A Botched Reconstruction: The Destruction of Benghazi’s Cultural Heritage

Like most big events that happen in Libya, we first heard about it through Facebook. Posts from angry citizens displayed a heartbreaking sight; Cinema Berenici, an Italian-era cinema in downtown Benghazi, was being razed by bulldozers. The cinema is – was – one of the iconic landmarks of old Benghazi, a place first constructed to serve Italian colonizers, and later the people of Benghazi. Amid the chaos and the furor of the social media conversation were two questions; why, and what next? No official statement was made by any of the competing government agencies as to why the cinema was demolished or what would be put up it’s place, leaving people to speculate.

Cinema Berenice in its heyday

Perhaps I should backtrack for a moment. When I say that the cinema was being razed, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that the remains of the cinema were being razed. Like much of the city centre, Cinema Berenici sustained significant damage since the 2014 war. Even prior to 2011, the cinema was neglected, another byproduct of a governance and social system too preoccupied with putting out proverbial fires to focus on culture and heritage. The slow reconstruction in the past few years rekindled some hope that the city’s landmarks would be included in the new plans, but the Facebook images doused that hope.

But while Benghazi’s residents were still grieving the loss of an important landmark, more photos of destruction began flooding our feed; the Sagracioni, the Fish Market, and an entire section of the waterfront completely erased. These were being posted entirely by concerned residents, demanding answers from anyone. It was only two weeks after the initial demolition began that a government agency finally spoke up; a Facebook page calling itself ‘Platform for the Construction of Benghazi’ (likely affiliated with the Benghazi and Derna Reconstruction Fund) posted an aerial video of the site with a caption claiming that the development of the area would “usher in a new era of modernism while preserving the history of the area”.

But what this historically sensitive modernism will look – or indeed who designed it or who will conduct the reconstruction – seems to be a secret, because no plans or consultations have yet been shared. [see update below] But any transparency or clarity on these projects seem to be lost in the bureaucratic quagmire of the Libyan government(s).

When I say that Benghazi’s residents are grieving, I mean it quite literally. Posts of the destruction are being shared with the caption ‘From God we came and to Him we return’, a phrase Libyans use when a person dies. What is being mourned now is Benghazi itself, it’s identity and spirit which many denizens see as being embodied in the historic downtown.

That’s not to say that everyone is up in arms. Many Libyans continue to struggle with the increasing costs of living and trying to secure their basic needs, and heritage preservation is the last thing on their minds. In fact, many people would welcome any kind of construction, anything to erase the signs of the war and bring Benghazi into a new age.

The demolition of heritage buildings seems to be planned at a strategic moment for Benghazi; in the past year, we’ve seen a flurry of new development across the city, from public housing regeneration to parks to improved transportation planning. People are feeling cautiously optimistic about the city’s future and it appears that the downtown project is positioning itself as part of this new wave of positive change to shield itself from scrutiny.

Like any post-conflict/post-disaster setting, Benghazi’s historic core will most likely become another victim of the Shock Doctrine of disaster capitalism. Like Lebanon and Iraq, private interests are dominating the conversation under the guise of ‘efficient and necessary actions for the good of the city’. I can already hear the shouts of people who disagree with me. “We NEED private sector development, we don’t have the capacity or skill to develop our city!” And it’s true, I’m not deluded into thinking that we have what it takes reconstruct our city, or that any reconstruction plans and processes will please everyone. But the complete, total opposite of a perfect reconstruction is taking a bulldozer to the remains of our history. There has to be a middle ground.

Update March 27, 2023: I’ve been informed that the group behind the demolition is neither the Municipality or the Benghazi and Derna Reconstruction Fund but rather a new committee created in January 2023.

The Dissent Will Be Televised: On ‘Shat Al-Hurria’ and Social Commentary in Libyan Satire

Shat 2

This week’s Eid celebrations in Libya signaled the end of Ramadan, and with it, the close of another season of Ramadan television. Every year, more and more Libyan shows make their way to the small screen, creating an increasingly competitive atmosphere among writers, directors and actors. The caliber of these shows has gone far and above what Libyans were once used to, with millions of dollars being poured into set designs and costumes, foreign actors and international filming locations. Gone are the days when the only fare on television was ‘Khalti Mashhiya‘ or ‘Hajj Hamad‘, although these still remain popular Ramadan shows for the more nostalgic among us.

One show in particular has captured the hearts of Libyans around the country. ‘Shat Alhurria‘ (شط الحرية) aired its fourth season this year to widespread popularity, attracting not only Libyan viewers but North Africans and Arabs around the region. The show began to gain popularity outside of East Libya by its second season due to its deft use of satire and its political and social commentary on the state of Libyan communities. The name – which translates as ‘The Shore of Freedom’ – is itself a satirical take on the filming location in a semi-desert area, but which also draws on the environmental history of the area.

Part sitcom and part televised theatre, the show centers around the everyday lives of a handful of different tribal members in the semi-fictional town of ‘Maglab Alsharab’. It pokes fun at the stereotype of ‘bedouins’ and offers witty but stinging commentary at the disparity between rural villages and large Libyan cities. Each of the main characters represents an archetypal member of Libyan society, from the strict but caring tribal leader to the wise old shop owner who can recite poetry by heart. Other characters include an ‘Egyptian’ teacher who is the oft-frustrated master of the village’s only school, the local fagih who’s religiosity is a thinly veiled façade and the gang of young men who act as shepherds and frequently get into all sorts of trouble.

