From Fasoulia Sandwiches to Fashionable Lattes: The Evolution of Benghazi’s Cafe Culture

For those of you who are familiar with Benghazi’s delicious cuisine, you can move on to the post. But for those who are less fortunate, a quick explanation: fasoulia (فصوليا) also called tabeekhat fasouila (طبيخة فصوليا) is a lima bean stew usually cooked with lamb or beef. The more hardcore Benghazinos cook it with kaware3 (فصوليا بالكوارع) tendons, or with karsha (فصوليا بالكرشة) sheep stomach lining (I promise it it more appetizing than it sounds). More popularly, fasoulia is also eaten in sandwiches, and served as a late breakfast/early lunch meal, especially for students.

Interestingly enough – and since everything in Libya is political – even the unassuming fasoulia has been at the center of controversy. After the civil war in Tripoli began, many West Libyans joked that their morning croissant would be replaced by fasoulia sandwiches (I mean, it’s not *that* weird). East Libyans, indignant at the jibe against their beloved breakfast food, pushed back. While intended as a joke, the remark also had a more subtle meaning, implying that East Libyans were less cultured since they ate such traditional things, rather than more Western-style food like croissants (in my parent’s generation, an affluent and well-groomed person was called a ‘pancake’ (بونكيك)). However, the politics and colonization of Libyan food and class division is the subject of another conversation.


When my family moved back to Libya in 2003, the international community had just lifted a decade-long period of sanctions off of the country. The sanctions – which included travel and finance restrictions – had completely paralyzed the country and impoverished its residents. Libya’s dependence on oil and imports at the expense of its agricultural and industrial sector had finally come back to haunt it; people had money but nothing to spend it on.

One of my professors described life under sanctions as “living in black and white”. The only thing people could buy were basic food and clothing items from the ‘jam3eeyat’ (الجمعيات الاستهلاكية), essentially state-run stores that sold subsidized food and other items – usually in bulk, because they’d only open a few times a month. My mom often recounted the frustration of living this way; “You purchased whatever they brought in, no matter what it was, because you would never know when they’d sell that item again. If they brought in shoes, we’d buy three pairs in different sizes, in case you grew out of your shoes before the next batch came in. Of course they didn’t always have your shoe size, which created another set of problems.” These stores only sold staples of Libyan cuisine such as tomato paste, pasta, oil and sugar; things like fruit were a luxury that was rare to find.

Because the quality of the products were so bad, Libyans who could afford to would leave the country just to buy necessities like furniture or clothing, always by car or sea since international travel was banned. Women learned how to sew in order to clothe their families. There were a handful of stores that imported more ‘luxury’ items primarily aimed at expats. A friend of mine told me that visiting one of those stores was a special occasion (in Benghazi this was in the Da3waa Islamiya building), because they could buy something indulgent like Kinder Chocolate Eggs. It was almost impossible to open a business in those kinds of conditions. So when Libya was re-connected to the rest of the world in 2003, local economic activity had to start up again from scratch.

I was a teenager back then, and I had no idea about any of this. All I knew was that I hated living in Libya, because there was nothing to do. No malls to hang out at, no sports clubs to join, and most notably, no restaurants to eat out at. All there really was were shawarma stands and the popular local eateries. You had the small coffee shops in the downtown that were implicitly only for men, but these were cramped and dark holes-in-the-wall filled with cigarette smoke and cantankerous elderly men who spent their days drinking espressos and playing cards.

The local eateries were places where you ordered a sandwich at the counter and ate it in your car, whether you were going to work or coming back from school. A handful had some tables where you could “dine in”. The most famous of these (some are still around):

  • Bulifa (بوليفه), who made their signature ground beef and egg sandwiches
  • Ahmaida Fasoulia (حميده فصولية) who made – you guessed it – Fasouliya sandwiches,
  • Hameed Betati (حميد بتاتي) (I’m not going to translate this nickname for you) who cooked up a variety of flatulence-inducing foods such as ful emdashash and haraimi
  • Abdulghafar (عبد الغفار) who’s specialty was tuna sandwiches with boiled eggs
  • Buthara3 (بوذراع) known for cooking more traditional Libyan foods such as couscous

(If you’re interested in a more comprehensive list of old Benghazi restaurants, check out this great article by Abdulsalam Zughbi here: حكايات بنغازية… مطاعم بنغازي زمان)

There were places strongly tied to an older Benghazi from the 50s and 60s, and managed to survive through the sanctions. They welcomed all people and catered to the working class. However, for a snobby double-shafra teen like me who wanted onion rings and five different flavours of Coca Cola, they lacked any appeal.

