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This is how I remember it: There were missiles coming down, and it was pitch black. It wasn’t the missiles that scared us, we were used to them. It was the darkness, mostly, not being able to see what happened if something did hit the house. It was also the emptiness, knowing that most of the neighbours had already left, that there would be no one to call out for help. The morbid anticipation of what could happen was one of the worst parts of the war.

We packed in the dark, consoling our fears with the plan that we’d leave at sun-up, that we couldn’t stay anymore. We had no idea where we would go and we didn’t care. We just had to go.

One thing I vividly remember is that we didn’t lock the doors of the rooms. My dad said, “If we lock them, they’ll break the doors down to get into the rooms.” He didn’t want them breaking our doors. We had accepted the fact that our house would be broken into, that there would be thieves who would try to get into our rooms, take our stuff, vandalize. We moved anything valuable to the roof’s stairwell, in case a rocket hit, in case the house went up in flames. We did this mechanically, matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t the most absolutely horrifying experience we had ever been through, that the idea of displacement, of being homeless, possibly losing our house forever, wasn’t so maddeningly awful that we wanted to drop to our knees and cry.

We left in the morning, with whatever we could fit in the car. I took one last walk around the house, the street, not really believing that we were going. The neighbourhood was dead. The stray cats and dogs we had been feeding were walking around aimlessly, brushing against my ankles. We were one of the only families left in the area, and there was no one else to feed them.

That feeling of disbelief stayed with me for a while, as we moved from house to house, country to country, living out of suitcases. Surely we’d be back in a few months. It can’t go on this long forever. We read every news story, every rumor, desperate for any shred of information. We scanned countless pictures on countless social media pages to see if we could recognize our house. Months turned into years, and we settled uncomfortably into the fact that we weren’t going back anytime soon. We sought out the stories of families who eventually went back to their homes, listening with hope to the stories of those who found their houses untouched, listening with poorly disguised misery to the stories of houses found in ruins, houses robbed of everything, even the windows, even the doors. I thought of our doors, and how my dad was afraid that they would be broken.

Fear turned into anger, and anger turned to depression. I had a recurring dream where I would drive into the neighbourhood and go back to our house. Sometimes it would be destroyed, sometimes there would be a mound of dirt preventing me from entering, sometimes I would find people living in it, zombies, bodies of dead soldiers. I would stand on the roof of the rubble and look at the burned trees and red sky and feel helpless. And then I would wake up.

I was always angry when I read the stories of displaced families. “They packed their belongings and left in a rush,” “100,000 families fled,” “They traveled to look for a new life and a safe place.” Families don’t leave everything behind in a rush, the thought is there in the back of their mind as soon as the fighting breaks out, they think it over a million times, even in the space of a day. You can’t just leave your old life behind, you can’t just forcibly start over. They never talk about that in the news stories, they never talk about the dreams and the constant feeling of disorientation. Every aspect of our lives was on hold, every plan put off, because we were waiting. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, we didn’t know what we’d find after the guns dropped and the smoke cleared. But we couldn’t move on, bound with thousands of other families in the excruciating wait.

Every meeting with neighbours ended in tears and sighs. Every time someone asked me, “Have you seen your house yet?” made me want to scream, to tell them that I didn’t know because of the fighting, how could I know?

The backdrop to this personal struggle was the war, the city exhausted by all the fighting and death and chaos. A bullet broke through the window of a house in one of the neighbourhoods we were staying in, killing a young girl. Her sister found her sprawled on the floor of her bedroom in a pool of blood soaking the textbook she was reading. A missile fell onto the living room of another house, destroying everything. No one was in the room at the time. Hearing these stories while you’re in your own home is one thing, you are able (to some extent) to dismiss it and create your own reality inside those four walls. But when you’re floating, un-anchored, there’s a sickening feeling of vulnerability.

I feel almost guilty talking about such a material thing, but there’s no way around it. Our house wasn’t just the place we lived, it was my sanctuary. I longed for my bed, my books, my old familiar comforts. Before this house, we had never lived in one place for longer than a year. I grew up unanchored, but at least that was something we did willingly. This house was the first place that belonged to us. The bedroom was mine, it was built for me, the garden was made for us to run in, every inch of the house was designed for my family’s use. Knowing that I could go anywhere, and this place would always be there when I came back, was my comfort. Having that comfort unexpectedly taken away was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. My relationships with friends outside this context because strained. What could I say to them outside of the reality that consumed me? One friend got married, another got her Masters’ degree, one started a new job he was passionate about. Me? Homeless, aimless, waiting.