Each 30-minute episode is a stand-alone story focusing on one or several of the main characters. Many of the plot drivers revolve around the clash between ‘urban culture’ and the rural lives of the characters, causing amusing mayhem. In one episode, Emraja is perplexed when he finds a discarded take-out coffee cup, a symbol of the foreignness of urban life. Other episodes tackle deeper, age-old issues such as land disputes, family betrayals and father-son relationships. Modern topics are covered as well, like the increasing presence of international organizations in Libya, irregular migration and even psychosocial support.

But it’s the political satire which has made Shat Alhurria’s name. From commentary on the lack of real infrastructure or development projects to the lampooning of corrupt officials, the show doesn’t hold back. Politician-as-dog metaphors are rife, and one episode this season even brought an actor with uncanny resemblance to Abdulhamid Dbaiba, to poke fun at the Prime Minister while also critiquing his role is stoking regional tensions. One particularly poignant episode alluded to the meaningless of the war between East and West Libya – a sensitive military issue that many hesitate to touch. The episode ends on a close up of a white flag flying in the wind over the ‘negotiations’ tent, making a very clear political statement for a show that otherwise focuses on subtle messages.

In another episode, a show dog belonging to an important politician is brought to the village in the hopes that the outdoors would cure the dog’s ‘depression’. The influential dog owner promised electricity, water and even hospitals if they took care of him. The dog lives a more luxurious life than people in the village, one of many metaphors on the inequality between Libyan politicians and the people.

At a time when crackdowns on activists and dissidents have increased across the country, Shat Alhurria continues a tradition of that first began in Benghazi’s theatre scene under the Gadhafi regime. Censorship as a form of self-preservation is an ability that most Libyans grow up learning, but it was through the theatre that many people in Benghazi were able to express their frustration with the state of the country behind the mask of jokes. Plays such as ‘Kowshi Ya Koosha‘ كوشي ياكوشة (which looked at the deteriorating quality of life in Libyan cities), ‘The Hospital‘ المستشفى (a critique of Libya’s failing medical sector) and ‘Kharif ya Sh3aib‘ خرف ياشعيب (a commentary on the failings of the government and society) were incredibly popular and daring for their time, and served as an outlet for these frustrations.

The writer for Shat Alhurria  is Fathi Gabsi, a well-known name in the Libyan art world. Most of the actors are part of the Ajdabiya Theatre Troupe, a city in East Libya known for its cultural capital. Almost all of the show’s dialogue is in an East Libyan bedouin dialect (with the exception of Modern Standard Arabic which is thrown in for comedic effect), but this hasn’t prevented people outside the province from enjoying the show. The show came at a time when bedouin culture had become a prime target of propaganda in the online battlefront of Libya’s civil war, when terms like ‘shephard’ have been used in a derogatory way and ‘bedouin’ is used as a shorthand to mean uneducated or uncivilized. The show’s doubling down on the dialect and culture was a deliberate choice to change the narrative.

Of course, with popularity comes all kinds of differing opinions. There has been some criticism of the show, which lambasts the use of bedouin stereotypes and accuses it of pointless mockery. But these critics clearly don’t know or understand how to watch Libyan satire, taking the show at face value without appreciating the intricate level of detail that have gone into the dialogue, storylines or the characters. Rather than mock bedouins, Shat Alhurria sheds a harsh light on the systematic disenfranchisement that rural Libyans have been subjected to for decades.

But even then, the characters of the show are never portrayed in a pitiful light nor are they defined by what they don’t have. They are shown as having a sense of pride in their culture and traditions, even if they occasionally long for the trappings of ‘modern’ life in the city and a better quality of life in their village. The show seems to celebrate the inherent richness of bedouin life despite this marginalization, embedding the rich use of poetry and oral storytelling, the love of music and the boundless hospitality into the storyline. The characters of Shat Alhurria are not one-dimensional clichés but relatable figures that captures much of the Libyan zeitgeist.

To give an example, the character of Mishri is that of a good-natured young man whose story arc focuses on the hijinx he gets up to with his best friend Muwaila and his desire to eventually get married. During one episode where the gang end up in a ‘big city’ to find a tribal member who went missing, Mishri finds himself in front of a bridal boutique and stops his search for a moment to gaze with admiration at the dresses on display. While the running gag for Mishri is that he always talks about his dreams of marriage, this scene transcended the joke for a moment to a give a very real glimpse into the desire and struggle of many young Libyan men to start their own lives.


These kinds of subtle but powerful moments are what Shat Alhurria does best. Of course, it also doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t have weaknesses. The absence of women and a female narrative is glaringly absent from the show, and the treatment of certain social issues (notably one of the main characters who is shown to have learning disabilities) can be quite heavy handed at times. The show’s writers and producers seem to be aware of this criticism and have addressed it somewhat in the later seasons, but there’s still space for further progress. The approach seems to be ‘write what you know’, which in the case of the mostly men cast and crew seems to center on the male experience. However, there is something to be said for the way that the show expertly critiques rigid perceptions of masculinity in Libyan society by highlighting moments of sensitivity and vulnerability among the characters.

Aside from the cultural criticism, Shat Alhurria has also faced political backlash. The Libyan Salafi Movement recently condemned the show, citing ‘7 key reasons’ why it was Islamically inappropriate, although it seems that the main issue was the 7th point, namely that the show mocks those in power. One of the guest writers of the show, activist Mansour Atte from Ajdabiya, was detained for 10 months without a clear charge, leaving many to speculate that one of the episodes he wrote which criticized a politician was the reason for the arrest.

But regardless of the controversies and criticisms, the profound cultural impact that Shat Alhurria has had is undeniable. Online views of the episodes are in the millions, and the show has served as an important source for online Libyan meme culture. It has permeated every level of digital interaction, from WhatsApp sticker albums of the show’s catchlines to reaction GIFs. The fictional locations from the show have even been placed on Google Maps. It’s also clear that the show has made prominent Libyan politicians squirm. While the producers have announced that the fourth season might be the last, the impact that this show on Libya has had will be felt for a long time to come.