My cousins, who sensed my misery, tried to cheer me up by taking me to a restaurant that they claimed was “exactly like Pizza Hut”. This ended up being El-Kokh (الكوخ) which literally translates to ‘The Hut’. It’s a small pizza place in Majouri that makes small wood-fire pizzas. The white-tiled walls and small standing tables had their own charm, but it was no Pizza Hut. I didn’t like the taste, probably because I wasn’t used to fast food that was actually made from fresh ingredients and not insanely processed. (Ironically, El-Kokh is now my favorite pizza place in Benghazi).

Another cousin’s attempt to help us acclimate involved ordering burgers from a restaurant called The Penguin (البطريق) in Furusia (you know, the place behind the sbe5a). Now, the Penguin was a shift for Benghazi, because unlike the other traditional eateries, they served food in a ‘Western-style’ way; by which I mean, you could get fries and a drink with your burger, and everything was wrapped in foil monogrammed with the restaurant’s logo (as opposed to wrapped in a newspaper at one of the sandwich places). The Penguin was one of the first restaurants in Benghazi that actually marketed itself (sadly, they’ve closed down now, and a crappy shisha bar has replaced it).

As Libya began to recover from the effect of sanctions, Western-style cafes and restaurants began to pop up in the two largest cities. This also led to the creation of ‘family-only’ spaces in cafes, which meant, for the first time, women could eat outside in a restaurant. Dewan, Damashki, Pizza House and multiple other restaurants opened during this time, offering Benghazi citizens a choice of Syrian, Western, Turkish and other types of food. Going out to eat went from a luxury to a weekly occurrence for many middle class families. Instead of a generic coffee from a kiosk, you could sit in a cafe and order a latte or cappuccino with a piece of cheesecake, flavours and textures that were new for Libyans who had never really traveled abroad. After the revolution, these spaces tripled and quadrupled, particularly with the rise and development of “shopping streets” such as Venecia, Dubai St and Pepsi St (named after the Pepsi factory that used to be located there). As they became more popular, the taboo around eating out eventually disappeared.

Opening a cafe or restaurant is one of the most lucrative business ideas in Benghazi today, and increasingly in smaller Libyan towns. A friend who visited El-Marj recently told me that five new cafes had opened up in the past year. Libyan culture is slowly moving out of the house and into cafes, a change that is also affecting the way Libyan houses are designed. Where once people demanded an 80-square-meter guest sitting room (often two, one per gender), this is no longer the case. Events that were once traditionally held in homes are now being organized in cafes, including birthday parties, engagement ceremonies and baby showers. Sitting rooms have been reduced to small spaces that are rarely used.

These restaurants have come a long way from their predecessors; most of them now invest in architects to design a place that is atmospheric, they hire graphic designers to come up with attractive logos and colour schemes, and they offer a wide range of options that easily compete with cafes in other parts of the world. 20 years ago, a Kinder Surprise Egg was considered the height of opulence for a Libyan kid; today, you can get three types of Kinder cheesecakes and milkshakes in just one cafe. The customer base is also changing; a group on Facebook called ‘Benghazi Restaurant & Cafe Recommendations’ was set up for patrons to provide reviews of their experiences, with the number of members well over 70,000 people. Most restaurants and cafes now offer delivery services, and competition has been increasing.

