A Fragmented Country

The other day I had attended the screening of a film entitled ‘Prosecutor’. It was about Luis Moreno Ocambo, the eponymous prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, detailing his work with regards to African countries. During the movie, there was a brief flashback to his earlier work as a judge in Argentina.

There was one scene specifically that I can’t get out of my head. It was of a courtroom, where the trial of an Argentinian dictator was taking place. It was slightly grainy film footage, and you could see people had filled up every corner of the wood-lined room. When the verdict of guilty was read out, there was a close up of a woman who leaned on a railing, burying her face in her arms and sobbing.

I imagine she had lost someone during the brutal reign of the dictator. Maybe more than one person. This was for her, probably, the moment she had dreamed of. The moment justice was finally served, a moment of closure for whatever pain and heartache she had gone through. It was a very brief shot, maybe a few seconds, but it really stayed with me.

Because this is a moment that many people in Libya desire. More than desire, it consumes them. So much so, that they are willing to take justice into their own hands, because waiting for a legal court institution to be set up and put their minds at peace is too long a wait. We’re known for being emotional, impulsive people. We’re quick to love and quick to hate, too. Right now, it’s more of the latter.

Many people felt that justice was served when our own dictator was killed. Many more are waiting for the trail of other officials from the era of the dictator. But as I type this, injustice is still being generated. What else do you get out of a war?

Of course, there is the slight complication that everyone sees justice differently. For some, it’s killing the person who killed your loved one. For others, it’s burning down their house, or killing their loved ones. If someone’s city gets hit by a suicide bombing or a plane strike, well, that’s just one more point for ‘our team’. As things escalate, very few people see actual jail time as justice anymore.

Right now, we’re a nation of six million people with a grudge, and each wants the other’s eye on the end of their knife. And I’m not the exception. On the contrary, I am also angry, I have also lost people and I also have a bone to pick with those who champion the same people that have terrorized my city. It fills me with rage to see a militia leader glorified as a brave man, likened to heroes of the resistance and given pomp and status. It’s done more for the spite value than actual admiration, and I try to rise above such petty goading, but it’s difficult. They do it to hurt us, and it hurts. How do we make them understand what we’ve gone through, that we have legitimate reasons for supporting the side that we do? Even if we screamed it at them through a bullhorn, they probably still wouldn’t pay attention. Everyone’s entitled to their own delusions, I guess.

And yes, you’re probably saying, “But what about your delusions, oh wayward Benghazina?” Again, I’m not an exception. But seeing a car blow up and burn the driver before your eyes isn’t a delusion. Staring down the barrel of a shotgun as a masked 17-year old asks why you want to go back to your house isn’t a delusion. Hearing a man on television promise to plunge your city into another ‘Iraq’, or that they will come to you ‘with slaughter’, isn’t a delusion. These are very real incidences, and more than once they have forced us to rethink how far the severity of the actions we’re willing to accept can go, in order to save ourselves and our city from these menaces.

And for some, who do not live through the situation and thus don’t comprehend it, believe the actions are not acceptable. This where many of the misunderstandings have come from, and what is currently widening the chasm between people. They think we want to prop up another dictator (although we are the ones who initiated the uprising against the previous dictator) and that we wish to wage conflict against them too. And there are plenty of idiots more than eager to fill the position of vengeful rival.

A lot of people say, ‘oh many nations before you have gone through this, but they always make it through the tough times.’ While that’s a very lovely sentiment to hold on to, it’s doubtful when you look around. I find myself questioning more and more lately whether we can make it through in one piece. Will we fragment into parts, each its own nation? Maybe it would be easier. It’s certainly tough to wonder how we’ll be able to all live together after this.

I think back to the girl leaning against the rail of that courtroom during a very distant era, crying in joy, and wondering if she had gone through what we had. Did she, perhaps, also break friendships over the war? Did she also find herself isolated more and more from other citizens in her country? And did she also justify actions that she might later regret?

War is ugly, but civil war is positively heinous, because the charade of national unity and solidarity is dropped as everyone is eager and willing to sink their claws into one another. People will love and hate at the drop of a hat and without any influence of principles or ethics. And we just keep fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces, until one day we’ll all find ourselves alone, with no one on our side.

Adventures in Libyan Arabic

[Correction: In an earlier version, I translated the term “سلال القلوب” as “basket of hearts”. The correct translation is “remover of hearts”]

The comic below is from “Itchy Feet: Travel and Language Comic“, one of my personal favorite webcomics.

Itchy Feet ComicAh, languages. The stitching that keeps the fabric of societies bound together and functioning. The skill that makes humans superior to other animals. The trait that enriches our cultures and heritages.

I’m horrible at them. As in, I got a D+ in my Arabic language course at university and it exceeded my expectations.

I mean, it’s not like I can’t learn a new language, it’s more about how much effort and dedication it requires. Some people have a natural bent for picking up new languages. I’ve met Libyans who’ve never left the country and yet know English better than native speakers. Valadmir Nabakov produced masterpieces in English and it was his third language.

But me? Nope. I’ve got about one and half languages under my belt, and I’m pretty satisfied with that. While I would love to speak with the flowing lilt of Italian or the animated babble of French, the moment I look up language guides and see the mass of grammar rules, I give up on the spot. If you’re not planning on writing epic poems and just want to learn up to a conversational level, the easiest way to do that is speak with natives or immerse yourself in the culture of your preferred language. It is, after all, as much a cultural thing as it is memorizing a new alphabet and vocabulary.