Shat Alhurria can be watched on 218 TV’s Youtube Channel here

Eleven Years of Libyan Civil Society

Just the usual disclaimer before you start reading, which is that I’m not claiming that civil society in Libya began in 2011. Civic movements have existed in the country for centuries in different forms and each with their own modes of mobilization, dissent and outreach. I’m referring here to the latest generational movement sparked by the 2011 uprising and subsequent transitional period in Libya’s history.

Last week in Libya ended with the news that the Tanweer Movement, a Tripoli-based civil society group, decided to stop their work and dissolve the organization. This decision was made after an affiliate of the movement was arrested by the Interior Security Forces and forced to “confess” in a video that was widely shared online before being removed. The young man spoke about his work with a number of organizations, including Tanweer, working on issues related to free speech and civil liberties. Security forces claimed that these groups are threatening the national security of the country by encouraging people to question religion and promoting “immoral liberation” of various groups.

Tanweer was no stranger to controversy, working on culturally and socially-sensitive issues that pushed the envelope and forced several of its members to leave the country. The movement did not propagate any specific ideology but rather advocated for free speech and open debate in a society that is used to speaking their opinions in whispers and living double lives to avoid social scrutiny. The aim of the final statement from the organization was clear; we’ll stop our work if you free those who have been detained. It’s a sacrificial move, one influenced by the fear and horrors that many civil society activists have witnessed in the past eleven years at the hands of militias and security forces. The movement’s social media pages have now been deleted, wiping all traces of its digital presence.

This is not the first time that an organization has had to end its activities for the safety of its members. Tanarout, a popular cultural hub in Benghazi, closed its doors last year after an increase in threats from religious groups who cited ‘mixing of the genders’, ‘shady activities’ and ‘anti-religious sentiment’ as the reason for their opposition. While none of these things are technically illegal in Libya, the law can seldom be used to defend oneself in a country where the strongest voices are those with the weapons.

Since the new wave of activism in 2011, Libya’s civil society has faced an uphill battle. Civil society activities were initially seen as a form of fighting back against the Gadhafi regime and reclaiming public life, and most organizations were loosely based collectives of young women and men working on media, culture and humanitarian aid. But as the country fell further into fragility and instability, CSOs and activists became a prime target for public scrutiny. The common conspiracy theory is that civil society is a vehicle for international groups to manipulate and destabilize Libya, and activists are spies who are selling out their country. While some people genuinely believe this, others are motivated by a dislike for the causes that activists work on or suspicions at the exposure and financing that some of them receive. Frustrations around representation also makes up a substantial level of the grievances that people felt.

However, while public anger has been a difficult obstacle to overcome, it is the credible threats of violence that has really set back the growth of Libya’s civil society. The rise of religious extremists and terrorists in East Libya brought forth a campaign of assassinations against prominent voices who spoke out against armed militias and in favour of a police and army force and, more importantly, a civic state governed by the rule of law. Activists and journalists like Muftah Buzaid, Abdulsalam Almismary, Salwa Bughaigis and 18 year-old Tawfik Ben Saud and Sami Elkwafi are just some of the most prominent names of over 1,000 people who were murdered in Benghazi over their political views. Tripoli witnessed similar suppression with activists who were kidnapped or killed, and a number of high profile attacks such as the closure of the Comic Con Libya event in 2017.

The era of a new phase of control didn’t change much for civil society. Instead of terrorist groups and militias it’s now “security forces” who are engaging in the arrest and suppression of activists, across the country. Granted, suppression is far and away an improvement to open murder in the streets, but it has put civil society back to square one in terms of safety. The most recent transgression was the forced disappearance of Mansour Atte, a civic activist from Ajdabiya. Mansour did not work on ‘controversial issues’ but rather advocated for youth’s political empowerment. Regardless of the topic, the perceived crime is the same; using your voice to challenge the status quo.

I have written and talked about the struggles and successes of Libya’s civil society for a long time, because I also lived through a lot of these events. It’s the space where I – a young woman with little political leverage or social influence – felt like I could be visible and, more importantly, try to change the reality of where I lived. It’s given me the opportunity to see how civil society is pushing back against all these threats to its existence and persevering. I don’t want to romanticize the struggle (and I’ve ranted extensively before on the use of terms like resilient) but it is a fact that Libyan civil society has transformed for the better in the past 11 years.

Yes, some activists have used it as a vehicle to further their own political or financial interests, and yes, there are those who have appointed themselves as spokespeople without any real work on the ground. But unlike 2011, there are better mechanisms and networks of support and self-regulation by CSOs, and more voices in a space that was once sparsely occupied. Many CSOs have passed the 3-year test by becoming respected institutions in their own cities, and activists have learned new methods of dissent and self-censorship in order to continue the work that needs to be done to support some of Libya’s most vulnerable groups. Beyond this, organizations are now working beyond the borders of their own towns and connecting together nationwide. Remote locations that have been cut off from large urban centers for years are now seeing the rise of their own civil societies, tackling a range of issues both popular and a little controversial. We’re also beginning to accept the plurality and diversity of civil society, not as a homogenous monolith but as a with sector with its own opinions and disagreements

Not a lot has been achieved in Libya in the past 11 years, and indeed a lot has been undone and set the country back decades in its development. But if there’s one redeeming feature of this decade (for me at least), it has been watching a new generation of young activists, leaders and passionate citizens pick up the banner and continue working, refusing the status quo and building places, people and themselves. What the people in power need to understand is that fighting civil society won’t work – as a decade of trying has proved. Tanweer is gone but another organization will take its place eventually, as they’ve taken the places of other people and groups who were also silenced. The next decade will be just as hard, if not harder, than the previous one, but it will further establish civil society as a key player in the fight for Libya.

