Ramadan Television In Libya

When it comes to entertainment, I’m a total snob. I don’t like generic sit-coms with slapstick routines and superhero movies packed with CGI explosions. My choice of entertainment should be smart, witty and take years to produce (*sob* Sherlock*).

This is why Ramadan television in the MENA region is the bane of existence to people like me. There seems to be an unspoken agreement between all MENA producers and directors that programs created for Ramadan viewing should be extra garish, loud and crass. They often take on the guise of hidden camera shows, soap operas and religious sermons.

Before the 2011 revolution, we had the usual line-up of Ramadan drudgery that aired on the limited number of Libyan channels. From the poorly drawn Hajj Hamad to the comedic routine of Salah Labiath, the family would sit together during after-dinner tea and collectively cringe as these Ramadan shows aired on Jamaheria TV. It’s a common Ramadan ritual across Libya, and despite my complaints of the shows, I still think back fondly to those days, the days before Libya was destroyed.

One show that was popular in the region in general was Ahmed Shugairi’s ‘Khawater’ (خواطر). The basic premise of the show was that the host would travel to different countries and highlight the positive aspect in these societies, comparing them to the less-than-idealistic practices in the Middle East. As popular as this show was (earning it 11 seasons), it also garnered a lot of criticism as being self-deprecating and a glorified tourism ad for those countries. However, in Libya, the show’s movement, ‘Ihsan’ inspired a civil society organization of the same name, who strives to improve the habits in our own society.

Khawater also inspired another Libyan expose-style show, ‘Tafa’el Khair’ (تفائل خير). After the revolution, there was an increase in media freedom for Libyans, and a multitude of new platforms to utilize. One of the first groups to take advantage of this freedom is a group of Benghazi youth who, finding their calling in the media field, started the Holm Institute, a media start-up. Every Ramadan, Holm airs their program, ‘Tafa’el Khair’, (translated to Wish for The Best) which aims to highlight important social issues and spark a debate, much in the same way as Khawater. Their newest season will start broadcasting on the Libya channel mid-Ramadan of this year.

Another post-2011 program that has sparked debate – although unintentional – is Dragunov, a Libyan drama. Dragunov is a fictional story of a young man in Gadhafi’s mukhabarat, and the story centers around a tragic love affair set in Libya’s capital, and offers an unfiltered glimpse of life under Gadhafi.

The show, which aired in 2013, was unpopular with many Libyan viewers for a number of reasons. Among them was a perceived ‘bias’ against the Libyan army, and felt that the director put his personal political views in the show. Others complained of choice to cast Tunisians in the part of Libyans, particularly as these characters engaged in behavior seen as “immoral”.

While I may not agree with the political views of the director, I was still a fan of Dragunov for several reasons. Firstly, it was a Libyan-made show, hiring aspiring young Libyan actors and helping them to pursue this field as a career. Anyone and anything that can strengthen Libyan culture is good in my books. In terms of execution and cinematography, Dragunov is well-made, setting a new standard in Libyan cinema.

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Poster for Dragunov, a Libyan Ramadan series

As Libya descends into failure, the quality of Ramadan viewing has gone into deeper decline. Or, perhaps it hasn’t gone into decline, but the general psyche of the people has been affected by the difficulty of day-to-day life. Whatever the reason, Ramadan TV in 2016 has been disappointing and, in some case, outright infuriating.

A show that’s been advertised for before the start of Ramadan is called “Alnazih Nazih” (النازح نازح), a comedy show that features displaced families and their day-to-day lives. I’m very conflicted about how to feel about this show. One the one hand, it’s been lauded for raising awareness on the plight of the displaced in a new format, one that isn’t the usual sappy expose. On the other, displaced people are not exactly comedy fodder. My family has nearly finished our second year of displacement, and there’s really nothing funny about it. If you know any positive outcomes of the show so far, I’d love to hear about it.

There is one program that has achieved near-universal hatred though, a hidden camera show on a relatively new Libyan channel. Host Ashraf “Ra3aiesh” takes on the role of ISIS and creates scenarios to scare unwitting Libyan citizens, making them think they are going to be slaughtered by ISIS, before cheerfully letting them know, “you’re on a hidden camera!”

Hidden camera shows in the MENA are known more for being clumsy and humiliating rather than actually being funny. But Ashraf Ra3aiesh takes this medium to a new level of low. ISIS is very much a real threat in Libya, having murdered, beheaded and tortured countless Libyan citizens. Kidnapping citizens (which in itself is a crime) and pretending to be ISIS can be a traumatizing and scarring experience. Again, it’s not even remotely funny.

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Protesters deface an ad for the TV station broadcasting a much-loathed hidden camera show (Source)

This show has so outraged Libyans that there have been numerous calls to boycott the channel until they pull the show off the air. Banners advertising the channel in Tripoli have been defaced in protest of the show, and it even birthed a hashtag campaign to demand that it be stopped.

