Book Review: The Return

“Nabokov and Conrad [were right]…They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved…But Pasternak and Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed…What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” – Hisham Matar, The Return

Libyan expats and exiles often talk about the pain and difficulty of leaving Libya, of being unable to return or see relatives. For them, being deprived of the country for the past few decades has been a bitter loss. However, these recollections are often met with incredulity and disbelief by Libyans in the country, who would give anything for the chance to live in the United States or Britain, or for a brief respite from the overbearing omnipresence of family and social expectations. It’s this chasm between two different kinds of struggle that is difficult to bridge, and a prime source of tension between the two groups.

Hisham Matar is one of the very few Libyans who is trapped in between; stuck in a chasm that is neither here nor there. Raised in Libya and exiled by Gadhafi, his father was kidnapped, detained, and most likely killed by the regime, and Matar has spent much of his life consumed by the search for answers. I was introduced to Matar through his first novel, In The Country of Men. This book, and the one that followed (Anatomy of a Disappearance), were both coming-of-age tales of a young boy who has to come to terms with his father’s disappearance. In The Return, fiction is replaced by the real life account of Matar’s search for his father.

For much of his readership, Matar’s book is a unique glimpse into the life of a person and nation haunted by a dictatorship. But for myself, and for most Libyans, the book is more personal. Every recollection of some small detail in Libya, past or present, evokes a feeling of kinship with the author, as though he is speaking directly to us and acknowledging our shared experiences. This is why my reading of the book has been more critical.

Scattered throughout the book are glimpses of his father’s life, who fought constantly against the regime. Under Gadhafi, these tales of resistance might have once sparked romantic admiration in Libyans who were equally appalled at his rule. But being on the other end of a revolution that failed to transition into a state, it makes one wonder whether the “dissidents” against Gadhafi knew what they were doing. Many fought with the goal of overthrowing him, but very few – if any at all – understood what it took to turn Libya into a democratic nation. Reading about his father’s training and army-building in Chad only brings forward feelings of disapproval now; these dissidents are no longer viewed as heroes but as reckless, irresponsible anarchists.

The same goes for Matar’s account of the revolution and immediate aftermath. The hope and nationalism and potential he wrote about in such beautiful prose is gone in Libya, replaced instead with horror at the movement we had once supported, which is now dismantling the country. One point I really took issue with was the judgement he cast on Libyans. “The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: people would come to long for the days of Qaddafi.”

Is that really the most unimaginable thing though? Are the public acts of beheading something we ever imagined happening in Libya? The devaluation of the dinar to the point where Libyans are going hungry, something we could imagine? No matter how much you hated him, to deny that life under his rule could possibly be anything worse than a failing country where hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been forced out of their homes and cities is to convey a supreme ignorance of the current situation.

There was another instance of this judgement that irked me. Matar talks about the “unfinished state of modern Libyan architecture”, blaming it on the nation’s “lack of self-regard”, unaware that many Libyans – who save their modest income for decades to build their houses – oftentimes run out of money when it comes to “finishing” the house. It is a harsh observation, which is a running theme in the book. The only time he seems to praise Libyans is when he discusses their role in the revolution. Of course, as Libyans, we are often harsh towards each other, although we disapprove when it’s done publicly.

All in all, the Libya that Matar writes about is one that is long gone. He dwells on the past excessively, and romanticizes a revolution that has brought about one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history. While the book is called ‘The Return’, Hisham Matar is not returning to the country he knew but rather to a new Libya, one that he is seeing for the first time.

Again, my reading of the book was critical, because I feel such a personal connection to the things Matar writes about. For me, it’s not the account of a heartbreaking story from a third world country. It’s a history that I too have lived, a reality I’m currently burdened under.

But I ultimately recognize that this is his story. As much as I want to be involved, to say, “No, this is how things happened,” it’s not my account, it’s not my history. And its his personal narrative is what makes the book so fascinating. From his life as a child in Tripoli, to the impermanence he carries around while growing up, and that particular feeling of being stuck in time, Hisham Matar has lived an extraordinary life, one that he describes in what is undoubtedly a masterful form of writing.