The Privatization of Libya’s Public Spaces

The 23rd July lake and park, one of the few large public spaces in Benghazi – which they’re now building a fence around. Next privatization project?

The changing of the thematic agenda on Libya is a yearly affair. International organizations operating in and around the country meet in working groups to decide what area of activity is the easiest to focus on in the unstable country. These thematic areas of work are often chosen as the easiest work-around for whatever challenge the country imposes on them in that year. Political legitimacy crisis on the national level? Work with municipalities. Militarization of youth? Give grants to civil society organizations made up of young people who’ve never touched a gun.

The more recent focus in the past few years has been on economic reforms. Rather than working with the government to diversify the country’s revenue streams, the international community has decided that strengthening the private sector is the way to go. Nevermind the fact that there are is no real regulation on the private sector, that there is no legal framework to protect private sector employees, or that neoliberalization causes more problems than it solves in most countries where it runs rampant. In a country already strife with inequality, strengthening the private sector is not the magic bullet they think it is.

But my gripe with the private sector is about one issue in particular: paying to access a public park.

Now, paying for private outdoor space is not an entirely new concept in Libya. After 2011 there was a massive increase in the number of “family-only” private commercial compounds, which normally include a number of cafes and restaurants, a children’s play space and outdoor garden seating. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s a private business built on privately owned land (who probably should be regulated anyways to make sure they pay their employees a fair wage and are not destroying the environment to maintain their ecologically-inappropriate grass).

No, I’m not against these types of projects. But what I’m seeing at an increased rate in Libya these days is the privatization of public space. At its most basic form, a businessman will build a fence around a public space, build a kiosk and plant a few trees in it, and charge people money to enter and use it. This happened in Tobruk earlier this year, when a park that was renovated by local organizations was taken over by a private businessman who offered to continue renovating the park, in exchange for charging families 10 LYD a person to use it. Of course he railed about the incompetency of the local government who are unable to maintain these spaces, and how the kiosks he built would employ local residents.

Now look, I’m not a die-hard Marxist. I don’t hate the private sector and any project that can provide some much needed services to Libyan cities, especially smaller towns, is not something I view as a bad thing. But this is public land we’re talking about. This man is undoubtedly making money off of an asset he didn’t even pay for. A publicly-owned asset. It should alarm every Libyan citizen when our public land is taken over by the private sector under the guise of better management, because it won’t just end with land. Electricity, water, healthcare, education, everything can be improved by the private sector, but at the expense of people who do not have the means to afford these basic human rights. We must guard our public assets with a passion that aims to improve them for everyone.

The tragedy of this turn of events is that Libya has spent the better part of 5 decades as a Socialist country. Gadhafi’s push to nationalize the oil and gas sector, build affordable housing, strengthen social security and pioneer agricultural projects have been distorted behind the long list of human rights abuses and crimes that were committed by his regime. The approach to “building the new Libya” is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and build a country from scratch, when in fact, there are many elements of the old system that should be kept and improved upon. Libya has invested in new university graduates with scholarships to finish studying abroad, it has subsidized basic food items to ensure that no one goes hungry and it has labour laws that puts neoliberal countries to shame. To celebrate and protect these things does not mean that you love Gadhafi, only that you want the best for your fellow countrymen and not just the elites.

But today, as Libyan families become poorer by the day with the devaluation of the Libyan dinar and the loss of purchasing power, we’re seeing massive privatization projects that disenfranchises already struggling people. Across Benghazi we’re seeing resorts, malls, housing projects and private hospitals with astronomical fees. A night the Al-Marwa Hospital will put you back a few thousand dollars, and the entrance fee to a beach resort has reached 200 LYD; about as much as a teacher makes in two weeks. The affordable housing projects that were once accessible to any Libyan family now go for no less than 200,000 LYD for a two-bedroom apartment.

Like I said, I’m not suggesting we should kill the private sector and return to the golden age of a Socialist Libya. All I’m saying is, don’t also take away the small public park that acts as one of the few free activities left for Libyan families.

Revisiting Libya’s Federalism Boogeyman

Last week, a new unity government was sworn in by the House of Representatives, formed largely by international actors. In his speech, the interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbaiba made a number of promises, one of which is to ‘move away from the [three] regions’ and towards decentralization.

This type of promise is not new – indeed many Libyan figureheads who claim to push for unity have publicly decried the existence of three Libyan regions, which are seen as divisive components that stand in the way of uniting the fragmented country. This comes from a deep seated fear of federalism, a term that become a boogeyman in 2012 with the emergence of a federal movement in East Libya (I wrote more about this at the height of the debate here).

Federalism in Libya is not a new or novel concept. Libya historically was formed of three distinct regions, divided mainly by geographical elements. These regions were united under the King with significant support (and/or pressure) from international actors (notice the pattern?). The country formed in 1954 was a federalist state with two capitals, Tripoli and Benghazi, although this was dissolved in 1963 with the amendment of the constitution, creating instead a more centralized government. While the popular claims are that federalism failed because of corruption and nepotism, we can’t ignore that the decision came at the start of Libya’s oil boom, making it easier for foreign companies to operate in the country by dealing with only one centralized authority.

Yet, while the motivations for opposing federalism are largely political and economic, the reasons given by decision-makers focus almost solely on the social. “Federalism will divide Libya”, “it will fragment the society and increase animosity”. But Libya has not been more fragmented than in these past ten years, where a very centralized system that favored certain ideologies and groups led to warfare across the country and further entrenched the marginalization of regions outside of Tripoli’s influence. Indeed, calls for separation have increased from all three provinces in the past decade, by Libyans who are fed up with the continuous outbreaks of war and stalemates by actors all vying to control Tripoli at the expense of the rest of the country.

