From Fasoulia Sandwiches to Fashionable Lattes: The Evolution of Benghazi’s Cafe Culture

For those of you who are familiar with Benghazi’s delicious cuisine, you can move on to the post. But for those who are less fortunate, a quick explanation: fasoulia (فصوليا) also called tabeekhat fasouila (طبيخة فصوليا) is a lima bean stew usually cooked with lamb or beef. The more hardcore Benghazinos cook it with kaware3 (فصوليا بالكوارع) tendons, or with karsha (فصوليا بالكرشة) sheep stomach lining (I promise it it more appetizing than it sounds). More popularly, fasoulia is also eaten in sandwiches, and served as a late breakfast/early lunch meal, especially for students.

Interestingly enough – and since everything in Libya is political – even the unassuming fasoulia has been at the center of controversy. After the civil war in Tripoli began, many West Libyans joked that their morning croissant would be replaced by fasoulia sandwiches (I mean, it’s not *that* weird). East Libyans, indignant at the jibe against their beloved breakfast food, pushed back. While intended as a joke, the remark also had a more subtle meaning, implying that East Libyans were less cultured since they ate such traditional things, rather than more Western-style food like croissants (in my parent’s generation, an affluent and well-groomed person was called a ‘pancake’ (بونكيك)). However, the politics and colonization of Libyan food and class division is the subject of another conversation.


When my family moved back to Libya in 2003, the international community had just lifted a decade-long period of sanctions off of the country. The sanctions – which included travel and finance restrictions – had completely paralyzed the country and impoverished its residents. Libya’s dependence on oil and imports at the expense of its agricultural and industrial sector had finally come back to haunt it; people had money but nothing to spend it on.

One of my professors described life under sanctions as “living in black and white”. The only thing people could buy were basic food and clothing items from the ‘jam3eeyat’ (الجمعيات الاستهلاكية), essentially state-run stores that sold subsidized food and other items – usually in bulk, because they’d only open a few times a month. My mom often recounted the frustration of living this way; “You purchased whatever they brought in, no matter what it was, because you would never know when they’d sell that item again. If they brought in shoes, we’d buy three pairs in different sizes, in case you grew out of your shoes before the next batch came in. Of course they didn’t always have your shoe size, which created another set of problems.” These stores only sold staples of Libyan cuisine such as tomato paste, pasta, oil and sugar; things like fruit were a luxury that was rare to find.

Because the quality of the products were so bad, Libyans who could afford to would leave the country just to buy necessities like furniture or clothing, always by car or sea since international travel was banned. Women learned how to sew in order to clothe their families. There were a handful of stores that imported more ‘luxury’ items primarily aimed at expats. A friend of mine told me that visiting one of those stores was a special occasion (in Benghazi this was in the Da3waa Islamiya building), because they could buy something indulgent like Kinder Chocolate Eggs. It was almost impossible to open a business in those kinds of conditions. So when Libya was re-connected to the rest of the world in 2003, local economic activity had to start up again from scratch.

I was a teenager back then, and I had no idea about any of this. All I knew was that I hated living in Libya, because there was nothing to do. No malls to hang out at, no sports clubs to join, and most notably, no restaurants to eat out at. All there really was were shawarma stands and the popular local eateries. You had the small coffee shops in the downtown that were implicitly only for men, but these were cramped and dark holes-in-the-wall filled with cigarette smoke and cantankerous elderly men who spent their days drinking espressos and playing cards.

The local eateries were places where you ordered a sandwich at the counter and ate it in your car, whether you were going to work or coming back from school. A handful had some tables where you could “dine in”. The most famous of these (some are still around):

  • Bulifa (بوليفه), who made their signature ground beef and egg sandwiches
  • Ahmaida Fasoulia (حميده فصولية) who made – you guessed it – Fasouliya sandwiches,
  • Hameed Betati (حميد بتاتي) (I’m not going to translate this nickname for you) who cooked up a variety of flatulence-inducing foods such as ful emdashash and haraimi
  • Abdulghafar (عبد الغفار) who’s specialty was tuna sandwiches with boiled eggs
  • Buthara3 (بوذراع) known for cooking more traditional Libyan foods such as couscous

(If you’re interested in a more comprehensive list of old Benghazi restaurants, check out this great article by Abdulsalam Zughbi here: حكايات بنغازية… مطاعم بنغازي زمان)

There were places strongly tied to an older Benghazi from the 50s and 60s, and managed to survive through the sanctions. They welcomed all people and catered to the working class. However, for a snobby double-shafra teen like me who wanted onion rings and five different flavours of Coca Cola, they lacked any appeal.

My cousins, who sensed my misery, tried to cheer me up by taking me to a restaurant that they claimed was “exactly like Pizza Hut”. This ended up being El-Kokh (الكوخ) which literally translates to ‘The Hut’. It’s a small pizza place in Majouri that makes small wood-fire pizzas. The white-tiled walls and small standing tables had their own charm, but it was no Pizza Hut. I didn’t like the taste, probably because I wasn’t used to fast food that was actually made from fresh ingredients and not insanely processed. (Ironically, El-Kokh is now my favorite pizza place in Benghazi).

Another cousin’s attempt to help us acclimate involved ordering burgers from a restaurant called The Penguin (البطريق) in Furusia (you know, the place behind the sbe5a). Now, the Penguin was a shift for Benghazi, because unlike the other traditional eateries, they served food in a ‘Western-style’ way; by which I mean, you could get fries and a drink with your burger, and everything was wrapped in foil monogrammed with the restaurant’s logo (as opposed to wrapped in a newspaper at one of the sandwich places). The Penguin was one of the first restaurants in Benghazi that actually marketed itself (sadly, they’ve closed down now, and a crappy shisha bar has replaced it).

