Death and Architecture

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Phaeno Science Center | Zaha Hadid Architects (Source)

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

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

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

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

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

But architecture is currently in the middle of a new era, one that has superseded postmodernism and is described by some as ‘parametricism’ or ‘neo-futurism’.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

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

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

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

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A page from Matthew Frederick’s book 

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

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

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

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

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Palacio do Planalto | Oscar Niemeyer (Source)

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

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

 

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

بعد التحيه,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

مع تحياتي,

ندى عبدالقادر,

بنغازي ليبيا

31\03\2016

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Faiez Serraj from a Benghazi Resident

Dear Prime Minister Sarraj,

I guess I should start by commending you on entering Tripoli as peacefully as possible. In a country where any political move can set off a chain reaction of violence acts, this is a promising achievement.

I have to be honest. The idea of a unity government has never really appealed to me. It is centered on the concept of pandering to a corrupt group of politicians and war lords who refuse to hand over power, and flies in the very face of the principles of democracy that we destroyed our country to obtain. It feels not like achievement, but like blackmail.

But, what is right in theory and necessary in practice are occasionally two very opposite things. I have watched my city become torn apart by extremist groups and plunged into an ugly war. I have seen friends in Tripoli live in fear and dread under militia rule. I have heard heart-wrenching accounts of Libyans in Fezzan as they describe a deplorable way of life in complete isolation from the rest of the country.

For this reason I support you, and I support the Government of National Accord. Not because it is right, but because the current situation is unacceptable and intolerable, and we have no one else.

But trust that is begrudgingly given, Mr. Sarraj, can be easily revoked. You have not one, but two failed governments to learn from. Do not repeat their mistakes, for the appalling state of Libya today lies mainly on their shoulders. The General National Congress allowed itself to become fragmented and manipulated by illegal armed groups, and allied themselves with the devil. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, sat in a safe, stately castle, fanning the flames of war, as they watched Libyans suffer below, ignoring their pleas for help.

I’m sure you have a team of advisers and analysts telling you the same things I’m writing here. But I am writing it to you because I am living in the middle of it. Your success to me will not be a political achievement, it will be the return of life to my city, to my country. And your failure will mean our doom. Whether we want it or not, our lives are intertwined with yours, and my support comes from my sense of self preservation. Don’t ever forget that.

If there is only one thing you can do differently from your predecessors, please make it that you listen to the people. Our demands have become very basic, but that doesn’t mean you should only provide the bare minimum human needs and consider your job done.

Your job is also not to return Libya to the state it was in following the end of the revolution in 2011, because it was that period that eventually got us here. I ask you, on behalf of a nation sick of instability, to be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the “thuwar” mentality. We do not want a revolution, we want a country. Not a country for Benghazi, or a country for Misrata or Tripoli, but a country for everyone.

Be the Prime Minister that doesn’t accuse youth of taking pills when they protest, but instead ask why they are protesting. Be the Prime Minister who, instead of propagating conspiracy theories about his opponents, reconciles with them. Be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the destruction, instead of being another contributing factor towards it.

You and I are both architects. We know how to design spaces and cities for people to exist in, to live in. And we both know that even the best laid designs can fail to meet the needs of the people. We are not asking for fantastical plans and lofty goals; we just want some semblance of normal life. We want to go to work or school without fearing falling missiles. We want to travel without being treated like pariahs in other countries. We want justice, and security, but also freedom. Yes, freedom. We are weak, but that does not mean we want another set of chains on our wrists in exchange for security.

You are in a position of power, and you may be tempted to make restricting decisions. But never forget, Mr Sarraj, that Benghazi, even when broken, will not tolerate those who lord power over it. Work with us, not against us, and let us save Libya together.

Yours sincerely,

Nada Abdulgader

Benghazi Libya

March 31, 2016

The Peculiar Power of Libyan Flags

The other day I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine, 99 Percent Invisible, which covers the history of designed objects. One aspect of design that the podcast is obsessed with is that of flags. As I listened to one flag-centric episode, it was mentioned how people generally never put much thought into the design of a flag, but at the same time tend to have an emotional reaction to the sight of a flag; whether proud, angry, wary, whatever.