The key flaw in the argument against a federal Libya is that it categorically rejects the historic, social, cultural and geographic basis on which the country’s three regions exist. Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan are not colonial inventions or bureaucratic tools; there is a long legacy that underpins the formation of these regions. For many Libyans, rejecting the existence of these regions is a rejection of their identities, their agency and their right to self-determination.

Conversely, building on the existing local structures that make up regional identity and power is the logical way forward if calls for decentralization are to be taken sincerely. Indeed, with the total breakdown of national governance in 2014, that’s exactly what happened. Networks of tribes, armed actors, local authorities and civil society have filled up the gap left behind by the national government, and in most parts of Libya this ad hoc system is what is still in place today. Indeed, Libya’s de facto governance system today is largely federal except in name.

The system that the new unity government wants to put in place once again throws around the world ‘decentralization’ without specifying what that actually means. The only clear guidelines around local government is enshrined in Law 59, a weak law that has been criticized by countless Libyan academics and decision-makers for perpetuating dependence on central authority. There are currently over 120 municipal councils in Libya, most of which are too weak and under-resourced to provide even basic services to their constituents, or otherwise are breaking the law by collecting their own taxes rather than waiting for a central government budget that always comes too late.

Decentralization is an approach that requires a strong central government and the resources to create nodes of power that reach every Libyan citizen. Neither of these things are present in Libya, and it will take decades to build such a system. But more than this, decentralization does not address the decades of grievances and disenfranchisement, or the identity politics at the heart of the calls for federalism.

I am not naïve enough to believe that federalism will solve all of Libya’s problems. It is a system that comes with its own issues, and the creation of federal states could lead to the dominance of certain tribes and leaders at the expense of other groups, and recreate marginalization on a regional level. But these are problems that are at risk of appearing regardless, and it’s important to remember that Libyan society is a complex entity. A federal system can help foster political legitimacy and lead the way towards building a strong state that doesn’t leave any citizen behind.

10 Years On

“We, who think we are about to die, will laugh at anything.”
― Terry Pratchett

I told myself I wasn’t going to write anymore anniversary posts about February 17. I mean, what is there left to say? Life has changed for the worst for most Libyans, and the empty platitudes about sacrificing for the future seem hollow at best and horrifying at worst when you realize that the future is going to built on the bodies of countless people who have been taken from us and the countless places which have been decimated by all the injustice, cruelty and greed that we are capable of.

Is this depressing? Yeah. Am I depressed? I’ve gotten over it, mostly. I’ve already wasted the best years of my life on this sadness, I won’t waste anymore. Reading through the posts of the past 10 years on this blog and seeing the steady decline of my optimism and hope is a weird experiment in real time of how far the human spirit can be crushed. I turned twenty right after the start of the revolution and now as I approach 30 I wonder if this world-weary cynicism is something that is common with growing up or if living through this decade of pain is what did it. Who would I be right now if the revolution didn’t happen? Where would I be? I wouldn’t have met all the amazing people that I did if it never happened, but then again, a lot of them would probably still be alive.

This blog is probably the reason why I’m writing this. I set it up in 2011 once the internet connection came back to Benghazi after months of being cut off from the world, so I could upload all the articles and thoughts that I wrote during that time. I wanted to be one of the many voices who could ‘finally speak out’, and I wanted to document everything because it was – and I guess still is – a historic moment that I lived through. I called it ‘Journal of a Revolution’, not the most creative name. But as it became less and less of a revolution, my writings became less about documenting history but rather ranting angrily as I saw the country crumble around me.

I lost faith in the revolution on September 19, 2014, Black Friday, when 14 people, including two 18 year-old activists, were assassinated in Benghazi, one day of many years of terror in the city. On that day, I stopped calling it a revolution and started calling it what it was; a war. From the start, it was a war of Libyans killing one another over ideological differences, and over who could control the country. A war with proxy actors, all fighting for a place that we were barely struggling to live in. The ideology of February 17 and September 1 began to look identical, because that’s what happens with people’s revolutions, eventually. I can see now that each one started with noble causes, each one needed sacrifices and a lot of power to succeed, and they each eventually stopped being about building a country for all in favour of a country for some.

I’m sorry if you clicked on this link thinking that I was going to write about what happened to the country in the past 10 years. I don’t know what’s happened to the country. I can only tell you what’s happened to me. I was a naïve architecture student when the revolution happened, and I graduated as a displaced person with severe trauma in a city that was half destroyed by terrorism and ugly politics. I started reading about Libya before the revolution, not just what my parents told me but the actual history. I read about the Kingdom, about colonialism, about the fact that our country has been built on a cycle of revolution and violence and instability, a Sisyphean exercise in nation-building.

But Nada, you screech, we should try and break this cycle of violence! Yeah, great, so inspiring. Except fucking how? Do you know what it’s like to work within the system, to try and change things and make an impact? Revolutions are easy, you just destroy the things you don’t like. Building things, like a government, like infrastructure, like people, that’s not easy. And it’s not easy when your little civil society projects trying to make a difference are wiped out by a giant Howitzer missile.

Building a country needs leadership and strong people who are prepared to get their hands dirty. I’m not a strong person. I’m a kid who had delusions of grandeur that were swiftly broken, and now I’m an adult who can’t even attend a government meeting without dealing with waves of anxiety. I vomit when I hear about another crime of another person who was shot or run over or tortured. I can’t sleep at night without making sure all my family members are safe at home or at least accounted for. I dream about car accidents, masked men driving blacked out pick-ups, mines exploding in my face if I step on them. And I have no patience for people who spout platitudes about revolutions.