And as the comic above illustrates, sometimes learning the formal version of a language isn’t as useful as you’d think. There are numerous versions of Arabic, each differing based on the country or region you’re in. And within that country, you’ll find even more sub-languages. Take Libya, for instance. The Eastern and Western dialect are distinctly different. But within the Eastern dialect there are still further more dialects. A person from Benghazi can be distinguished from a person from Tobruk, or Derna, by the way they talk. I once saw someone joke about it on Twitter, saying Libya is a country where you encounter a new dialect every 40 km you go. This is similar to many Arabic-speaking countries.

I always feel like Libyans don’t fully appreciate the richness of our local dialect. We have some clever, fun and bizarrely interesting phrases and words. Take this one:

“ياهارب من الغولة يا طايح في سلال القلوب” (You’re either running from the monster or running into those who rip out hearts)

While that clearly sounds macabre to the average English speaker (more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than common idiom), the meaning is actually equivalent to ‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’. Ours is just a little more *vivid*.

Another (less morbid sounding) Libyan idiom is: “كلام الليل مدهون بالزبدة” (Words spoken at night are greased in butter), which means that it’s easy to say things and make promises at night (when you’re sleepy) when you might not do so while alert. The butter metaphor alludes to the ease with which butter can be spread.

Another saying, which is very pertinent to the situation in Libya regarding our infamous rumor mills, is “قاله شن علمك الكذب, قال اللي نسمعه انقوله” (He was asked where he learned how to lie, he responded, “I repeat everything I hear”). This is sort of a cautionary tale about the harm in spreading rumors, and yet, even though we have an age-old idiom about this very problem, it still persists. Go figure.

Along with these idioms, the Libyan dialect has a lot of Italian loanwords that we picked up during the colonization in WWII (along with some pretty rad Italian-style architecture). The words are given a Libyan-twist to make them more pronunciation-friendly. If a Libyan tells you to stop at the ‘sima-fro‘, he/she means the traffic intersection, if they tell you look nice in your ‘goun-a‘, they’re talking about your skirt. As Libya continues to become more exposed to the rest of the world, a lot of English words are also getting “Libyanized” and added to the colloquial vernacular. ‘Fanash-et’ literally means “I finished”, it’s the word finish with a ت added at the end.

So, you’re probably wondering if Libya is some kind of weird wonderland (which, yeah, it kinda is), but these examples serve to show you how colourful our local dialects are. Unlike Modern Standard Arabic, these dialects are more flexible and can be expanded, as shown by the quick adoption of words from other languages. [If you’re interested in learning more about Libyan sayings, there’s a pretty cool Twitter account that posts them, although not with translations, which you can check out here. I also found this neat blog post on common Libyan terms in West Libya, which you can see here.]

During the last writing contest my organization held, I wrote a blog post about how the majority of submissions were in English, despite the fact that most of the participants spoke Arabic as a first language. We had even received submissions in broken English, as though the participants would rather struggle to write with a language they weren’t proficient at, rather than write in the language they knew. As I mentioned in the post, it got me thinking about holding a writing contest in colloquial Libyan, the language we use everyday when interacting with one another.

The logo of the 'Write in Libyan' contest. The two red hat things are 'shennas', traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

The logo of the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest. The two blobs hanging on the letters are ‘shennas’, traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

Well, we did end up hosting that very contest! And the results were as I had predicted; there was a larger level of participation, as well as more enthusiasm from our general audience. The essays themselves were also more emphatic, it seemed. You’ll definitely write best if you write in the language you communicate with the most, right?

We wanted to keep the premise simple; write an essay about one of three topics we had offered, in, of course, Libyan Arabic. The generous folks over at Libyan Youth Voices let us make a call for essays on their website, as well as the promise of featuring the best essay on their site.

Of course, this idea was not without it’s criticism and detractors. While the overwhelming majority of people told us that they liked the idea, others told us that they believed encouraging writing in a local dialect would push people away from the purer, more universal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Local dialects are, of course, corrupted versions of MSA with geographic and historical factors influencing them.

But my response to this is that people are already speaking in local dialects. No one in Libya talks to one another in MSA. We even use it online on social media. While MSA does have it’s place in the formal press and other professional settings, it’s the local dialect that is most often used by the average Libyan citizen. And since the goal of our organization is to encourage the average Libyan to express themselves, we might as well do it in the language they are most comfortable with.

Another criticism came from our use of the term “Libyan”, when we specifically meant Arabic Libyan. There are actually a number of other languages spoken in Libya besides Arabic, such as Tamazight (mainly spoken by Amazigh Libyans), Greetli (spoken by Libyans of Greek descent, but it’s dying out), Tamahaq (spoken by Tuareg Libyans), along with others.

Now, this is a legitimate criticism. Libya is more diverse than is usually admitted, especially by die-hard pan-Arabists, and to claim that “Libyan” only means Libyan Arabic is wrong. My only defense here is that we don’t have the resources include, for eg., a Tamahaq or Ghadamsi in the writing contest, since we don’t know how to read them.

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

However, after some asking around, we got into contact with Libyan Amazighis who told us they’d be more than happy to help out with a Tamazight writing contest, and we are currently working to ensure that this becomes our next contest. While I’m way out of my scope here in terms of expectations for what impact this contest will have, I think it’s an important gesture nonetheless to encourage tolerance of different ethnicities and to really appreciate the cultural diversity we have. It would also move the organization near political territory, as Amazigh Libyans have been protesting for Tamazight to be recognized as an official National language. But hey, we gotta take risks once in a while, and this is a good cause.