The most fascinating part of the book, for myself, were the encounters and correspondences with Seif Al-Islam. It’s difficult to imagine Seif sitting in a London hotel, having a chat with a dissident’s son, or texting and using emojis. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine Seif anywhere that isn’t in front of a camera, speaking platitudes or threatening destruction. However, Matar’s description of the tyrant’s son aligns with the general impression that I’ve seen; a visible, almost strained, attempt to appear professional while trying to suppress the inherited madness of his father. But Gadhafi junior represented something else to Libyans in the country that was not seen by exiles; an opportunity for change, to finally throw off the Jamaheria and start to become a developing country. Inside Libya, we’re only now realizing how the country was changing before 2011. A friend of mine told me, “If we had waited three years, the revolution wouldn’t have happened, because the people would no longer feel a need to revolt.” I’m not sure how true this statement is, since it was more a revolution of anger than one of demands, but it highlights the noticeable difference between the false ideals of Al-Fateh to the new vision of Gadhafi junior.

Overall, this book is an emotional rollercoaster, and reading it as a Libyan definitely coloured my experience. But I still highly recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the situation in Libya, or to anyone really who really enjoys good prose. I was incredibly thrilled to hear that it had won a Pulitzer prize, and I hope this will motivate more Libyan writers to pick up a pen and share their own narratives. God knows we have such fantastic stories to tell.

Young Exodus

ـــ لماذا ندفن أنفسنا في هذه القرية المنسيّة.. المغبرّة؟”
ـــ ما رأيكم في السفر؟
ـــ إلى أين؟
ـــ العالم واسع.. ثمة آفاق دائماً
ـــ ألن يأكلنا الحنين؟
“ـــ الحنين لهذا القَفْر؟! للعجاج؟! لبلاد أهلها دائماً في عجلة من أمرهم ولا يفعلون شيئاً؟

ـــ أحمد يوسف عقيلة

You hear about the physical death in Libya, the accidental missile strikes or stray bullets, but you don’t hear about the little deaths, the prolonged withering of hope until nothing is left but abject, indifferent resignation. Libya has become a mass grave for the dreams of its young people.

It’s a conversation that comes up when talking about the state of the country. Those who can leave and have the means to have already packed up, three years back when it was apparent that things weren’t getting better anytime soon. Those who want to leave but are stopped by the multiple obstacles in their way (visa rejection, black market inflation) make up many of Libya’s youth today. I’ve heard too many stories from friends about multiple visa applications to study abroad (only to be rejected each time), of working two or three jobs to make the same living that one job could once achieve for you, of applying to any opportunity online that will give them a brief respite from the oppressive uncertainty and chaos. There’s not much left in Libya in the way of good education or promising job opportunities. Even those trying to create their own opportunities know that their success will always be limited by the situation.

Of course, these are the more privileged youth, those who received a decent education or have a supportive family encouraging them to seek their chances elsewhere. Then there are the young people from that section of society that is hidden and ignored, from poor families who have been hit hardest by the crisis (what poor families? say those in denial, those who still believe in the lie about the prosperous oil country). These young people, without enough “connections” to get them a job or scholarship, without any of the opportunities to give them a fighting chance, with a family that needs their support, will sacrifice their own futures for a chance to survive in increasingly impossible circumstances. Young men take up arms to fight in a war that makes no sense to them, young women married off to the highest bidder “to reduce the burden on the family.”

I remember one young fighter who said,  “We’re only fighting for our fallen friends; we know there’s nothing to look forward to when the battle is over.” This is the motivation that drives many Libyans to look for a way out. No notion of nationalism, or patriotic responsibility, is strong enough to keep people in a country that will take your best years and give you nothing in return. Those you know who’ve left call back to say, “Why are you still there? Get out while you can!”

Of course this phenomenon is not new; the country’s legacy of instability and war has always driven Libyans to find better prospects. The large diaspora abroad, disproportionate to the population, is a testament to that. But it’s never been this critical, the need to leave has never felt so urgent. Everything that has happened since the revolution has happened suddenly, so that even the imminent collapse of the country might strike us overnight. The past five years has taught us that it’s only going to get worse.

It’s easy to see Libya as a sinking ship that needs to be evacuated as soon as possible. But there are a few young people who are grappling with the issue through the lens of a moral dilemma. These youth, who rode the wave of hope following the revolution and achieved some level of success in their endeavors, are now wondering whether it would be right to leave. After all, wasn’t the point of the revolution to rebuild a new Libya? (it’s hard to remember what the point of the revolution really was though) If they leave, who will be left to help the country? But this group is a dwindling minority, as it becomes apparent that there isn’t much left to rebuild, that one person can’t change a society that remains steadfastly immobile. It’s a pessimistic and depressing view, but it’s also the reality now.