I could write also about all the wonderful things have happened despite all the horrors. I can write about how much more developed Benghazi’s civil society is. I can write about how people are speaking up more and using their own ways to dissent against authorities. I could tell you about the beautiful projects I’ve seen in technology, medicine, architecture, energy, education, finance, about all the cool new businesses that young people are setting up. But you might mistake these stories as the overarching conclusion, that, despite all the obstacles, we still thrive and resist.

That’s not the conclusion.

We don’t resist and thrive because we overcome our circumstances. We do so because this is where we live, and we have to live, because the only other alternative is to bury ourselves in a grave and accept that everything is terrible. We have no other choice but to resist. And that’s not admirable, it’s sad, that we have no choices.

Am I being harsh? Yes. I live in a harsh country that punishes you for having hope. 10 years ago I would have told you that Libya would be so developed, so advanced, that we would catch up to the rest of the world. Today, I would tell you that it would be a miracle if we could get out of our multiple crises in another 10 years. If we could have electricity running 24 hours a day, if we could address our water scarcity and salination crisis, if we could withdraw our money from the bank and have the purchasing power to provide enough for our families.

At this point you’re probably thoroughly sick of all this self-pity and despair. But you wanted a recap of the past 10 years in Libya, didn’t you? Here it is. The reality. If you want a positive spin on February 17, ask the people who lined their pockets and got the hell out after lighting the dynamite, they’re the ones telling us to keep the hope and pray for a better day. I’m just here capturing the zeitgeist of my city, which is what I always set out to do with the blog.

What did the past 10 years teach us? We learned how to identify different weapons by their sounds. We learned what collective fear feels like. And we learned that in the face of death, the best thing to do is laugh, and hold one another tightly.

The New Urban Planners: Exploring Emerging Forms of Public Participation in Libya’s Cities

I know, dear reader, it has been a long time since my last post. Life has been unusual lately, although not just for Benghazi residents this time. I’ve done (and am still doing) quite a few interesting things which have kept me busy, and I’m still trying to re-orient my life after the events of 2014. While ‘stability’ doesn’t seem like anything we’ll ever achieve in our lifetimes, I do feel like I’ve matured somewhat (at least not picking Twitter fights as often). But you know I’m not one to bite my tongue when it comes to development in Benghazi, and driving around the city the past few weeks has prompted what I’m hoping is the start of a conversation on long-term urban planning for the city.

An upside-down fishing boat isn’t what immediately comes to mind when you hear about a controversial public art piece, but this unassuming sculpture sparked the ire and anger of Benghazi’s architects and designers last week. It has continued an ongoing and decades-long debate about Benghazi’s public spaces and symbols.

The sculpture in question consists of a granite impression of a fishing boat that’s been placed upside down, with a pyramidal form placed next to it to give the impression of a fish rising out of water – represented by blue ceramic tiles. The project was built as part of an ongoing city-center seaside reconstruction project implemented by the municipality and UNDP.

Shortly after its completion, photos of the sculpture were uploaded to a Facebook group of the city’s architects, where it quickly circulated online. The condemnation was swift and merciless. “Benghazi deserves better”, “This is a disgrace”, “Who approved this?” The main gripe was the quality of the design, which most of the critics felt was poorly executed and a shoddy representation of the Fish Market (which the statue is meant to symbolize). Photos of public art in other cities were shared, alluding to the quality that the architects felt Benghazi deserved. A hashtag was launched demanding that the Municipality remove the sculpture, and the Projects’ Office announced a design competition to replace the maligned fish.

In true Benghazi fashion, counter-critics were quick to reply, pointing out that a statue of a fish was better than the pile of rubble and war remnants that was there before, and that people’s anger might be better directed at the destroyed remains of people’s houses which still haven’t been repaired. Photos of children playing on the newly paved seaside promenade drove home the point that some reconstruction – even if not of the highest quality – was still better than none. Others still pointed out something that isn’t uncommon with these types of anger-driven posts – an insidious political campaign to push out certain decision-makers from their positions of power.

This form of expressing opinions and outrage at development projects – via social media mobilization – is becoming more and more common in Benghazi as the city shifts from post-war rehabilitation into long-term reconstruction. So, too, is the response from public officials and decision-makers to this anger in an effort to appease people and save face. It also marks a shift in the way that urban planning and design has taken on more participatory dimensions, not just here but across Libya, and disproves the common trope that Libyans don’t care about public space. On the contrary, public spaces are becoming more of a crucial issue as cities become denser and lifestyles change.

Public art pieces are popping up more frequently in Benghazi, an attempt to redefine the city’s spaces

Last February, a small park in front of the renovated Al-Marwa Hospital witnessed a similar kind of mobilization. A rumor had emerged that the hospital was planning to turn the park into additional parking, which gained more credibility when the construction company began removing palm trees from the park. Pictures were posted online with a call to stop the removal of an important green space in the city. The local residents swarmed the area and began removing the construction equipment. The hospital administration later made a statement clarifying that they wanted to ‘renovate’ the park for the local residents, which they eventually did. The park now has new paved paths, two new playgrounds, and the trees have been put back. Similar mobilization had occurred to protect the city’s zoo and People’s Park from similar fates.

Benghazi’s urban development was previously regulated through the Urban Planning Agency with enforcement from bodies such as the Municipal Guard or Agricultural Police. While Gadhafi had his own policy of tearing down historic monuments or heritage sites at random – a policy built on punishing a city that doesn’t bow easily – urban planning followed a well-established system of masterplans, form-based codes and land use patterns.