As Libya began to recover from the effect of sanctions, Western-style cafes and restaurants began to pop up in the two largest cities. This also led to the creation of ‘family-only’ spaces in cafes, which meant, for the first time, women could eat outside in a restaurant. Dewan, Damashki, Pizza House and multiple other restaurants opened during this time, offering Benghazi citizens a choice of Syrian, Western, Turkish and other types of food. Going out to eat went from a luxury to a weekly occurrence for many middle class families. Instead of a generic coffee from a kiosk, you could sit in a cafe and order a latte or cappuccino with a piece of cheesecake, flavours and textures that were new for Libyans who had never really traveled abroad. After the revolution, these spaces tripled and quadrupled, particularly with the rise and development of “shopping streets” such as Venecia, Dubai St and Pepsi St (named after the Pepsi factory that used to be located there). As they became more popular, the taboo around eating out eventually disappeared.

Opening a cafe or restaurant is one of the most lucrative business ideas in Benghazi today, and increasingly in smaller Libyan towns. A friend who visited El-Marj recently told me that five new cafes had opened up in the past year. Libyan culture is slowly moving out of the house and into cafes, a change that is also affecting the way Libyan houses are designed. Where once people demanded an 80-square-meter guest sitting room (often two, one per gender), this is no longer the case. Events that were once traditionally held in homes are now being organized in cafes, including birthday parties, engagement ceremonies and baby showers. Sitting rooms have been reduced to small spaces that are rarely used.

These restaurants have come a long way from their predecessors; most of them now invest in architects to design a place that is atmospheric, they hire graphic designers to come up with attractive logos and colour schemes, and they offer a wide range of options that easily compete with cafes in other parts of the world. 20 years ago, a Kinder Surprise Egg was considered the height of opulence for a Libyan kid; today, you can get three types of Kinder cheesecakes and milkshakes in just one cafe. The customer base is also changing; a group on Facebook called ‘Benghazi Restaurant & Cafe Recommendations’ was set up for patrons to provide reviews of their experiences, with the number of members well over 70,000 people. Most restaurants and cafes now offer delivery services, and competition has been increasing.

However, the flip side is that cafes and restaurants are also becoming heavily politicized spaces. A girls-only party held last year in Casa Cafe in Benghazi was raided by police after it was reported for being ‘indecent’; the case was ultimately dropped since no one had actually, you know, broken the law. The year before, a new year’s party was raided at an all-men cafe by Salafist-oriented patrols for being “against the customs of the country” because it featured live music; in 2012 a bomb was thrown at a cafe in Hadayek because it was a known dating spot for same-sex couples. The cafe has become a space of intergenerational and religious tensions, a symbol of the transformational shift in Libyan society and, most importantly, a demand for a peaceful way of life. In Tripoli, frequenting cafes even during the height of the conflict has become an anti-war ‘non-movement’; taking a stand against the violence by continuing to live their everyday lives and refusing to acknowledge the chaos.

The fasoulia sandwich, meanwhile, is no longer fashionable. Indeed, you can argue that it was never fashionable to begin with. It is a symbol of sustenance and tradition, of a time when Libyans tried to keep themselves from the brink of collapse as a state. You can still get one from Ahmaida Fasoulia’s kiosk downtown, and transport yourself to a much simpler time in the city’s history. But we’ve also moved on as a city, and the latte has inadvertently become a symbol of women’s increasing visibility in public life. These spaces are of course not as inclusive, but considering where we were 10, 20, even 30 years ago, the trajectory that we’re on could change that. As long as they continue to be successful business practices, the fashionable latte is here to stay.

Instant Cities: How the Oil Boom Transformed Urban Planning in Libya

With approx. 84% of the population living in cities, Libya is the most urbanized country in Africa. While half the population lives in the country’s two largest cities, the rest of its citizens are scattered between over 100 cities, towns and villages.* What makes Libyan cities so fascinating is that they are intertwined with tribalism and local identities. In a country who’s national identity has always been absent, the key to understanding Libya is to understand its cities, and in particular how they were formed.

By the end of Italian colonization in 1942, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. The brutality of the colonial project has been (meagerly) documented with studies on the Libyan resistance and the Italianization of population and land. But one of the most significant impacts was the de-urbanization of Libya.

Whether a genuine belief or another case of disinformation, Libyans were depicted as wandering desert nomads who were not civilized enough to build or live in cities. Aside from the fallacy of equating civilization with urbanization (something even Ibn Khaldun is guilty of), it was also untrue. Libyans were not nomadic by nature but rather adopted different lifestyles depending on the economic need of the moment. Urbanization and bedouinization were two ends of an economic spectrum, rather than polar opposite modes of existence.

Evidence of city-building has been documented in Libya as far back as the 4th century BC with the urban settlements of the Garamantes (الجرمان) and Ghadames in the South-West. Towns like Awjila were key stops on the caravan route between East and West, and contain architecture that is uniquely Libyan, the most prominent example being the Atik Mosque (جامع العتيق). Cities such as Derna were formed through agreements between Eastern and Western tribes, the history of which is reflected in folk tales like tajreedat habib (تجريدة حبيب). During times of hardship, such as drought or conflict, those who lived in settled areas would go on the move and adopt nomadic lifestyles in order to sustain themselves.