Yet, even among this rather depressing line-up of shows, occasionally a small spark of decency emerges. There’s a program that airs on Libya Channel “Ma Tafhem Shay” (ما تفهم شي). This show takes on a popular Ramadan format; a troupe of people goes around the city handing out prizes to citizens if they can answer a question correctly. This particular show does so with much fanfare, a band that plays traditional Libyan music and a person decked out in a yellow tuxedo dancing along. Like other Ramadan shows, it is too garish for my tastes.

But in today’s episode, they forgo the fanfare as they visit a Tawergha refugee camp. Instead, solemn music plays as they sit and talk with Tawerghan IDPs, and hand out aid as “prizes” to the families in the camp. Occasionally, the band will start playing music to the delight of the families.

It was a huge departure from the usual tomfoolery of the show. Aside from giving aid to the IDPs, the show gave a much needed look at the state of the Tawergha IDP camps, and earning praise and admiration from many Libyans nationwide.

For better or worse, Libyan television will always be a part of our Ramadan routine, in all its cringe-worthy glory. As more youth take part in media production, I think we’ll see an improvement in our entertainment. But until those days come, I hope the current media moguls will take more heed of what people enjoy (such as highlighting social issues in a tasteful way) and what they hate (no more hidden camera shows, PLEASE).

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The Politics of Libyan Identity

The most fascinating topics in Libyan society are almost always the ones that people discuss the least. These controversial issues often elicit intense passions and discomfort, which is why they’re usually kept under the proverbial rug. One such topic is that of religion, although in our post-revolution, post-ISIS era, it’s becoming harder to avoid discussing it. While on the surface people resort to the old cliche “we’re a moderate Sunni Muslim country”, there is a noticeable tug away from traditional religious practice, particularly among the youth, towards more critical thinking and investigation. It’s a slow change, but a dialogue has started.

However, there is one issue that seems resistant to dialogue; the Libyan identity. Yes, my favorite topic, one that I’ve blogged about numerous times before and yet, even after all this time, I still can’t comprehend it.

What is a Libyan? What makes a person Shergawi or Gherbawi? Are Southern Libyans subconsciously seen as less Libyan? Do the Amazigh define themselves more by their nation or their ethnicity?

To explore these questions and the broader field of Libyan identity requires a very comprehensive knowledge of Libyan history, society, politics, culture and geography, and even then, you’re not guaranteed to make head or tales of it.

One topic of debate on the Libyan identity is whether Libyans are Arab or North African. Ethnically speaking, Libyans are a mix of many different races, going back to the long history of foreign occupation in the country. The rise of Nasserist Pan-Arabism in the past few decades has strengthened the Arab identity angle, cemented by the Islamic revival movement in the region. But are Libyans Arab? I would argue, based on our local culture, not really. Even the language we speak, our Libyan dialect, is not pure Arabic, but an amalgam of Amazigh, Italian and other influences.

The Libyan Amazigh flatly reject the Arab narrative, due not only to the ethnic basis of their identity but to the history of oppression experienced at the hands of invading Arabs. However, this has also influenced a kind of hostility they hold to non-Amazigh Libyans today, to the point where many Amazigh families refuse to allow their children to marry outside of the ethnicity.

I consider both sides of the argument, the unyielding Arabists and Amazigh, to be too extreme. A non-Amazighi is not automatically an “Arab”, and we definitely shouldn’t let the Arab identity overtake and dilute our unique North African culture.

When gathered with friends or relatives, I sometimes like to steer the conversation towards the issue of Libyan-ness. The results are usually a passionate discussion between various perspectives, and which show that even in Libyan society, there is no definitive answer. In Benghazi especially, where everyone comes from wildly different backgrounds, everyone has their own views on the matter.

I decided to take this conversation to Twitter, following an interesting discussion I had with a friend on tribal perception in Benghazi, a pluralistic city that boasts the elimination of the tribal system. We were talking about the marriage “conditions” that some families place on their kids, including tribal limitations. I was aware that this mentality existed in the smaller tribal towns, but was surprised to learn that even in Benghazi, some people use it as a yardstick. Even more surprising was the knowledge that, here in our supposedly tribal-less city, a person’s roots still mattered. The question was relatively straightforward; “Is a Benghazi denizen of West Libyan origin considered a Shergawi (East Libyan) or a Gherbawi (West Libyan)?”

Benghazi is the historic capital of Barga, a beacon of East Libya but with a large populace of people whose roots come from all over Libya (there was a substantial exodus from West to East over the decades due to war, famine, searching for opportunities, etc.). Unlike other Libyan cities, people in Benghazi do not define themselves based on their tribe or tribal origin. Before the revolution, we just considered ourselves Libyans from Benghazi. But the revolution unearthed and revived regional and tribal sentiments, which have been gaining popularity, much to the chagrin of Benghazinos whose loyalty and identity is linked only to their city.