All of this was tossed out the window after 2011, when largely unqualified people took office and decided that the Urban Planning Agency should be decommissioned, with planning placed on the very local level. While not properly researched, I suspect this move was made largely to ease the procedure towards buying land and developing new projects – a move that benefitted an influx of businessmen and private money. While the concept of decentralizing the planning process isn’t necessarily a bad one, it requires having actual local governance structures, which Libya didn’t have until 2014, and even then, the process hasn’t been complete.

The result today is a hodge-podge of very randomized development by different agencies and institutions and sectors, each pushing forward their own vision of the city without any coordination, largely motivated by greed and worst of all, without any regulation.

A salient example of this occurred in June, when construction began of a hotel…over a gas station in Ganfouda. Aside from structural, land-use and legal issues surrounding this type of project, it also signals the way in which individual private sector efforts are taking any opportunity they can find to set up a development. Once again, public outrage on social media led to swift action by public authorities to stop the project – although it makes you wonder what projects that aren’t being showcased on social media are getting away with.

Not to entirely demonize the private sector, there have been a lot of efforts made by SMEs and businessmen which address problems like the housing shortage in the city. Schemes such as ‘skeletal houses’ have gained popularity in Benghazi, where you buy a half finished house that you can complete yourself, saving you the effort of buying land or getting building permissions.

Social media mobilization hasn’t been all bad either. Government officials are using these platforms as ways to learn about public opinion on projects, giving the process a modicum of democratic value. An example of this was a survey of people’s thoughts to the reconstruction of the Northern Benghazi courthouse. However, even with these kinds of efforts, big money talks the loudest, and often businessmen with deep pockets get the final say in what a design should look like.

Increased involvement of different stakeholders will naturally produce mixed results, and while some historic buildings may be lost forever, others are rising again from the ashes. Construction started a few weeks ago to revive the shire of Omar Mukhtar in Benghazi’s city center, a shrine that was demolished 21 years ago by Gadhafi as part of his anti-symbolism policies. Damaged landmarks such as the lighthouse and Square of the Tree have also been rebuilt, largely by local or international organizations. The city has also seen the rise of new initiatives such as the Libya Open Street Maps project or the Benghazi Urban Observatory, which are providing more data and information around urban development both past and present. 

Reconstruction of Omar Mukhtar’s shrine is more than half completed, a project launched by the Municipal Council to bring back a beloved icon

Benghazi’s urban landscape is rapidly transforming, with new projects and buildings going up every day. Without any formal authority to regulate this growth, the city will soon face the consequences of this fast development, including environmental degradation, traffic congestion and further urban sprawl. But the informal authority, in the form of architects, planners and everyday citizens, are filling this gap, and rising up to protect every park and public space that is threatened. But like any other collective, there are opposing views and visions, and how these play out will shape the city for the years to come.

Million Dollar Metros and Migrants in Taxis: The Need to Rethink Libya’s Transportation Planning


Benghazi’s street grid system. While the city center is a dense network of roads, the system hasn’t been able to grow fast enough outside this core. (Image generated by City Roads via OpenStreetMaps data)

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” – Gustavo Pedro

Of all the milestones that defined my ‘coming-of-age’ in life, none were as transformative as the day I finally got a car. As a person who loves getting involved in multiple projects, meeting up with different people, and generally being in as many places as possible, it was incredibly frustrating to be driven around, and have to wait around for my next ride. There were endless arguments in my family about how often I was out, but no one was willing to give me (an admittedly not-so-great driver) their car.

Around the world, getting your own car is a milestone only in a certain number of countries. The common factor? Cities with limited or no public transport, and with large sprawling suburbs.

In a country like Libya, that suffers from the dual curse of subsidized petrol and low density urban planning, having a car is crucial if you want to live. The average Libyan in a big city lives in a suburban neighbourhood that most likely has very little available services in walking distance, and will spend at least a quarter of their day in a car. Much of that time is spent stuck in traffic with all the other Libyans who need to drop off their kids at school, buy groceries, or one of a million tasks that require an automobile. If you live on a main road, the sound of honking horns and the pollution wafting into your windows becomes commonplace.

Cars gridlocked during a celebration in Benghazi, 2013

So what happens when you don’t have a car in Libya? For the countless residents who can’t afford to buy a car, every day is a struggle.

Before 2011, there were at least some options for the car-less. You could get a black-and-white taxi who, for 2 or 3 dinars, would take you to most places in the city. At one point, the ’25 cent’ minibuses (حافلات ربع) became quite popular. As the name states, you could hail the minibus for a number of routes through the city, and it would only cost you 25 qroosh. And of course, you could walk, although outside of the city center sidewalks are very intermittent and – especially if you’re a woman – it’s not always a comfortable experience.

After the revolution, things became trickier. Taxi cabs almost completely disappeared in Benghazi, along with the minibuses. There’s a number of theories around this, with some saying that a lot of taxi drivers were intelligence officers in the Gadhafi regime. But the most probably reason is that there was a more lucrative way to make money after the revolution; joining a militia. Car sales also went up, as salary increases and new wealth distribution decrees (such as student grants) increase the disposable income of individuals. Regulations also allowed the importing of used cars, something heavily restricted under the old regime.

Whatever the reasons, traffic increased exponentially in Libyan cities, from barely legal drivers to the infamous Toyota pick-up trucks of militia groups. But a lot of people – especially non-Libyans – still needed to get around and had no car. The only reliable method of getting a ride was using a peculiar form of entrepreneurship that emerged before the revolution. Residents who were strapped for cash would use their car to drop people off, and it was known as sayara khasa (سيارة خاصة) or private car. If you were walking on a road and a car flashed their headlights at you, they were offering you a ride. Think of it as a grungy version of Uber but without the app.

