration. You know how merciless I get when it comes to representation of Libyans, but this film gets my Authentic Libyan™ seal of approval.

Being reminded of my own experiences as a woman in Libya, coupled with the heartbreak of what our country is capable of and yet unable to attain because of the situation, left me in tears at the end of the movie (it might have also been the homesickness). Yes there are still good and strong people in Libya who are trying to resist the hopelessness, but there is always that fear of how long they can last. How long can a person put up a fight and pick themselves up when they’re down, when the fight is against the very reality of your country?

This film is one of a few but growing number of media that covers Libya without casting the war as the main character, including the Tatweer Enjazi documentary on the entrepreneur contest of the same name, and the work of the Elkul channel. Yes, they are few and far in-between, but it’s a great start to begin magnifying Libyan voices and counter the wave of Western-produced garbage about our country.

I’m not going to spoil the film too much because you should definitely go and watch it for yourself. The next screening will be in Amsterdam, and the production team is currently trying to organize screenings inside Libya itself (if the situation permits). Whether you like it or hate it, as long as we can start a discussion in our country on what choices we give to our women and our society at large, maybe one day we’ll have a national women’s soccer team again.

Chosen for Chevening: How to Make Your Application Stand Out

Greetings from London! If you’ve been following my social media you’ll know that I was awarded a Chevening scholarship to do my Masters’ degree in the UK (self-congratulatory woohoo). (It’s still too early to write a ‘Libyan in London’ observatory post although you know your opinionated blogger has much to say already).

As a recipient of this scholarship, there’s an unspoken obligation to ‘pass on’ the knowledge to others, and to support the next generation of postgrad scholars. There’s already a number of guides from Libyan Chevening alumni available online (for ex. here and here) and lectures (like this one coming up in Benghazi). In that tradition, I’ve opted to take advantage of the little free time before drowning in readings to give my own take, especially since applications for 2019/2020 are open until November 6.

However, this post will not repeat what already exists online on the application process itself. Instead, I want to address the comments I see from unsuccessful applicants who want to know why they were not selected. The application process for any scholarship is not simply about meeting the basic criteria (undergrad degree, work hours, grammatically-correct essays), but about standing out and showing that it is worth investing in your education. Because at the end of the day, a scholarship is an investment, and the return on this investment is an active citizen who utilizes what they learn to contribute to solving issues and positively impact their community and country. With that in mind, I hope this guide will help, well, guide you through the application process to succeed in achieving a scholarship.


A scholarship for a postgraduate degree isn’t something that you should casually apply for. There are several questions to ask yourself and self-reflection before making a decision that can have a large impact on your life, either positively or negatively. Some of these questions are:

1. Will this scholarship help my mission/career path?

This is probably the most important question, essentially being honest with yourself about whether you need to continue your education. In some cases, work placement would be more beneficial. Leaping into academia isn’t easy, because you’ll have an intensive one-year programme that will need your full time and dedication. If you do decide to take this leap, knowing what you want out of the experience will help you in better determining what programme of study would be best for you.

I chose to continue my education because I was working a lot on post-conflict recovery and reconstruction, and my architecture background didn’t prepare me for working on development issues. For this reason, I decided to pursue a masters in urban design for development.

If you do decide that you want to study a Masters, the next question is:

2. Is the programme I want to study important for Libya?

This one is a bit more difficult to answer up front because for a country like Libya, everything is important. We need practitioners and policy makers in almost every field, from urban design to governance to education to health to….you get the idea. Chevening realized this and removed the list of ‘priorities’ for potential Libyan scholars.

But that doesn’t mean what you want to study will automatically get approved. Saying that you want to study a M.Sc in Mechanical Engineering because that’s what you did your undergrad in doesn’t sound like anything particularly important, but saying you want a masters in Mechanical Engineering because you want to support the development of local industry, and you’ve already began working to support a small manufacturing startup will show that your goals are more in line with the Chevening criteria.

What’s cool about the UK is that they offer several programs that focus on merging disciplines with development theory, which means that you can learn how to apply a technical skill in a developing country like Libya. It also means that you don’t have to do your Masters in the same field as your undergrad, if you have work experience in that field.