Back to the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest, one of the organization’s team members had the brilliant idea of contacting Dr.Khaled Mattawa. Dr.Mattawa is a Libyan author and writer. He’s also a pretty big deal (as evidenced by his Wikipedia page). He’s won several awards, the latest being the MacArthur ‘Genius Prize’ for his work translating Arabic poetry into English. He was generous and gallant enough to judge the entries from the contest, and in record time (a mere day!).

The winning essay, as determined by Dr.Mattawa, was entitled “مختلفين مش متخالفين” (We’re Different, But Not Enemies), by Mohamed Ezawi, a Libyan from Tripoli. The essay was published on Libyan Youth Voices as promised, and you can check it out here or, to read the intro in Arabic, here. It’s an essay about the importance of difference of opinion and belief in Libyan society, and how we tend to make the erroneous assumption that those of a different mind are our adversaries. It’s an essay that strikes at the heart of the current Libyan conflict, and I hope the message reaches as many Libyans as possible.

The other winners are (you can read the essay on Wattpad by clicking on the name below):

2nd Place: “The Love of Ownership” by Hadeel Alfasay

3rd Place (two entries tied): Why Are You Smiling” by Mukhtar Al-Zlitni and “All We Have is Facebook” by Amel 

You can also read the 1st place winner on Wattpad here.

I believe it’s also noteworthy that the participants mainly focused on the ‘Libyan Culture’ option when writing their article, and chose a certain facet of Libyan culture to write about. I felt that this showed a profound level of creativity on their part for choosing those angles, as opposed to a traditional or cliche take on Libyan culture. (I personally would have written a long-winded piece on Libyan culture as reflected in our local architecture, because I’m a stuffy 50-year old academic trapped in the body of a young adult). There was also a level of humor and comic-relief in the pieces, which I loved because it captured that light-hearted aspect of Libya that I love so much. Libyans can find humor even in a war, which you can see in the multiple memes that have emerged since the revolution (side note: someone should make an archive of Libyan memes. Told you, I’m a stuffy academic). I think the hard times that have become the hallmark of Libyan existence for the past 100 years or so has led to this resilience of spirit, and finding the bright side in any situation. It’s not so much apathy in the face of difficulty as much as it’s a coping mechanism, Libyan style.

Keeping myself narrowly focused on these kinds of projects, along with my writing, is my own form of coping with the current situation. Libya’s now the flavour of the month for analysts and the news, and everyone’s talking about the war, but I’m frankly sick of wringing my hands (figuratively speaking, I’m not that old) and getting into a funk over something I can’t really change. I pray for the best, but I’m going to do what my ancestors have done before me and just adjust to the situation and try to find the bright side. And that’s as optimistic as I’m going to get for you guys for now.

Unity Governments and Other Empty Solutions for Libya

Libya is in danger. Crippling, life-threatening danger. This week we have witnessed unspeakably horrific incidents, things that we never thought we’d see happen in our own country. There was once a time when murder was a rare occurrence, and now every Libyan has at least one family member or friend who was violently killed. By 2013 the murder rate had gone up 500%.

But the threat of armed gangs and militia groups, which has contributed much of the violence, has been dwarfed by an even bigger threat; ISIS. Last Sunday, masked barbarians claiming to be ISIS fighters in Libya released a horrific video of the slaughter of 21 Egyptians on the shores of Sirte. Their crime? Being Christian. After Egyptian forces retaliated by bombing the ISIS stronghold of Derna (which was reported to also have caused civilian death), ISIS claimed responsibility for three car bombs that were detonated on Friday in the small town of Quba, taking over 40 lives.

Just like that, over 60 lives were extinguished in a week by the cycle of terrorism and revenge.

Of course, this did not happen out of the blue. There have been several warning signs of the growth of ISIS in Libya. The city of Derna has been held under the grip of extremists for years now, with young men being sent off or hidden away at home lest the extremists sink their claws into them. Derna has not been able to vote in the past three elections (constitution, municipal council and HoR elections) because, according to these monsters, “democracy is haram.” And yet, the only time Derna ever received attention or concern by so-called “revolutionaries” is when Heftar began bombing terrorist locations in the city.

The most prevalent characteristic of this conflict has been double standards, even on the side that I support. If they kill my people it’s horrific but if people on the other side die, then, well, they kinda brought it on themselves, ya know? This kind of justification is not just appalling in its complete disregard for human life, but also threatens to irreparably sever whatever threads of Libyan unity there are left. While the city of Misrata released a statement condemning the terrorist action in Quba (a noble move), many Facebook pages claiming to speak on behalf of the city have expressed jubilation at the attack (those darn Easterners had it coming!), and it’s so much easier for people to take the hate-bait and fan the flames of conflict than to admire and hold up the actions of good.

So, yeah, it’s getting really bad.

While the country continues to descend in this bottomless pit of chaos, the political scene isn’t making any progress either. In the wake of the recent attacks, many people have reiterated the importance of first “forming a unity government” in order to counter terrorism in Libya.

If you’re like me, the term ‘unity government’ has you puzzled. We already have a government, don’t we? One that we elected, like, you know, democratically? If the people parroting the line about “goals of February 17” are aware, one of those goals was democracy. Not a cut and paste government carelessly put together based on who has the most influence on militias. If this is such a legitimate solution, why didn’t we do it during the last war with Gadhafi?

Perhaps I’m not very knowledgeable on politics, but the logic behind this “unity” government eludes me. When Op. Karama began, partly as a result of the GNC refusing to budge or do anything to stem the violence in the country, everyone declared that this was an illegitimate, unilateral move that threatened Libyan democracy. What the solution was, they preached, was to have elections so the new government could take care of business.

So on June 25th, we went out under a hail of bullets to vote for the new government, the House of Representatives. The government was set to be based in Benghazi, but because of the instability and lack of security there, it was temporarily allocated to Tobruk.