The most maddening thing was not knowing. If we knew what had happened to the house, at least we would have some peace of mind. Even if it was destroyed, even if there was nothing left, we would know, we’d have some closure and could start planning for what comes after. But the guessing and speculating and being told to expect the worst took a toll on our psyche.

I applied for a job outside the country, because I had to break out, but mostly because I couldn’t wander in my city anymore. The idea that my home was a few neighbourhoods away but completely inaccessible to me filled me with impotent rage. I was already an expert in the suitcase life, it was just a matter of putting some distance between me and the misery. My parents didn’t protest, knowing that there were no good argument they could come up with for my staying. So I moved and tried to forget. But I still scanned the news and the pictures every day, still asked around for any new updates.

Last month, after the area was finally freed, my dad was allowed to enter. He went alone because they would only allow one person from each family. He came back, his face drawn. The pictures he took on his phone showed our rooms in shambles, everything taken out of the drawers and dumped on the floor, holes in the wall from the bullets, glass shards from the windows strewing the floor. But it was standing. It had survived the war, even though we barely did. My mom sent me the pictures, and I let out the first breath of relief in two years. The only thing my dad brought back from that first visit was a textbook from his library that he needed for a course he was teaching. I guess the shock had made him revert to that matter-of-fact mechanism.

He went back a few more times, bringing out more stuff, but when the fighting escalated in the nearby neighbourhood they wouldn’t let him back in. It was enough though, enough to give us a new dose of hope. Around us, the city is healing.

76 Hours in Tripoli

 

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Near the Tajourian seaside

For all my aggressively pro-Benghazi sentiment, there’s a special place in my heart for Libya’s capital city. Large, loud, bustling, with excellent coffee that almost makes up for the traffic congestion, the indifferent enormity and beauty of Tripoli is like a haughty love interest. I enjoy glimpsing a shadow of Benghazi in the Italian facades of downtown Tripoli, or the pedestrians walking down the seaside. But the accent of the passersby shatters that illusion; hearing ‘halba‘ instead of ‘wajed‘, or seeing the black shenna atop the heads of old men on street corners, instead of the distinct crimson of the East, reminds me of where I actually am.

No Libyan will admit this, in our long-standing tradition of stubbornness, but we love visiting other regions and cities. It’s that feeling of being not-quite-away from home, but far enough that you notice the small differences, which I think we find endearing. My Libya travels have been contained to the East, which makes the rare trips to the capital all the more exciting. West Libya is an entirely foreign place to me, while the South is still more of a mystery. (I’ve still unsuccessfully been able to visit Fezzan, but it hasn’t stopped me from continuing to try)

This trip was marred by the Libyan conflict, as everything is nowadays. “Are you sure it’s safe to go?” “I heard they kidnap Shergawis.” “Tripoli is not what it used to be, don’t be surprised when you arrive.”

The airport was bigger than I expected, and knowing that there wasn’t a three-hour car ride ahead of me (a la Labrag) was enough to keep me in high spirits. Driving around the city, I picked up on the familiar patches of the skyline, re-learning the architecture. There were more bullet holes in Tripoli then when I last arrived over two years ago, and the people a bit more forlorn. But there was also a lot of life, a persistent need to keep going, an unwillingness to succumb to the situation. The ugly rumors online about how terrifying Tripoli had become are as unfounded as the reports of Benghazi’s complete destruction. But people persist in these rumors, because we have developed a hideous sense of victory when we hear of a rival city’s demise, as though this failure justifies our petty political beliefs.

“There’s Bou Sita, if you look hard you can see the boat that Sarraj sailed in on.” It’s a new joke, but there’s nothing funny about the very serious armoured cars guarding the naval base. Around the city, you can spot stenciled graffiti in support of the GNA, but it’s not convincing. Real graffiti is not that meticulous, not that earnest in its message. These suspicions were confirmed by people I spoke with. “We had hope in them at first, but not anymore. What have they achieved?”

It was hard to get used to hearing from people in Tripoli that some of the militias are keeping the peace. Militias are all bad, aren’t they? We uncompromisingly rejected them in Benghazi,  a decision whose consequences we’re still facing. But it’s all for the ultimate greater good. Isn’t it? But Tripoli isn’t Benghazi, and their situation is not our situation. In Benghazi we don’t have tens of thousands of IDPs from other cities all seeking refuge, we don’t have the debilitating political expectations from unseen outside forces. When situations go to their extreme, we lean on one another. But in Tripoli, it’s every man for himself. Which is why I have to accept that, whatever my feelings are, my opinions are irrelevant to this city. اهل مكة ادرى بشعابها, as they say.