3. What have I contributed to my community?

Like I mentioned before, winning a scholarship means proving to the selection committee that you are exceptional. High academic grades are important but there are thousands of students across the country who have an A+. It’s your extra-curricular activities that will highlight your creativity and potential. Whether you volunteer in your spare time for issues like women’s rights or environment or education, or have contributed to your university’s student union, or worked to support local authorities in service delivery, the cause you’re passionate about says a lot about who you are as an active citizen. In my case, it was showing the committee that I wanted to work on an issue that was important for the country, namely socially-responsible and holistic reconstruction in Libya.

Now, civil society in Libya is still in its infancy and extra-curricular activities aren’t in high abundance, but it’s here that your creativity will show. Leadership and networking skills are a high priority for Chevening, and how you mobilize people is a great way to show them off. Joining the Scouts or Red Crescent is a great way to get started; network with the people you meet there in order to learn about opportunities elsewhere. What you should avoid doing is volunteering somewhere for a month or two just to pad your application; if you’re not passionate about something, it will definitely show.

4. Do I want to study in the UK?

The UK has a lot to offer when it comes to education, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea (pun intended). Some people choose to apply because this is the only scholarship opportunity they can find, while they may have their heart set out on another country. In this case, look into scholarships such as the Civil Society Leadership Award, the Fulbright Scholarship, the DAAD scholarship and others. (If the deadline has passed, follow up on the page for it to reopen for the next year)

5. What do I want to do when I come back?

This one is again tricky to answer, because we’ve gotten out of the habit of planning for the long term in Libya thanks to sudden airport closures, a fluctuating local currency and the political legitimacy crisis. In this context, my advice is always to integrate flexibility into your goals, and plan locally. It’s hard to predict what will happen in Libya a day from now, so it’s safer to work on a smaller scale like your community or city. At the end of the day what matters is that you DO want to achieve something, and regardless of the situation, if you have that drive, you will manage to succeed. I’ve seen countless initiatives, projects and businesses thrive in the most unlikely circumstances, whether in the middle of a war in Benghazi or in the isolated city of Sebha. It’s by no means easy, but it’s not impossible.


If you have any further questions about the application process, just include them in the comments!

The Outsider’s Guide To Libyan Weddings

Libyan Weddings 1

A tradition during the preparation of the marriage contract (fatiha) – the bride holds up a silver knife in front of a mirror with the Quran next to her, reciting the names of unmarried women (the equivalent to throwing a bouquet…sort of).

They’re loud, they’re expensive, and for Libyans of any age, they’re a rite of passage. I’ve been fascinated by Libyan weddings for as long as I can remember; extravagant and complicated social practices that are saturated in centuries-old customs, reflecting so much about the dynamics of Libyan society. While weddings have become modernized in the past few decades, there are many traditions that still stick.

Ask any Libyan about our society’s weddings, and they’ll be quick to vilify them. They’re too ostentatious, with focus on minute details in the quest for a perfect ceremony. They’re too expensive, as both bride and groom shell out tens of thousands of dinars on food, venue, favours, clothing, presents, etc. And yet, there’s a lot of societal pressure to make sure that weddings are as big and glamorous an affair as possible. After all, wedding culture in Libya is a complex web that serves many, from unmarried women to bored in-laws.

But to the unsuspecting foreigner or newly returned double shafra, it’s very easy to get tangled in this web as you wonder “Why the hell is that woman wearing green and pink eye-shadow?” or “Are my eardrums actually exploding right now?”. This guide will help you to navigate weddings in Libya and ensure that, even if you can’t fully understand them, you can make the experience less awkward. Let’s begin.

Preparation & Arrival: Libyan events run on a bizarre system of timing where it’s never explicitly stated when you should arrive or depart, and yet everyone seems to come and go around similar times. Whether it’s some kind of collectively synchronized biological clock or pure coincidence is a question best left to anthropologists. Ask your mother or grandmother, and she will tell you when you should go. (It’s also important to note that Libyan weddings – like other events – are segregated, which means from the men’s perspective, you just awkwardly sit outside the wedding hall waiting for dinner).

