Streets and Statues: Political Symbolism in Benghazi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Families Only”: Understanding Social Segregation in Libyan Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: Freedom Fields, and the Perpetual Struggle for Choice

I’ve been in London for three weeks now, and I’m already dreadfully homesick for Libya. I know right now that every Libyan’s dream is to get out of the country, but there is so much emptiness (at least for me) outside the enclosure of our society. There’s no familiarity here, and it’s probably a side-effect of the war but I’m finding it difficult to bond with people who haven’t been through that same experience that I have. I’m probably being annoyingly pretentious to my Libya readers (my double-shafra-ness is showing *hides in shame*) but there you have it. Home is home, even if it’s broken.

I got a chance to briefly go back when I attended the screening of the documentary ‘Freedom Fields’, which chronicles the struggles of the Libyan National Women’s Soccer Team (“football team” for you annoying non-North Americans). I got a ticket by being my Libyan self and looking for a wasta (connection) because it sold out quite quickly. I’m sure you’re digging through your memories right now and remembering ‘oh yeah, there was a thing about a women’s soccer team a few years ago’. There was a lot happening in Libya back in 2012 and after the sensation died down we didn’t hear about the team anymore.

This film covers what did happen after the huge controversy, and follows the lives of these women over five years. Specifically it covers three main storylines; Na’ma, a Tawerghan woman living in a camp in Tripoli who’s circumstances have given her a nothing-to-lose iron will; Halima, a bombastic and passionate doctor-to-be; and Fadwa, an ambitious and headstrong young woman.

I think the film is geared more towards foreign audiences, to give them a rare glimpse into the lives of Libyans, but it really struck a chord with me as a Libyan viewer, simply because even we don’t have access to the kind of media that gives us a perspective on how different Libyans across the country live (how many of us have seen the inside of a Tawerghan camp?) but also how similar we all are (that constant societal pressure for women to get married and ‘settle down’ affects us all regardless of tribe or social class). The women portrayed in the movie could have been anyone I know, neighbours or friends or colleagues. For this reason the movie felt so personal to watch.

This point is particularly notable for me (and I believe for other Libyans) because I’m sure many people never looked into the issue of the women’s soccer team, we never realized that behind the controversy and Facebook wars, there were regular Libyan women who just wanted to play soccer (which is not that outlandish an idea, women have always played sports in Libya, it’s just that they’ve never played so visibly before). It’s incredibly sad to realize this in hindsight but the lost battle of the team set the tone for all the struggles that activists fought after the revolution, as our rights as women and citizens were put on the chopping block. If we had known this now, I think more people would have been vocal about this cause back in 2012.

The filmmaker is British-Libyan Naziha Areibi, who came to the premier decked out in a farmela and silver ‘abroug jewelry. She is completely invisible throughout the movie, acting only as a camera, but I’m sure that her relationship with the people played a large part in how she was able to shoot (and because Libyans aren’t the kind of people who would let you just passively watch but get you involved in the conversation), and it would have been interesting to see behind-the-scene footage into how the women interacted with this documentary process.

What I admired most about the structure of the film is that it is free from any kind of political or social statement. To be sure, there are a lot of political undertones in the film, but only in how it immediately ties with the lives of the players, and always told through their voice. You hear of the frustrations they have with a revolution that didn’t fulfill its promise of freedom, of the increasing isolation Libya faced after the 2014 war and all the restrictions that came with it. Even with the social aspect, you just see Libyans living their everyday lives, without any sensationalism or exaggeration. You know how merciless I get when it comes to representation of Libyans, but this film gets my Authentic Libyan™ seal of approval.

Being reminded of my own experiences as a woman in Libya, coupled with the heartbreak of what our country is capable of and yet unable to attain because of the situation, left me in tears at the end of the movie (it might have also been the homesickness). Yes there are still good and strong people in Libya who are trying to resist the hopelessness, but there is always that fear of how long they can last. How long can a person put up a fight and pick themselves up when they’re down, when the fight is against the very reality of your country?

This film is one of a few but growing number of media that covers Libya without casting the war as the main character, including the Tatweer Enjazi documentary on the entrepreneur contest of the same name, and the work of the Elkul channel. Yes, they are few and far in-between, but it’s a great start to begin magnifying Libyan voices and counter the wave of Western-produced garbage about our country.

I’m not going to spoil the film too much because you should definitely go and watch it for yourself. The next screening will be in Amsterdam, and the production team is currently trying to organize screenings inside Libya itself (if the situation permits). Whether you like it or hate it, as long as we can start a discussion in our country on what choices we give to our women and our society at large, maybe one day we’ll have a national women’s soccer team again.