Another thing about Tripoli that is both endearing and embarrassing is that I’ve never spent a dinar there. I go from friend to friend, being hosted in that famed Libyan hospitality, and fights over the bill always end up with me losing to the argument of “You’re our guest!” Even when buying fruit at a kiosk, the vendor dismissed me with a wave of his hand as I try to pay, saying “Next time,  المرة الجاية.” I unconvincingly tell friends, “I’ll be hosting you when you visit me in Benghazi soon,” both of us knowing that they won’t be visiting Benghazi soon, that I don’t even want them to see Benghazi when it’s like this, with its rubble and its anger.

You don’t have to go far to find Benghazi anger though. Tripoli hosts thousands of Benghazi families who have fled the East, some unable to return because their neighbourhood still isn’t under LNA control, and some because it is. For the latter, it’s a self-imposed exile, a decision that hasn’t been taken without some measure of bitterness. I’m acutely aware that being able to travel freely between cities and regions in Libya has become something of a luxury.

In the morning of my departure, I bought an early-morning cup of coffee from a nearby kiosk. In Benghazi, as a woman, I could never stand in a line with a group of sleepy-eyed Libyan men at a coffee kiosk. But my visitor status to the city affords me this brazen opportunity. I walk around for a bit taking in the morning air, forgetting for a brief moment the war, the hatred, the divided country, and enjoyed being a regular citizen visiting the capital city of her country.

Tripoli is also where I first met Tawfik Bensaoud, during that last trip two years ago, ironic considering that we’re both from Benghazi. We had our first real conversation waiting at the airport gate for our flight back. I don’t remember what we talked about, probably politics or civil society, but I remember being content. Tawfik is gone, and the airport is gone, but Tripoli is still here, Benghazi is still here. We can only go forward now.

 

Ramadan Television In Libya

When it comes to entertainment, I’m a total snob. I don’t like generic sit-coms with slapstick routines and superhero movies packed with CGI explosions. My choice of entertainment should be smart, witty and take years to produce (*sob* Sherlock*).

This is why Ramadan television in the MENA region is the bane of existence to people like me. There seems to be an unspoken agreement between all MENA producers and directors that programs created for Ramadan viewing should be extra garish, loud and crass. They often take on the guise of hidden camera shows, soap operas and religious sermons.

Before the 2011 revolution, we had the usual line-up of Ramadan drudgery that aired on the limited number of Libyan channels. From the poorly drawn Hajj Hamad to the comedic routine of Salah Labiath, the family would sit together during after-dinner tea and collectively cringe as these Ramadan shows aired on Jamaheria TV. It’s a common Ramadan ritual across Libya, and despite my complaints of the shows, I still think back fondly to those days, the days before Libya was destroyed.

One show that was popular in the region in general was Ahmed Shugairi’s ‘Khawater’ (خواطر). The basic premise of the show was that the host would travel to different countries and highlight the positive aspect in these societies, comparing them to the less-than-idealistic practices in the Middle East. As popular as this show was (earning it 11 seasons), it also garnered a lot of criticism as being self-deprecating and a glorified tourism ad for those countries. However, in Libya, the show’s movement, ‘Ihsan’ inspired a civil society organization of the same name, who strives to improve the habits in our own society.

Khawater also inspired another Libyan expose-style show, ‘Tafa’el Khair’ (تفائل خير). After the revolution, there was an increase in media freedom for Libyans, and a multitude of new platforms to utilize. One of the first groups to take advantage of this freedom is a group of Benghazi youth who, finding their calling in the media field, started the Holm Institute, a media start-up. Every Ramadan, Holm airs their program, ‘Tafa’el Khair’, (translated to Wish for The Best) which aims to highlight important social issues and spark a debate, much in the same way as Khawater. Their newest season will start broadcasting on the Libya channel mid-Ramadan of this year.

Another post-2011 program that has sparked debate – although unintentional – is Dragunov, a Libyan drama. Dragunov is a fictional story of a young man in Gadhafi’s mukhabarat, and the story centers around a tragic love affair set in Libya’s capital, and offers an unfiltered glimpse of life under Gadhafi.

The show, which aired in 2013, was unpopular with many Libyan viewers for a number of reasons. Among them was a perceived ‘bias’ against the Libyan army, and felt that the director put his personal political views in the show. Others complained of choice to cast Tunisians in the part of Libyans, particularly as these characters engaged in behavior seen as “immoral”.

