About Nada Elfeituri

Architect and activist from Benghazi, Libya.

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

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

The Myth of Libya’s Civil Society

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A parade in Benghazi organized by local community groups (2013)

In almost every single project proposal written by local and international organization on Libyan civil society, the first thing you’ll read is “Libya’s civil society was born after 2011, it is still a new sector” or some variation on this line. Hell, I’ve written this countless times when seeking funding for projects.

The problem is, it’s not entirely true.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. What is civil society, anyways? The official definition is that it’s the ‘third sector’ following public and private in any nation state, and it’s definitely a popular buzzword with the EU and UN. But the exact meaning is a bit murky, and ranges from any type of volunteerism up to professional income-generating institutions. There’s also a tangle of acronyms; CSO, CBO, I/NGO, NPO, etc, the common letter being the ‘O’ for organization. The contemporary definition of civil society seems to revolve around organizations, official registered bodies who normally don’t make a profit.

Jumping back to Libya, Gadhafi had initially quashed any type of civil society movements, along with banning political parties and arresting student protest organizers. The image of students being hanged on university campus was enough to stop any activism in the country for a long time. The only non-state movement that was begrudgingly allowed to operate was the Scouts, although with heavy oversight.

As Libya opened up following the lifting of international sanctions, there were renewed efforts to organize social movements. Careful not to catch the attention of the regime, these organizations were mainly focused on issues such as cancer awareness, the rights of people with disabilities, environmentalism and charity collectives. But even if the focus of the organization was benign enough for the regime, you still had to go through a draconian registration process that included 70 founding members acting as signatories.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the civil society ‘explosion’ happened. Suddenly, there were no rules and no limit to what you could do. Young people came together and started radio stations, training centers, political movements, book clubs, everything and anything that had collective interest. Half finished buildings or donated office spaces became headquarters and it was easy to find business owners willing to contribute anything to help fund projects. It was an amazing time to be alive, when we were fueled by revolutionary fervor and felt invincible. Until reality caught up and it all came crashing around us.

But this post is not about the rise and fall of Libya’s civil society. It’s about what we’re calling civil society. Whether before or after the revolution, the discourse is always on the formal or semi-formal organizations; as long as you had a name, a logo and at least two members, you were a civil society thing of some sort. The aspiration was always towards organization status, and many of those movements institutionalized, registering with the newly created Civil Society Commission and developing an administrative hierarchy. Part of this reason was the experience being gained over time, but the bigger and most compelling reasons was – drumroll please – international funding.

The international community, operating on the multiple acronym-formal bureaucracy-do-you-have-a-finance-officer definition of civil society, would only grant funding to CSOs who were a) officially registered with any government entity and b) had a bank account. In the face of these constraints, organizations and movements picked up the tricks relatively quickly, and many people saw the opportunity of making money by setting up organizations just to get funding.

BUT – and here comes the Whole Point of the Post – what about the non-official, ‘informal’ civil society?

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An art gallery in Benghazi, organized by Facebook group of art lovers (2015)

Libya has always had a civil society, and not just the charity aunts type. You see, civil society is more than just acronyms and logos. Anything outside of the government or private sector structure that organizes and mobilizes people is civil society, and Libyan society has a very long tradition of managing itself. Tribes have been mediating conflicts for centuries, and tribal land trusts are an efficient mechanism of ensuring housing. “Jam’iyat”, a form of community financing in which people collect and distribute monthly savings, has been very popular especially among Libyan women. Entire cities are the protectors of ancient heritage sites like in Leptis Magna or Shahat or Acacus. Neighbourhood watch groups, online forum communities, the zakat system, academic circles, the list goes on and on.

In our country’s legacy of state weakness, Libyans have had to figure out their own way of meeting their needs, bending the official procedures around their own self-made system. It’s a process that is constantly negotiated and renegotiated, but I believe that it’s one of the reasons why Libya has not completely collapsed at this point.

But international organizations don’t fund tribal land trusts or mosque groups that meet every week to teach illiterate women how to read and write. The development system has been configured in a way where informality is not recognized. If you don’t have a government stamp of some kind then you don’t have any claim to ‘legitimacy’, and it’s incredibly problematic for the international development sector to impart their version of legitimacy onto Libya. I worked in an organization where we had dozens of grants to give to ‘civil society’, but a list of regulations and guidelines on eligibility that excluded almost anyone who didn’t know the international development jargon, and who didn’t mold their organization to fit our vision of what civil society was, rather than the other way around. I can’t count the number of times I’ve begged local movements to get any type of registration so we could fund their work, because it was easier to convince them than to tell the EU or UN that their system was bullshit.