When Italians invaded in 1911, the Libyans they found were semi-nomadic. Economic trade routes sustained by the Ottoman empire led to the growth of existing settlements, and the agriculture and livestock trade connected cities with the countryside. In order to weaken the bonds of solidarity between Libyans, the Italians engaged in a multi-staged strategy, one aspect of which included driving Libyans out of their towns and settlements and into fixed camps on the outskirts of the main cities (Abu Salim was one such camp, which has today become one of Tripoli’s municipalities, although the legacy of the area is reflected in the underprivileged status of its population).

Framed as a project to urbanize and settle the ‘savage’ Bedouin population of Libya, what was actually taking place was a process of forced de-urbanization. The camps that Libyans were forced to live in were not planned neighbourhoods but rather temporary tools of control aimed to weaken and kill off the population, keeping them in a state of permanent transience. It also allowed Italian farmers to take over the agricultural lands that Libyans were driven from. Meanwhile, in other Libyan cities, Italians redesigned them to suit the new population, while Libyans were driven to the periphery.

At this point you’re probably wondering; what does de-urbanization have to do with new cities in Libya after the discovery of oil? Well, after Libyan independence in 1954, the population had largely become nomadic. The forced relocation of Libyans coupled with the complete obliteration of their economic and political system meant that the majority of the population had to rely once again on a nomadic way of life to survive. The cities and infrastructure left behind by the Italians were not designed for Libyans, and in some cases were destroyed either by WWII bombing or had become uninhabitable because Italian forces had poured concrete into the wells and poisoned the agricultural land**.

After the birth of Libya, the UN concentrated their efforts on pulling the population out of poverty. There are still older women across Libya who remember being trained by UN staff on things such as hygiene, maternal health and education. One of these projects, conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) was focused on the development of tribal lands for settlements in East and South Libya.

Alhaniyah

Al Haniyah, in the Green Mountains, developed as part of an FAO settlement project (You can see the original town limits ‘square’ and the subsequent expansion marked by the road)

According to the documents, these projects aimed to “modernize the traditional tribal sector of agriculture by establishing the tribesmen on individual holdings and put an end to poverty and lessen the uncertainties of the physical environment” (FAO, 1969, p. 69). In other words, FAO was helping the government combat tribal land collectives and settle the population. Among the pilot settlements for this project was Al-Haniyah (الحنية) in the Green Mountain, and one of the neighbourhoods in Traghen in Fezzan. By their own admission, the UN faced a lot of challenges in executing these plans, primarily because they failed to address the core issue of land ownership.

But it was the discovery of oil which changed the game for Libyan urbanism. With the ability to hire teams of international consultants from places such as the US, Greece and Japan, there was a flurry of masterplanning for new cities and satellite neighbourhoods. One of the most prominent is New Brega, planned and designed by American companies for the expat and Libyan employees of the nearby oil field. Ras Lanuf was similarly designed, with culs-de-sac to boot.

Brega

New Brega, an American suburbia on the Mediterranean (also what looks like plans for expansion south of the city?)

Brega (بريقة) is a peculiar plan, primarily because it is a compact version of American suburbia located a few meters from the Mediterranean. Its morphology looks nothing like the surrounding area, particularly when compared to the old town of Brega. Today, it is primarily inhabited by Libyans; most expats left the country after the war began. In Libyan lore, New Brega is considered the epitome of good city living; the streets are paved and walkable, all services are in the middle of town at equal distances from each house, no one can violate planning code by building an extra story and block their neighbour’s access to sunlight. In a country where there is very little order and stability, it’s easy to see why a plan like Brega would appeal to people.

Al-Sarir

Al-Sarir Master Plan, Yachiyo and Kurokawa 1980 (in Kezeiri***, 1987)

Another interesting plan was Kisho Kurokawa’s vision for the town of Al-Sarir (السرير). Rather than adopting straight lines, he wanted to shape a morphology closer to Japanese towns, in which the street is the main public space (something he felt both countries had in common). Interestingly, he also rejected the notion of concrete housing in the desert in favour of reinforced sand brick. (You can read the full philosophy behind his plans here). Now, he says that constructed had begun on the plans, but a document from the Al-Emara office (the official public urban design office in East Libya) indicate that it was never built for a number of reasons. The only explanation I can think of is that the initial construction of Kurokawa’s plan ended up being the compound that houses employees for the Sarir oil field.

So focused was the government on creating new urban settlements in Libya to meet the population growth that, after the destruction of Marj following the earthquake, they opted to build a new city rather than reconstruct the old one. As cities and towns grew, and as dependency on oil money became the new culture, Libya began losing agricultural land in favour of more urbanization. While there were considerable efforts placed on creating new towns or expanding on existing ones in order to lessen the pressure on the two main cities, it didn’t stop the massive growth seen by Tripoli and Benghazi.

Marj

The old town of Marj (right) and the New Marj (left), two different morphologies of the same population

In the years before the 2011 revolution, the government engaged in a series of large-scale housing projects. Run a Google satellite search around the periphery of any Libyan city and you’ll see the mosaic of badly planned satellite neighbourhoods. It was a desperate response to the growing housing crisis in the country, exacerbated by decades of bad economic policy which limited the housing supply. Many of these projects are incomplete and lay empty, a haunting reminder of a regime who perhaps knew that its time was running out.

Ganfouda

Ganfouda housing project, Benghazi suburbs. One of the battlefields during the 2014 civil war

Janet Abu-Lughod, in writing about Libyan urbanism in 1996, termed the new developments as ‘instant cities’; places that were born out of the oil wealth and which needed that wealth to sustain themselves. The ensuing instability after the revolution and civil wars has sadly proven her right. There is a strain on Libya’s cities today, impacted by the unpredictable shifts in population and demographics as internal displacement reaches catastrophic levels. But even without the war, the way Libyan cities are designed are a relic of colonial masterplanning which never really produced cities for who Libyans were, but rather what they should be.