While I may not agree with the political views of the director, I was still a fan of Dragunov for several reasons. Firstly, it was a Libyan-made show, hiring aspiring young Libyan actors and helping them to pursue this field as a career. Anyone and anything that can strengthen Libyan culture is good in my books. In terms of execution and cinematography, Dragunov is well-made, setting a new standard in Libyan cinema.

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Poster for Dragunov, a Libyan Ramadan series

As Libya descends into failure, the quality of Ramadan viewing has gone into deeper decline. Or, perhaps it hasn’t gone into decline, but the general psyche of the people has been affected by the difficulty of day-to-day life. Whatever the reason, Ramadan TV in 2016 has been disappointing and, in some case, outright infuriating.

A show that’s been advertised for before the start of Ramadan is called “Alnazih Nazih” (النازح نازح), a comedy show that features displaced families and their day-to-day lives. I’m very conflicted about how to feel about this show. One the one hand, it’s been lauded for raising awareness on the plight of the displaced in a new format, one that isn’t the usual sappy expose. On the other, displaced people are not exactly comedy fodder. My family has nearly finished our second year of displacement, and there’s really nothing funny about it. If you know any positive outcomes of the show so far, I’d love to hear about it.

There is one program that has achieved near-universal hatred though, a hidden camera show on a relatively new Libyan channel. Host Ashraf “Ra3aiesh” takes on the role of ISIS and creates scenarios to scare unwitting Libyan citizens, making them think they are going to be slaughtered by ISIS, before cheerfully letting them know, “you’re on a hidden camera!”

Hidden camera shows in the MENA are known more for being clumsy and humiliating rather than actually being funny. But Ashraf Ra3aiesh takes this medium to a new level of low. ISIS is very much a real threat in Libya, having murdered, beheaded and tortured countless Libyan citizens. Kidnapping citizens (which in itself is a crime) and pretending to be ISIS can be a traumatizing and scarring experience. Again, it’s not even remotely funny.

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Protesters deface an ad for the TV station broadcasting a much-loathed hidden camera show (Source)

This show has so outraged Libyans that there have been numerous calls to boycott the channel until they pull the show off the air. Banners advertising the channel in Tripoli have been defaced in protest of the show, and it even birthed a hashtag campaign to demand that it be stopped.

Yet, even among this rather depressing line-up of shows, occasionally a small spark of decency emerges. There’s a program that airs on Libya Channel “Ma Tafhem Shay” (ما تفهم شي). This show takes on a popular Ramadan format; a troupe of people goes around the city handing out prizes to citizens if they can answer a question correctly. This particular show does so with much fanfare, a band that plays traditional Libyan music and a person decked out in a yellow tuxedo dancing along. Like other Ramadan shows, it is too garish for my tastes.

But in today’s episode, they forgo the fanfare as they visit a Tawergha refugee camp. Instead, solemn music plays as they sit and talk with Tawerghan IDPs, and hand out aid as “prizes” to the families in the camp. Occasionally, the band will start playing music to the delight of the families.

It was a huge departure from the usual tomfoolery of the show. Aside from giving aid to the IDPs, the show gave a much needed look at the state of the Tawergha IDP camps, and earning praise and admiration from many Libyans nationwide.

For better or worse, Libyan television will always be a part of our Ramadan routine, in all its cringe-worthy glory. As more youth take part in media production, I think we’ll see an improvement in our entertainment. But until those days come, I hope the current media moguls will take more heed of what people enjoy (such as highlighting social issues in a tasteful way) and what they hate (no more hidden camera shows, PLEASE).

The Politics of Libyan Identity

The most fascinating topics in Libyan society are almost always the ones that people discuss the least. These controversial issues often elicit intense passions and discomfort, which is why they’re usually kept under the proverbial rug. One such topic is that of religion, although in our post-revolution, post-ISIS era, it’s becoming harder to avoid discussing it. While on the surface people resort to the old cliche “we’re a moderate Sunni Muslim country”, there is a noticeable tug away from traditional religious practice, particularly among the youth, towards more critical thinking and investigation. It’s a slow change, but a dialogue has started.

However, there is one issue that seems resistant to dialogue; the Libyan identity. Yes, my favorite topic, one that I’ve blogged about numerous times before and yet, even after all this time, I still can’t comprehend it.

What is a Libyan? What makes a person Shergawi or Gherbawi? Are Southern Libyans subconsciously seen as less Libyan? Do the Amazigh define themselves more by their nation or their ethnicity?

To explore these questions and the broader field of Libyan identity requires a very comprehensive knowledge of Libyan history, society, politics, culture and geography, and even then, you’re not guaranteed to make head or tales of it.