This got me thinking about the Libyan flag, and the many emotional reactions I’ve seen over the years. It’s remarkable the strange journey this otherwise innocuous piece of cloth has been through. Like everything else in our country, the Libyan flag (or flags, rather) has a history of grandeur, controversy and violence.

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza (Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza
(Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Let’s wind the clock back to the mid-19th century. It’s the era of the Ottoman empire, and a dark green flag with three crescent moons flies in Tripoli, the flag of the Tripolitiania Wilaya. This is one of the oldest Libyan flags known, but it represents an occupation rather than a proper identity.

Over in Cyrenaica, the air is filled with dust from the construction site of the Benghazi municipal building, as the city turns into another key point for the Ottoman Empire. This building will be decked with a number of different flags over its lifetime. One such flag is what we know today as the flag of Barga; black cloth with a white crescent and star in the middle, which was raised after Cyrenaica broke away from Italian rule. A similar red flag was used in the French-controlled Fezzan around the same time, while a light blue flag, a green palm tree and a white star designated the Tripolitianian Republic. Before these three regions adopted their individual flags, a variant of the Italian flag dominated in Tripolitiania and Cyrenaica.

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory (Source)

Now, why those colours and symbols, you wonder? I actually have the same question, although one can assume that not much thought was put into the design the flags during that turbulent time. Of the three, the Tripolitianian flag, while being the most garish, also seems to have the most symbolism. A green palm tree, common in Libya, and which acts as a frame of our ocean views, and a light blue background, a colour you see often while strolling in Tripoli, whether sky or sea.

I did some digging, but I couldn’t seem to find any resources that could shed light on the meanings behind the flags. If you ask around, people will often give you romantic answers about martyrs and religion and things like that, although who knows, that could be the reasoning behind the designs.

But anyways, I digress. When Libyan independence was declared by King Idris in 1951, the first Libyan flag was born. According to this Wikipedia page, the flag of Barga (the province formally presided by King Idris) was used, with red added to symbolize blood and green to symbolize prosperity. This design was the work of Omar Faiek Shennib, a key figure during the Senussi monarchy. Some have also remarked that the design of the flag is a mix of the three provincial flags (red for Fezzan and green for Tripoli, on a Barga backdrop). This may or may not have been intentional, but all good design manages to accrue multiple meanings over time. A reading of the ’51 Libyan constitution will highlight the strict guidelines for the flag’s exact design (I’m looking at you, people who unforgivably stretch it out and butcher it in Photoshop for your designs).

From 'Good Flag, Bad Flag', compiled by Ted Kaye

From ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag’, compiled by Ted Kaye

But this flag was only fated to fly for 18 years before the Fateh revolution/coup of 1969. Gadhafi experimented with pan-Arab flags before finally settling on a national flag; the infamous green. The first, and to date only, national flag that is a single colour in the history of vexillology. One could view this as a completely selfish move (deprive the nation of a strong symbol) or as a complete lack of design initiative. However, I think it was part of Gadhafi’s branding strategy; a green flag to go with the Green Book and the Principles of the Green Revolution. It is a personal flag that represents the Gadhafi ideology rather than a proper national symbol. Libya was Gadhafi and Gadhafi was Libya; that was the meaning behind the flag.

So it’s understandable that when, during the 2011 uprising, one of the first symbols to be burned was the green flag, along with the revolutionary ‘mathabat’ and, during a bonfire blaze that I’ll never forget, copies of the Green Book. And what became the symbol of the revolution? That’s right, the tri-coloured Kingdom of Libya flag, later to be known affectionately by Libyans as Bou-Najma-wa-Hilal.

But this move was not without criticism from supporters of the revolution. Even while young men were being killed in front of Benghazi’s largest military base, some Libyans took to social media to convince others not to change their profile picture to the tri-coloured flag, and not to rally under it. They didn’t want the association with the monarchy, a system they feared would replace Gadhafi because of the re-emergence of the flag. Instead, they asked people to use a picture of Omar Mukhtar, a politically-safe symbol that all Libyans could agree on.