There’s a passage from Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” that really gets to the core of the problem in any conflict country:

“…they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real life happened in that somewhere else…”

But they know, to some extent, that leaving the country does not mean leaving behind also the burden of being a Libyan. In that ‘somewhere else’, you will go through the humiliation and struggle of being a refugee, that you will still have to work tirelessly to make ends meet (probably in a job less fulfilling than the one you left behind), that you will be plagued by longing and homesickness and the familiar comforts of your community. I know one young woman who was abroad when her father became very sick in Libya. If she left the country, she may not be able to come back, but if she didn’t return, she might never see him again. Even outside of Libya, you’re still in a prison of sorts. But right now, leaving is the only solution that one has any control over.

Every month or so, I say goodbye to more friends, who leave in search of choice and in escape of war. Every evening, I sit with those who’ve remained and repeat the same questions; stay and fight, or leave? will the country ever get better? if we don’t leave now, will we regret it later? And every night, we walk away without answers.

A Question of Morals

“Morality, too, is a question of time.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Libya’s civil society has never been popular. Since its prominent emergence in 2011, it has been one battle for survival after another. From government institutions accusing activists of fueling instability, to religious extremists targeting CSOs for “importing anti-Islamic ideals”, to average citizens decrying civil society as an unwanted byproduct of the February 17 revolution and subsequent collapse.

And yet, despite the obstacles and the threats, civil society has persisted in trying to make a difference, particularly in areas where no other formal institutions can operate. While the common notion is that of civic activists as privileged youth looking for a photo opportunity, it’s a mostly thankless job that requires an endless supply of patience as you navigate through the countless security procedures and arrangements to implement any kind of project. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to implement anything openly these days without facing a torrent of hate, criticism and downright violence reactions.

I’ve chronicled the difficulties of being a civil society activist in Benghazi over the past few years, from the hope and invincibility we felt after the revolution to the crippling fear in the face of extremist groups. As Benghazi began to heal from the latest war, we felt again that glimmer of hope, only to have it extinguished just as brutally as last time. It seems that the pattern continues; no matter the ruler or dominant ideology, civil society is detested.

And what is it that civil society does that could warrant such repulsion? Last year, a group of grassroots organizations decided to hold a community get-together under the theme “Tea and Milk Unites Us.” Tea and milk is a common breakfast drink in Libya (with well-boiled black tea and condensed milk if you’re a purist like me), and the idea was to unite a society fragmented by war through a symbol enjoyed by everyone.

The backlash was swift; “Men are dying on the field while you hold these useless events!” “You have no respect for the war waging near you!” etc. etc. The general objection was that of holding any kind of event during a time of war, despite the fact that these events tried to help the general population heal and forget for a moment the trauma of war.

During the last Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, an art gallery was held, again in the Children’s Theater (we don’t have many venues because, again, war). And once again, the online reaction was saturated with vitriol. “Talking about violence against women while violence against our troops goes on?” “Look at these girls/how they’re dressed/outside their homes/etc.” The general rule seems to be that the more women appear in these kinds of events, the worse the reaction will be. Here we began to see the accusations of “immorality”. The objection became less about the war and more about what’s considered decent in our “conservative Muslim society.”

Cue yesterday’s Earth Hour celebration in Benghazi yesterday.  Held on the campus of the Faculty of Medicine, the event consisted of candles that filled the quad, the traditional one hour lights-off, and a concert. This time, the criticism was almost entirely focused on the offense to our cultural decency and morality as Libyans.

On the internet, it’s advised to never read the comments. Unfortunately, when it comes to Libya, I do read the comments. People will express things online that they’d never say in person, and it’s interesting to know what the general attitudes shaping public opinion are in a city like Benghazi. For this event, it appears that increasing conservatism is sweeping through society. Here the reactions ranged from, “pop songs have nothing to do with Earth Hour awareness” to “Look at these devil worshipers!”

It went one step further, with demands that those who organized the event should be arrested, a move reminiscent of the days when Ansar Shariah were targeting activists. These calls, along with recent orders restricting CSO activity in the East, is a worrying sign that once again, civil society isn’t safe.

But is civil society immoral? A concert, particularly one in which both men and women are on stage and singing English-language songs, isn’t entirely natural in Libya, but not entirely uncommon either. If we’re speaking of customs and traditions in Libya, conservatism is a relatively new concept. But if the issue is of what’s acceptable today, it becomes a more complicated discussion. Benghazi and the East opposed extremist ideology because of how violent it was, and more importantly, how foreign it seemed. And yet, people are quick to vilify these events as being against public decency, deaf to the fact that they sound very like the ideology they fought so vehemently against.