However, the flip side is that cafes and restaurants are also becoming heavily politicized spaces. A girls-only party held last year in Casa Cafe in Benghazi was raided by police after it was reported for being ‘indecent’; the case was ultimately dropped since no one had actually, you know, broken the law. The year before, a new year’s party was raided at an all-men cafe by Salafist-oriented patrols for being “against the customs of the country” because it featured live music; in 2012 a bomb was thrown at a cafe in Hadayek because it was a known dating spot for same-sex couples. The cafe has become a space of intergenerational and religious tensions, a symbol of the transformational shift in Libyan society and, most importantly, a demand for a peaceful way of life. In Tripoli, frequenting cafes even during the height of the conflict has become an anti-war ‘non-movement’; taking a stand against the violence by continuing to live their everyday lives and refusing to acknowledge the chaos.

The fasoulia sandwich, meanwhile, is no longer fashionable. Indeed, you can argue that it was never fashionable to begin with. It is a symbol of sustenance and tradition, of a time when Libyans tried to keep themselves from the brink of collapse as a state. You can still get one from Ahmaida Fasoulia’s kiosk downtown, and transport yourself to a much simpler time in the city’s history. But we’ve also moved on as a city, and the latte has inadvertently become a symbol of women’s increasing visibility in public life. These spaces are of course not as inclusive, but considering where we were 10, 20, even 30 years ago, the trajectory that we’re on could change that. As long as they continue to be successful business practices, the fashionable latte is here to stay.

Instant Cities: How the Oil Boom Transformed Urban Planning in Libya

With approx. 84% of the population living in cities, Libya is the most urbanized country in Africa. While half the population lives in the country’s two largest cities, the rest of its citizens are scattered between over 100 cities, towns and villages.* What makes Libyan cities so fascinating is that they are intertwined with tribalism and local identities. In a country who’s national identity has always been absent, the key to understanding Libya is to understand its cities, and in particular how they were formed.

By the end of Italian colonization in 1942, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. The brutality of the colonial project has been (meagerly) documented with studies on the Libyan resistance and the Italianization of population and land. But one of the most significant impacts was the de-urbanization of Libya.

Whether a genuine belief or another case of disinformation, Libyans were depicted as wandering desert nomads who were not civilized enough to build or live in cities. Aside from the fallacy of equating civilization with urbanization (something even Ibn Khaldun is guilty of), it was also untrue. Libyans were not nomadic by nature but rather adopted different lifestyles depending on the economic need of the moment. Urbanization and bedouinization were two ends of an economic spectrum, rather than polar opposite modes of existence.

Evidence of city-building has been documented in Libya as far back as the 4th century BC with the urban settlements of the Garamantes (الجرمان) and Ghadames in the South-West. Towns like Awjila were key stops on the caravan route between East and West, and contain architecture that is uniquely Libyan, the most prominent example being the Atik Mosque (جامع العتيق). Cities such as Derna were formed through agreements between Eastern and Western tribes, the history of which is reflected in folk tales like tajreedat habib (تجريدة حبيب). During times of hardship, such as drought or conflict, those who lived in settled areas would go on the move and adopt nomadic lifestyles in order to sustain themselves.

When Italians invaded in 1911, the Libyans they found were semi-nomadic. Economic trade routes sustained by the Ottoman empire led to the growth of existing settlements, and the agriculture and livestock trade connected cities with the countryside. In order to weaken the bonds of solidarity between Libyans, the Italians engaged in a multi-staged strategy, one aspect of which included driving Libyans out of their towns and settlements and into fixed camps on the outskirts of the main cities (Abu Salim was one such camp, which has today become one of Tripoli’s municipalities, although the legacy of the area is reflected in the underprivileged status of its population).

Framed as a project to urbanize and settle the ‘savage’ Bedouin population of Libya, what was actually taking place was a process of forced de-urbanization. The camps that Libyans were forced to live in were not planned neighbourhoods but rather temporary tools of control aimed to weaken and kill off the population, keeping them in a state of permanent transience. It also allowed Italian farmers to take over the agricultural lands that Libyans were driven from. Meanwhile, in other Libyan cities, Italians redesigned them to suit the new population, while Libyans were driven to the periphery.