But let’s back up a second. Before any of this allocating happened, a group calling themselves Fajr Libya went and fajer-ed (blew up) Tripoli International Airport, for reasons that still remain a mystery. The start of this crazy cycle began before the HoR even convened officially.

When that failed, “they” (you know who I mean) began attacking (figuratively) the HoR from its very first session. Long story short, HoR got nullified by a Supreme Court under duress, and the entire “democratic process” that was supposed to save us was axed by the very people extolling its importance.

Fast forward to today. The defunct GNC rises from the dead like a half-decomposed zombie intent on devouring our brains and sanity. They continue to fund /support militia groups like Fajr Libya and Ansar Shariah, and the international community’s solution to the Libyan mess is “form a unity government!”


Why would we form a unity government with the same assholes who ruined the country the first time around? Why would we form a unity government under threat of continued fighting by a group that refused to cede to election losses? WHY WOULD WE FORM A UNITY GOVERNMENT WITH PEOPLE WHO WERE NOT DEMOCRACTICALLY ELECTED TO BE IN THIS GOVERNMENT????

*rapid inhaling and exhaling*

The idea of a unity government is, to me, a cowardly cop-out that spits in the face of democracy [tfou]. It feels like we’re being blackmailed. But worst of all, this is supposed to be the grand master plan that the international community wants for Libya. So grand and masterful, in fact, that they refuse to aid the Libyan army in the fight against terrorism or even lift the arms embargo placed on them until this unity sham is achieved. It all reeks of nefariously ulterior motives.

It is flummoxing to the average Libyan, who doesn’t even have any prior political experience, to be receiving these mixed messages from international groups. “Bomb Gadhafi! Vote in elections! Work for democracy no matter what! Keep going on the democra…oh, wait, no, you know what, actually, form a unity government instead.”

Logistics aside (would the zombies even be willing to leave Tripoli? Would their Fajr collation thing be considered an army?), it leaves out the Big Question; How will this help combat ISIS? You know, those head-chopping guys I mentioned above? The GNC refuses to acknowledge that ISIS is even in Libya, claiming that the videos are fake and blaming it on anyone besides extremist groups. How do we fight terrorists with those kinds of people in a “unity government”? It’s like claiming to unite to combat global warming with people who think it’s a hoax. It is, in every sense of the word, stupid as hell.

Fighting extremism is not easy, and it requires, yes, UNITY, on the part of the whole country. Instead of blowing up oil ports and airports, Fajr Libya should join forces with Op. Karama to root out extremist forces before they become deeply imbued into Libya’s social structure. HoR members from every city should convene and start working on how to stabilize Libya while there’s still time. We need to work with what we have because the timeframe to find a solution has suddenly shrunk by a lot. If the international community is serious about helping Libya, they need to start proposing serious solutions. Otherwise, don’t stand in our way as we try to save ourselves.

Was the Revolution Worth It?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately.

I was thinking of doing a blog post entitled “Four Years On”, because I’ve gotten into the tradition of writing an anniversary post for the revolution. But, I also realize that writing a commemorative post during what has got to be the worst time for Libya since WWII would be a bad idea, deciding instead to spare you the despair and anger that I’d probably come up with if I attempted to write about how I felt now. (Spoiler alert, it’s still a despairing read)

It would be easier to just post headlines from 2011 to now, so you can get a sense of just how far we’ve sunk into the Failed State category. They follow the general pattern of; “Revolution a Success!” “Goodbye Gadhafi!” “Uh Oh, Trouble in Paradise” “Something’s Rotten in the State of Libya” “Extremists Extinguish the Spark of the Revolution” “Oh Crap What the Hell is Happening in Libya”. One headline is literally “The Revolution that Ate its Children”.

You get the idea.

A year ago I would’ve been prepared to lambast anyone who claimed that life was better under Gadhafi. I mean, yeah, sure, life sucks, but not like under Gadhafi, right? Right? I found any excuse to validate this belief, so I didn’t feel the crippling feeling of regret that I participated in something that ruined my country and that took thousands of innocent lives. But hey, that was easy, I was still living in my house at the time, still studying at university for my degree.

And now? I can’t really bullshit myself anymore. It was a disaster. A completely idiotic thing.

Not the getting rid of Gadhafi part. He was a monster, an insane megalomaniac who shouldn’t have been outside a lunatic asylum, let alone the head of a country.

No, I mean the obsequious welcoming of a group of double shafras who “led” the revolution from abroad and who screwed the country over. Yeah, I know, I know, not all of them were double shafras. But those ones were the “educated” people who “deserved” to be in charge because of their “struggle” under Gadhafi. Are the quotation marks pissing you off? Good, I’m pissed off too.

A lot of people say it’s the Libyans own fault (you darn Libyans), for, you know, not knowing how to be democratic and stuff. Shame on you Libyans, why didn’t you just wing it. Why blame the leaders who didn’t lead. Bad Libyans, bad.

Life was not good under Gadhafi. But at least there weren’t street wars. At least the airport was open and you could get your passport renewed for if (or when) you wanted to escape. Now it’s not even easy to escape because no one wants war-affected Libyans on their doorsteps.

I got a lot of good things from the revolution. I was pretty lucky in that regard. But if I had to give all that back in exchange for the dead and the suffering, I would do it in the blink of an eye, because it sure as hell wasn’t worth it.

Before writing this, my alter ego “Insufferable Optimist” whispered words of encouragement to me, that writing this would be a great catharsis, that you would find hope at the end and realize that there was still something worth fighting for. I promptly tied her up and stored her in the dark recesses at the back of my mind.