Preparation is a slightly futile event given that, no matter how glamorous you look at home, you will look pale and sickly under the cold, dazzling glare of the wedding hall bathroom lights. It’s best not to dwell on why the other girls look polished while the hairstyle you spent hours tending somehow wilted into a shapeless mass on your head as your mascara helplessly melts.

Upon Entering the Hall: If you want minimal interaction, pick an empty table near the wall and strew your belongings (abaya, hijab, handbag) on the other chairs, discouraging others to sit near you. If with friends and relatives, it’s best to get a table to yourselves somewhere near the middle. If there is no empty table and your only options are half filled tables, avoid ones that have old ladies (unless you enjoy listening to their stories, which they will ply you with for the rest of the evening) or little children (who will eat most of the pastries on the table, which are, let’s face it, the reason you decided to attend in the first place). Now comfortably seated, it’s time to get your bearings.

Types of Libyan Wedding Guests: You will see a wide variety of colours and shapes at a Libyan wedding, which can be overwhelming at first. But soon you’ll be able to pick out a pattern, based primarily on age:

The Not-Yet-Engaged: The girls you see walking back and forth throughout the halls despite wearing 6-inch heels are not, in fact, busy with anything. They are showing themselves off to the mothers of eligible single men, the telltale signs being the flipping of their curtains of hair and constant reapplying of their makeup. I could go on a feminist rant of why this practice is appalling and why it’s horrific for Libyan girls to be taught that their main asset and value is based on their looks, *deep breath*, but I’ll spare you. The not-yet-engaged are not to be interacted with, they are not here for you.

The Just-Married: This is the woman in the fancy hairstyle who sits confidently at her table like it’s a throne, constantly being surrounded by people who greet and congratulate her on finally snagging a man. You can feel the confidence and self-fulfilled attitude emanating from her for miles.

The Postpartum: With a few extra pounds and a perpetually tired look on her face, the postpartum is often toting around a baby in the crook of her arm as she tries to convince her relatives to take care of it. The postpartum’s glory days are over, and she knows it.

The Hajja: Named so because they are often called ‘ya hajja’ by storekeepers, and it would be rude to call her anything else. Too old to wear a strapless dress but too young to wear a jard, these are the League of Libyan Mothers – established monoliths in stylish but sensible bob haircuts – the basic backbone of Libyan society. They’re here to eat, laugh with friends, and glare disapprovingly at all others, thereby completing their societal duty. They’re also the prime target for the women in category 1.

After the Meal: This is the dull period between eating the food (which is always delicious) and waiting for the bride to come in. At this point, your eardrums should have become numb from of the incredibly deafening music if you haven’t brought ear plugs. You can have a shouted conversation with your neighbour, or, for the more adventurous, dance on stage. Be warned, Libyan dancing requires a lot of hip dexterity and confidence. Bringing a book to a wedding is highly discouraged. These are social events where you are expected to, err, socialize.

The Bride: Let’s face it, unless you’re directly related to her, no one cares much about the bride apart from a cursory glance to judge her dress, hair and makeup. If you want to personally greet her, do so as soon as she sits or the photographer won’t give you a chance.

The Groom: You’ll be alerted to his imminent appearance by a flurry of hijabs and abayas being whipped out and worn. The only time you’ll see him is when he’s walking down the aisle until he reaches the bride, where relatives will quickly converge on the couple to congratulate, cry and take pictures.

Conclusion: Once the bride and groom leave, that’s your indicator that the evening is done. Usually friends and relatives stay behind to help clean and gossip.

The above clip is from an old Libyan comedy show which parodies post-Libyan wedding gossip.

There’s not much to Libyan weddings, once you get over the initial noise and flurry of activity. Like everything else in Libya, they’re held together by unspoken rules. As a guest, you’re not expected to do more than smile, eat and leave before closing time. And once you go home, your hair will finally look perfect.


The day described above is usually called the ‘zaffa’, the culmination of a week-long procession (nowadays shortened to three days due to aforementioned modernization but also the economic crisis).