The question I asked on Twitter elicited dozens of replies and conversations, and showed the complexities and confusion of this identity issue among Libyans.

One of the most common answers was, “What difference does it make if they’re Shergawi or Gherbawi?”, or, “You are Libyan, nothing more”, many claiming that the distinction of East vs. West is something that shouldn’t even be discussed.

This is the logic applied to most controversial issues in Libya. If we deny the problem exists, it’ll just go away. Hostility between the North Libyan provinces has always existed, exacerbated by the recent geo-ideo-political conflict in the country, and people’s solution to this hostility is to claim that there is no East and West, that we’re all just Libyan. Besides being untrue, it also rejects identities that have been formed and affected by centuries of history, and recklessly erases the diversity that makes Libyan communities unique.

Rather than deny our regionalism, we should investigate the foundation it’s built on, and start to redefine what our region or city of birth means to us. Being passionate about your locality is not a sign of weak nationalism but a way to strengthen the plurality of this nationalism. And more importantly, creating a stronger link to your community will combat other societal issues such as tribalism.

I have always been vocal in my disdain for tribalism in Libya. I emphatically reject the notion that my tribe is my identity, my sigil, because it has had no role in formation of my identity as a Libyan and a Benghazi denizen. But it would be the height of hubris for me to act like it means nothing in my interaction with other Libyans. In this post-revolution nation, the Western tribe of my last name will always cast a shadow on my Eastern-ness, and on any political stance I take. If I question the behaviour of the East’s army? Oh well, she’s not really Shergawi, after all. If I criticize a Shergawi politician? Go back to the Western city your grandparents came from!

The identity issue frequently leans on the side of the ridiculous and irrational. My grandfather came from a city in Western Libya, and despite the fact that I have never been there, I will always be linked to that city. Conversely, a person born and raised in that city, and considers it his/her own, will always been seen to some extent as an “outsider”, because they do not belong to one of the tribes.

Why should the tribe be the identifier? Why shouldn’t I be able to define my own sense of self? We fall back on these primitive practices because they are familiar, the norm. The moment I leave Libya, no one cares what my tribe is. I can lie and name any other Libyan tribe as my own, and no one will be able to tell for certain “who I am”, because our tribes are built on arbitrary historic and geographic events and not on any real, tangible differences.

To me, a Shergawi is a person born and raised in the East, who calls the region home and cares about their community. The same should apply to the East and South. We should not impose identities on others. A Libyan should be allowed to define who they are based on where and what they feel most comfortable with. An identity should be constantly changing and developing.

Instead of rejecting the existing regional realities in Libya, we should instead reject the idea that a last name determines our loyalty, our political affiliations and our very sense of self. It is our neighbours, our friends and our community on whom the formation of our identities should be based. I believe Libya will prosper once we begin building resilient societies built on these real foundations.


I want to reiterate that the politics of Libyan identity is a multi-faceted issue. My view are based on my personal upbringing and experiences. There are Libyans who believe that their tribe is the most important aspect of their life, and others, their ethnicity. What I wrote above is a radical outlook specific to my individual beliefs, and the truth, if it exists, lies somewhere in between these radical opinions.

Learning from Libyan Youth, and Dispelling a Few Benghazi Myths

Working group session (picture courtesy of Abdulkareem Dwaini)

Working group session (picture courtesy of Abdulkareem Dwaini)

Recently I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop on the role of Libyan and Tunisian youth as agents of change in their post-conflict and post-transition countries (yeah, I know, buzzword-y title, but it was a UN event, so it was to be expected).

The main aim of the workshop was to draft youth-oriented strategies and projects for the next two years, focusing on four thematic areas; capacity building, policies, institution building and creating a productive environment. The projects were built around youth empowerment on an economic, social and civic level, with an eye on women’s empowerment and peace building. We spent two full days diligently working in groups on the issues that most affected us as youth.

What I most love about these kinds of events is that they give me the chance to meet and talk with Libyan youth activists from across the country. Aside from the brief insights we gain through social media, there’s very few chances for us to interact with our counterparts in other cities and regions. It’s interesting to hear about the issues faced by Libyans across a wide spectrum, to learn about the similarities and differences between our areas, and the work they’re doing in their own civil society communities.

There was a young man from Jufra who spoke about the cultural work his organization is doing despite the creeping ISIS threat from nearby Sirte. There were representatives of the Scouts of the Nafusa mountains who shared their amazing efforts to engage youth, as well as Red Crescent volunteers who have been tackling the daunting task of the migration crisis in Tripoli. Another young man from Derna spoke about the city’s revival in the wake of the ISIS overthrow, while a Sebha activist shared the human rights work her organization was conducting in Fezzan.