In the case of the new settlements, this was a vision of a Westernized population dependent on cars and government hand-outs, rolled out over fertile agricultural land that no longer served a function. The empty spaces between the buildings reflect the sterility of the plans, addressing no one’s needs. Libyans must turn towards a new way of building urban settlements, one that creates cities that can last.


* In 2014, the Ministry of Local Government identified 99 cities and towns as the basis for the new municipality system. By 2016, this expanded to 124, the increase of which can be attributed to several smaller towns seeking ‘independence’ from a larger city that they were grouped with (i.e. South Zawiya, Benina, etc.) Some municipalities still consist of villages grouped together (i.e. Sharqiyah consists of Umm Alaranib, Semnu and Zwaila)

** Fuck Italian fascism always

*** If you’re interested in learning more about urbanization in Libya since the 1960’s, Saad Kezeiri conducted a large volume of research on the topic which I highly recommend.

Benghazi’s Reconstruction: Memory, Identity and the Future of the City Center

.”بعد الافطار في حمأة ليال رمضان أتمشى ، في مدينتي بنغازي ، من حى البركة ، حيث أسكن ، مخترقا شارع جمال عبدالناصر ؛ الاستقلال سابقا ، حتى ميدان الشجرة ؛ شجرة الأرز ـ التي ماتت ـ ما حمل الميدان اسمها فبقي الأسم رغم موت المدلول ، في ركنه ثمة نخيلة عجفاء تحتاج لمسبار لتتبين وجودها. في هذا الميدان محل أحذية يقف أمامه صاحبه مثل شجرة ، منذ تجرأت في مقتبل العمر وخالفت الوالد وزحفت من حى الصابري نحو قلب المدينة النابض المتلألئ”

– احمد الفيتوري, سيرة بني غازي

20180916_174542

Benghazi’s ‘Plaza of the Tree’ in 2018 after the end of the armed combat

In downtown Benghazi a few weeks ago, the historic Jumhouria Hospital witnessed the demolition of one of its damaged buildings, as part of the municipality’s attempt to begin reconstruction in the war-torn city’s central Al-Sabri district. This act was met with widespread outcries by many of the city’s residents, who believe that historic buildings should be renovated rather than demolished and rebuilt. It is the latest incident in the reconstruction debate that has divided the city since the end of the conflict.

Picture1

‘Plaza of the Tree’ renovated in 2019 by a local organization through volunteer efforts and donations (Picture source: https://www.facebook.com/benghazi.alamal.foundation/)

Al-Sabri is one of the areas that was hit hardest by the fighting during the 2014 conflict, and has only been accessible to civilians for the past year. Mines and unexploded ordinances concealed in the rubble of destroyed buildings still pose a threat to displaced residents  who are trying to return to the area, and the sheer extent of the destruction to buildings and infrastructure has slowed the pace of recovery. For the municipality, the renovation of Jumhouria Hospital will not only bring a crucial health center back to service, but will also revive the district.

But unlike Benghazi’s other health centers, Jumhouria holds significant historic sentiment for the city. Initially built as a military hospital under Italian colonization during the early 1900s, it became a civilian hospital post-independence and has served all of East Libya, offering a number of crucial services such as pediatrics, gynecology, psychiatry and radiology. The Jumhouria complex consists of several buildings, making it one of the largest hospitals in the Eastern region. Ask any Benghazi resident where they were born and the answer will most probably be Jumhouria.

It is perhaps for this reason why there has been such a strong vocal response to its demolition. Many are worried that the historic colonial design of the building will be lost. Others fear that corruption is involved, as rebuilding costs significantly more than renovation. It is also a process that will take more time to complete, leaving Benghazi’s other tertiary health centers under continued strain. The main fear is that the hospital, once demolished, will never be rebuilt, following the legacy of other incomplete construction projects across Libya. Another legacy, that of the destruction of heritage sites – both under the Gadhafi regime and most recently by extremist groups – underpins these fears, and residents fear that Benghazi will not be left with any of its historic landmarks.

However, many people have spoken out in favour of the demolition, including the hospital staff. Taking to social media, proponents of the rebuilding have said that the hospital has been neglected for years and was in disrepair before the war, due to its age and lack of constant maintenance. The damage caused by the conflict, they say, has given the institution a chance to completely refurbish and bring the hospital up to the latest standards. They also brought up the permission granted by the Historic City Authority (HCA), which is responsible for all construction and demolition permits in downtown Benghazi. After inspecting the buildings, the HCA consented to the demolition of the most damaged structures, provided that the “historic architectural integrity” of the hospital complex isn’t affected.

This debate has been playing out on different levels since the end of the conflict, and is part of the most pressing question in post-war cities; should we rebuild to preserve what had existed or use the destruction as an opportunity to forge a new vision? Cities such as Aleppo, Mosul and San’aa face a similar challenge, in politically-charged environments where deciding what counts as “historic” is hotly contested.

One of the catalysts of this debate is the lack of definition of this ephemeral ‘Benghazi identity’. Is the identity of the city preserved in the historic buildings, reflections of the city’s past, with Arab-Islamic buildings sitting next to Ottoman-era houses next to Italian apartment blocks, each infused with elements of a Libyan localism – from the ‘boukhoukha’ doors to the religious talismans written on the facade? Many people speak of the memory of living in the downtown, before Benghazi’s rapid urbanization, or the memory they inherited from their parents, a memory captured in time. But can a city thrive in the stagnation of memory alone?