One topic of debate on the Libyan identity is whether Libyans are Arab or North African. Ethnically speaking, Libyans are a mix of many different races, going back to the long history of foreign occupation in the country. The rise of Nasserist Pan-Arabism in the past few decades has strengthened the Arab identity angle, cemented by the Islamic revival movement in the region. But are Libyans Arab? I would argue, based on our local culture, not really. Even the language we speak, our Libyan dialect, is not pure Arabic, but an amalgam of Amazigh, Italian and other influences.

The Libyan Amazigh flatly reject the Arab narrative, due not only to the ethnic basis of their identity but to the history of oppression experienced at the hands of invading Arabs. However, this has also influenced a kind of hostility they hold to non-Amazigh Libyans today, to the point where many Amazigh families refuse to allow their children to marry outside of the ethnicity.

I consider both sides of the argument, the unyielding Arabists and Amazigh, to be too extreme. A non-Amazighi is not automatically an “Arab”, and we definitely shouldn’t let the Arab identity overtake and dilute our unique North African culture.

When gathered with friends or relatives, I sometimes like to steer the conversation towards the issue of Libyan-ness. The results are usually a passionate discussion between various perspectives, and which show that even in Libyan society, there is no definitive answer. In Benghazi especially, where everyone comes from wildly different backgrounds, everyone has their own views on the matter.

I decided to take this conversation to Twitter, following an interesting discussion I had with a friend on tribal perception in Benghazi, a pluralistic city that boasts the elimination of the tribal system. We were talking about the marriage “conditions” that some families place on their kids, including tribal limitations. I was aware that this mentality existed in the smaller tribal towns, but was surprised to learn that even in Benghazi, some people use it as a yardstick. Even more surprising was the knowledge that, here in our supposedly tribal-less city, a person’s roots still mattered. The question was relatively straightforward; “Is a Benghazi denizen of West Libyan origin considered a Shergawi (East Libyan) or a Gherbawi (West Libyan)?”

Benghazi is the historic capital of Barga, a beacon of East Libya but with a large populace of people whose roots come from all over Libya (there was a substantial exodus from West to East over the decades due to war, famine, searching for opportunities, etc.). Unlike other Libyan cities, people in Benghazi do not define themselves based on their tribe or tribal origin. Before the revolution, we just considered ourselves Libyans from Benghazi. But the revolution unearthed and revived regional and tribal sentiments, which have been gaining popularity, much to the chagrin of Benghazinos whose loyalty and identity is linked only to their city.

The question I asked on Twitter elicited dozens of replies and conversations, and showed the complexities and confusion of this identity issue among Libyans.

One of the most common answers was, “What difference does it make if they’re Shergawi or Gherbawi?”, or, “You are Libyan, nothing more”, many claiming that the distinction of East vs. West is something that shouldn’t even be discussed.

This is the logic applied to most controversial issues in Libya. If we deny the problem exists, it’ll just go away. Hostility between the North Libyan provinces has always existed, exacerbated by the recent geo-ideo-political conflict in the country, and people’s solution to this hostility is to claim that there is no East and West, that we’re all just Libyan. Besides being untrue, it also rejects identities that have been formed and affected by centuries of history, and recklessly erases the diversity that makes Libyan communities unique.

Rather than deny our regionalism, we should investigate the foundation it’s built on, and start to redefine what our region or city of birth means to us. Being passionate about your locality is not a sign of weak nationalism but a way to strengthen the plurality of this nationalism. And more importantly, creating a stronger link to your community will combat other societal issues such as tribalism.

I have always been vocal in my disdain for tribalism in Libya. I emphatically reject the notion that my tribe is my identity, my sigil, because it has had no role in formation of my identity as a Libyan and a Benghazi denizen. But it would be the height of hubris for me to act like it means nothing in my interaction with other Libyans. In this post-revolution nation, the Western tribe of my last name will always cast a shadow on my Eastern-ness, and on any political stance I take. If I question the behaviour of the East’s army? Oh well, she’s not really Shergawi, after all. If I criticize a Shergawi politician? Go back to the Western city your grandparents came from!

The identity issue frequently leans on the side of the ridiculous and irrational. My grandfather came from a city in Western Libya, and despite the fact that I have never been there, I will always be linked to that city. Conversely, a person born and raised in that city, and considers it his/her own, will always been seen to some extent as an “outsider”, because they do not belong to one of the tribes.