It’s also important to note that each Libyan city has its own specific traditions – for examples the henna patterns for brides in Benghazi differ from those in Tripoli. Wedding music is another region-specific aspect, with everything from ‘shetawa’, ‘gheeta’, ‘noba’, or hiring a zamzama/darbaka (I always like to brag that the Foonsha sang at my parent’s wedding. An entire post could be written about the fascinating underground life of Libyan wedding singers). The traditional outfits worn during these occasions are always very beautiful with their striped cloth and silver or golden jewelry, and there’s something special about walking into a house in full-wedding mode with its smell of bukhoor (incense), and women in a constant state of food-preparation while kids run around and fathers yell for tea.

I always learn something new when I attend a wedding, and I’m never bored. Being part of the preparation is also interesting but considerably more tiring (I’ve done my fair share of comforting nervous brides, scooping half-frozen ice cream for guests and applying eyeliner to a procession of young girls). The erosion of our customs in favour of faster ceremonies makes me sad, but I also know that I don’t have the time (or foot arch) to go through a week-long event. The new fads, like gift baskets overflowing with chocolate and euros, will hopefully die out, along with the need to inject so much money into the whole affair. All you need is someone who knows how to hit a darbouka and an endless supply of coffee and tea.

The Elusive North African Identity

Yes, reader, I know, it has been (checks calendar) six months (!) since I last posted anything on here. Part of the reason has been the general whirlwind of life (I’m not a procrastinating architecture student anymore) but the other more pressing reason is to do with security. You know me, I don’t like blogging unless it’s a contentious issue that’ll start Twitter wars, but unfortunately the time where I could speak freely without real-world consequences has passed in Libya. The all-seeing Eye of Sauron is back, in a more disorganized, flip-flop wearing form – and it’s staring at me. I have a lot of posts on the backburner which I can’t risk publishing now, but fear not! your reckless Benghazi blogger will not be deterred. The Libyan saga is far from over and I will be here to chronicle it all, I will just be more careful in my timing and personal safety.


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Maghreb pocket change

Now, I’m no anthropologist, but indicators are pointing to more progress when it comes to the science of categorizing people. Race, ethnicity and nationality are getting a closer inspection, especially as more minorities are able to make themselves heard through new media platforms. The intersection of religion and identity is also becoming more scrutinized as global debate continues on the issue of integration.

One type of identity that personally affects me is that of North Africa, and one which I feel doesn’t get a lot of attention in (non-francophone) discussions. I’ve always been focused on the Libyan identity, but I always thought of it in a vacuum. Lately I’ve been contemplating more on our identity in the wider regional context.

I’m think that some strides have been made in separating North Africa from the Middle East (evidenced through the increasingly ubiquitous ‘MENA’ acronym) and the term ‘Greater Maghreb’ (a more politically correct version of the Arab Maghreb) is starting to be used more often in the mainstream. Of course the biggest culprit of lumping the MENA region together is Western media, where the difference between a Moroccan and an Omani isn’t discernible to those audiences.

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The Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli Libya. Roman ruins can be found throughout the Maghreb

The Greater Maghreb is comprised of the five North African states (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). We have our own Maghreb Union which theoretically should work on promoting political and economic cooperation between the five countries – such as allowing free movement – but the political and historic issues among the five nations has limited what the Union can actually achieve. Morocco violated the sole achievement of the Union (visa-free travel) by placing a visa restrictions on Libyans and maintains a closed border with Algeria over the Western Sahara issue. Libya showed disregard for the union when it changed the passport colour from green to blue. Four of the five states are francophone due to French colonization, while Libya instead inherited good coffee and pasta (and nothing else) from Italian occupation.

This francophone difference has created a kind of barrier between Libya and its Maghreb brethren. Because of the widely different local dialects, French has acted as a lingua franca for these four countries which Libyans do not have access to. I have frequently been that lone Libyan among Maghreb friends as they happily chat away in French before realizing that I couldn’t understand anything. Speaking in our own local dialects doesn’t help much, as theirs is peppered in French while my East Libyan accent is closer to Egyptian than to anything Maghreb. We end up unenthusiastically conversing in broken English (or broken traditional Arabic).