For its part, the Benghazi municipality sees the downtown area – with its strategic seaside location – as a lucrative investment opportunity. There has been notable foreign interest in the reconstruction process, including by Solidere, the company notoriously responsible for reconstructing downtown Beirut after the Lebanese civil war. But this type of profit-driven reconstruction – absent of a vision that preserves the heritage of the downtown – poses a major concern for the Historic City Authority and the people of Benghazi.

This latest act of destruction-for-reconstruction has undoubtedly sparked a panic over what will be lost in the process of rebuilding Benghazi – which can be seen in the current activity around the cathedral and lighthouse – but it has also started a dialogue on preserving Benghazi’s cultural heritage and identity; a topic that would have been impossible to discuss a year ago when the city was still reeling from the aftermath of the conflict. Civil society groups have already mobilized volunteers and are leading grassroots efforts to revive the downtown, utilizing the narrative of Benghazi’s city center as an intrinsic part of the city’s identity. To ensure the protection of this identity, all these different circuits of repair should converge to ensure a holistic reconstruction process.

Wedding Blues for Benghazi

Last week, the city of Benghazi witnessed the death of another Libyan cultural icon. Ali Alaraibi, a singer and songwriter known for his wedding music, died at the age of 42 due to cancer. Alaraibi’s death follows other cultural icons in the country, including Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih last month and Ali Wakwak at the start of the year. But unlike the books or artwork that were arguably meant for a more ‘intellectual’ audience, the music of Alaraibi was for everyone. People in Benghazi from different socio-economic backgrounds and generations all enjoyed his music.

And unlike other cultural figures, the work of wedding singers is appreciated as much as the artists themselves are vilified and maligned. When the social media posts mourning his death went up, there were some who commented negatively on his lifestyle; singing in Libya as a profession – especially in the wedding industry – is considered sinful, or looked down upon.

But the comments didn’t just attack Alaraibi’s art; they were more focused on his lifestyle. He occasionally presented himself in an effeminate way, and there was speculation on his sexuality. In a conservative* and patriarchal society like Libya’s – where masculinity is rigidly defined – Ali Alaraibi flaunted all the rules.  And his flamboyant personality and boisterous music – while earning him social disapproval – were also some of the factors in his success; to book Alaraibi for your wedding meant a very long waiting list, and would set you back a few thousand dinars. So popular that families would set the wedding date according to his availability.

Libya’s wedding singers are part of an industry that goes back centuries. Popularly known as ‘darbakat’ in East Libya and ‘zamzamat’ in West Libya (after the instruments they use), a proper wedding is not complete without their music. They are the life of the party, constructing lyrics around the bride and groom and their families, encouraging people to dance, and creating an atmosphere that is at the heart of the ceremony; celebration. For this reason, the most popular singers are those who create this atmosphere with ease, and are always the most in-demand. At the end of the day, even a ‘conservative’ society likes to have fun.

But when the music ends and guests go home, wedding singers go back to being considered part of the lowest class. Traditionally, those who get into the industry come from poorer background, with need outweighing “social propriety”. They are also associated with ‘farm parties’ – gatherings that take place in private farms in the outskirts of the city. These can range from a gathering of men drinking alcohol away from the judgmental eyes of society, up to full blown ragers involving both genders, a safe space to blow off steam and enjoy life away from strict social expectation; similar, in many ways, to weddings, but with no inhibitions or restrictions. In the mind of a conservative society, these dens of debauchery are only associated with the classes that wedding singers inhabit – selectively ignoring the fact that many in this society, including most Libyan men, have engaged in them at some point in their lives.

Wedding singers are located in the middle of this social hypocrisy, popular for their music but shunned socially for their lifestyles. My generation’s most sought-after singers include Ali Alaraibi and Nadia Star – singers who openly defy gender stereotypes – while in my parent’s generation it was Khadija Alkadiki – popularly known as The Funsha – whose maternal history has always been the subject of gossip. But the rumors of drugs, prostitution, illegitimate children, homosexuality and other “social ills” are ignored once its time to book a mutriba for the wedding, where they become the guests of honour and are paid top dollar to create a night that no one will forget.

Perhaps it is the memory of these nights, combined with the current troubled situation in Libya, that has softened society’s stance towards these individuals. The negative comments about the death of Alaraibi outweighed the outpouring of grief and sadness, with many defending him as an “envoy of peace”; this article in 218 TV described his singing as a “voice of hope that created joy amid the sounds death and rockets”. One Facebook post wrote, “At least he never shot a bullet…at least he never drove civilians out of their home.” The “localness’ of Alaraibi’s music, and it’s connection to a long legacy of Benghazi culture, probably also played a part in people’s sentiment towards him.

Whether the war in Libya has challenged social taboos and given some perspective to the lives of its inhabitants is a matter of speculation for now, but without a doubt the battle between cultural self-expression and socio-religious conservatism is waging just as strongly as that for military control of cities.


*I use the term conservative as this is how Libyans describe their society. But this description is often challenged, stating that Libyans are not inherently conservative but only act so in front of one another. Away from the public, many Libyans engage in a lifestyle not dissimilar to wedding singers, the latter who have no reason to hide what they do because their profession ostracizes them anyways.

Book Review: Desert Encounter; Documenting Libya’s Cycles of Violence

“What rebellion? There is no rebellion; there is only a desperate fight for existence on the soil which our fathers possessed long before us.”