As representatives of Benghazi, we talked to other participants about the work we were doing without mentioning the outstanding political situation that the city was going through, in keeping with our stance of neutrality as activists. But the invariable questions about the war came up, although not quite what we had expected.

The most common question was, “isn’t Benghazi completely destroyed?” This question caught us by surprise because, obviously, Benghazi isn’t completely destroyed. But it’s not exactly in tip top shape either. We found ourselves having to give a detailed explanation of the city’s geography, front line areas and the role of the army, militias and extremist groups in the conflict. Benghazi residents know that the conflict here isn’t black and white, but describing the intricacies of a war is harder than expected to someone not familiar with the background.

What’s been happening, it seems, is that the media outlets have been airing pictures of a destroyed street in the Sabri district (part of which actually is destroyed) and portraying it as all of Benghazi. This is completely misleading, as Sabri is just one of over 20 large districts that make up our seaside city. But the picture is shocking enough to elicit the feel that, if this area has been completely destroyed, surely the rest of the city was affected. This is why other Libyans find it hard to believe that we’re holding workshops and other civil society activities, essentially living our lives the best we can. The situation isn’t exactly an easy one to cope with, but it’s far from apocalyptic.

Another strange rumor that’s been floating around is that people in the East want Khalifa Heftar to fill Gadhafi’s shoes. If you know the nature of Benghazi’s denizens, I don’t need to tell you how ridiculous that is. Nor do I need to tell you how utterly idiotic the other rumors are regarding tribes, separation and other controversial issues.

But like I mentioned before, Libyans almost never get a chance to properly interact with one another, meaning that common knowledge about my city is nearly inaccessible to other Libyans. So you can’t really blame them for believing what they hear through the media, and it helps to explain why the Libyan conflict has touched so many nerves and set off a slew of fights online.

Last year I attended a similar event, that time with youth from Misrata. Now, if the media is to be believed, the core of the problem in Libya is an intense and hostile power struggle between Misrata and Benghazi. But of course, the media can’t be believed. Us (the Benghazi gang) and the Misratis were initially a bit hesitant to interact (a small voice was saying, what if the media was right?) but after some ice breaking, both groups got along rather well. We all had the same vision and the same goals for our cities, and we were impressed by each other’s projects and passions. It drove home the realization that the conflict in Libya isn’t between Libyans; it’s between our depraved, asinine, power-hungry, arrogant, greed-driven politicians. And it’s no coincidence that these politicians all mostly happen to be old men.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Libya would be much better off if the aging politicians in power were rounded up and placed in a retirement home somewhere, and youth instead instated in positions of power. Regardless of the war, the country cannot move forward with fossilized thinking. The youth I met these past few days have reaffirmed my belief that we have the necessary people, they just lack opportunities.

Possibly the best part of the workshop was the final night we spent together as a group. We went out for dinner, and during the walk back someone began singing a Libyan limerick.  Pretty soon it turned into a full-fledged ‘keshk’ (similar to a singing circle), with people sharing bits of poetry and song from their regions. It’s a purely Libyan tradition, and it was fun to stand there in the night, sharing in that tradition together. We don’t get to do these kinds of things in Libya, especially now with the environment becoming more hostile. But you can mull over peace building and conflict resolution strategies in conference rooms for days, and ultimately, it’s those little moments that really create unity.

Hashtag Activism, from the Digital World to the Streets of Libya (Part II)

Around this time last year, I wrote an article entitled “The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged“, which focused on the way Libyans were utilizing social media to try and create change. The article is no longer online, but just to give a rough summary of it, I pinpointed several hashtags used on Twitter and events set up through Facebook to mobilize people on a number of pressing issues for Libya at that time.

A year later, the use of social media by Libyans has continued to expand. Despite the crippling circumstances that has brought civilian life to a halt in many parts of Libya (such as the 14+ hours of power outages witnessed on a daily basis in most cities nation-wide), there has been a noticeable influx of Libyan users on social media sites. There is a “migration”, as many have put it, from the familiarity of Facebook to other platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. While these platforms offer a variety of ways for Libyans to express themselves, it has also given them a chance to voice their concerns and criticisms on their failing state.

“Hashtivism” has been a growing trend worldwide, with Libya being one of the latest to use the internet as a platform for social change. These types of movements are not without their detractors though. Many have accused online campaigns of being the lazy man’s activism, or “slacktivism”, allowing everyone to feel a sense of fulfillment by liking or retweeting something without actually making any impact.

And this criticism has been voiced by Libyans too, who are skeptical about what internet initiatives can actually do for the country. Many efforts on the ground have failed to make an impact, as evidenced by Libya’s slide into civil war. Indeed, many have called for the complete shut down social media sites in the country because of their propensity for spreading rumors and calls for violence.