But whether it actually was the association with the monarchy, or maybe because the colours were so bold and defiant, the tri-coloured stuck, and eventually made an official come-back as the Libyan flag. Buried for 42 years, and yet against all odds, it came back. Talk about the power of symbols, huh?

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi's courthouse rally, April 2011

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi’s courthouse rally, April 2011

I didn’t grow up in a very Libya-centric household, so the flag was definitely new to me. I think it was new to most Libyans as well, thanks to Gadhafi’s determination in completely burying and eliminating any old symbols. And even if you didn’t want a monarchy, it still represented a better, more honourable time for Libya.

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. (I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer)

And since symbolism is scarce in a country that acted as company name for a self-obsessed megalomaniac for 42 years, we totally abused it. To say that it was everywhere is not an exaggeration. Everyone owned at least a handful of flags, volunteers were painting every available public surface red, black and green, and the logos of government institutes and civil society organizations alike had some variant of the flag design. Now, while the colours may look nice on a flag, they were not very pleasing to see on, say, historic monuments. We reached a red, black and green saturation point (no pun intended), and with the development of Libyan graphic skills, we’re slowly moving away from (over)using the revolutionary colours.

But the tri-coloured flag of the Kingdom wasn’t the only one to appear in public plazas and protests. In Western Libya, another flag that was new to us began to wave in the wind; the Amazigh flag. In cheery yellow, green and blue stripes, with a bold red Tinfagh letter yaz in the middle, the Amazigh flag represents not a nation, but a people, and in Libya’s case, a minority oppressed by Gadhafi. The unfurling of this flag was, in its own way, another stance of defiance against the regime. (You can read about the design here, and it’s definitely rich in literal symbolism.)

But not everyone cares for this symbolism. Many Libyans don’t like seeing the flag (to put it politely), because of its perceived exclusionary nature; i.e. you’re not part of our race. It also represents a collective Amazigh identity that transcends borders, which makes some newly nationalistic Libyans a little uncomfortable.

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

Flag revival seems to have been the theme of the new Libya. Bring out your old symbols, brush off the dirt, and pick off where you stopped 42 years ago. Remember the black flag of Barga? When the federalist movement began to gain steam in 2012, they also needed a symbol. And what better symbol than the flag of the political province that they’re trying to revive? Suddenly black Barga flags began to appear more often, as calls for federalism and a more unified Barga identity began to strengthen.

This, too, was met with criticism, although of a much more furious nature. Detractors of federalism accused the movement of trying to divide the country. Suddenly the flag went from being a historic symbol to one of exclusion; like with the Amazigh flag, the black flag of Barga represents a subset of Libyans with their own distinct identity , history and demands.

Being the pro-federalist that I am, I promptly changed my profile picture to the Barga flag back in 2012, until the federalist movement began to move away from rights for Eastern Libya towards a more hostile, tribal-based ideology. I still like the flag, but unfortunately it has become too immersed in negative connotations today, and having a Barga flag profile picture may be seen as being associated with those connotations, the down side to flag symbolism.

And speaking of negative flag symbolism, the Gadhafi flag didn’t exactly go the way of the tri-coloured in 1969. Many people and cities who oppose the revolution still hang the Gadhafi green on their buildings, in defiance of an uprising that doesn’t represent them. Many groups in the armed conflict in Libya today use “evidence” of green flags among other armed groups as proof of being pro-Gadhafi and, in effect, fair game to attack. One group accused of charging in with green flags has been the Libyan army in Benghazi, who, in response, have increased the number of tri-coloured flags around their checkpoints and on their cars. Wars of symbolism can be fought just as feverishly as wars of guns and missiles, apparently.

During a workshop I attended to analyze draft of the new Libyan constitution, the article that mentions the flag came up. Now, you’d think, with crucial state-building and policy-making articles in the constitution, we wouldn’t give much time to an article about flag design. But no, we spent a good half hour heatedly debating whether or not the tri-coloured should be the Libyan flag.