There’s nothing “worth fighting for”. The only thing we can do is minimize the suffering and hope that the country somehow manages to cling on to some semblance of existence as an autonomous nation after all this. Because let me tell you, chances of that happening are looking slimmer by the day.

Did you hear about the foreign planes? And the bombing? And the beheadings? Can you  really look a Libyan in the eye today and tell them that the revolution was worth it? Entire families have been wiped out, people are living inside of fucking schools.

What were the goals of the revolution again? Democracy. Nope, still none of that. Freedom of speech? Well, if you’re prepared to die after speaking. A better country for all? *bitter laughter*

I’m being a total buzzkill, aren’t I? I bet you clicked on this looking for some rational, level headed analysis of the “Libyan Situation”. But there’s nothing rational or level headed about the Libyan Situation. The Situation is a mess. A maddening crisis deserves a maddening post. I am MAD goddammit, mad that I participated in the revolution and mad that I’m weak enough to admit that I regret it.

Maybe when the war ends (uhh?) and when things settle down, I’ll look at this and wonder what I was so enraged about. Things will seem like a dream when the war is over and there’s electricity and gas again. Or maybe there will be foreign forces in Libya and I’ll write sarcastic tweets about them. “Your guns will totally protect you in the land of guns, UN team.” Ha ha ha.

Frankly, I’m fed up and tired. Not fed up like ‘uhh, this sucks’. No, fed up as in ‘can the earth swallow me whole so I don’t have to live through this anymore’. If I had stayed home and kept quiet instead of protesting those far-away days ago, things would be the exact same. But I wouldn’t feel this heavy weight on my conscious like I share in the responsibility for the misery that’s enveloped us.  I’m sad for the average Libyan, I’m angry at the politicians and I’m terrified of the future.

Crisis Response: Benghazi’s Civil Society in Times of War

There have been two times in Benghazi’s history now when the presence of civil society has been urgently needed. The first was in February 2011, when the country witnessed a revolution. And now, during the armed conflict that has continued for three months and counting.

That first appearance of Benghazi’s civil society was cause for celebration. It was the first time since the dictatorship that society could act freely without restraint or threat, and this opportunity was used to the fullest by the city’s active citizens, especially the youth. This second time is less joyful. There is no more of the innovative work to raise the voice of citizens and improve the city. All the initiatives now are focused on humanitarian relief and trying to avert a major disaster. Instead of working towards a promising goal, civil society is just another passenger on the sinking ship that seems to be Libya these days.Civil society hasn’t stopped working, but the uncertainty surrounding the entire Libya crisis has given many concerned citizens pause, wondering if all our efforts will be drowned along with the country.

This is not a pity post, and I don’t enjoy wallowing in misery. My aim here is to analyze how civil society is currently addressing the crisis, the potential threats that loom in the future, and how efforts can be focused into strategically and effectively combating these threats.  I’ll spread this throughout my CS network and work from there. I’m publishing it here for posterity, but if any international organization wants to use the information present here to help Libya, you’re more than welcome.

Active Civil Society Organizations As much of Benghazi has now been secured by the army, movement and activity has been easier than during the first months of the war. Many organizations have re-started their work, but mainly focusing on the crisis at hand. Let’s take an overview of these organizations:

1. حملة أقرا (“Read” Campaign)

Students participating in the Iqra campaign (Source: Red Crescent FB page)

Students participating in the Iqra campaign (Source: Red Crescent FB page)

The Read Campaign was started by the Benghazi branch of the Libyan Red Crescent to supplement the educational vacuum that Benghazi is going through due to the closure of schools. For a few hours a day, school kids go to designated schools and engage in educational activities. Aside from this, the Red Crescent is also hosting emotional support sessions and festivals to boost the morale of Benghazi’s citizens

2. حملة نورني (“Enlighten Me” Initiative) 

Preparations for the educational videos  (Source: Nawurni FB page)

Preparations for the educational videos
(Source: Nawurni FB page)

Like the Red Crescent’s Iqra campaign, “Nawurni” is an initiative that is focused on education. However, unlike Iqra, Nawurni aims to restart the school year in Benghazi. Sponsored by the National Council for Freedom and Human Rights, Nawurni is working on providing the curriculum, securing the schools and coordinating with the Education Ministry to ensure that the school year resumes. Along with these efforts, the initiative is also working to create a series of educational videos to be aired on national Libyan television.

3. جمعية ايادينا (Helping Hands Charity) 

Volunteers bringing aid to refugee families in a public school (Source: Ayadina FB page)

Volunteers bringing aid to refugee families in a public school (Source: Ayadina FB page)

“Ayadina” is one of the oldest charities in the city, started by a group of active Libyan women. In this crisis, Ayadina has been working on providing humanitarian and financial aid to families in need, including refugee families residing in Benghazi’s public schools.

4. Electron Youth Network Electron is an initiative that takes place in many countries world wide. Part of Electron’s mission is holding forums where youth can meet up and discuss important issues, and helps create networks in which activists can stay in contact and support one another. Electron’s Libya chapter held a national forum in 2014, bringing in activists from across the country. Now it is working on facilitating youth-driven initiatives in Benghazi to address the most urgent issues in the city.

Libyan women participating in a first aid workshop (Source: Charity's FB page)

Libyan women participating in a first aid workshop (Source: Charity’s FB page)

5. منظمة الملك إدريس السنوسي الخيرية (King Idris ElSanussi Organization) 

Named after Libya’s former monarch, the King Idris organization engages in a wide range of volunteer work. During this current conflict, they have held a number of workshops on safety and first aid, with a noticeably high participation of Libyan women.