The first level of  “identity” in the Maghreb is Amazigh and Arab, which acts as a source of many tensions. The Amazigh claim to be the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa while the Arab inhabitants supposedly came from the Muslim conquerors of the continent (ostensibly all “descendants of the prophet Muhammed”). The problem with painting North Africa in this black and white narrative is that it’s extremely narrow. (If you’re a racist Amazighi or Arab, you can jump to the comments section now to make your incoherent rant.)

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Sidi M’Cid bridge, Constantine, Algeria

The region has witnesses countless occupations, migrations and other movements, and so to claim that you are from a separate distinct ethnicity is hard to believe – and indeed hard to prove. In Libya, while many Amazigh follow the more extreme practice of only marrying within their ethnicity, claims of being “pure” Amazighi should be taken with a grain of salt. An Amazighi man I know in Tripoli conducted a DNA test to assert his pure blood, only to discover that he had almost no Amazighi heritage. The same goes with the so-called Arab inhabitants, who are more likely descendants of Amazigh tribes from across the region who have chosen to intermarry, rather than being purely from the Arab Gulf. Add to this the Turkish, Greek, Phoenician, Moorish, Sub-Saharan African and colonist movements, and you’re looking at a smorgasbord of different ethnicities.

I’m sure someone will chime in claiming that they have an obscure document passed down by their great-great-great-grandfather which is definitive, inarguable proof that they are indeed a full-blooded straight-from-the-sand-dunes Arab (thanks Nasserism), and could probably name the palm tree in Saudi Arabia that their ancestor owned, but I’m not convinced that this really applies to the majority North Africans, simply because it’s not realistic.

(Do note that here I am talking about biological origin and not identity. Whether a person feels Amazighi or Arab is an entirely different issue.)

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Crags off the Mediterranean in Korbous, Tunisia

My skepticism was stoked when I wanted to learn where my dad’s tribe came from. At first I was told that it migrated from the “Saqiyah Al-Hamra” in the Western Sahara/Morocco. Later I was told that, no, we are actually from the Arab Gulf. Then I was informed that the tribe is really an Amazighi tribe that “became Arabized”. Later on I was told that, actually, we’re descendants of North African Jews. All these claims have “the documents to prove it.” A university friend of mine told me that her Oasis-based tribe came from Yemen. Later I read that this tribe was Amazigh who had lied to Arab occupiers to avoid persecution. All of these clashing narratives have made me question the validity of what people claim about their heritage.

It is an unfortunate habit in the MENA region that we always want to be from somewhere other than our own countries, we want to belong to other groups because we are not able to create a sense of belonging together. We weave improbable narratives to meet these ends. National identity has tried to unite different ethnicities and groups, but in the case of Libya it is disintegrating rapidly. The Arab-Amazigh narrative is a useful political tool which polarizes an already tense situation (and has been used by colonialists in the past) and erases an underlying Maghreb identity which could be used to build a strong region on the basis of economic, political and cultural growth and development. But instead we’re too busy nit-picking over where each drop of our blood comes from. If you feel Arab or Amazigh because of language or upbringing, that’s entirely up to you, but you are missing out on a great opportunity to be part of something unique to our region because of these self-imposed limitations. You can have a combined identity, one doesn’t have to cancel the other.

I recently visited my fourth of the five Maghreb countries, and I have found more similarities than I expected. It’s in the way we look, our shared vocabulary, in our local culture, music, cuisine and traditions. Discussions of who has the better Ma’louf music or who taught couscous-making to the others are light-hearted and fun, because we are discussing mutual heritage that we all enjoy. There is a familiarity by proximity that I can’t quite describe, and a sense of reassurance that we could be part of something bigger, that isolation isn’t our only fate.

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The old medina, Casablanca, Morocco. ‘Medina Quarters’ are unique to North Africa (with a few influenced in Malta)

Today, many Libyans hold grievances against the other Maghreb countries because they “don’t have our backs” during this period of instability, which is somewhat true but not entirely unexpected due to the lack of unity in this region in the first place. Aside from the romantic dreams of shared cultural festivals and exchange programs by your fanciful blogger, regional cooperation is in fact a necessary prerequisite for security, as well as political and economic stability. It is not a luxury that we can afford to turn our noses up at, because mutual interests upstage hurt feelings.