But one actually needs to be here to see the extent that the digital world has spilled onto Libya’s streets. An ideal illustration of this is the online hashtag campaign  (Reduce the rent, have a blessed Ramadan), which called on landlords to reduce the cost of rent, particularly for displaced families. This campaign saw a fair bit of success, as people began reporting on landlords lowering the cost of rent, in some cases making rent free for a month or two.

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Another laudable campaign began as an initiative by a Tripoli resident to promote peace. Salah Sokni, a popular online satirist, visited four cities in Western Libya with a sign that simply said,  (Libya towards peace). He posted the pictures of his visits on Facebook, and this sparked a nationwide campaign, complete with Facebook page, as Libyans posted pictures of themselves with the same slogan, calling for an end to the conflict. Sometimes it takes one person to voice a sentiment that is there under the surface, for everyone to express it. This slogan was later adopted by H2O, a Tripoli-based youth CSO, as part of a project to promote peace through soccer matches, entitled  (In the field for peace).

(Source: Salah Sokni's FB page)

(Source: Salah Sokni’s FB page)

But hashtag activism isn’t just growing to promote specific concepts. It’s also being used increasingly to pressure policy makers and those in positions of power. After the announcement by UNSMIL of the final draft of the peace agreement between the warring factions, Libyans from both sides of the conflict called on their representatives to sign the agreement using the hashtag  (Yes to signing the agreement), and expressing their frustration with the ongoing war and instability. The Constitution Drafting Assembly has also been looking for feedback from citizens through the hashtag   (Libya’s Constitution)

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

As internet use in Libya continues to grow, government institutions have begun to take notice too. Following in the steps of the dictator before them, online sites have been blocked or have become difficult to access. This began shortly after the end of the revolution when users were reporting that +18 sites were blocked by the main internet provider in the country, Libya Telecom and Technology (LTT). This company took it further when online news site Alwasat was blocked in Western Libya, itself leading to an online campaign decrying this censorship. It’s been reported several times that accessing Facebook had become incredibly difficult, leading to speculation of whether LTT had manufactured this block. Today, to access Google in Libya through LTT, Google Libya (with safe search turned on), is the default mode, and cannot be changed even manually. While these restrictions are relatively small, they signal a worrying trend in online freedom, especially with the growth of internet activism.

Hashtags continue to rise in popularity among Libyans, who use them not just for activism, but to share laughs, to commemorate and commiserate, and learn what their fellow countrymen are thinking. It can be a rallying cry, such as the phrase (Libya, even if the struggle is long), coined by murdered activist Abdulsalam Almismari and the final tweet by Tawfik Bensaud. As the war continues and Libya’s public places remain inaccessible for protests, online platforms have been transformed to become the new public squares.

Adventures in Libyan Arabic

[Correction: In an earlier version, I translated the term “سلال القلوب” as “basket of hearts”. The correct translation is “remover of hearts”]

The comic below is from “Itchy Feet: Travel and Language Comic“, one of my personal favorite webcomics.

Itchy Feet ComicAh, languages. The stitching that keeps the fabric of societies bound together and functioning. The skill that makes humans superior to other animals. The trait that enriches our cultures and heritages.

I’m horrible at them. As in, I got a D+ in my Arabic language course at university and it exceeded my expectations.

I mean, it’s not like I can’t learn a new language, it’s more about how much effort and dedication it requires. Some people have a natural bent for picking up new languages. I’ve met Libyans who’ve never left the country and yet know English better than native speakers. Valadmir Nabakov produced masterpieces in English and it was his third language.

But me? Nope. I’ve got about one and half languages under my belt, and I’m pretty satisfied with that. While I would love to speak with the flowing lilt of Italian or the animated babble of French, the moment I look up language guides and see the mass of grammar rules, I give up on the spot. If you’re not planning on writing epic poems and just want to learn up to a conversational level, the easiest way to do that is speak with natives or immerse yourself in the culture of your preferred language. It is, after all, as much a cultural thing as it is memorizing a new alphabet and vocabulary.

And as the comic above illustrates, sometimes learning the formal version of a language isn’t as useful as you’d think. There are numerous versions of Arabic, each differing based on the country or region you’re in. And within that country, you’ll find even more sub-languages. Take Libya, for instance. The Eastern and Western dialect are distinctly different. But within the Eastern dialect there are still further more dialects. A person from Benghazi can be distinguished from a person from Tobruk, or Derna, by the way they talk. I once saw someone joke about it on Twitter, saying Libya is a country where you encounter a new dialect every 40 km you go. This is similar to many Arabic-speaking countries.

I always feel like Libyans don’t fully appreciate the richness of our local dialect. We have some clever, fun and bizarrely interesting phrases and words. Take this one:

“ياهارب من الغولة يا طايح في سلال القلوب” (You’re either running from the monster or running into those who rip out hearts)

While that clearly sounds macabre to the average English speaker (more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than common idiom), the meaning is actually equivalent to ‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’. Ours is just a little more *vivid*.