62133363_423941841792172_1536561443913072640_nFor many who researcher or read about Libya, the most common lament you’ll hear is the sheer lack of resources about the country. You’d be hard pressed today to find accurate reporting or studies during the nation’s current turbulent transition, while the Gadhafi era is considered a ‘black hole’ in the country’s history due to the regime’s practice of isolating itself from the rest of the world. But it is Libya’s colonial period that offers a peculiar absence of information.

What makes it so strange is the fact that there was much documentation done during the Italian occupation of Libya. Considered one of the most brutal attempts at colonization in the world, Italian authorities of the time had no issue boasting of the bloody tactics used to subdue Libyans, even as they denied it was a genocide. But after the defeat of the fascists and the declaration of Libya’s independence, many archives were allegedly destroyed in Italy.

The most likely explanation is that Italy, conscious of the reparations they would have to make to the country they brutalized, attempted to minimize the extent of the horrors committed by destroying the evidence. The results of these actions continue to play out in Libya today, a country haunted by the legacy of violence but without its memory, leaving it trapped in a vicious circle. We’ll never truly know about the concentration camps, the institutionalized genocide, and the amount of Libyan blood lost.

All that really remain are fragments, such as the ethnographic studies conducted by Italian researchers in an attempt to learn how to divide and control Libyan communities, or the maps created to plot the development of Libyan cities for Italian immigrants. There also remains the memory of our grandparents, blurred over the decades by new waves of violence. Historians such as Ibrahim Ahmed Elmehdewi and Khalifa Tillisi have translated Italian records into English, while newer efforts such as Ali Hussein’s ‘Alagailah: A Camp of Suffering’ attempt to relive that period through storytelling.

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across a rare book written by neither Italians nor Libyans, which give an outsiders view to that era of history. Knud Holomboe’s ‘Desert Encounter’ is one of these gems. Written by a Dutch Muslim convert, Holmboe chronicles his road trip through North Africa as he attempts to reach Mecca, and what he found when he crossed Libya.

I found this book almost by accident, looking for documents on Italian concentration camps. My extensive googling led me to this book, almost hidden away in the scant listings on Libya. Right off the bat you can tell it’s going to be interesting; banned in Italy almost immediately after its release in 1931, the author assassinated shortly after its publication in Jordan. While the tone of the book is not overtly political, it can be read as a condemnation of colonialism and the neoliberal policies that underpin it, celebrating instead a more spiritual way of life.

It starts with Holmboe in Morocco, deliberating how to reach Mecca. While he initially plans to cross the Mediterranean by boat, he is convinced by another travel to attempt a road trip by car. He passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, with an Arab boy and American companion, catching only brief glimpses of French occupation, the names of resistance fighters reverently whispered by the occupied populations.

During this time, he shares musings with the roving clans that accommodate them during the nights. Among the ones that struck me was how Holmboe, being a devote Muslim, believes that Islam has become ‘diluted’ in North Africa, with people following superstitions rather than a pure interpretation of the religion. Throughout the book – and while he does occasionally acknowledge the privilege he is afforded for being a white man in a colonized region – these kinds of observations make an otherwise interesting story somewhat uncomfortable.

By the time he reaches the borders of Libya, he begins to encounter problems. The Italian occupiers were very strict when it came to movement through and around Libya, and they make it difficult for him to pass by putting him through layers of menacing bureaucracy. What is interesting here is the division of Libya:

“If you…sign a declaration…it is possible that I may obtain permission for you. There are two Governments, one in Tripoli and one in Cyrenaica. I will also have to obtain permission from Benghazi.”

History repeating itself today? I remembered here all the running around we had to do for my previous workplace to get permissions from the two governments of Benghazi and Tripoli in order to be able to work.

Almost immediately, the signs of cruelty can be seen in the occupation of the country. He meets the ‘Arab population’ – who are almost always referred to as bedouins – dressed in rags, looking haggard and thin, and always gazing silently during Italian festivals or exhibitions. He finds bedouin camps along the way, who share stories of resistance and defeat.

“…we are treated like dogs – worse than dogs; we have surrendered. It was impossible to continue to fight against the Italians…they blocked up our wells with concrete so that the cattle could not drink…now we are starving to death slowly. I think the Italians want to destroy us utterly. We are getting more and more ignorant, more and more poor, more and more like the animals they call us.”

Holmboe was very sympathetic to the Libyan people, and is it possible that there was some embellishment in what he wrote, but even this thought didn’t prevent me from feeling a sense of grief over what I read. Libyans are a proud people, and the complete subjugation under colonialism had not only material consequences but also psychological, not just of trauma but also broken dignity.

I also felt something I didn’t expect; a deep and growing rage, not just at what had happened to my country but in the fact that we don’t remember, that we continue to allow foreign actors like the current Italian government to insidiously involve themselves in our affairs. As Holmboe makes his way East towards Benghazi, he continues to see further cruelties. The tribes in East Libya – referred to as the ‘free bedouins’ – had continued fighting Italian occupation under the leadership of Omar Mukhtar, and were met with even more aggressively punitive measures.

Another interesting historic precedent is the use of foreign troops, repeated again by Gadhafi’s hiring of mercenaries during the 2011 war. Holmboe encountered Eritrean troops brought in by the Italian. When he asked why there were so many, they replied, “Because they are the only troops we can depend on…they are absolutely loyal,” whereas Arab soldiers mostly refused to fight other Arabs. “Here we have to kill almost the whole population before they understand that we are the stronger.”