At this point you’re probably wondering; what does de-urbanization have to do with new cities in Libya after the discovery of oil? Well, after Libyan independence in 1954, the population had largely become nomadic. The forced relocation of Libyans coupled with the complete obliteration of their economic and political system meant that the majority of the population had to rely once again on a nomadic way of life to survive. The cities and infrastructure left behind by the Italians were not designed for Libyans, and in some cases were destroyed either by WWII bombing or had become uninhabitable because Italian forces had poured concrete into the wells and poisoned the agricultural land**.

After the birth of Libya, the UN concentrated their efforts on pulling the population out of poverty. There are still older women across Libya who remember being trained by UN staff on things such as hygiene, maternal health and education. One of these projects, conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) was focused on the development of tribal lands for settlements in East and South Libya.

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

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

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

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

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

Al-Sarir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

** Fuck Italian fascism always

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

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 Elusive North African Identity

Yes, reader, I know, it has been (checks calendar) six months (!) since I last posted anything on here. Part of the reason has been the general whirlwind of life (I’m not a procrastinating architecture student anymore) but the other more pressing reason is to do with security. You know me, I don’t like blogging unless it’s a contentious issue that’ll start Twitter wars, but unfortunately the time where I could speak freely without real-world consequences has passed in Libya. The all-seeing Eye of Sauron is back, in a more disorganized, flip-flop wearing form – and it’s staring at me. I have a lot of posts on the backburner which I can’t risk publishing now, but fear not! your reckless Benghazi blogger will not be deterred. The Libyan saga is far from over and I will be here to chronicle it all, I will just be more careful in my timing and personal safety.


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Maghreb pocket change

Now, I’m no anthropologist, but indicators are pointing to more progress when it comes to the science of categorizing people. Race, ethnicity and nationality are getting a closer inspection, especially as more minorities are able to make themselves heard through new media platforms. The intersection of religion and identity is also becoming more scrutinized as global debate continues on the issue of integration.

One type of identity that personally affects me is that of North Africa, and one which I feel doesn’t get a lot of attention in (non-francophone) discussions. I’ve always been focused on the Libyan identity, but I always thought of it in a vacuum. Lately I’ve been contemplating more on our identity in the wider regional context.

I’m think that some strides have been made in separating North Africa from the Middle East (evidenced through the increasingly ubiquitous ‘MENA’ acronym) and the term ‘Greater Maghreb’ (a more politically correct version of the Arab Maghreb) is starting to be used more often in the mainstream. Of course the biggest culprit of lumping the MENA region together is Western media, where the difference between a Moroccan and an Omani isn’t discernible to those audiences.

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The Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli Libya. Roman ruins can be found throughout the Maghreb

The Greater Maghreb is comprised of the five North African states (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). We have our own Maghreb Union which theoretically should work on promoting political and economic cooperation between the five countries – such as allowing free movement – but the political and historic issues among the five nations has limited what the Union can actually achieve. Morocco violated the sole achievement of the Union (visa-free travel) by placing a visa restrictions on Libyans and maintains a closed border with Algeria over the Western Sahara issue. Libya showed disregard for the union when it changed the passport colour from green to blue. Four of the five states are francophone due to French colonization, while Libya instead inherited good coffee and pasta (and nothing else) from Italian occupation.

This francophone difference has created a kind of barrier between Libya and its Maghreb brethren. Because of the widely different local dialects, French has acted as a lingua franca for these four countries which Libyans do not have access to. I have frequently been that lone Libyan among Maghreb friends as they happily chat away in French before realizing that I couldn’t understand anything. Speaking in our own local dialects doesn’t help much, as theirs is peppered in French while my East Libyan accent is closer to Egyptian than to anything Maghreb. We end up unenthusiastically conversing in broken English (or broken traditional Arabic).

The first level of  “identity” in the Maghreb is Amazigh and Arab, which acts as a source of many tensions. The Amazigh claim to be the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa while the Arab inhabitants supposedly came from the Muslim conquerors of the continent (ostensibly all “descendants of the prophet Muhammed”). The problem with painting North Africa in this black and white narrative is that it’s extremely narrow. (If you’re a racist Amazighi or Arab, you can jump to the comments section now to make your incoherent rant.)