It’s a tricky issue, one that is being used by various groups to sway public opinion to the point where the definition of Libyan morality is being molded before our eyes (if we assume morality is subjective and not universal). And the victim in the middle, as usual, is civil society.

Inside Libya’s Burgeoning Youth Art Scene

The Berka Barracks in Benghazi, known colloquially as the Turkish Castle, is a U-shaped building in the middle of the Keesh district. A double row of arched windows line the length of the building’s walls and gives the building a stately look. Once a military outpost that housed Ottoman soldiers, the barracks have become abandoned and neglected over the decades, like most of Benghazi’s historic and cultural sites.

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

But during the first week of February, the castle played host to a cultural event, the first to take place on the premises in years. The event in question was the ARRA Gallery, a three-day art event organized by a group of civil society organizations and activists to highlight the young Libyan talent. Consisting of discussion panels, live drawing sessions and film screenings, visitors could also browse the temporary exhibition of work.

“The aim of this project is to give young Libyan artists exposure to the rest of society,” said Aya Mohammed, the main organizer of the event. “We want to encourage these artists to showcase their work, but we also want to show the world a different side of Libya.” Aya told me that the gallery is just the first phase of a bigger project to make Libyan art more global.

In a city like Benghazi, where intense fighting and a dire humanitarian crisis has plagued the residents for over two years, the idea of an art gallery may seem counterintuitive. But this gallery is just the latest event in a steadily growing art scene among Libyan youth. While politicians and fighters destroy the country, disenfranchised young people are using art as an outlet for creative expression, and, increasingly, paving the new for a new profession and new opportunities.

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

The 2011 revolution and subsequent war was a catalyst for new art movements in the country. Music, graphic design, photography and even graffiti were taken up by young people who were eager to express their passion in the rapid changes happening around them. Galleries, book fairs, carnivals and other cultural events were being organized in Benghazi, bringing together artists from the past generations with the new generation.

There was a lull in artistic creativity in the years after as Benghazi’s security situation rapidly deteriorated. Civil society, one of the main promoters of culture, was facing threats by religious extremists who saw no need for art in their post-revolution vision. The 2014 war made humanitarian relief the most urgent priority for the besieged city.

But, as life had begun to slowly return, so did the art scene. A popular Facebook group, ‘Art Lovers’, is an online forum with tens of thousands of members from across Libya to share their art and get tips on how to improve. This group organized one of the first art galleries in Benghazi after the start of the war, a statement of resilience in the face of conflict. A series of art events followed, from the publishing of the first Libyan manga comic, Habka Magazine, to the opening of Tanarout, a culture club that celebrates the arts and humanities. These events have created a momentum that has encouraged more youth to engage in creative hobbies.

This growing trend is not confined only to Benghazi. Cultural events are being frequently organized in Tripoli’s many art houses, covering everything from painting to writing to music. A new center called Warraq Art Foundation has recently opened its doors, and a new project aims to set up cultural palace in a historic public building. And art galleries and crafts fairs continue to be organized in more disenfranchised cities like Ajdabiya, Waddan, Ghat and Sebha.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

The use of art has grown as well, not just as an expressive medium but also to shed light on important social issues. The Aegis Gallery held last November was organized to commemorate the Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, and cartoonist Suhaib Tantoush draws satirical images on the everyday struggle of Libya citizens. Popular musician Fuad Gritli is known for his tongue-in-cheek songs on Libya current events, and artist Abdullah Hadia uses themes and symbols from Libyan folklore to revive cultural traditions.

But while the will and passion persist, there are still obstacles that deter the growth of these art movements. Weak infrastructure, worsening financial problems and a lack of cultural awareness still cripple the art scene, as the shadow of war still looms over the country. Citizens whose basic needs are not met do not have the luxury of focusing culture, and art has a historically infamous reputation in Libya as not being a “real” profession. “Art is a new market,” said Noureldine Elhouni during a panel on art magazines in Libya. “Investors are afraid to put their money in such a new sector.” And Libya is not exempt from problems faced by aspiring artists around the world, including a lack funding and sustainability.

A new movement of religious extremism has also emerged as a threat to this burgeoning youth art scene, particularly in East Libya. A shipment of books was confiscated by a police check point on its way to Benghazi, and religious authorities in the area claimed that the books promoted, among other things, secularism and atheism.  While this act was met with strong outcries – even prompting a widespread hashtag on social media which pressured the police to make a statement – it is a worrying indicator of things to come.