61551976_624846001260268_6310179875567173632_nAfter a harrowing ordeal of getting lost in the desert near Naufilia, he finally makes his way to Benghazi, where he witnesses the daily hangings of any dissident Libyans. He also encounters “sympathetic” Italian officers, who express their disdain towards the system they work for. “What can you expect from people who don’t speak a word of Arabic, and who live under the strange delusion that civilization if culture?” These characters are put into relief by their counterparts, who don’t spare any derogatory words in their contempt of Libyans, who they see as being unable to ‘develop’ the land and therefore don’t deserve it.

The most difficult part of the trip was the expanse between Marj and Tobruk, an area that the Italians were not able to control, due to the presence of resistance fighters who hid in the caves around the Green Mountain. During this trip, Holmboe was captured by bedouins, who released him after learning that he was a Muslim. He then arrives to Derna where people are arrested and hanged for mere trifles, as the occupation was on edge due to the “rebellion” against them. During this stretch, he is captivated by the Arabs/bedouins he meets and the sufi practices of the people. Much of the book contains his reflections on spirituality, his own personal quest which is what led him to pass through Libya initally.

Eventually, he is arrested and deported, where he makes his way to Egypt to meet with Libya’s exiled king. The book ends on a bitter note, looking cynically at the future of the region. Holmboe never lived to see the king return, unite the country and declare independence from Benghazi in 1954. But his book was an attempt to shed light on what was happening in Libya, and he tried to advocate against Italian occupation during the remainder of his life.

It is estimated that the Italian colonization of Libya ended in the murder of almost one third of the population. Few documents exist today which detail this bloody history. Gadhafi attempted to mold the country in his post-colonial vision,  but greed and madness led him to repeat many of the tactics used by the Italians, a legacy that he once vowed to undo. In Libya, I believe our loss of memory is our undoing, condemning us in the Sisyphean task of rebuilding our country by repeating the same historic events. Foreign occupation, revolutions, wars and constant uncertainty is a cycle that we have to break out of, by first acknowledging it. Desert Encounter is, if nothing else, an excellent and emotional book, and a good place to start.

You can get your copy of Desert Encounter from Dar Fergiani publishers at this link here.

The Myth of Libya’s Civil Society

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A parade in Benghazi organized by local community groups (2013)

In almost every single project proposal written by local and international organization on Libyan civil society, the first thing you’ll read is “Libya’s civil society was born after 2011, it is still a new sector” or some variation on this line. Hell, I’ve written this countless times when seeking funding for projects.

The problem is, it’s not entirely true.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. What is civil society, anyways? The official definition is that it’s the ‘third sector’ following public and private in any nation state, and it’s definitely a popular buzzword with the EU and UN. But the exact meaning is a bit murky, and ranges from any type of volunteerism up to professional income-generating institutions. There’s also a tangle of acronyms; CSO, CBO, I/NGO, NPO, etc, the common letter being the ‘O’ for organization. The contemporary definition of civil society seems to revolve around organizations, official registered bodies who normally don’t make a profit.

Jumping back to Libya, Gadhafi had initially quashed any type of civil society movements, along with banning political parties and arresting student protest organizers. The image of students being hanged on university campus was enough to stop any activism in the country for a long time. The only non-state movement that was begrudgingly allowed to operate was the Scouts, although with heavy oversight.

As Libya opened up following the lifting of international sanctions, there were renewed efforts to organize social movements. Careful not to catch the attention of the regime, these organizations were mainly focused on issues such as cancer awareness, the rights of people with disabilities, environmentalism and charity collectives. But even if the focus of the organization was benign enough for the regime, you still had to go through a draconian registration process that included 70 founding members acting as signatories.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the civil society ‘explosion’ happened. Suddenly, there were no rules and no limit to what you could do. Young people came together and started radio stations, training centers, political movements, book clubs, everything and anything that had collective interest. Half finished buildings or donated office spaces became headquarters and it was easy to find business owners willing to contribute anything to help fund projects. It was an amazing time to be alive, when we were fueled by revolutionary fervor and felt invincible. Until reality caught up and it all came crashing around us.

But this post is not about the rise and fall of Libya’s civil society. It’s about what we’re calling civil society. Whether before or after the revolution, the discourse is always on the formal or semi-formal organizations; as long as you had a name, a logo and at least two members, you were a civil society thing of some sort. The aspiration was always towards organization status, and many of those movements institutionalized, registering with the newly created Civil Society Commission and developing an administrative hierarchy. Part of this reason was the experience being gained over time, but the bigger and most compelling reasons was – drumroll please – international funding.

The international community, operating on the multiple acronym-formal bureaucracy-do-you-have-a-finance-officer definition of civil society, would only grant funding to CSOs who were a) officially registered with any government entity and b) had a bank account. In the face of these constraints, organizations and movements picked up the tricks relatively quickly, and many people saw the opportunity of making money by setting up organizations just to get funding.

BUT – and here comes the Whole Point of the Post – what about the non-official, ‘informal’ civil society?

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An art gallery in Benghazi, organized by Facebook group of art lovers (2015)

Libya has always had a civil society, and not just the charity aunts type. You see, civil society is more than just acronyms and logos. Anything outside of the government or private sector structure that organizes and mobilizes people is civil society, and Libyan society has a very long tradition of managing itself. Tribes have been mediating conflicts for centuries, and tribal land trusts are an efficient mechanism of ensuring housing. “Jam’iyat”, a form of community financing in which people collect and distribute monthly savings, has been very popular especially among Libyan women. Entire cities are the protectors of ancient heritage sites like in Leptis Magna or Shahat or Acacus. Neighbourhood watch groups, online forum communities, the zakat system, academic circles, the list goes on and on.