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Some said that it was a no-brainer, half the country’s already covered in the colours now anyways. But some said that, no, the flag doesn’t represent everyone. Those whose children died under the banner of the green would never vote yes for a constitution that enshrined the flag their children died fighting against. I spoke to a CDA member who told me that even among the Assembly, there were members who were against the tri-colour.

But surely we can’t bring back the Gadhafi green? The people whose children died fighting this flag wouldn’t agree either. So what’s the solution? One person in the workshop proposed creating a new flag, along with a new anthem, that would help to unite all Libyans under (literally) one banner.

I’m personally undecided on this issue, because on the one hand, while the tri-coloured represents the first Libya to me, I can’t deny that the flag has become heavy with other symbolism, much like the Barga flag. As the green became the brand of Gadhafi, the red-black-and-green has become the brand of February 17th, a revolution-turned-ideology that many Libyans no longer want to be part of, and that many Libyans do not feel they are a part of to begin with.

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014 (Yes, the picture is from far away, but that’s as close as I ever want to get to those guys)

There’s one last flag I haven’t mention that has also adorned lamp posts and buildings in the new Libya; the infamous Alqaeda standard and the mortifying ISIS black banner. The former appeared as early as 2011, while the latter took its place in the subsequent years. Unlike the other flags, this has been met not with anger so much as cold fear. As Libyans continue their symbolic fighting over green, red-black-and-green, or an entirely new set of colours, this flag of death threatens to cover its inky blackness over all of Libya.


Jk, I wouldn’t want to end the post on such a dark note (pun totally intended this time).

At the end of the day, they’re just pieces of cloth sown together. They’re not much different than the pyjama shirt I’m wearing. And yet, we manage to saturate them with so much meaning, so many hopes and aspirations, and sadly, so much of our fellow countrymen’s blood, that they take on a life of their own. It is really wise to give so much power to such a symbolically malleable icon? Before you answer that, ask yourself if it’s okay to arrest a man for defacing that icon, or if you would break a friendship over it? Yes, the flag you hold is an extension of your beliefs, but do you want your beliefs weaved into something whose meaning can so easily change? There is always the fear that you begin to soak the many meanings of the flag, to change who you are, so that you feel justified in holding it, and thus allowing us to become controlled by our symbols.

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

A graphic designer friend of mine who, frustrated by the Gadhafi era, the 2011 revolution, regional sensitivities and the complete abandonment of Benghazi by the rest of the country, took matters into his own hands and designed the “Flag of Benghazi”. The aqua-green “ocean” represents the huthoor, people from West Libyan origin, while the reddish-brown “land” represents the people from bedu, or East Libyan, origin. These are the people who, in a country torn by East vs. West animosity, have managed to create a city for themselves to live together. The lighthouse sits on a peaceful white background, with the words “Benghazi Lives” emblazoned underneath. Unlike the politically or regionally-charged Libyan flags, this one captures the spirit of the city; its people. He only designed it as a response to the current situation, but if it ever gets proposed as an official city flag, I’m sure that it too will meet with controversy. In any case, it’s the only flag, in this long historical mess of flags, that I currently feel represents me.

Roundup 2: More Libyan Blogs to Follow

Have I ever told you how awesome it is seeing Libyan growth on the internet? I probably have, but there’s no harm in emphasizing how important it is to see Libyans utilizing this flexible platform. Last year I wrote about five Libyan blogs that I enjoy, and now that list has grown.

Over at the Young Writers of Benghazi, we wrapped up another online writing contest, this time in cooperation with Wajeej Blog. The theme was to write a blog post, with the winning entries to be published on Wajeej. The aim was to get people to view blogging as a viable form of self-expression, and perhaps encourage them to start their own blogs. I’m currently brainstorming ideas to hold blog-writing workshops in Benghazi with other bloggers, to get more people familiar with this medium. With my university thesis and the dozen other things I have on my plate, I may not be able to actualize these plans anytime soon, but it’s definitely a goal I hope to achieve in 2016 (perhaps make 2016 a year of Libyan blogging?)