6. فريق سمحة بنغازي (“Benghazi is Beautiful” Team) 

A picture of the 'Charity Store' (Source: Samha FB page)

A picture of the ‘Charity Store’ (Source: Samha’s FB page)

This team consists of a group of Benghazi youth who volunteer their time to help their city. They have implemented a number of projects and campaigns during the current conflict. One of them has been a ‘charity store’, a supply of donated and purchased goods that families in need can come and take from. It is a dignified way to help those who need these supplies. They’ve also held a festival at the beginning of the year to celebrate Maylud at the Benghazi Orphanage. Another campaign that they’ve just launched is ‘A Million Quarters’, asking residents of the city to donate just 25 dirhams towards helping rebuild Benghazi.

7. منظمة لأجلك بنغازي ابادر (“Initiatives for Benghazi” Organization)

A volunteer packaging food for refugee families (Source: Ubader's FB page)

A volunteer packaging food for refugee families (Source: Ubader’s FB page)

The Ubader group has been one of the most consistently active in Benghazi since the end of the revolution. They have held clean-up campaigns, park renovations and charity work, among other initiatives. During this crisis, they have been collecting supplies and donations for refugee families. They are also launching the ‘Tawfik Bensaud’ campaign to help people with special needs and infants born in refugee families.

8. بنغازي نحن هلها (We’re Benghazi’s Family)

Providing psychological help to Benghazi's children (Source: Organization's FB page)

Providing psychological help to Benghazi’s children (Source: Organization’s FB page)

The Benghazi Nahna Halha campaign is a collaboration of many civil society organizations (around 30, last I heard), that has been opening and preparing public schools to aid the internally displaced families in Benghazi. They were one of the first campaigns to start working since the beginning of the conflict. Along with aiding the families in the schools with financial and humanitarian aid, they’re also working with doctors to provide psychiatric help.

9. ‎مفوضية بنغازي للكشافة والمرشدات‎ (Libyan Scouts, Benghazi Branch)

Benghazi's scouts distributing aid

Benghazi’s scouts distributing aid (Source: Scout’s FB page)

The Scouts are one of the oldest (if not the oldest) civil organization in Libya. They have been involved in countless initiatives and campaigns after the revolution, aside from the work they do to keep Benghazi’s youth always prepared. During this conflict, Benghazi’s Scouts have organized a blood donation drive, distributed relief and medical supplies and spreading awareness on war debris & mines. Tomorrow (Monday) they’ll be holding a tree-planting to commemorate their 61st anniversary.

The latest problem that threatens Benghazi is the impending health crisis as medical supplies are running low in Benghazi’s Eastern regions, and hospitals are not able to bring in more. There has already been an issue with bringing in dialysis materials in the Eastern region, and the last I heard, dialysis sessions were cut down from three to two per week. Civil society should now focus on trying to prevent a medical disaster from happening in the city.

There is another issue that is currently dormant, but also poses a threat to Benghazi’s society, and that is the issue of reconciliation and re-assimilation. Everyone has their own opinion on the war, and while the overwhelming majority of Benghazi’s citizens do support a certain side, there are those who support the other. Those from both sides, even families and friends, are engaging in very heated debates on the issue and there have been instances where these arguments have led to violence (as if we needed more of that already). There should be some initiative taken to reconcile the two parties, because we won’t be to rebuild our city if part of the community is ostracized. What we failed to do after the revolution with Gadhafi supporters should be done now, lest we end up in the same vindictive cycle.

Apart from all this is the need for rebuilding the infrastructure of the city, reviving the media, removing the residues of war, along with a whole host of other jobs. We’ve got our work cut out for us. In the absence of a proper government, or governing bodies that actually care about the average citizens, it is our civil society that will carry out this work. This is why I implore everyone who wants to help Benghazi, whether regular citizens or international groups, to work with our civil society.

Defining a Vision for Libya

I was recently very lucky to be part of a conference hosted by Oxfam in Tunisa about, what else, Libya. Unlike the previous conference I attended, this one focused less on youth initiatives and more on Libya as a whole. Activists were brought from across Libya for this two-day event. While the event consisted of a diverse range of topics, the overall theme was determining a “vision” for Libya.

Opening session of the Oxfam Talks

Opening session of the Oxfam Talks

The first day consisted of panels, each discussing the work that the speakers have done, which altogether painted a picture of the activities/issues going on in Libya. Yours truly was asked to be a panelist, speaking on freedom of speech for civil society, under the banner of ‘Opportunities and Challenges for Civil Society’. I’m adding a transcript of what I said here, partly for records and partly to hear if anyone has any feedback/criticism about what I said.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

My name is Nada Elfeituri, a civil society activist from Benghazi. I began my civil society work after the revolution, writing opinion columns about the Libyan revolution for a local charity newspaper, Uprising of the Free. There were several newspapers, magazines, radio stations and other media that emerged in Benghazi, a natural result of being quieted for 42 years. People were even expressing themselves on the walls of the city. Of course, at that time, we all had the same general opinion; that the Gadhafi regime must end and that we should all work towards a better Libya. Especially in Benghazi during the revolution, the majority of the people were unified by this goal.

It was only after the revolution ended and opinions began to differ that things began to change. We’re not used to hearing different point of view, and friction emerged between people of different mindsets. I felt that there was a need to teach Libyans how to better channel their methods of expression, which is partially why I started The Young Writers of Benghazi.

It’s an organization that strives to encourage Libyans from a young age to express themselves creatively, especially since the Libya education system lacks in encouraging creative writing. We started with a story writing contest in a public school, to see how the students would contribute.