The institutionalization of civil society does not work well in countries where communities are held together by networks of trust and reciprocal benefits rather than paperclips and rubber stamps. The reason why civil society thrived in 2011 was because there was no formal funding, everyone contributed what they could and it was led by collective efforts, in the spirit that has kept Libyan society together until this day. This is a huge missed opportunity for any kind of development work.

I’m not against formal organizations, and I’m so proud that in the space of only eight years and in difficult circumstances we’ve witnessed the rise of truly remarkable civil society institutions in Libya. But this institutionalization should happen on our own terms, away from the exclusionary language of ‘legitimacy’. If international organizations want to work better in Libya then they should work within the system in place. And please, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saying that Libya never had a real civil society.

The City as Barracks: Militarization of Benghazi’s Urban Space

The earliest memory I have of visiting the building site that would become our family home in Benghazi is the road; the long stretch of the Tripoli highway road seemed unending to a 14 year old, and the idea of living on the edge of the city was foreboding. But what caught my attention was the double row of concrete walls framing the road.

I would later learn that we lived near the ‘April 7th’ military camp, later renamed the ‘February 17’ military camp when it was taken over by armed protesters in 2011 and renamed once more after the 2014 civil war. I don’t know what the new name is, everyone in the city still knows is as the Feb 17 camp. Across from it is the Garyounis base, the site of Gadhafi’s historic radio announcement in which he declared a coup d’état against the kingdom.

Benghazi today is the site of numerous military camps. Those constructed under the Gadhafi regime during the time of his military paranoia and weapons stockpiling were placed in the peripheries of the city; Garyounis, Bu’Atni, Venecia. But the city has rapidly grown since then, swallowing the military camps and placing them in the middle of residential districts. The only exception was the Fatheel Bu’mar base near the city center, a re-purposed relic of Italian colonization (which in its time was also in the city’s periphery).

We no longer live at the ‘edge’ of the city, but the features of a once-peripheral neighbourhood are still there, from the military camps to the lack of phone lines. And it was these camps that led to our displacement in the war, along with the displacement of every neighbourhood that had barracks of some sort in them.

After the 2011 revolution/war, the military bases scattered throughout the city became the most strategically important sites, and the plethora of armed groups that emerged from the conflict all grabbed what they could. From then on, the sound of gunfire and explosions from training were ubiquitous in my neighbourhood, marking an era of militarization of the city.

But there weren’t enough military bases to go around, and several public buildings were taken over by armed groups as their headquarters. Where public buildings weren’t available, large tracts of land were purchased or taken by force. The old soap factory in Kuwaifya became the camp for the Libya Shield militia, Gadhafi’s farmland in Hawari turned into the infamous Rafallah S’hati barrack, run by a militia allied to extremist groups. These places did not become passive military camps like the days of Gadhafi but were sites of violence, inflicted terror on the neighbourhoods they were in; those living near Rafallah S’hati would find the decapitated bodies of victims of the militia group, the Libya Shield base was the site of frequent violent confrontations between the militia and protesters who wanted them out of the city.

After the outbreak of the 2014 war, the front lines were drawn around the barracks. Military tactics in the city revolved around capturing bases in order to gain weapons and ammunition, as well as free prisoners. These tactics led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and paralyzed life in the city. Four years later, the city is “liberated” but the bases remain.

The army’s “Military Investment Authority” is now radically changing the layout of the city. The Juliana beachside has been taken over by force in order to create a new military base. But the land grabbing is not limited to military aspirations alone, as houses and land in affluent neighbourhoods have also been purchased or taken over by force to make way for new developments, such as a mall that is being constructed in the already congested Bel’oun district. Focus is now being cast on the Benghazi bosco, one of the largest parks in the city. With the country still in a period of extreme volatility, now is the best time to establish control over land.

Citizens are trying to fight back, launching campaigns online and invoking Libyan land laws. Surprisingly there is a fear by armed groups of social media backlash, and for now sites like the bosco remains untouched. But demands for the dismantling of military bases continue to be futile. Our neighbourhood representatives – prompted by the incident of a stray bullet breaking through glass into a house – attempted to negotiate with the current management of the Garyounis base to at least reduce the military training that goes on, but with little success.

These bases are extending throughout the city, turning Benghazi into a military town, and similar phenomena is felt in Tripoli, Sirte, Ajdabiya and elsewhere. As long as the conflict between opposing groups in Libya continues, the bases won’t go away, as all parties wait in anticipation of the next war.

