About Nada Elfeituri

Architect and activist from Benghazi, 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

Capture

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.

Alhaniyah

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

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

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

Brega

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

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

Al-Sarir

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

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

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

Marj

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

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

Ganfouda

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

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

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


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

** Fuck Italian fascism always

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

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

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

– احمد الفيتوري, سيرة بني غازي

20180916_174542

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

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

Picture1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wedding Blues for Benghazi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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