Because of the security situation on the ground, we decided to host online writing contests, which would also help us involve Libyans from across the country. The use of the internet as a platform for free speech was used numerous groups and initatives, such as Project Silphium and Libyan Youth Voices.

But the issue of free speech began to escalate from a social problem into a life-threatening one. People like Muftah Bouzaid, Abdulsalam Mismary, Salwa Bughagis and Tawfik Bensaud were not fighters, they did not call for war. But they were assassinated for what they said and what they believed. And so in Benghazi, it was like returning to the days of Gadhafi. You were told to write under a fake name, not to talk about politics or anything sensitive, so that you could be safe.

Freedom of speech is still a controversial issue worldwide, especially after the recent events in Paris. What is the definition of free speech, should it have limits, should there be limits? These are all questions that everyone is debating, not just Libya. Different countries have different laws, but there are no free speech laws in Libya.

It is imperative for Libya’s civil society to stress the importance of safeguarding free speech within a Libyan context, because without it we will lose many of our other rights. We will have returned once again to the age of the dictatorship.”

Among the other speakers on this panel was Wafia Sayf, my partner in crime and all-around inspiration gal. Wafia is the director of Volunteer Libya, an organization that works on many fronts but is ultimately focused on encouraging youth participation in civil society. So naturally she spoke about youth empowerment, and how she has worked to bring more young people into the civil society scene. The main point she wanted to convey was the importance of providing opportunities for Libya’s youth, by getting them out of the house and fostering a culture of volunteerism. There was also Aladdin Alharaty, who spoke about good governance in civil society through initiatives such as OGPs (open government partnerships), and Mustafa Abdulkabir, a Tunisia activist who works on “Across the Border” initiatives between Tunisia and Libya.

A group session working on one of Libya's priorities

A group session working on one of Libya’s priorities

The panel before us was on “Key Actors and Processes”, and involved the issues of the Libyan constitution, Libyan media and the role of youth in state building. A lot of interesting points were raised here, such as whether a quota did any good for Libyan women in the Constitution Drafting Assembly, the misuse of media in the conflict and importance of having a free, independent press, and how youth (who comprise many of the fighters currently on the front line) are key players in the direction the Libyan conflict can take.

Among the other panels were “Concerns for Libya“, covering the role of religion in state building, the diversity and marginalization of Fezzan (South Libya) and the situation of human rights as told by a Benghazi lawyer and her eye-opening work within Libya’s prison system.

One of the most moving talks was the panel on “Experiences and Initiatives by Libyan Citizens“. An activist from the border city of Wazzin gave a case study summary on the city. Like most of Libya, Wazzin is marginalized and ignored by governing authorizes. The speaker, Mr.Said El-Kurdi, told us about the attempts of civil society in the city towards development, and the challenges they face. The city lacks some of the most essential things, like a proper doctor or dentist. However, Mr. El-Kurdi main point was that the city required human development. The citizens are more than willing to work for their city, but they need the tools and the know-how to do so.

I’m not going to write out an entire summary of the first day, but if you’d like to learn more about it you can check out the hashtags ,  and  on Twitter.

The second day was more interactive, and we rolled up our sleeves to work on pressing concerns for Libya now. After a vote, it was determined that Libya’s most urgent needs were refugees, the media, dialogue between fighting parties and youth involvement. We drew up charts on the actors who are positive/negative role players and least/most effective, as well as how to maximize/minimize their impact, respectively.

One of the groups presenting their work

One of the groups presenting their work

Overall, it was a very productive workshop, and one of the best I’ve attended in some time. My narrow focus only on Benghazi is partially why I’m ignorant about the rest of Libya, and this was a good wake-up call, not only on the other problems in Libya but how it could affect us. I’m working on article about Libya’s South to shed more light on this forgotten region, and there’s plans in the works to expand the Young Writers of Benghazi to other Libyan cities.

I think the take away from the event is that defining a vision for Libya must be an inclusive process. The event also helped me realize that Libya needs a clearly defined set of visions, not just one, and that generalizing the problem will keep us out of focus. The ultimate vision is obviously of a stable, democratic country for all, but achieving this means stopping the current armed conflict, reestablishing some semblance of national unity and working together to root out extremism. This requires collecting all the weapons, strengthening the national army, and yes, dialogue. We need all segments of society involved in these steps on every level, and yes, even with the people we dislike or disagree with. The sooner we start, the sooner the country can start to heal.

Double Shafra Culture

Double Shafra (arabic: دبل شفرة, translation: two cards| (noun) 

1. A cell-phone that can hold two sim cards

2. A Libyan with a second passport

There is a large Libyan diaspora community, disproportionately sizable compared to our national population. Many people were forced to flee under the Gadhafi regime, many who left for a chance at a better life, many who went on a scholarship program and many who, recently, had to leave the country due to the latest circumstances of the war.

There’s never been a very amiable relationship between regular, or ‘single shafra’ Libyans and double shafras. Before the revolution, this was due to the inherent cultural differences between the two. Double shafras are third culture kids, who grew up between places and don’t really fit in anywhere. Some would vacation in Libya while others had never seen the country before, and Libyan culture and Libyan people can be very difficult for them to embrace or feel comfortable with. It’s equally perplexing for single shafras, who barely got to travel or see foreigners (again, speaking pre-revolution), meet a cousin or someone who acts and talks like an ajnabee (foreigner) but has a Libyan name.