Streets and Statues: Political Symbolism in Benghazi

The downtown center of Benghazi and the city’s nearby historic Birka district is connected by a 3.3 km arterial road. This street has gone by several different names in the past, depending on who is power at the time, but for local Benghazi residents, it’s known as Jamal Abdul Nasser St., named after the leader of the Pan-Arab movement that captivated Gadhafi. This passion for Pan-Arabism extended to most of Benghazi’s streets, with the main highway connecting Benghazi to East and West Libya named ‘Arouba’ (Arabism) street, and most members of the Arab League will find a road in Benghazi with their name, from Yemen to Sudan to even the historic Andalus. However, the only name that stuck with the locals was Jamal Street (the highway is known as Tripoli Road).

The naming of streets in Libya is serious political business. During the 2011 revolution, there was conscious willingness to rename all the streets and plazas and pubic buildings from symbols of Gadhafi’s Fateh revolution, with the new names representing the new era of Libya. This occurred throughout the region, with multiple ‘freedom squares’, ‘martyrs plazas’ and ‘revolutionary roads’ appearing across MENA cities. The 2014 civil war, which saw a shifting of political alliances, meant that names had to be changed yet again. The people of Benghazi, who could understandably not keep up with these constant changes, eventually reverted to the pre-revolution names.

Jamal Street retained its name in all this turmoil, despite losing the eponymous statue which marked its Western entrance. One year after the revolution, a group of “officials” ordered the statue to be torn down. News reports claim that the reason was unclear for bringing down the statue, but everyone in Benghazi knew why. After certain political groups co-opted the revolution, they began doing what Gadhafi had done before them; remove all symbols of past power.

The now demolished statue of Jamal Abdul Nasser
Photo credits: http://wander-wege.blogspot.com/2010/08/brief-history-of-benghazi.html

This is a trend that seems to be particular to Benghazi; it is one of the few cities where history is difficult is commemorate spatially. Gadhafi had a field day ordering the removal of any public icon that wasn’t linked to his ideology; the shrine of Omar Mukhtar was destroyed, the ‘souq al-thalam’ in the downtown demolished, the King’s Parliament building razed into a parking lot, the lion statues on the corniche mysteriously vanished overnight. What couldn’t be removed was left to decay. Piece by piece over 42 years, the landmarks of the city were erased, perhaps his own attempt at trying to control a disgruntled city that never really recognized his authority.

And after the revolution, this mindset of erasure was inherited by the winners; the statue of Jamal taken down, the ‘revolutionary bases’ burned to the ground, and new statues put up. Among the very grotesque and aesthetically horrifying symbols was an abstract mini-replica of the Benghazi lighthouse, a strange 10 meter skeletal box (?) with a neon hand and the words ‘God is Great’ written over it, and a particularly hideous clock with the colours of the flag placed on the face of the lighthouse itself, which elicited much rage from the architect community. Among less hideous statues were the fighter jets and tanks placed at various roundabouts, commemorating the Libyan air force and military.

The burned out ‘mathaba thawriya’ (revolutionary base) in central Benghazi

Other symbols were instead appropriated, such as the ‘pipe roundabout’ which was a celebration of the Great Man-Made River project. A grouping of several large, dusty white pipes, they were given a new coat of colourful paint after the revolution, and again re-painted after the war in the shape of book spines. I think the aim here was more about rejuvenating the spirit of Benghazi after a particularly difficult historic period (something difficult to appreciate when you are stuck in the traffic of the roundabout and yelling at the guy who just cut you off).

Because of the lack of any real pedestrian routes in the city aside from the city center, these statues invariably are placed in the city’s numerous roundabouts. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a roundabout in Benghazi that doesn’t have some icon in the center, including in some cases the burned out cars of notable fighters during the war, statues representing rural life such as jars and wells, and of course more fighter jets.

A small model of the Omar Mukhtar shrine during a cultural parade in Benghazi, in which various historic symbols of the city were recreated

These symbols, while failing to actually reflect anything symbolic, instead offer some insight into the various power struggles; of religious ideology, military force, and the confusion that many of the local artists and residents have about what the city truly represents. Benghazi is more than revolutions or wars, and yet we don’t have anything to prove it except faded memories. It is a city that is doomed to repeat its own history because it can’t hold on to it.

The only way to live through the city’s past is through old photographs and memories of the people. It’s an invisible city, one that is superimposed onto the real one but which can only be viewed through the eyes of its residents. That’s where the Italian theater used to be, this is where the Benkato mosque once stood, here’s the building I once took classes. A city that ‘used to be’.

“Families Only”: Understanding Social Segregation in Libyan Cities

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Comic by Abdullah Hadia, a young boy can’t wait to visit a new amusement park only to be told that entrance is for families only (you can check out more of his work on Libyan culture and society here)

There are certain parts of Libyan society that you can only see if you’re a woman. Whether it’s the glass ceiling or anxiety of walking in the street, it’s hard to explain the invisible bonds that restrict a woman’s daily life to someone who isn’t tied down by them. It is the crux of the issue affecting the discourse on women’s rights in Libya, that men cannot fathom what it is that limits a woman’s abilities.