The Outsider’s Guide To Libyan Weddings

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A tradition during the preparation of the marriage contract (fatiha) – the bride holds up a silver knife in front of a mirror with the Quran next to her, reciting the names of unmarried women (the equivalent to throwing a bouquet…sort of).

They’re loud, they’re expensive, and for Libyans of any age, they’re a rite of passage. I’ve been fascinated by Libyan weddings for as long as I can remember; extravagant and complicated social practices that are saturated in centuries-old customs, reflecting so much about the dynamics of Libyan society. While weddings have become modernized in the past few decades, there are many traditions that still stick.

Ask any Libyan about our society’s weddings, and they’ll be quick to vilify them. They’re too ostentatious, with focus on minute details in the quest for a perfect ceremony. They’re too expensive, as both bride and groom shell out tens of thousands of dinars on food, venue, favours, clothing, presents, etc. And yet, there’s a lot of societal pressure to make sure that weddings are as big and glamorous an affair as possible. After all, wedding culture in Libya is a complex web that serves many, from unmarried women to bored in-laws.

But to the unsuspecting foreigner or newly returned double shafra, it’s very easy to get tangled in this web as you wonder “Why the hell is that woman wearing green and pink eye-shadow?” or “Are my eardrums actually exploding right now?”. This guide will help you to navigate weddings in Libya and ensure that, even if you can’t fully understand them, you can make the experience less awkward. Let’s begin.

Preparation & Arrival: Libyan events run on a bizarre system of timing where it’s never explicitly stated when you should arrive or depart, and yet everyone seems to come and go around similar times. Whether it’s some kind of collectively synchronized biological clock or pure coincidence is a question best left to anthropologists. Ask your mother or grandmother, and she will tell you when you should go. (It’s also important to note that Libyan weddings – like other events – are segregated, which means from the men’s perspective, you just awkwardly sit outside the wedding hall waiting for dinner).

Preparation is a slightly futile event given that, no matter how glamorous you look at home, you will look pale and sickly under the cold, dazzling glare of the wedding hall bathroom lights. It’s best not to dwell on why the other girls look polished while the hairstyle you spent hours tending somehow wilted into a shapeless mass on your head as your mascara helplessly melts.

Upon Entering the Hall: If you want minimal interaction, pick an empty table near the wall and strew your belongings (abaya, hijab, handbag) on the other chairs, discouraging others to sit near you. If with friends and relatives, it’s best to get a table to yourselves somewhere near the middle. If there is no empty table and your only options are half filled tables, avoid ones that have old ladies (unless you enjoy listening to their stories, which they will ply you with for the rest of the evening) or little children (who will eat most of the pastries on the table, which are, let’s face it, the reason you decided to attend in the first place). Now comfortably seated, it’s time to get your bearings.

Types of Libyan Wedding Guests: You will see a wide variety of colours and shapes at a Libyan wedding, which can be overwhelming at first. But soon you’ll be able to pick out a pattern, based primarily on age:

The Not-Yet-Engaged: The girls you see walking back and forth throughout the halls despite wearing 6-inch heels are not, in fact, busy with anything. They are showing themselves off to the mothers of eligible single men, the telltale signs being the flipping of their curtains of hair and constant reapplying of their makeup. I could go on a feminist rant of why this practice is appalling and why it’s horrific for Libyan girls to be taught that their main asset and value is based on their looks, *deep breath*, but I’ll spare you. The not-yet-engaged are not to be interacted with, they are not here for you.

The Just-Married: This is the woman in the fancy hairstyle who sits confidently at her table like it’s a throne, constantly being surrounded by people who greet and congratulate her on finally snagging a man. You can feel the confidence and self-fulfilled attitude emanating from her for miles.

The Postpartum: With a few extra pounds and a perpetually tired look on her face, the postpartum is often toting around a baby in the crook of her arm as she tries to convince her relatives to take care of it. The postpartum’s glory days are over, and she knows it.

The Hajja: Named so because they are often called ‘ya hajja’ by storekeepers, and it would be rude to call her anything else. Too old to wear a strapless dress but too young to wear a jard, these are the League of Libyan Mothers – established monoliths in stylish but sensible bob haircuts – the basic backbone of Libyan society. They’re here to eat, laugh with friends, and glare disapprovingly at all others, thereby completing their societal duty. They’re also the prime target for the women in category 1.

After the Meal: This is the dull period between eating the food (which is always delicious) and waiting for the bride to come in. At this point, your eardrums should have become numb from of the incredibly deafening music if you haven’t brought ear plugs. You can have a shouted conversation with your neighbour, or, for the more adventurous, dance on stage. Be warned, Libyan dancing requires a lot of hip dexterity and confidence. Bringing a book to a wedding is highly discouraged. These are social events where you are expected to, err, socialize.