Another Libyan organization, the Tanweer Movement, also held a blogging contest, to award the best Libyan blog. The winner was announced during a great cultural event in Tripoli (you can see highlights of the event through the hashtag ). The winning blog is Khawater Bint Shareef, a blog on the thoughts of a young Libyan woman. You can check it out here.

And now, without further ado, here are more Libyan blogs that you, faithful reader, should check out:

7. The Silphium Gatherer: Started by a Libyan academic, Silphium Gatherer is a great resource on academic material about Libya’s history, politics, culture and a number of other topics. With material on Libya being as scarce as it is, this blog is a invaluable place to learn more about the country.

6. Abdulkarim Dwaini’s Blog: Abdulkarim is an active young Libyan who is the director of the Libyan Youth Culture Changemakers organization, which operates from Waddan, Libya. His blog highlights the key issues and events that he feels are important for civil society and Libya’s growth. It’s a refreshing look at Libyan civil society through the eyes of a motivated, inspiring young man.

5. Amjad Badr’s Blog: Another active young Libyan, Amjad is the director of Hexa Connection, an organization that promotes technology and tech activism among young Libyans. Amjad’s blog covers a range of topics, from personal recollections to thoughts on important Libyan issues. He also started the initiative #أنا_ادون to encourage more Libyan bloggers.

4. Fetrasha: Started by a good friend of mine and a great Libyan thinker, Ahmed Mahmoudy’s stream of consciousness posts are food for thought, offering insights into the mind of a Libyan youth who’s experienced both revolution and war. While the blog is still new, it’s definitely one to follow. Ahmed also runs Yes We Can, a youth organization based in Benghazi.

3. Wissamiyat: A seasoned Libyan writer, Wissam has been blogging for a number of years now. His writing covers current events in Libya, personal musings and trends in Libyan society. He’s also part of the Libyanblogs.org collection (which I mentioned in part 1), and also does his part to encourage Libyan blogging.

2. Tehrees: The author of this blog was also the 3rd place winner of our blog-writing contest. Tehrees is a blog popular particularly among Libyan youth, as it touches on important social issues through a unique writing style. An example of this is a modern day interpretation of dialogue between Sidi Khraibish (representing Benghazi) and Sidi Alasmar (representing Zliten), two historic Libyan figures, touching on the terrorist attack in Zliten and the war in Benghazi. It’s a personal, emotional way at looking at the events in Libya, a reprieve from the bland, empty political analyses we’re so used to hearing.

1. Rawad Radwan’s Vlog : This one is actually an exciting addition, because it’s a vlog (video blog), one of the first Libyan vlogs to appear on my radar, in fact. Rawad Radwan is an active Libyan with a mission to constantly seek out the silver lining in the Libyan situation, but with doses of pragmatism. Rawad vlogs about his personal interests as well as Libyan current events.


If this selection doesn’t keep you busy enough, you can head over to Wajeej to read the three winning entries of our Blog-Writing Contest. They are:

Third Place: “Here is Benghazi” by Ahmed Ben Omran

Second Place: “When You Plan to Emigrate” by Ghada Twair

First Place: “Why Do I Go On?” by Mohammed Ezzawi

You can also check out Huna Sotak (translated to, Here is Your Voice), an initiative started by Radio Netherlands Worldwide to give Arab youth a platform to express themselves. They have a Libya project entitled “Here is Libya”, with posts from different contributes. One of my personal favorite contributors is Ali Latife, an introspective young Libyan who writes on the situation in Libya and the hardships of being a young Libyan in the Middle East today. (you can read samples of his work here, here and here).

The most salient features of this list are that the writers are both young and active in their communities. These are Libyans with something to say, and who hold important insights on the state of the country. As more Libyans continue to use social media, and as social media becomes one of the few outlets left in the country for self-expression, I think we’ll be seeing an increase in the number of Libyan blogs. My hope is that, if our country eventually stabilizes, this will transition into published literature. In any case, I hope that the digital thoughts of Libyan, both young and old, won’t be confined to cyberspace, but will find its way into our collective culture.