But then, there’s one aspect of injustice in Libya that only men experience: family-only spaces.

“للعائلات فقط” “Families only”; This is what is written on signs that are increasingly posted in front of cafes, restaurants, resorts, beaches, parks, any and all kinds of public spaces in Libyan cities. The term “family” is a euphemism; what the sign really says is “No single men allowed”. The sign also says something else, “This space is safe for women”. That’s because you don’t need to be a “family” to enter this space, you just need to be a woman. You can come alone, with friends, or even with your actual family. Women have complete access to this space, but men only have access if they are accompanied by a woman. In a patriarchal society, it’s a strange twist of power.

This concept began several years ago, when “public” (commercial) spaces became more ubiquitous in Libya following the lifting of sanctions. The ability of citizens to open private businesses led to the establishment of cafes and restaurants which – in conservative Libyan societies – were just for men, a space outside of the house to hang out. But in big cities, the trend began to change (either because city women are bold or because business-owners realized they also had disposable incomes, or both) and restaurants were designed to have two sections; “men only” and “family-only”. Since women were sometimes accompanied by men, it didn’t make sense to create a women-only section, so instead it became a condoned space for mixed-sex mingling.

But the family-only space has evolved to a multi-dimensional space not only limited as a place to ‘hang out’, especially as the spaces themselves have become more than just cafes; it’s where civil society organizations conduct their meetings, it’s where couples have their dates, and it’s where a lot of social events that were previously held in homes now take place. Birthdays, engagement parties, women’s gatherings, you name it. Libyans in big cities are moving out of their sitting rooms and into the public spaces offered by private businesses. In Benghazi, we’ve seen the creation of ‘resorts’ and ‘parks’, places that offer not just somewhere to eat but also outdoor areas to walk around, within the double enclosure of a physical wall and the protection of the family-only sign.

What is the logic behind the family-only space? In the unregulated jungle that is the Libyan street, women are often targeted by the harassment of men, whether uncomfortable leering or catcalling, and in some cases physical harassment. Unlike the more progressive example led by neighbour Tunisia, there are currently no laws (and in the case of the current situation, no law enforcement) stopping street harassment. Where can Libyan woman go that is both outside the confines of the house but also comfortable enough to walk around without being bothered? Behold the birth of the family-only space.

This family-only concept has evolved even further. Recently in big cities such as Benghazi and Tripoli, entire streets are closed off as ‘families-only’ during festivities. The entrances of one major street in Tripoli is manned by militia men at night during the entire month of Ramadan, with men being told to go away if they don’t have a “family” accompanying them. As this trend increases, men are feeling increasingly pushed out of their cities, especially as businesses see that it’s more profitable to target families rather than just men. Young men have taken to social media to complain about the family-only concept, saying that it’s not possible or fair that they need to have a female companion in order to enter most public places.

It’s not fair to be expected to have a member of the opposite sex with you at all times? Now you know how we feel, say the women! While it’s fantastic that this dialogue of gendered spaces has been opened in Libya, it avoids one key issue, which is that of our public spaces in general.

Whether it’s men-or-family only, most of the time it’s private businesses who regulate “public space”, which require that you pay to enter or stay. Actual public spaces, ones that don’t require fences or entrances and exits, are being neglected, because these are not considered “safe spaces”. The formation of two public spaces, one regulated and the other neglected, is cementing inequality in Libyan cities. Those who cannot afford to enter family-only spaces but don’t feel safe enough to use the free spaces will have no part of the city besides their homes, and they lose all the joy of being an urban dweller.

The segregation of single men from public spaces also creates a kind of inequality. A man is not considered decent enough to mix with society until he is part of a family or can create one. Women, by contrast, are expected to be part of a family but have full access to societal spaces since they are the “core” of any family anyways. A family is created when a woman is added to the mix. The entire concept is underpinned by the segregation of gender which permeates the functioning of cities in the Middle East and North Africa, that men and woman can’t, or shouldn’t, mingle together in spaces. Even in liberal Tunisia, cafes in less affluent parts of cities are clearly only for men, spaces that can’t be accessed by women.

Yes, big cities are moving away from this type of segregation, and smaller cities are following, but it’s being replaced by a new type, a more complex gendered segregation influenced by economics. Men still largely dominate the right to the city, but women are now taking this right through a more socially accepted approach, at the expense of the truly public spaces. Both men and women will have to negotiate city space and find a way to coexist without any type of segregation if the city is to be enjoyed by all its denizens.