In our country’s legacy of state weakness, Libyans have had to figure out their own way of meeting their needs, bending the official procedures around their own self-made system. It’s a process that is constantly negotiated and renegotiated, but I believe that it’s one of the reasons why Libya has not completely collapsed at this point.

But international organizations don’t fund tribal land trusts or mosque groups that meet every week to teach illiterate women how to read and write. The development system has been configured in a way where informality is not recognized. If you don’t have a government stamp of some kind then you don’t have any claim to ‘legitimacy’, and it’s incredibly problematic for the international development sector to impart their version of legitimacy onto Libya. I worked in an organization where we had dozens of grants to give to ‘civil society’, but a list of regulations and guidelines on eligibility that excluded almost anyone who didn’t know the international development jargon, and who didn’t mold their organization to fit our vision of what civil society was, rather than the other way around. I can’t count the number of times I’ve begged local movements to get any type of registration so we could fund their work, because it was easier to convince them than to tell the EU or UN that their system was bullshit.

The institutionalization of civil society does not work well in countries where communities are held together by networks of trust and reciprocal benefits rather than paperclips and rubber stamps. The reason why civil society thrived in 2011 was because there was no formal funding, everyone contributed what they could and it was led by collective efforts, in the spirit that has kept Libyan society together until this day. This is a huge missed opportunity for any kind of development work.

I’m not against formal organizations, and I’m so proud that in the space of only eight years and in difficult circumstances we’ve witnessed the rise of truly remarkable civil society institutions in Libya. But this institutionalization should happen on our own terms, away from the exclusionary language of ‘legitimacy’. If international organizations want to work better in Libya then they should work within the system in place. And please, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saying that Libya never had a real civil society.

The City as Barracks: Militarization of Benghazi’s Urban Space

The earliest memory I have of visiting the building site that would become our family home in Benghazi is the road; the long stretch of the Tripoli highway road seemed unending to a 14 year old, and the idea of living on the edge of the city was foreboding. But what caught my attention was the double row of concrete walls framing the road.

I would later learn that we lived near the ‘April 7th’ military camp, later renamed the ‘February 17’ military camp when it was taken over by armed protesters in 2011 and renamed once more after the 2014 civil war. I don’t know what the new name is, everyone in the city still knows is as the Feb 17 camp. Across from it is the Garyounis base, the site of Gadhafi’s historic radio announcement in which he declared a coup d’état against the kingdom.

Benghazi today is the site of numerous military camps. Those constructed under the Gadhafi regime during the time of his military paranoia and weapons stockpiling were placed in the peripheries of the city; Garyounis, Bu’Atni, Venecia. But the city has rapidly grown since then, swallowing the military camps and placing them in the middle of residential districts. The only exception was the Fatheel Bu’mar base near the city center, a re-purposed relic of Italian colonization (which in its time was also in the city’s periphery).

We no longer live at the ‘edge’ of the city, but the features of a once-peripheral neighbourhood are still there, from the military camps to the lack of phone lines. And it was these camps that led to our displacement in the war, along with the displacement of every neighbourhood that had barracks of some sort in them.

After the 2011 revolution/war, the military bases scattered throughout the city became the most strategically important sites, and the plethora of armed groups that emerged from the conflict all grabbed what they could. From then on, the sound of gunfire and explosions from training were ubiquitous in my neighbourhood, marking an era of militarization of the city.

But there weren’t enough military bases to go around, and several public buildings were taken over by armed groups as their headquarters. Where public buildings weren’t available, large tracts of land were purchased or taken by force. The old soap factory in Kuwaifya became the camp for the Libya Shield militia, Gadhafi’s farmland in Hawari turned into the infamous Rafallah S’hati barrack, run by a militia allied to extremist groups. These places did not become passive military camps like the days of Gadhafi but were sites of violence, inflicted terror on the neighbourhoods they were in; those living near Rafallah S’hati would find the decapitated bodies of victims of the militia group, the Libya Shield base was the site of frequent violent confrontations between the militia and protesters who wanted them out of the city.

After the outbreak of the 2014 war, the front lines were drawn around the barracks. Military tactics in the city revolved around capturing bases in order to gain weapons and ammunition, as well as free prisoners. These tactics led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and paralyzed life in the city. Four years later, the city is “liberated” but the bases remain.

The army’s “Military Investment Authority” is now radically changing the layout of the city. The Juliana beachside has been taken over by force in order to create a new military base. But the land grabbing is not limited to military aspirations alone, as houses and land in affluent neighbourhoods have also been purchased or taken over by force to make way for new developments, such as a mall that is being constructed in the already congested Bel’oun district. Focus is now being cast on the Benghazi bosco, one of the largest parks in the city. With the country still in a period of extreme volatility, now is the best time to establish control over land.

Citizens are trying to fight back, launching campaigns online and invoking Libyan land laws. Surprisingly there is a fear by armed groups of social media backlash, and for now sites like the bosco remains untouched. But demands for the dismantling of military bases continue to be futile. Our neighbourhood representatives – prompted by the incident of a stray bullet breaking through glass into a house – attempted to negotiate with the current management of the Garyounis base to at least reduce the military training that goes on, but with little success.

These bases are extending throughout the city, turning Benghazi into a military town, and similar phenomena is felt in Tripoli, Sirte, Ajdabiya and elsewhere. As long as the conflict between opposing groups in Libya continues, the bases won’t go away, as all parties wait in anticipation of the next war.