Learning From A Revolution

Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come round again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.” ― Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Here it is; the five year mark. You remember, don’t you? Standing in front of the courthouse, our faces flushed from the rally and the excitement, telling any journalist who asked us about our prediction for the new Libya, “Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”

We gushed about our “new country”, our arrogant enthusiasm justified by the innocent hope and happiness that underlined it, as though we already visited the future and knew with confidence what would happen. Hard to believe it’s only been five years. It feels like fifty.

Must be a record,”Fastest Destruction of a State”. Most effortless, too. We were so busy being tricked with all the parades and fireworks – the superficial festoons of freedom – that we didn’t notice the men behind the curtain, who came out and took apart the puppet show that we thought was real.

Five years later, we are shocked, ashamed, horrified. Those journalists we spoke to five years ago can’t even enter the country anymore to see the results of the revolution. We’ve lost everything in what one can argue is an ironic twist of karma, what we did to the pro-Gadhafi side is now being done to us by creatures more terrifying than they (or we, for that matter) ever were.

I always tell myself that I’m not going to write an anniversary post, after the third year when I slowly, painfully realized that it had become a sham, that the revolution and the achievements and the country weren’t really ours anymore. But that fateful day comes round, and I find myself reminiscing at how so much could change in such a short span of time.

The February 17 revolution, whether I like it or not, will always be a core event for me. It has left me with beautiful memories and a wretched life. It made me hopeful, it helped me discover my value as a person and unearthed new traits I didn’t know I had, it opened my eyes to a new outlook on life, and it turned me into a monster.

It never ceases to amaze me how an otherwise normal person, a member of society and a generally decent individual, can so easily be made to support massive amounts of violence, bloodshed and destruction. In any other setting, they would be horrified. But manipulated by ideology, influenced by the poisonous effect of mob mentality, they turn into something not at once evil, but at once repulsive, hideous.

This is what happened to me in 2011. I’m not trying to justifying my behaviour and beliefs during that time, by saying I became blinded by revolutionary fervor and lost myself in the din of possibilities, because there was a small voice, in the back of my head, who hesitantly pointed out the problems that were also appearing. I ignored that voice, allowed it to become lost among the screams of “Libya is free, Libya is free!” all around me. That’s on me.

Sadly, many Libyans have not learned from the mistakes of 2011. Instead, they have transplanted their obsequious cheerleading onto other, more fragmented causes. Those too, will fail them, and there will be an existential scrabble to find, or create, new belief systems, and on and on until there will be nothing left to believe in. One could look upon our situation and conclude that revolutions forge hope while war creates misery, but we couldn’t have had one without the other

The revolution was not built on mendacious or malicious reasons. We were fed up, people were oppressed and unjustly treated, the status quo needed to change. It was not for a love of chaos that we marched against the regime. But the moment the first black flag unfurled on the battle field, the moment the first family was forced out of their home for what they believed, we should have stopped. Taken a step back. Reassessed where the revolution was going. But we didn’t, pushed on by our own momentum, unable to assess anything, unable to feel anything but our own vague thirst of freedom.

We did stop, eventually, too late, suddenly realizing the setting we were in. Mouths agape, we ask in horrified voices, what happened? How could it all have fallen apart like this? Like those from whom the veil of madness is abruptly lifted, we gaze in awe at the very destruction we supported.

We sit now in our broken country, angry at ourselves, at each other, at anyone who comes near, disillusioned, hopeless, wishing we could turn back the clock five years earlier.