A visitor to the ARRA Gallery remarked to me that the gallery was an important statement in light of the recent fears, made all the more significant by its location in a culturally historic building. It will be more difficult to stem the tide of art in Libya as the community continues to grow, especially as new artistic avenues and techniques are explored. While the policy makers and government authorities continue to stall the development of the country, it’s clear that the youth have become the new safeguards of art and culture.

 

The East Libya Dilemma

Why would a city that rose up against dictatorship and oppression suddenly embrace totalitarianism once more, less than five years later? This is the question that many are speculating on these days, following the almost near total control of Eastern Libya by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

There have been many analyses and attempts to answer this question, especially now that military rule has permeated almost all aspects of life in the region. With the replacement of elected municipalities by military mayors and the daunting return of the omnipresent intelligence services, many are drawing parallels between the Gadhafi regime and what Khalifa Heftar is currently trying to achieve. But the folly of most of these analyses (I’m looking at you, clueless foreign Libya experts) is that they do not take into account the full picture and the causes that led to the current situation.

Before going in-depth, I need to make a disclaimer here; I do not, in principle, support military rule. As a person who believes wholeheartedly in civil society, I know that military might alone cannot build a country. But civil society will not be able to fulfill its purpose without the safety and security established by the rule of law, which, expediently, is enforced by security forces. It is not a choice between one and the other, but rather a balance that Libya needs during this transitional period. However, it would be naïve to deny that the country is undergoing incredibly exceptional circumstances, one that requires exceptional action.

I will not go over the five or so years of history that led to the appearance of Khalifa Heftar, as it needs much longer than a single post and I’ve already documented what I’ve witnessed ad naseum on this blog. Suffice to say that this situation in Benghazi drastically deteriorated after 2011 until the all-out war on October 15, 2014. It was this point that Benghazi had reached its lowest point in recent history. The city was crippled, a ghost town with barely functioning services. Almost half the population of the city was displaced, evacuated from their areas by the intense fighting.

Fast-forward two years. It is the beginning of 2017, and Benghazi has become almost unrecognizable from the ruin of a city it was. Bustling with life and renewed hope, the war here has reached its last leg, and reconstruction has already begun. But more noticeable than the physical changes to the city are the security changes. Military cars patrol the streets at all hours, the police are working at full capacity, and, most notably, the intelligence services are back in full swing. The mayor has been installed by the military ruler, and all civic services now have a large degree of oversight by the intelligence.

It is, for all intents and purposes, military rule. But ask the people of Benghazi how they feel about this, and you will get very positive reactions. There are no more street wars, no more assassinations, the judiciary has begun to function again, things are actually getting done.  That’s not to say the situation is perfect. There are still a number of IDPs who have not returned, and the reconstruction process will take years to complete. But the fear and terror is gone, those elements that had paralyzed the city for years.

Many people (mainly those who have never visited Benghazi) are decrying these developments. “Benghazi wants to return to the Gadhafi era!” they screech. “You have sacrificed your freedom for return to oppression; you will be once again under a dictator’s boot!” The only problem with these accusations is that we have never really experienced “freedom”. We went from oppression under one man to oppression under chaos.

And yeah, it’s not an ideal trade-off to go back to what we had. But it’s also pure stupidity to assume that the current situation in Libya will somehow evolve into a stable democracy on its own. The unity government solution has collapsed on itself, and our politicians, regardless of ideology, are all unfit to run a country. And yes, Heftar has ulterior motives, East Libyans are not deluded enough to believe that he noble ideals. But he presented a solution that achieved results, something no one else has been able to do.

To answer the initial question, it first needs to be reexamined. The current situation in East Libya is not the same as under Gadhafi, nor can it be called despotism in the traditional sense. East Libyans are not embracing dictatorship; they are embracing stability and a chance to live in peace for the first time in six years. The alternative is not freedom. It only takes one look into the harrowed face of a Benghazi resident to realize that they will support and defend this current peace no matter what accusations are hurled against the city.

And so what remains are the real questions that should be asked; Will East Libyans ever have faith in democracy again? In what direction will this military rule evolve? And if it does evolve into a Gadhafi-esque system, are Eastern Libyans prepared to give up the basic freedoms they regained in 2011? This is the dilemma that we’ll have to confront sooner or later, and one that might determine the future of the country.