Why should the tribe be the identifier? Why shouldn’t I be able to define my own sense of self? We fall back on these primitive practices because they are familiar, the norm. The moment I leave Libya, no one cares what my tribe is. I can lie and name any other Libyan tribe as my own, and no one will be able to tell for certain “who I am”, because our tribes are built on arbitrary historic and geographic events and not on any real, tangible differences.

To me, a Shergawi is a person born and raised in the East, who calls the region home and cares about their community. The same should apply to the East and South. We should not impose identities on others. A Libyan should be allowed to define who they are based on where and what they feel most comfortable with. An identity should be constantly changing and developing.

Instead of rejecting the existing regional realities in Libya, we should instead reject the idea that a last name determines our loyalty, our political affiliations and our very sense of self. It is our neighbours, our friends and our community on whom the formation of our identities should be based. I believe Libya will prosper once we begin building resilient societies built on these real foundations.


I want to reiterate that the politics of Libyan identity is a multi-faceted issue. My view are based on my personal upbringing and experiences. There are Libyans who believe that their tribe is the most important aspect of their life, and others, their ethnicity. What I wrote above is a radical outlook specific to my individual beliefs, and the truth, if it exists, lies somewhere in between these radical opinions.

Dispatches from the Dark

Most countries mark the passage of seasons by the changing colours of the trees. In Libya, we mark it by the power cuts.

It must be summer, because the electricity has been cut not once, but twice today, marking a grand total of five hours of electricity. Five hours of scrambling for power sockets to charge our drained devices and our emergency lights. Five hours of rants reverberating around the house about the electricity company.

During the final week of my thesis preparations, a false summer blew through Benghazi and triggered the universally-loathed power cuts. In a panic and a frenzy, I would rush across the city from relative’s house to relative’s house, calling beforehand to make sure they had electricity so I could charge my laptop and continue working.

Based on personal experience, there’s very little that’s worse than a power cut. War? Meh, as long as the rockets don’t hit my house. Food shortages? We can live on pasta. Maybe the only crisis we’ve experienced in Libya today that is worse than the power cuts is the liquidity problem. It’s been months of apocalyptically long lines in front of the banks as people are allowed to withdraw only a minimum amount of cash to meet their basic needs. Which, as the price hikes continue on all imports, is getting to be a shorter and shorter list of needs. Do I really need to buy coffee this week? My favorite cookies have doubled in price, have to pass on those. I hope I don’t get sick because I don’t think my wallet can survive a trip to the pharmacy.

But the panic that comes when you need to meet your thesis deadline and you’re suddenly thrown into the dark ages comes in a very, very close second.

It’s a despicable, humiliating and downright depressing way of life, one that makes even the most gung-ho Feb 17 supporter grumble about our post-revolutionary existence. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the most pressing issues your corrupt, ineffectual politicians discuss are how to provide flour, oil and tomato paste to the cities before Ramadan. And they triumphantly declare that they have worked out a plan, as though the years of their backwards rule that ran the country into the ground is suddenly vindicated. Hey, you know what’s better than flour and oil? A fucking functional country.

But this is just me during a power cut; surly, angry and annoyed. The electricity will come back, and I’ll turn on the air conditioner and try to cool off physically and psychologically. Around the country, millions of Libyans are experiencing the same frustrations. We are united by the struggle to survive, even if we’re not united on any other issue.

And I sit in the dark and whisper to myself, this nightmare has to end eventually. Right?

Death and Architecture

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Phaeno Science Center | Zaha Hadid Architects (Source)

The recent death of Zaha Hadid last week came as a shock to the architectural community. At just 65, one of the most prolific and globally renowned architects would design no more. Her death has come at the height of her fame, as countries across the world having been vying to have a Hadid design built in their cities.

But unlike the recent deaths of Michael Graves or Frei Otto, themselves big names in the field, Zaha’s death has also rippled across the public sphere. Social media has been filled with posts coming from a wide number of countries, all mourning the loss of the architect. People from the Middle East in particular, seeing Zaha has one of the few global success stories that originated in the region, expressed their sadness at losing an important Arab icon. Zaha’s death has, even for a brief moment, united a fragmented world, and connected people through architecture in an entirely new way.

But what is it about Zaha Hadid that created this impact? Was it because of her iconic designs? That was definitely a factor, but she did not have a monopoly on iconic architecture. I believe that the main reason why Zaha’s death is a surprise is because she died before this design era did.