If I could go back in time to my young, foolish, naive 20 year old self, I would shake myself by the shoulders and shout, “Stop! Don’t do it! Thousands will sacrifice themselves for nothing! You will lose everything you hold dear! It’s not worth it!” But hindsight, they say, is 20/20. My younger, foolish, naive self will probably look at me, laugh, and say, “What are you talking about? Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”


When people ask me about the February 17 revolution, I don’t hesitate anymore in admitting that I regret being part of it, part of the movement it became that is still ongoing to this day. I think the turning point for me, the moment of revelation of “Oh crap, what have we done,” came sometime in 2013, when I realized that things weren’t going to end well in Benghazi. No one is denying that February 17 began with noble intentions, but it’s very difficult to extract what the revolution used to be from the movement we see today. Even without the numerous foreign elements that invaded the country, a lot of injustices were committed in the name of February 17 by Libyans themselves.  

What I’ll say is, I don’t regret protesting against Gadhafi, because while life under his rule was better, it was still horrible. He needed to know that we were fed up, that we wanted our country back and that we wanted to achieve our potential at citizens. I believe our mistake was in demanding a complete upheaval of the regime, because we had literally nothing to replace it with, and no experience or background in nation-building. No amount of revolutionary zeal and good intentions can run a country, and that was our fatal flaw. The ultimate goal was to improve Libya, and I believe that we could have, and should have, done it a much different way, one that didn’t involve creating sides and that didn’t lead to the large losses we see today.

 

A Brief History of Local Libyan Governance, and Carving Out Community Libyan Spaces (Pt.1)

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City Hall Model 3

It’s an architectural post, oh my god! You know what that means. Yes, my graduation project is going very well, thank you for asking! The reason for the excitement is, obviously, that I’m going to be a graduate very soon (and removing the insolent ‘student’ description from my IDs, huzzah). I’ve also been bedridden for over a week due to a nasty concussion, which meant no coffee, so the five or so cups I had today to make up for it might also be a small contributing factor to the energy.

So, what is my graduation project, (or, more formally, my “thesis”, a term that totally wigs me out). If you had asked me during the first four years of school, I would’ve adamantly insisted that I’d be designing a community center, for a number of reasons. It’s a dynamic architectural building type, it’s a space that’s badly needed in a country of people that don’t have many places to publicly congregate. And, more importantly, a community center perfectly marries my love of architecture with my firm devotion to civil society, a design project that will keep me in my element and allow me to launch my career in public-use architecture and design.

That is, uuuuntil my professors had a talk with me. Now, we’re big on the number three in the architecture department, so by the time you hit your final year, everything is in threes. Case studies, program proposals, and of course, theses statements. I presented my first statement, the community center, with all the pomp and circumstance I could muster. I then added a library as statement numero duo, to show that I was serious about doing a community building, and I threw in the city hall almost as an afterthought. A city hall is a political building, and the last thing any Libyan wants is to deal with more politics.

“We’ve reviewed your thesis proposals, and we feel that a city hall would be the best project for you,” the committee told me.

“Umm, well, you’ll actually find that I present a much stronger case for the community center, several pages of case, actually, haha,” I countered, barely able to keep from rising out of my seat and slapping someone.

“No one in the department has ever done a city hall before. We want you to go for it.” And they walked out of the studio, leaving me shocked and with a rapidly growing desire to lunge at my lead supervisor’s thick neck.

I had practically already designed the goddamned community center in my head, could they not sense that through my adulation of the building type and my pristinely printed words of longing that I wanted a COMMUNITY CENTER?

I (or the coffee) may be embellishing the devastation I felt at not getting the thesis I wanted, most likely a symptom of the war and the need for dramatics. I was pretty bummed out at not getting the center, but the more I read about city halls and municipal architecture, and the more I investigated Libya’s own unique municipal situation, the more I realized that this would be an interesting, if politically saturated, project.

It’s really been an eye-opening experience these past few months to work on a design project that is linked to a government structure that is constantly evolving and changing, which is in fact in the midst of a historic change. When I undertook the thesis, Libya had just implemented the temporary local council system, meant to act as a place holder for the real deal. When I presented my initial findings a year later, Libya had a completely new legislative body, a completely new set of alterations to the local governance law, and, perhaps most starkly felt, a completely new power struggle.

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Preliminary abstract conceptualization; What is Benghazi?