The Bride: Let’s face it, unless you’re directly related to her, no one cares much about the bride apart from a cursory glance to judge her dress, hair and makeup. If you want to personally greet her, do so as soon as she sits or the photographer won’t give you a chance.

The Groom: You’ll be alerted to his imminent appearance by a flurry of hijabs and abayas being whipped out and worn. The only time you’ll see him is when he’s walking down the aisle until he reaches the bride, where relatives will quickly converge on the couple to congratulate, cry and take pictures.

Conclusion: Once the bride and groom leave, that’s your indicator that the evening is done. Usually friends and relatives stay behind to help clean and gossip.

The above clip is from an old Libyan comedy show which parodies post-Libyan wedding gossip.

There’s not much to Libyan weddings, once you get over the initial noise and flurry of activity. Like everything else in Libya, they’re held together by unspoken rules. As a guest, you’re not expected to do more than smile, eat and leave before closing time. And once you go home, your hair will finally look perfect.


The day described above is usually called the ‘zaffa’, the culmination of a week-long procession (nowadays shortened to three days due to aforementioned modernization but also the economic crisis).

It’s also important to note that each Libyan city has its own specific traditions – for examples the henna patterns for brides in Benghazi differ from those in Tripoli. Wedding music is another region-specific aspect, with everything from ‘shetawa’, ‘gheeta’, ‘noba’, or hiring a zamzama/darbaka (I always like to brag that the Foonsha sang at my parent’s wedding. An entire post could be written about the fascinating underground life of Libyan wedding singers). The traditional outfits worn during these occasions are always very beautiful with their striped cloth and silver or golden jewelry, and there’s something special about walking into a house in full-wedding mode with its smell of bukhoor (incense), and women in a constant state of food-preparation while kids run around and fathers yell for tea.

I always learn something new when I attend a wedding, and I’m never bored. Being part of the preparation is also interesting but considerably more tiring (I’ve done my fair share of comforting nervous brides, scooping half-frozen ice cream for guests and applying eyeliner to a procession of young girls). The erosion of our customs in favour of faster ceremonies makes me sad, but I also know that I don’t have the time (or foot arch) to go through a week-long event. The new fads, like gift baskets overflowing with chocolate and euros, will hopefully die out, along with the need to inject so much money into the whole affair. All you need is someone who knows how to hit a darbouka and an endless supply of coffee and tea.

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.

The Militia War Against Libya’s Youth

Since 2011, militias have always posed a threat to Libya’s young male population, who – without many economic opportunities or sense of belonging – become susceptible to the recruitment campaigns that promise youth the chance to “protect the revolution”. Of course, the biggest incentive is not ideological but financial; the salary offered by militias dwarfs that which can be obtained in the public or private sector. The militarization of youth is a problem that requires a strong nation to tackle, but in Libya’s fragmented system of governance, the problem is only getting worse.

There is a small but active group of young people, made up of civil society activists, culture enthusiasts, tech geeks, and others, who are creating their own spaces within this chaos. They organize events and sessions to come together and celebrate their passions, and along the way attract other disillusioned youth in the country. These small but strongly bonded networks are often the only outlet for creative self-expression, and a lifeline for young people who feel “different” from the mainstream.

But the militias and military, increasing affected by religious influences, are now beginning to crack down on these safe havens. A few days ago, a Comic Con event was raided in Tripoli by Salafi militia, who accused them – among other things – of “inciting violence” and “crimes against public morals and Islam”. Despite the fact that the organizers had received a security clearance for the event, many of them were still arrested, and there are reports that some attendees in custody have been abused.

This kind of action has become a trend in Libya, where a popular youth event – after gaining publicity online – leads to outraged responses from people and a swift reaction from the dominating military group. The Earth Hour event in Benghazi witnessed the almost exact same crackdown, when, despite obtaining security clearance, negative online reactions led to the arrest of the organizers. What’s incredibly frustrating is that the outrage is incited by young people behaving, well, like young people. Hosting concerts, singing, dressing up as favorite characters, things that are typical behaviour for youth in any country, are shocking for a population that has grown up in isolation from the rest of the world.

This year has been particularly bad for Libyan culture. Tanarout, a popular cultural center in Benghazi, was forced to shut down because of the harassment of neighbours. Youth writers who contributed to a book – Sun on Closed Windows – received death threats when an explicit excerpt of one of the stories made its way online. This particular incident also led to the closure of another cultural center in Tripoli for several days. Earlier this year, books were confiscated in Marj on the basis that they were also spreading “immoral” ideologies.

The list of ideologies that militias and the conservative populations seem to be terrified of is rather extensive and thematically incoherent: Satanism, atheism, shi’ism, Freemasonry, Zionism, homosexuality and, ironically, ISIS ideology. In most cases, it’s young people who are the victims of these bizarre allegations and highlights the growing divide between generations. The misunderstanding of youth and their trends happens in any society, but in Libya it can put your life at risk.