Another (less morbid sounding) Libyan idiom is: “كلام الليل مدهون بالزبدة” (Words spoken at night are greased in butter), which means that it’s easy to say things and make promises at night (when you’re sleepy) when you might not do so while alert. The butter metaphor alludes to the ease with which butter can be spread.

Another saying, which is very pertinent to the situation in Libya regarding our infamous rumor mills, is “قاله شن علمك الكذب, قال اللي نسمعه انقوله” (He was asked where he learned how to lie, he responded, “I repeat everything I hear”). This is sort of a cautionary tale about the harm in spreading rumors, and yet, even though we have an age-old idiom about this very problem, it still persists. Go figure.

Along with these idioms, the Libyan dialect has a lot of Italian loanwords that we picked up during the colonization in WWII (along with some pretty rad Italian-style architecture). The words are given a Libyan-twist to make them more pronunciation-friendly. If a Libyan tells you to stop at the ‘sima-fro‘, he/she means the traffic intersection, if they tell you look nice in your ‘goun-a‘, they’re talking about your skirt. As Libya continues to become more exposed to the rest of the world, a lot of English words are also getting “Libyanized” and added to the colloquial vernacular. ‘Fanash-et’ literally means “I finished”, it’s the word finish with a ت added at the end.

So, you’re probably wondering if Libya is some kind of weird wonderland (which, yeah, it kinda is), but these examples serve to show you how colourful our local dialects are. Unlike Modern Standard Arabic, these dialects are more flexible and can be expanded, as shown by the quick adoption of words from other languages. [If you’re interested in learning more about Libyan sayings, there’s a pretty cool Twitter account that posts them, although not with translations, which you can check out here. I also found this neat blog post on common Libyan terms in West Libya, which you can see here.]

During the last writing contest my organization held, I wrote a blog post about how the majority of submissions were in English, despite the fact that most of the participants spoke Arabic as a first language. We had even received submissions in broken English, as though the participants would rather struggle to write with a language they weren’t proficient at, rather than write in the language they knew. As I mentioned in the post, it got me thinking about holding a writing contest in colloquial Libyan, the language we use everyday when interacting with one another.

The logo of the 'Write in Libyan' contest. The two red hat things are 'shennas', traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

The logo of the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest. The two blobs hanging on the letters are ‘shennas’, traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

Well, we did end up hosting that very contest! And the results were as I had predicted; there was a larger level of participation, as well as more enthusiasm from our general audience. The essays themselves were also more emphatic, it seemed. You’ll definitely write best if you write in the language you communicate with the most, right?

We wanted to keep the premise simple; write an essay about one of three topics we had offered, in, of course, Libyan Arabic. The generous folks over at Libyan Youth Voices let us make a call for essays on their website, as well as the promise of featuring the best essay on their site.

Of course, this idea was not without it’s criticism and detractors. While the overwhelming majority of people told us that they liked the idea, others told us that they believed encouraging writing in a local dialect would push people away from the purer, more universal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Local dialects are, of course, corrupted versions of MSA with geographic and historical factors influencing them.

But my response to this is that people are already speaking in local dialects. No one in Libya talks to one another in MSA. We even use it online on social media. While MSA does have it’s place in the formal press and other professional settings, it’s the local dialect that is most often used by the average Libyan citizen. And since the goal of our organization is to encourage the average Libyan to express themselves, we might as well do it in the language they are most comfortable with.

Another criticism came from our use of the term “Libyan”, when we specifically meant Arabic Libyan. There are actually a number of other languages spoken in Libya besides Arabic, such as Tamazight (mainly spoken by Amazigh Libyans), Greetli (spoken by Libyans of Greek descent, but it’s dying out), Tamahaq (spoken by Tuareg Libyans), along with others.

Now, this is a legitimate criticism. Libya is more diverse than is usually admitted, especially by die-hard pan-Arabists, and to claim that “Libyan” only means Libyan Arabic is wrong. My only defense here is that we don’t have the resources include, for eg., a Tamahaq or Ghadamsi in the writing contest, since we don’t know how to read them.

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

However, after some asking around, we got into contact with Libyan Amazighis who told us they’d be more than happy to help out with a Tamazight writing contest, and we are currently working to ensure that this becomes our next contest. While I’m way out of my scope here in terms of expectations for what impact this contest will have, I think it’s an important gesture nonetheless to encourage tolerance of different ethnicities and to really appreciate the cultural diversity we have. It would also move the organization near political territory, as Amazigh Libyans have been protesting for Tamazight to be recognized as an official National language. But hey, we gotta take risks once in a while, and this is a good cause.