I’m not gonna lie, it may have been filled with politics, but my preliminary thesis defense was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I spent a full hour going toe-to-toe with the 6-headed dragon that was the thesis committee, discussing everything from federalism to tribal politics to responsible administrative design to Benghazi’s evolving public life. It was like a large Twitter debate in real life, but actually respectable and intelligent. I loved how my professors were acutely aware that the situation in Libya would have the biggest impact on my project, that I am working on a building that is akin to handling mercury.

Which brings me back to…local governance in Libya; what’s going on, what was going on, and what will the future hold?

To sum up everything I’ve read, Libya has all the necessary elements to make it the type of country to rely heavily on decentralization. We have always had, at every point in history, some form or other of decentralized power distributed among the land. This was most clearly manifested through the federal system under the newly independent Kingdom of Libya in 1951, with three provinces, two capitals and one hell of a lot of territorial baggage. It’s interesting to note now that, with the decaying of any and all concrete state-structures today, an organic return to the old system has been the most persistent feature of this brave new Libya.

I was also surprised to learn that Gadhafi actually began his rule pushing for further decentralization, allotting a lot of power to the governorates. This was, of course, in the few years before he lost in marbles and abolished the governorate system entirely. But, while the complex system of the shabiyat and Jamahiriya still mystifies me, I’ve learned that there was a method in his madness. It is, or so I postulate, a form of extreme decentralism, so localized that it hardly even feels like there is power on a municipal level. Those I spoke to who experienced the full force of the mu’tamarat shabiya recall only hazy memories (we still haven’t reached a point in our post-revolutionary recovery where people will openly admit that they attended those meetings, sadly enough).

Enter February 17, a complete reshuffle of the country, and along with it, many strong and rising voices calling out for decentralization. It’s important to note that the decentralism demanded post-Feb 17 wasn’t just about having more administrative decisions, it was strongly linked to the regional and tribal identities that were largely oppressed/manipulated by the Gadhafi regime.

To understand local governance today, one needs to read Law 59 of Year 2012, the Local Governance Law issued by the Ministry of Local Governance under the Transitional National Council, and its numerous addendum. You’ll also need to get your hands on the bylaws governing each independent Municipal Council (something a friendly smile and some wasta with the council can help with) to understand the structure governing each. There’s also numerous other laws all detailing the sleep-inducing minutiae of the municipal council’s many roles, responsibilities and duties. All I can tell you is, I’m so glad I did not major in political law, and I have a new-found respect for people who do (not really, why would you do that to yourself?)

Now, the general structure should be, Ministry -> Governorate -> Municipality -> Municipal Council -> Municipal branches. We’ve jumped over the governorate stage, which is supposed to come later, and went straight to the councils. Elections across Libya led to the formation of initially 99 municipal councils (later expanded to 112 or so, such as the Benina municipality’s decision to break off from Benghazi). We still don’t have any governorates, but even defining that at this point is iffy because the draft writers of the local governances chapter on the new Libyan constitution haven’t really made any definitive choice in whether we should have governorates (preferred by those who don’t want/like federalism) or “regions” (a term used so butthurt anti-federalists feel less afraid.) Hell, they haven’t even been able to decide on the capitals of Libya (latest draft stating some wishy-washy nonsense about a political, economic and cultural capital, intending to appease all and pleasing none).

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Facade lighting study for Model 2

Now, a question posed by the thesis committee was, what difference does it make if Benghazi is the capital of the province of Barga, or the capital of the Benghazi governorate, or just another city in the Libyan vastness, for a city hall project? The answer is, quite a lot actually. A city hall, as building typologies go, carry a lot of symbolism in the exterior design. What kind of city Benghazi was, is and will be should be represented in some way or another in the edifice. No one can deny the rich political and historic significance of Benghazi, and this needs to be represented not only on the facade but also in the way the building is used, how the people and surroundings interact with it. Five years ago, we had mu’tamarat shabiya. Today, we have a municipal council. Five years from now, who knows what form of local governance we’ll have in Benghazi, and it’s necessary, nay, imperative, that the building is designed true to the turbulent and important city that it stands in.