I remember thinking that the idea of getting in a car with a random stranger who decided to become a private taxi was really weird, especially since it was an unregulated service essentially on the black market. Until I actually needed one.

Back before I bought my freedom of mobility with my cherished Hyundai, I broke the permanent retainer on my teeth and needed to urgently go to the dentist. The problem? My parents were both at my grandmother’s funeral, along with all my car-owning relatives. We lived on the Western side of Benghazi and the dentist was 20 minutes away by car on Dubai St. Everyone told me to wait until they could drop me off the next day, but the sharp bit of metal wire in my mouth said otherwise. Completely out of options, I got on the main road and hailed my first sayara khasa.

It was a thrilling experience, because suddenly I wasn’t trapped by geography or time anymore. I had this unexplainable sensation of control. My parents were mortified. No self-respecting Libyan family would let their daughter take a private car! Those things were for migrants and teenage boys going to the beach. They paid for my lessons at a driving school the next week.

Car-sharing services have evolved considerably in the past few years in Libya. With the advent of good mobile data connections, more and more apps have been popping up which essentially do what Uber and Careem and Bolt offer in other countries. One of the first to emerge in Benghazi was Rahal, an investment project by the Bank of Commerce and Development. Unlike the private car service, which is seen by the average middle-class Libyan as a less-than-prestigious option, these new apps are tapping into this market. They use high-end cars driven by well-groomed young men in business casual clothing. One service received backlash after posting a job ad for their ride-hailing service, which including the requirement of being “an engineer or doctor” from potential applicants (great use of a degree, bro). But the marketing tactic here is obvious. This is not your garbaja private car driven by a downtrodden citizen. It is a service for “عيال ناس” or respectable people.

Aside from the very problematic social justice issues at play here, what is interesting is that these middle-income families are using these services. Despite the average household having at least two cars, younger Libyans are slowly transitioning out of owning a car. There’s a number of factors which can be attributed to this. One is the actual expense of the car. Because the prices skyrocketed after the 2014 economic collapse, it took me two years of work before I could afford one. The second issue is that of driving and parking. As more and more motor vehicles clog Libyan streets, driving has become a nightmare. Traffic jams, endless honking, people violating traffic rules; driving in Libya can be terrifying. Despite the war, the number one cause of death in Libya is road accidents. I know many Libyans, both young and old, who refuse to drive to avoid the sheer stress of the experience.

This line of thinking has also prompted another new use of the car; deliveries. Rather than going out to get a pizza or shawerma, why not pay someone to bring it to you? This model has become extremely successful in the past few years in the big cities. Start-ups like Sofraji in Tripoli took off immediately. Delivery Benghazi came along a few years ago and offered not just food delivery but delivery of anything. Pharmaceuticals, makeup, and even groceries can all be delivered to your house in Benghazi with apps such as Spiza. Young enterprising Libyans are now coming up with a range of ideas for new car-based services and merging several options together. Mashwary recruits drivers with their own cars to offer drop-offs or deliveries, while Servo is trying to expand their range of services offered and become a one-stop shop for Libyans on the go. There are also women-only options for more conservative families.

Right now you’re probably thinking, if cars are the problem, then are alternative car-based services really the solution?

Private school bus service (Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/RahalApp/)

In some cases, having one guy deliver 40 food orders in a given neighbourhood is better than having 40 cars out in the street. But the issue of traffic jams during rush hour can’t be fixed with an app, which is why Rahal are planning to launch a school bus service for private schools in Benghazi. A new bus service recently launched in Tripoli called Alsahem. For 1.5 dinars you can ride on one of their 3 routes, which span quite a large distance. The buses are clean and well-maintained, but the services are still not very popular.

The challenge of public transportation in Libya isn’t just technical but cultural. Just like with private cars vs. ride-hailing apps, the type of transport that is used is determined by perception. As the War on Cars podcast noted, buses just aren’t sexy. And in Libya, this lack of sexiness is a real obstacle. Even a bus driven by an engineer or doctor won’t necessarily appeal to people the way a private car does. A bus is a social equalizer, giving people from different backgrounds the same services and treatment. In a xenophobic and socially stratified place like Libyan cities, this is a difficult product to sell.

So what kind of public transport is sexy? One of our governments believes that a metro is the solution. Last year, the GNA’s Minister of Economy announced a 10 billion euro plan to built a metro system in Libya to boost the economy and provide jobs. The downside to this announcement was that it was done in the middle of an active conflict in Tripoli, and was only met by anger from Libyans, particularly those who remember the failed railway project from pre-2011. But a tram or subway system might just be a game changer for Libyan cities. For the Libyans who travel abroad and use well-developed public transport in Istanbul or Europe, the idea could be appealing. And for disenfranchised groups such as immigrants who are unable to use the new app-based services due to their higher costs or exclusionary nature, having more mobility options could change their relationship to the city.

In a country where the road infrastructure can’t be built as fast as the neighbourhoods, where the airports are struggling to operate, and as war continues to make mobility one of the biggest challenges to daily life, all these things can seem like a pipe dream. But car culture will never be sustainable, and even a place like Libya is not immune to the problems of automobile-dominated cities. While I love my car, I’ve probably now put more money into maintaining it than what it actually cost me.

Small changes like pedestrianizing shopping streets during Ramadan, and more people walking or jogging as a form of exercise, demand a change in the way we plan our cities. Urban life in Libya has changed drastically in the past 10 years, and this presents a real opportunity to pioneer new transport changes, so we can finally be rid of our car dependency, and, hopefully, design more inclusive cities for everyone.

Special thanks to Wissam Salem for his help on writing this post.

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.


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.


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 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.


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 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.