Despite the highly stressful nature of the profession, architects usually outlive their heydays. To put it another way, architectural eras die before their architects do. I.M Pei, a famed architect of the past, is still around at the ripe old age 95, but his designs do not have the impact that they used to. Last year, German architect Frei Otto passed away. Like Hadid, he experimented with building form, materials and new technologies, producing beautiful tensile structures that were considered the height of innovation in their time. But unlike Hadid, by the time Otto had breathed his last, tensile structures were no longer new and unconventional, and his death did not resonate further than the architectural community. In a sense, once the architectural era is over, the architects of that era fade along with it.

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Hall at the International Garden Exhibition | Atelier Frei Otto (Source)

But architecture is currently in the middle of a new era, one that has superseded postmodernism and is described by some as ‘parametricism’ or ‘neo-futurism’. It is a style that is characterized by its heavy dependence on new technologies in order to create and actualize the designs that are produced. Whether high-technology produces better architecture is a topic best left for another day, but Zaha was one of the pioneers of this style.

And in the height of this era, Hadid’s passing is untimely. In Matthew Frederick’s beloved architecture student book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, he writes:

“Architects are late bloomers. Most architects do not hit their professional stride until around age 50! There is perhaps no other profession that requires one to integrate such a broad range of knowledge…[it] takes a long time, with lots of trial and error along the way.”

The picture that accompanies this entry is, in a twist of dark irony, a sketch of Zaha Hadid.

Untitled

A page from Matthew Frederick’s book 

But it is not the sudden stop of a career in bloom alone that has made Hadid’s career resonate with people. Her designs were iconic, putting her in the top tier of the professional known as ‘starchitects’. Starchitects are known for creating buildings so fantastical and unique that they capture the interest of the public, which, in a profession that is often ignored by its complexity, is a new phenomenon. Their designs invite people to stare, to take pictures, and to get a conversation going about the buildings we use. And let’s face it, with a field like architecture, where complex philosophy accompanied by a convoluted terminology are mixed with confusing mathematics about loads and structure, it’s not exactly inviting to the average layman. And so those like Hadid and Gehry and Libeskind, with their new, fun forms, bring architecture that much closer to the people they are meant for.

But like I stated previously, these architects are not the pioneers of icons. What is different about their icons is that they have come at a time when the world is more connected than it has ever been before. You can view thousands of iconic buildings at the touch of a button, and explore the achievements made in architecture without leaving your room. And with the internet’s constant thirst for the unusual and buzzworthy, starchitecture is perfectly suited for that need.

Of course, in architectural circles, there is a constant debate over whether starchitects cheapen the profession, and rely on spectacle rather than design integrity for their fame. I’m going to be honest, I often stand on the anti-starchitect side of the debate, being an architect that believes in the human scale and preferring the role of architecture for social change over the soaring cantilevers and exaggerated glass of overpriced starchitecture.

But seeing the effect of Zaha’s death has led me to soften my stance a little on this issue. I can’t deny that her designs have enriched the field and have sparked important debates. And while I’m not a fan of her less-than-moral approach to designing buildings for dictatorships, I have been inspired by her work and can recognize the genius behind it.

palc3a1cio_do_planalto

Palacio do Planalto | Oscar Niemeyer (Source)

But I would like to see more appreciation of architectural genius from the general public, even if that genius is around long after the fads they create have faded into the past. One such person that I wish had received more recognition is Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architect who passed away in 2012. The engineer of the city of Brasilia, Niemeyer’s modernist interpretations of civic buildings are now beautiful relics of a bygone era. While Zaha’s buildings can be described as ‘a bold vision of the future today’, Niemeyer’s idea of futuristic architecture was more grounded, using curving white surfaces and stark forms to create expressive yet rational buildings. Just as Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center captured hearts today, Niemeyer’s Palácio do Planalto or Niterói Contemporary Museum evoke a similar grandeur, albeit one that is tethered to its time.

One may grieve at the death of great architects, but that sadness comes mainly from the knowledge that we will never see them design more buildings. But they leave behind a legacy that is rarely achieved by any other profession. Hadid joins the annals of architectural history alongside Niemeyer and Otto and the countless others who have shaped the built environment. One could say that, as long as their buildings still stand, an architect never truly dies.

 

رسالة مفتوحة الى رئيس وزراء ليبيا, فائز السراج ,من مواطنة في بنغازي

بعد التحيه,

المفروض اني انهنيك على دخولك الى طرابلس باقل اضرار ممكنة. في بلاد زي بلادنا, واللي اي حركة سياسية ممكن تسبب في حرب, دخولك بسلام يعتبر انجاز رائع.

