On Choicelessness in Libya, or Why Developing Countries are All the Same

It seems like the only books I can really dive into these days are those that relate, on some level, to Libya. I’ve started at least half a dozen books this year, only to lose interest about a third of the way through. While philosophically-rich love affairs, the expansion of the universe and dragon-filled fantasy all make for interesting books, they just couldn’t grasp my interest.

Part of my travel rituals include buying at least one book from the place I visit. And so, rushing through a bookshop in Paris right before my flight home, I picked a book from the shelf with a familiar title – Americanah. I can’t remember where I had heard of it (probably social media) but I remember it had caught my attention.

Americanah is a love story, a fictional memoir and social observations, all wrapped into one. It tells the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who moves to America because her university studies had stopped due to political instability (well, doesn’t that sound familiar?). In America she discovers an unfamiliar culture and, even more unfamiliar, the sudden distinctiveness of race. She goes through the typical immigration struggles before finally establishing herself as a “non-American black” blogger, writing insightful and sardonic posts about her daily observations. But when she starts to feel unfulfilled, she travels back to the motherland to start a new life and reclaim her old love. But her return has revealed that she’s changed; she’s no longer a Nigerian but an Americanah (or, in Libya-speak, a double shafra).

Now before you go looking for your own copy to read, keep in mind that it may not everyone’s cup of tea. It hit home for me for obvious reasons, but it speaks through the perspective of a very niche demographic; those wandering, identity-confused souls who come from different countries. Conversely, it is a good way to put yourself in those travel-warn shoes, so read it with those disclaimers in mind.

With some of my older blog posts (like Double Shafra Culture or What It Means to be Libyan), I was getting comments from people across the globe saying that they, too, faced similar experiences in their own countries. Most of these people came from developing countries like Libya. It’s interesting to discover that our situation is not really that unique, and that developing countries seem to face the same obstacles, albeit in different degrees.

In Americanah, tyrannical military leaders were overthrown, but replaced with a corrupt system that elevated the rich and created a poisonous class division that debilitated the nation’s development (where have I heard that before). The aspirations of the youth became intrinsically tied to getting a visa and leaving the country to build a better life abroad (Libyan youth today). For Obinze, Ifemelu’s love interest, having his visa expire plunged him into an endless cycle of fear at being caught and desperation to find a solution that would allow him to stay. Ifemelu was never perfectly comfortable in America because the issue of race dominated, and because she was always looking at the culture from outside the “circle”, being unable to fully immerse herself in it. And yet, when she returned to Nigeria, she found aspects of her old culture that she could no longer stomach, being torn between here and there. This is the biography of every expat caught between two places.

To reuse a tired cliche, the world seems to be divided into two; people who live in developed countries, and people who aspire to one day live in developed countries. It is, after all, much easier to leave your problems rather than try to fix them, especially problems on the scale of war and national corruption. Those who do end up making the journey from developing to developed aren’t always entirely happy; the myth of the “silver platter life” vanishes once you start working a minimum-wage job while trying to support a family, navigating through real and imagined discrimination and spending your nights gripped in deportation fears.

And the developing countries? They experience dictatorship, coups, revolutions, war, eventually attain some years of tenuous stability, and sometimes go on to make something of themselves. But the roots of the problem still remain, and the cycle eventually repeats itself. In Americanah, Obinze observes that,

“…everybody in this country has the mentality of scarcity. We imagine that even the things that are not scarce are scare. And it breeds a kind of desperation in everybody. Even the wealthy.”

I could fill this blog with half the book’s text because it’s very quotable, but instead I’ll focus on the observations that really hit home. What most stuck out for me was Ifemelu’s observations on choicelessness.

“[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

The war in Libya has definitely been a catalyst towards the exodus we’re now seeing of Libyans to other countries (Tunis, Amman, Cairo and Istanbul are often described as Libyan states because of the number of Libyans who now live there), but this choicelessness has always existed. While life under Gadhafi is more preferable to the current hell, it still had that choked feeling of helplessness. There’s a reason why self-actualization and esteem are on the top of Maslow’s pyramid, and while we’ve been demoted a few levels on that pyramid, young Libyans (and other youth in developing countries) still strive for self-expression and personal growth. Ifemelu reflects, during on of her first nights back in Lagos, as she tries to sleep in the extreme humidity due to a power outage, “A painful throbbing had started behind her eyes and a mosquito was buzzing nearby and she felt suddenly guiltily grateful that she had a blue American passport in her bag. It shielded her from choicelessness. She could always leave; she did not have to stay.”

She did not have to stay, but many Libyans have to. I think some of the spite towards double shafras comes from the fact that they are “shielded” from this reality, that they’re not stuck here. And, sometimes not intentionally, double shafras act superior for it. That was one of the criticisms that Ifemelu faced when she began expressing her disdain over aspects of Nigerian society; that she was being judgmental and lording over others. Even valid criticism can be de-legitimized if it’s said in the wrong tone. She herself is critical of other Nigerian returnees, writing in her blog, “…we spend all our time complaining about Nigeria, and even though our complaints are legitimate, I imagine myself as an outsider saying: Go back where you came from! If your cook cannot make the perfect panini, it is not because he is stupid. It is because Nigeria is not a nation of sandwich-eating people…It is a nation of people who eat beef and chicken and cow skin and intestines and dried fish in a single bowl of soup, and it is called assorted, and so get over yourselves and realize that the way of life here is just that, assorted.”

Now, I don’t know if I would use something like couscous as an analogy to the way of life in Libya (maybe 3usban, because it sounds bizarre when you describe it and looks worse, but really isn’t that bad), but her criticisms are a good example of the friction between returnees and locals. If (when?) Libya stabilizes, we might see a lot more of this, as those who left now might come back one day, and they will invariably find themselves in a Libya different from the one they left. To avoid the mistakes we’ve made in the past with regards to returnees, I think we need to find a new, more tolerant dynamic that both sides should adopt.

I’m hoping I can get back to just enjoying regular literature without Libya-esque symbolism and analogies, because those kinds of books always lead me through a cycle of wonder to frustration to hopelessness and back. I think I find these books fascinating because I still don’t have that whole live-in-a-war-zone/returnee/Third-Worlder identity thing down yet, and it’s insightful to read how others have dealt with it. If you’re the type to still hope, it also offers a promise that this is just a phase our country will eventually get over. My next book is Welcome to Night Vale, which is about an otherworldly fantasy town with sinister goings-on. And yes, I’ve already created a connection to Benghazi.

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2 thoughts on “On Choicelessness in Libya, or Why Developing Countries are All the Same

  1. The topic of identity in the developing world is an interesting an complicated one. I have recently become interested in Libyan history (despite the difficulty of finding English language literature on the topic) and based on what I’ve read so far, I like to think of Libya as an adolescent state. For better or for worse, adolescents like to experiment with various identities on the path to maturity. Libya (and Libyans?) has and continues to experiment with various forms of national and international identity, to varying success. I think Libya will eventually settle into a positive identity for itself, but it will take time.

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