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Sidi M’Cid bridge, Constantine, Algeria

The region has witnesses countless occupations, migrations and other movements, and so to claim that you are from a separate distinct ethnicity is hard to believe – and indeed hard to prove. In Libya, while many Amazigh follow the more extreme practice of only marrying within their ethnicity, claims of being “pure” Amazighi should be taken with a grain of salt. An Amazighi man I know in Tripoli conducted a DNA test to assert his pure blood, only to discover that he had almost no Amazighi heritage. The same goes with the so-called Arab inhabitants, who are more likely descendants of Amazigh tribes from across the region who have chosen to intermarry, rather than being purely from the Arab Gulf. Add to this the Turkish, Greek, Phoenician, Moorish, Sub-Saharan African and colonist movements, and you’re looking at a smorgasbord of different ethnicities.

I’m sure someone will chime in claiming that they have an obscure document passed down by their great-great-great-grandfather which is definitive, inarguable proof that they are indeed a full-blooded straight-from-the-sand-dunes Arab (thanks Nasserism), and could probably name the palm tree in Saudi Arabia that their ancestor owned, but I’m not convinced that this really applies to the majority North Africans, simply because it’s not realistic.

(Do note that here I am talking about biological origin and not identity. Whether a person feels Amazighi or Arab is an entirely different issue.)

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Crags off the Mediterranean in Korbous, Tunisia

My skepticism was stoked when I wanted to learn where my dad’s tribe came from. At first I was told that it migrated from the “Saqiyah Al-Hamra” in the Western Sahara/Morocco. Later I was told that, no, we are actually from the Arab Gulf. Then I was informed that the tribe is really an Amazighi tribe that “became Arabized”. Later on I was told that, actually, we’re descendants of North African Jews. All these claims have “the documents to prove it.” A university friend of mine told me that her Oasis-based tribe came from Yemen. Later I read that this tribe was Amazigh who had lied to Arab occupiers to avoid persecution. All of these clashing narratives have made me question the validity of what people claim about their heritage.

It is an unfortunate habit in the MENA region that we always want to be from somewhere other than our own countries, we want to belong to other groups because we are not able to create a sense of belonging together. We weave improbable narratives to meet these ends. National identity has tried to unite different ethnicities and groups, but in the case of Libya it is disintegrating rapidly. The Arab-Amazigh narrative is a useful political tool which polarizes an already tense situation (and has been used by colonialists in the past) and erases an underlying Maghreb identity which could be used to build a strong region on the basis of economic, political and cultural growth and development. But instead we’re too busy nit-picking over where each drop of our blood comes from. If you feel Arab or Amazigh because of language or upbringing, that’s entirely up to you, but you are missing out on a great opportunity to be part of something unique to our region because of these self-imposed limitations. You can have a combined identity, one doesn’t have to cancel the other.

I recently visited my fourth of the five Maghreb countries, and I have found more similarities than I expected. It’s in the way we look, our shared vocabulary, in our local culture, music, cuisine and traditions. Discussions of who has the better Ma’louf music or who taught couscous-making to the others are light-hearted and fun, because we are discussing mutual heritage that we all enjoy. There is a familiarity by proximity that I can’t quite describe, and a sense of reassurance that we could be part of something bigger, that isolation isn’t our only fate.

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The old medina, Casablanca, Morocco. ‘Medina Quarters’ are unique to North Africa (with a few influenced in Malta)

Today, many Libyans hold grievances against the other Maghreb countries because they “don’t have our backs” during this period of instability, which is somewhat true but not entirely unexpected due to the lack of unity in this region in the first place. Aside from the romantic dreams of shared cultural festivals and exchange programs by your fanciful blogger, regional cooperation is in fact a necessary prerequisite for security, as well as political and economic stability. It is not a luxury that we can afford to turn our noses up at, because mutual interests upstage hurt feelings.

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).

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 West 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.