Back to the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest, one of the organization’s team members had the brilliant idea of contacting Dr.Khaled Mattawa. Dr.Mattawa is a Libyan author and writer. He’s also a pretty big deal (as evidenced by his Wikipedia page). He’s won several awards, the latest being the MacArthur ‘Genius Prize’ for his work translating Arabic poetry into English. He was generous and gallant enough to judge the entries from the contest, and in record time (a mere day!).

The winning essay, as determined by Dr.Mattawa, was entitled “مختلفين مش متخالفين” (We’re Different, But Not Enemies), by Mohamed Ezawi, a Libyan from Tripoli. The essay was published on Libyan Youth Voices as promised, and you can check it out here or, to read the intro in Arabic, here. It’s an essay about the importance of difference of opinion and belief in Libyan society, and how we tend to make the erroneous assumption that those of a different mind are our adversaries. It’s an essay that strikes at the heart of the current Libyan conflict, and I hope the message reaches as many Libyans as possible.

The other winners are (you can read the essay on Wattpad by clicking on the name below):

2nd Place: “The Love of Ownership” by Hadeel Alfasay

3rd Place (two entries tied): Why Are You Smiling” by Mukhtar Al-Zlitni and “All We Have is Facebook” by Amel 

You can also read the 1st place winner on Wattpad here.

I believe it’s also noteworthy that the participants mainly focused on the ‘Libyan Culture’ option when writing their article, and chose a certain facet of Libyan culture to write about. I felt that this showed a profound level of creativity on their part for choosing those angles, as opposed to a traditional or cliche take on Libyan culture. (I personally would have written a long-winded piece on Libyan culture as reflected in our local architecture, because I’m a stuffy 50-year old academic trapped in the body of a young adult). There was also a level of humor and comic-relief in the pieces, which I loved because it captured that light-hearted aspect of Libya that I love so much. Libyans can find humor even in a war, which you can see in the multiple memes that have emerged since the revolution (side note: someone should make an archive of Libyan memes. Told you, I’m a stuffy academic). I think the hard times that have become the hallmark of Libyan existence for the past 100 years or so has led to this resilience of spirit, and finding the bright side in any situation. It’s not so much apathy in the face of difficulty as much as it’s a coping mechanism, Libyan style.

Keeping myself narrowly focused on these kinds of projects, along with my writing, is my own form of coping with the current situation. Libya’s now the flavour of the month for analysts and the news, and everyone’s talking about the war, but I’m frankly sick of wringing my hands (figuratively speaking, I’m not that old) and getting into a funk over something I can’t really change. I pray for the best, but I’m going to do what my ancestors have done before me and just adjust to the situation and try to find the bright side. And that’s as optimistic as I’m going to get for you guys for now.

Project Silphium, a Conversation on Women’s Rights in Libya

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Activists in Tripoli, Libya, taking part in the 16 Days campaign. (Picture taken from the GVB Program FB page here)

You might have heard about the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, a campaign that seeks to end violence against women. Every year it starts on November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) and ends on December 10 (International Human Rights Day). These 16 days are used to raise awareness on a multitude of issues such as rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation, to name a few.

An excellent Op/Ed piece in Libyan Youth Voices has been published recently entitled “Sound the Alarm, Tightening Spaces for Women in Libya“, which highlights a series of worrying developments concerning women in Libyan society.  From the article:

There used to be a glass ceiling in Libyan society, I know it was there because I experienced it first-hand. However, the glass ceiling has since shrunk to a wooden shed. I’m afraid to actually admit this out loud but if everyone keeps brushing off these accumulating incidents, we’re going to end up in a cement grave.

With the eroding state of the country and the ever-growing war, how can Libyan women combat these problems? One group of Libyans decided to utilize the power of the internet and launch Project Silphium, a blog with real life stories and experiences, written by Libyan women for Libyan women. From the blog’s description:

Silphium was a plant that was used in Cyrene (Shahat) as a medicine. Project Silphium on the other hand heals through lots of rants, views and opinions of Libyan women with real life stories and struggles, aiming to reach out and empower women all over Libya.

The blog is the efforts of both Libyan men and women, working as writers and designers. While it’s still relatively new (less than a week old), it has already attracted a lot of attention. One of the co-founders told me that the idea came from the frustration that much of the news articles on Libyan women didn’t represent them and how they felt.

They also expressed excitement at the reaction the blog was getting, especially that “young people are responding” and contributing their experiences.

Part of the success of this project can be attributed to the simple yet powerful impact that sharing real life stories can have. Under the cloak of anonymity, Libyan women can send in their own stories/rants in either English or Arabic. Having a safe platform with which to express yourself and to be heard is one of the greater aspects of the internet and one that has proven to be a profound change-maker.

So far the blog has featured posts like “There’s More To Life Than Just Men and Make-up“, “انا مسلمة و اطالب بحقوق المرأة” (I am Muslim and I Demand Women’s Rights) and “انتِ اكثر بكثير من زوجة رجل ليبي” (You Are More Than Just the Wife of a Libyan Man).