انا حنكون صادقة معك, فكرة حكومة الوفاق ماكنتش مقتنعة بها واجد. لأن الفكرة كلها كانت تدور حول قضية عدم تسليم السلطة من الحكومات السابقة, من شرذمة من السياسيين الفاسدين اللي حطوا السلطة والمال فوق كل شىء. ولذلك انا ماحسيتش ان تكوين حكومة الوفاق انجاز, بل ابتزاز.

لكن مرات الحاجة الصحيحة في العالم الافتراضي والحاجة الضرورية في الواقع يكونان عكس بعضهن, وللأسف هذه كانت هي احدى المرات. شفت مدينتي تمزقت من مجموعات متطرفة وخشت في حرب شعواء. شفت اصدقائي في العاصمة يعانون من صعوبة الحياة اليومية وخائفين من المجموعات المسلحة. سمعت قصص من اهلي في الجنوب عن تدهور وضياع فزان وعزلهم عن باقي البلاد.

لهاذا السبب, انا حندعمك, وحندعم حكومة الوفاق. ربما يكون مش هو الاختيار الصحيح, ولكن لأن الوضع لم يعد يحتمل و مافيش اختيار اخر.

ولكن هذه الثقة اللي عطيتها لحكومتكم غصبا عني, ياسيد سراج, ممكن ان تسلب بكل سهولة. لأن مش عندك حكومة سابقة و لكن حكومتين فلك ان تتعلم من اخطائهم. سبب خراب ليبيا معلق في رقاب هاتين الحكومتين. المؤتمر الوطني العام قووا المليشيات وتحالفوا مع الشيطان, اما مجلس النواب فاختبؤوا في قلعة و زادوا نار الحرب وقود. هم الاثنين سمعوا صراخ الناس و تجاهلوهم.

انا متأكدة ان عندك فريق كامل من المحللين و المساعدين يقولولك في نفس الكلام هذا. لكن انا انقول فيه لك لأني عايشه في وسط هذه الواقع. نجاحك بالنسبه ليا مش نجاح سياسي, نجاحك هو انقاذ ماتبقى من هذه المدينه وهذه البلاد. و فشلك حيعني النهاية بالنسبة لنا. سواء نبو ولا مانبو, حياتنا و حياتك مرتبطات, و انا حندعمك علشان ننقذ حياتي.

لو في حاجة وحدة بس تقدر اتديرها في فترة حكمك, خلي الحاجة هذه انك تسمع للشعب. مطالبنا حاليا مش صعبات واجد, بس وظيفتك مش فقط انك توفر الاشياء الاساسية. ايضاً, وظيفتك مش انك اتعود بالبلاد الى الوضع اللي كانت فيه في 2011, لأن هذا الوقت كان بداية المشاكل لنا. الان عندك الفرصة انك تكون اول رئيس وزراء ينهي عقلية “الثوار”. نحن معش نبو ثورة, نبو دولة. مش دولة لبنغازي فقط, او دولة لطرابلس او مصراته فقط. نبو دولة للجميع.

كون اول رئيس وزارء ليبي لا يتهم الشباب بتعاطي حبوب الهلوسة  لما يتظاهروا ولكن اسأل عليش يتظاهروا. كون اول رئيس وزراء لا ينشر الاكاذيب و المؤامرات على عدوه, لكن يتفاهم معه. كون اول رئيس وزراء يبدأ في حل الازمة, وما يشاركش في ازديادها.

نحن الاثنين معماريين, ونعرفوا كيف انصمموا مباني و مدن للناس. و نعرفوا ايضا ان افضل تصميم في نظرنا احيانا لا يستجيب الى احتياجات الناس. نحن مش طالبين افضل تصميم و تحقيق اهداف خيالية, اللي نبوه فقط هوحياة طبيعية. نبو نمشوا لمدارسنا وجامعاتنا وأعمالنا بدون خوف من القذائف العشوائية. نبو انسافروا بدون مانحسوا بالذل والمهانة اللي قاعدين انتعرضوا لها توا. نبو العدالة, والامن و الامان, والحرية. نعم, الحرية. صح, نحن الان ضعفاء, لكن هذا لا يعني انا نردوا الى القيود من جديد من اجل الامان.

حضرتك قاعد الان في منصب سلطة, و تقدر ان تقرر اي حاجة, من ضمنهن قرارات تكبح الحريات. لكن من فضلك لاتنسى, ياسيد سراج, ان بنغازي, حتى و هي مكسورة, مش حتسكت لأي شخص يحاول ان يكبت حريتها. خلينا نشتغلوا مع بعضنا, مش ضد بعضنا, وننقذ هذه البلاد.

مع تحياتي,

ندى عبدالقادر,

بنغازي ليبيا

31\03\2016