Seeing Libya from the Outside

To my father’s consternation, I began working in the field of international development after I graduated from architecture school. Repeated lectures on how this wasn’t a real field of work still fill our conversations (nothing outside of engineering is a serious profession in my father’s rigid worldview). Every car ride home from the airport on my visits back is filled with conversations of, “You need to get a Masters degree, work in the university, this will ensure your future.” But more than that, my father isn’t really clear on what it is I do, and ‘developing and managing’ projects isn’t a satisfying answer.

In fairness, I can’t always clearly articulate what it is I do. International development is a field in which projects are implemented with goals such as “capacity building” and “improving community resilience”, vague terms that are supposed to give the impression of improving the situation in underdeveloped and war-torn countries. But more than that, this is a field in which you are constantly trying to balance between political and economic interests within these states, in which you compete for funding to ensure your organization’s survival, and where you try to improve your professional image through a tangle of abbreviations and dry technical language. In this constant battle, the lofty goals set out in the projects are often forgotten

As a person who started out in very grassroots civil society organizations – picking up trash, holding festivals – it’s interesting to see the transformation that NGOs go through once they scale up. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to help more people and have more creative license to design projects. But on the other hand, it’s a source of constant frustration to try and work within the increased bureaucracy and procedures – a feeling akin to running a race in a pool of molasses.

But what really makes my own experience unique is the fact that the work I’m doing is for my own country, and not for some far-off nation that I’ve only heard about in the news. For this reason, my work is always coloured by my emotions, my frustrations are magnified, and the satisfaction following a successful project always sweeter.

For the average Libyan, finding fault with the work done by INGOs is part of the overall daily criticism towards everyone that hasn’t “fixed” Libya yet. But when you work within these organizations, you realize that a lot of delays and limited impact usually comes because it takes so much effort not to make things worse. In a country rampant with corruption and little rule of law, a well-intentioned community project could end up empowering mini-despots and fueling a system that disenfranchises the average citizen. So many projects have been stopped by local authorities because their palms weren’t greased enough.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all criticism lobbied at the international community is without merit. The world of development still suffers from lack of transparency, institutional racism and a result-oriented mind-set. Some of the foreign “expertise” hired by these organizations are not looking to save lives or make a difference, they just want a paycheck and a few months exploring an exotic country (often without the necessary sensitivities). Add to that the additional barrier of remote management and you have a recipe for redundancy.

The truth, of course, is always in between; INGOs are doing useful and important work in Libya, despite the difficulty of the situation. But they could definitely be doing better.

In the middle of all of this, I find myself with a new crisis of identity. To defend the work of my institute means that I’m part of the problem, to criticize it means that I am a hypocrite. The reality is that I just want to help my country within a system that allows me to give more than if I were to continue helping on a grassroots level.

More and more though, I’m finding out that Libya is really not a classic humanitarian/development country. The biggest added benefit of INGOs to any country is the money, plain and simple. Truly underprivileged countries need all the support they can get. But Libya is not a poor country. When hospitals turn their nose up at medical shipments, and when displaced people are asking for brand name items rather than the generic stuff that is distributed, then you know that the situation isn’t that bad.

What Libya needs is good management, administration and governance. If this is achieved, everything else will fall into place. But trying to achieve this goal is tantamount to finding a cure for cancer. The legacy left behind by colonialism and dictatorship is still deeply entrenched in the MENA region and will take generations to undo. So for now, everyone working on Libya will gravitate towards the easier, short-term fixes, which is where the funding flows anyways.

For now, I’ll stick to my little development projects, the ones my dad will never understand, and keep trying to create my own change from within. I’ve resigned myself to accept that the outcomes of what I’m doing won’t be apparent anytime soon. But with experience and time, those of us in the INGO world can at least start defining the right path.


*Disclaimer: This piece does not reflect the work being done in the migration sector in Libya, which is one big fucking mess on its own