This will give outsiders a chance to hear the raw and diverse narrative of women in Libya, and hopefully, will give Libyan men a chance to better understand the emotions and struggles of their fellow citizens.

(You can check out Project Silphium’s Facebook page here or, if you’re a Libyan woman, contribute your own story and send it to projectsilphium@gmail.com )

Short Stories and Innovations with the Internet

In order to stave off the creeping depression that threatens to engulf me after almost 40 days (argh!) of war, I will try to blog more often to retain these last beads of sanity before I start talking to the furniture. (I’ve met a really nice cabinet though)

The Young Writers of Benghazi has finally announced the winners of its online short story contest! Yes, we have been delayed, due to internet outages and being refugees and whatnot. But we figured, since everyone’s stuck at home complaining of boredom, why not publish the stories now?

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed with the writing contests we’ve held so far (online and at a local school) was the number of stories written in English. Now, we’ve made it clear that the story can be in either Arabic or English, but the majority chose English. I’m not sure if this is an additional challenge the writers chose to place on themselves, or whether it’s easier to express themselves and write in the English language. (I believe it’s the latter)

Arabic as a written language has been rather static. Because Arabic literature is still very limited in every aspect, the language hasn’t had a chance to grow and meet the contemporary needs of the people. What has instead happened is the development of local dialects; ‘slang arabic’, if you will.

I learned Libyan arabic (specifically, East Libyan, or ‘Shergawi’), from listening to my parents speak to each other. When I spoke it at university, they were amused that I could barely communicate and yet used ‘outdated’ terms that they hardly ever heard; the vernacular my parents had retained from our life abroad was the Shergawi of a different time, and had gone through changes. This kind of language development we see in individual countries with their colloquial local dialect isn’t happening to the formal Arabic that is the lingua franca of the Middle East and North Africa. It should be noted that it’s the youth who are responsible for this phenomenon. While I used to ask my parents to translate for me, it’s now me that’s translating the new ‘youthspeak’ for them.

Is that why Libyan youth prefer formal creative writing in English? It’s definitely something that should be investigated. I am toying with the idea of holding a writing contest that specifically asks people to write in informal Libyan Arabic. I think the results would be very intriguing.

But I bring this us up to segue into my next talking point, which is a blog called ArabLit. It focuses on Arabic literature and the issues related to reading and writing in the MENA, including the topic of language. I’ve been a fan for quite some time, because with the politics and unrest and numerous other issues in this region, no one has time to write about (or are uninterested in) its more human aspects. Recently it featured a post about the Young Writers of Benghazi, which was pretty awesome! Yes, the point of this entire paragraph was to brag, sue me.

As our little contribution to the world of Arabic literature (or rather, English literature written by Arabs. Huh.), we’ve posted the winning stories of our contest onto Wattpad, partly so we could have one place to keep the work we receive, and partly to nudge Libyans out of their Facebook cocoon into the World Wide Web. The condition for the writing contest was that the story have an underlying message or meaning, especially since the country’s going through such a rough time. Special thanks go to Wafia Sayf of the inspirational Volunteer Libya team for helping us to judge the stories (love you Wafia <3).

Alright, drum roll please. The winners of the stories are:

3rd Place: The Orphan Rami by Soliman F. Al-Faitouri from Al-Marj. The moral: Understand a person’s situation before you judge them. You can read the story here.

2nd Place: Why?! by Isra’a Faraj El-Sha’ri from Benghazi. The moral: Hard work is important if you want to achieve a fulfilling life. You can read the story here.

1st Place: Know Better by Safa Salah Hosson from Houn. The moral: Breast cancer awareness and why campaigning for it is important. You can read the story here.

Now, what is particularly awesome about the stories is that they came from different cities across Libya. The fact that our best story was sent to us from a small town in Southern Libya shows how much talent we have hidden here that can be unearthed through online initiatives. (You can check out the previous winning stories on our Wattpad page here).

Keeping in the vein of online initiatives is a project called Benghazi Skype School. Because the new school year in Benghazi hasn’t started due to the war (I cannot express how painful it was to write that sentence), a series of online lessons has been planned out by a group of Libyans. The kids at home watch lessons on their computer screens from teachers who have volunteered their time to teach them.

Another initiative is the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for supplemental education. This is being advocated for by FW:Knowledge, a project that aims to help Libyans utilize the internet for academia and general knowledge building. They recently set up a Twitter session to collect a list of online sites that offer free courses and resources, using the hashtag .

These type of projects do have their drawbacks. Internet access in Libya still isn’t widespread, and the slow speed makes livestreaming courses difficult. But it can help some people, which is important to recognize.

So I guess you could say the moral of this post is: internet access and more advocacy for open source education that targets Libyans has a lot of potential and should be looked into. Also, war sucks, make it end. Over and out.