How Gender Stereotypes in Libya Are Killing Individuality

Were you that young girl who was told that she should being playing with dolls instead of playing soccer? Are you that young man who had to fake masculinity in order to avoid being mocked? In Libya, our gender stereotypes have been carved in stone long, long, ago, and any slight deviation outside these very rigid definitions can lead to teasing, ostracizing, or worse.

I grew up as a sort-of tomboy; I preferred jeans to dresses, and cut my hair short (much to my mother’s horror). I didn’t care for make-up, and while other little girls dreamed and planned their wedding day, I was busy writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction and thinking of the day I could travel to New Zealand to see the set of the movie myself. In short, I was very much a deviation from the mainstream.

Within my circle of close friends, those who’ve known me, it was never an issue, because that’s who I’ve always been. I was only made aware of my being “different” and “weird” when I started university. While the other girls were dolled up with perfectly matching outfits (where did they find the time? I always wondered) I quickly stuck out like a sore thumb in class with my worn-out hoodies and flip-flops.

“My mom said I shouldn’t graduate until I get engaged,” was the rationale behind the time and effort these girls put into looking as presentable as possible. I picked up on the “dress code” pretty quickly; a bulky headscarf wrapped in whatever latest fashion the Turkish/Khaleeji soap operas were airing, with matching shoes/bag/nails, and a brightly-coloured outfit that said, “I can be bold and fashionable but also modest enough that you don’t feel ashamed showing a picture of me to your mom.”

“Why do you dress like a boy?” one girl asked me. I looked down at my outfit, a plain blue shirt and jeans. “Uhhh…” I was stuck. How do you explain the concept of unisex clothing, or non-gendered fashion, to a person who was raised to see the world in pink and blue? It wasn’t that I deliberately dressed androgynously, it was just that I didn’t care enough, and more importantly, I didn’t have the time. My life did not revolve around the eventuality of my marriage, and I didn’t feel the desire openly assert my femininity. It didn’t matter though, because the rumors started all the same. There’s something wrong with her. Where is her mother? She’s not normal. 

I might have been affected had I cared what people thought of me, but my own world of friends gave me that layer of protection against the inane gossip. But not everyone has this kind of support system, and it is hurting a generation of young Libyans who feel that they have to conform to these ridiculously narrow definitions, who put so much effort into fitting in that it comes at the expense of sacrificing who they are.

The problem of rigid gender norms isn’t just an issue for girls. Boys are drilled from a young age on what it means to be a man; you should be out on the street with your friends, you should control your women (mothers, sisters, etc.), there’s no room for emotions. It’s both comical and sad to watch 8-year old boys strut around with their chests puffed out and adult language warbling from their mouths, a caricature of how men should act displayed on them like an ill-fitting suit. It’s infuriating to see a 12-year old boy driving a car with his mother next to him, because “boys should drive”. The young boy who would rather stay inside and read with his sister, or the man who would rather pursue his dream of being an artist instead of making money as a “CEO” to get married, or even that guy in class who gestures as he talks and hates violence, they are all “abnormal”. He’s weak, he’s not a real man, aspersions are cast on his sexuality.

While bullying between girls can be insidious and underhanded, with boys its very much out in the open. Fist fights are, after all, part of ‘being a man’. Since Libya is far from being ready to talk about sexuality, those who would rather lead an alternative lifestyle have to instead repress any unorthodox feelings and conform to their parents’, and society’s, expectations.

These gender stereotypes plague us everywhere; in the workplace (teaching is a woman’s job, only men can be pilots), in our personal lives, and even in our politics (the dad should vote on behalf of the family). They feed the culture of oppression against women and gendered violence against both sexes, and validate bullying.

I recognize that gender roles are a construction of the society and culture we live in, but isn’t it time to re-examine that society and these norms? We need to come up with a new definition of the term “normal”, because the current one is excluding a substantial part of society and killing their creativity and self-expression. It is harrowing and exhausting to hide who you are, and I for one am sick of being told to lower my voice because women aren’t supposed to speak loudly, I’m tired of feeling pity for young boys who are humiliated because they’d rather hold a brush than a gun.

To the young Libyans who aren’t normal, like me, who feel pressured to act a certain way, who are afraid of being alone or attacked if they let their light shine, give society the middle finger and live the way you want. The alternative, or the double life, is not better, and those that will appreciate who you are will find you eventually. The stereotypes are outdated and if we don’t break them, who will?

Home

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.