Last week, the city of Benghazi witnessed the death of another Libyan cultural icon. Ali Alaraibi, a singer and songwriter known for his wedding music, died at the age of 42 due to cancer. Alaraibi’s death follows other cultural icons in the country, including Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih last month and Ali Wakwak at the start of the year. But unlike the books or artwork that were arguably meant for a more ‘intellectual’ audience, the music of Alaraibi was for everyone. People in Benghazi from different socio-economic backgrounds and generations all enjoyed his music.
And unlike other cultural figures, the work of wedding singers is appreciated as much as the artists themselves are vilified and maligned. When the social media posts mourning his death went up, there were some who commented negatively on his lifestyle; singing in Libya as a profession – especially in the wedding industry – is considered sinful, or looked down upon.
But the comments didn’t just attack Alaraibi’s art; they were more focused on his lifestyle. He occasionally presented himself in an effeminate way, and there was speculation on his sexuality. In a conservative* and patriarchal society like Libya’s – where masculinity is rigidly defined – Ali Alaraibi flaunted all the rules. And his flamboyant personality and boisterous music – while earning him social disapproval – were also some of the factors in his success; to book Alaraibi for your wedding meant a very long waiting list, and would set you back a few thousand dinars. So popular that families would set the wedding date according to his availability.
Libya’s wedding singers are part of an industry that goes back centuries. Popularly known as ‘darbakat’ in East Libya and ‘zamzamat’ in West Libya (after the instruments they use), a proper wedding is not complete without their music. They are the life of the party, constructing lyrics around the bride and groom and their families, encouraging people to dance, and creating an atmosphere that is at the heart of the ceremony; celebration. For this reason, the most popular singers are those who create this atmosphere with ease, and are always the most in-demand. At the end of the day, even a ‘conservative’ society likes to have fun.
But when the music ends and guests go home, wedding singers go back to being considered part of the lowest class. Traditionally, those who get into the industry come from poorer background, with need outweighing “social propriety”. They are also associated with ‘farm parties’ – gatherings that take place in private farms in the outskirts of the city. These can range from a gathering of men drinking alcohol away from the judgmental eyes of society, up to full blown ragers involving both genders, a safe space to blow off steam and enjoy life away from strict social expectation; similar, in many ways, to weddings, but with no inhibitions or restrictions. In the mind of a conservative society, these dens of debauchery are only associated with the classes that wedding singers inhabit – selectively ignoring the fact that many in this society, including most Libyan men, have engaged in them at some point in their lives.
Wedding singers are located in the middle of this social hypocrisy, popular for their music but shunned socially for their lifestyles. My generation’s most sought-after singers include Ali Alaraibi and Nadia Star – singers who openly defy gender stereotypes – while in my parent’s generation it was Khadija Alkadiki – popularly known as The Funsha – whose maternal history has always been the subject of gossip. But the rumors of drugs, prostitution, illegitimate children, homosexuality and other “social ills” are ignored once its time to book a mutriba for the wedding, where they become the guests of honour and are paid top dollar to create a night that no one will forget.
Perhaps it is the memory of these nights, combined with the current troubled situation in Libya, that has softened society’s stance towards these individuals. The negative comments about the death of Alaraibi outweighed the outpouring of grief and sadness, with many defending him as an “envoy of peace”; this article in 218 TV described his singing as a “voice of hope that created joy amid the sounds death and rockets”. One Facebook post wrote, “At least he never shot a bullet…at least he never drove civilians out of their home.” The “localness’ of Alaraibi’s music, and it’s connection to a long legacy of Benghazi culture, probably also played a part in people’s sentiment towards him.
Whether the war in Libya has challenged social taboos and given some perspective to the lives of its inhabitants is a matter of speculation for now, but without a doubt the battle between cultural self-expression and socio-religious conservatism is waging just as strongly as that for military control of cities.
*I use the term conservative as this is how Libyans describe their society. But this description is often challenged, stating that Libyans are not inherently conservative but only act so in front of one another. Away from the public, many Libyans engage in a lifestyle not dissimilar to wedding singers, the latter who have no reason to hide what they do because their profession ostracizes them anyways.