Those are the polite versions. Then you have the double shafras who waltz into the country all high and mighty and wrinkle their nose at everything, in the process patronizing the Libyans who never had a choice to live anywhere else. It’s very trying to listen to someone repeatedly tell you “God, how do you live here? It’s so dirty, there’s no Starbucks, the people are so backwards, urgh take me homeee.” And of course the single shafras, who, whether out of jealousy or annoyance or a combination of the two, declare that double shafras aren’t real Libyans or, even worse, not even proper Muslims, accusing them of debauchery and loose morals because, hey, they live in those kaffir countries right? This is also tough to handle, considering that many of these same single shafras are trying their best to leave the country and get a second shafra themselves, a particularly grating hypocrisy.

As you can see, both sides are guilty of over-generalization and intolerance. I’ve been both types, the confused & arrogant double shafra, and the sympathetic & annoyed Libyan. I wish I could say that the solution to single vs. double is just better communication and understanding, but the issue is more complex than that. Each side is not a homogeneous group but contain a myriad of different identities. There is the unwaveringly patriotic double shafra who has dedicated their life to Libya, the apathetic single shafra who doesn’t care about the country, the double who can fit in anywhere with anyone, the single who fits in better with doubles than other singles, etc. etc.

Like everything else in Libya, this issue took on another layer of complexity after the revolution. The dissident double shafras outside Libya played a crucial role during the revolution, from protesting to petitioning to bringing in aid. They helped carry the voice of the Libyans inside the country despite Gadhafi’s attempts to silence them. And many of them came back when the country was free, determined to continue the work they began in pursuit of a better Libya.

Here is where we reach a crux, and I have to preface this second part with a disclaimer. I’m not trying to offend or insult anyone specifically, or make any particular accusations.

Even before the imminent fall of Gadhafi, many Libyans (inside and out) were squabbling for government positions and places of power and influence. The country was about to get a total system renovation, and they wanted to make sure they rented their spot as soon as possible. So, when the National Transitional Council was dissolved and elections held for the General National Congress, many double shafras won seats or got a place in the temporary administrative government.

This is a point that needs to be highlighted; many of them were voted in. As in, by the single shafra populace. Of course there was a lot of debate over whether a government member should have a second citizenship, or if a person who lived outside the country for 30 years even knew what the country needed. But many of the dissidents-turned-politicians had spent a large part of the revolution talking on news channels in tones dripping with patriotism and promises for the future; disguised campaigns that we were too impressed with to question.

We didn’t really question much during the revolution. Anyone who was against Gadhafi and spoke for us was an automatic hero. We didn’t want to hear criticism, it was a blessed time that made us blind to any wrong-doing. And so we trusted these people with our future, and the future of our country.

And, sadly, they failed us. The GNC is probably one of the biggest government disasters in modern history, so rife with corruption, nepotism and malice that by the time their term was supposed to be over, there were protests across the nation demanding they go. Among the GNC’s most notable blunders was enabling militia groups and plying them with untold amounts of money, and voting for certain legislation under the threat of guns. The headquarters was stormed several times, one of the many Prime Ministers was kidnapped from his own home, accusations were made on the unethical behaviour of many high-level government workers, a female GNC member was found with a grenade in her bag during a meeting, and so on. It was, as we say on the internet, an epic fail.

And naturally, much of the blame landed on the double shafras. Many of them stuffed their pockets with as much money as they could get their hands on before fleeing to their second country, only to continue giving their unwanted and useless advice on Libyan affairs. Others went into hiding due to threats on their life from the more powerful parties (cough cough, They-Who-Must-Not-“MB”e-Named).

I wish I could say that Libyans realized that the problems of the GNC and temporary government were caused by a lack of transparency and accountability, that we gave them too much trust and power, that certain politicians took advantage of the unstable situation. But, if we thought like this, we wouldn’t have had a GNC to begin with.

Libyans today do not trust their counterparts abroad. They are wary of double shafras, in some cases enraged. I think it mainly stems from that feeling of utter betrayal you get when the person you trusted let you down hard. And now that more Libyans are leaving the country, this feeling of betrayal and abandonment feels more pronounced.

A friend of mine on Facebook wrote at the beginning of the war, “Your country is not a hotel that you can check out from when the service goes bad.” That person eventually checked out too, though. This kind of “I’m more patriotic than you” brag, played for decades by Libyans, has a kind of laughable irony to it now, considering that almost everyone I know has a personal benefit in whatever stance they take, wherever they are and however many shafras they own. Even the people in Benghazi now claiming ultimate patriotism status for lasting this long in the war don’t really have anywhere else to go anyways, or have the means to. Some of them, yes, are double shafras.

The tragedy of double shafras is that they will always feel, to some degree, displaced. It doesn’t make it any easier when your desire to help is treated with suspicion and your motives placed under scrutiny. The tragedy of single shafras is that their future looks more uncertain by the day, that they live under the shadow of the threat of the ambiguous term ‘failed state’. And the tragedy of both is that they are Libyans, forever bound to a country that seems placed under an eternal curse.

Okay, that’s an incredibly depressing way to end a blog post, and I didn’t intend to tie in all that political stuff. It’s been a while since I just ranted away. I’m sort of in-between a single and double shafra, and I wanted to explain how it’s about mentality and culture and the particulars about the two. But I’m kind of drained by the war and worried about my house (which we had to finally evacuate) and what will happen to me and my family and my city. I keep hearing the terms ‘economic collapse’ and ‘next failed state’ and ‘running out of time’ and it’s harrowing. I was also supposed to have graduated sometime this month, and instead my university is now a smoldering pile of ash.

I don’t hate any one person or group for bringing us to this point. I think we’re all somehow responsible, though some people more than others. If there’s one thing I wish every would realize, it’s that the average citizen is truly suffering right now, more than you can imagine.