What’s particularly problematic is that the medium which puts young people in danger is social media, the same platforms that youth use to get together and share their ideas, interests and points of view. It’s saddening that this same medium which gives them some escape from their reality also poses a threat to their safety. Any online post that shares info about an event will inevitably see the comments section filled with enraged citizens worried about the morality of their society. In particular, the pictures of women seem to rile up the more vitriolic trolls. “Look at those whores,” one commenter says about a picture of girls who are modestly dressed and holding books. In order to respond to this public outcry, the militias swoop in and “save” these susceptible youth by arresting and beating them.

The crises and war have turned Libyans into a nation of people who can readily accept violence and death, in the process making them intolerable to the celebration of life, culture and the vibrancy of youth. As spaces for self-expression continue to shrink in the country for young people, more and more are looking towards countries where being yourself isn’t a crime. Meanwhile, the militias continue to protect a revolution that started as a call for individual freedom, by taking those freedoms away one by one.

Book Review: The Return

“Nabokov and Conrad [were right]…They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved…But Pasternak and Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed…What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” – Hisham Matar, The Return

Libyan expats and exiles often talk about the pain and difficulty of leaving Libya, of being unable to return or see relatives. For them, being deprived of the country for the past few decades has been a bitter loss. However, these recollections are often met with incredulity and disbelief by Libyans in the country, who would give anything for the chance to live in the United States or Britain, or for a brief respite from the overbearing omnipresence of family and social expectations. It’s this chasm between two different kinds of struggle that is difficult to bridge, and a prime source of tension between the two groups.

Hisham Matar is one of the very few Libyans who is trapped in between; stuck in a chasm that is neither here nor there. Raised in Libya and exiled by Gadhafi, his father was kidnapped, detained, and most likely killed by the regime, and Matar has spent much of his life consumed by the search for answers. I was introduced to Matar through his first novel, In The Country of Men. This book, and the one that followed (Anatomy of a Disappearance), were both coming-of-age tales of a young boy who has to come to terms with his father’s disappearance. In The Return, fiction is replaced by the real life account of Matar’s search for his father.

For much of his readership, Matar’s book is a unique glimpse into the life of a person and nation haunted by a dictatorship. But for myself, and for most Libyans, the book is more personal. Every recollection of some small detail in Libya, past or present, evokes a feeling of kinship with the author, as though he is speaking directly to us and acknowledging our shared experiences. This is why my reading of the book has been more critical.

Scattered throughout the book are glimpses of his father’s life, who fought constantly against the regime. Under Gadhafi, these tales of resistance might have once sparked romantic admiration in Libyans who were equally appalled at his rule. But being on the other end of a revolution that failed to transition into a state, it makes one wonder whether the “dissidents” against Gadhafi knew what they were doing. Many fought with the goal of overthrowing him, but very few – if any at all – understood what it took to turn Libya into a democratic nation. Reading about his father’s training and army-building in Chad only brings forward feelings of disapproval now; these dissidents are no longer viewed as heroes but as reckless, irresponsible anarchists.

The same goes for Matar’s account of the revolution and immediate aftermath. The hope and nationalism and potential he wrote about in such beautiful prose is gone in Libya, replaced instead with horror at the movement we had once supported, which is now dismantling the country. One point I really took issue with was the judgement he cast on Libyans. “The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: people would come to long for the days of Qaddafi.”

Is that really the most unimaginable thing though? Are the public acts of beheading something we ever imagined happening in Libya? The devaluation of the dinar to the point where Libyans are going hungry, something we could imagine? No matter how much you hated him, to deny that life under his rule could possibly be anything worse than a failing country where hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been forced out of their homes and cities is to convey a supreme ignorance of the current situation.

There was another instance of this judgement that irked me. Matar talks about the “unfinished state of modern Libyan architecture”, blaming it on the nation’s “lack of self-regard”, unaware that many Libyans – who save their modest income for decades to build their houses – oftentimes run out of money when it comes to “finishing” the house. It is a harsh observation, which is a running theme in the book. The only time he seems to praise Libyans is when he discusses their role in the revolution. Of course, as Libyans, we are often harsh towards each other, although we disapprove when it’s done publicly.

All in all, the Libya that Matar writes about is one that is long gone. He dwells on the past excessively, and romanticizes a revolution that has brought about one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history. While the book is called ‘The Return’, Hisham Matar is not returning to the country he knew but rather to a new Libya, one that he is seeing for the first time.

Again, my reading of the book was critical, because I feel such a personal connection to the things Matar writes about. For me, it’s not the account of a heartbreaking story from a third world country. It’s a history that I too have lived, a reality I’m currently burdened under.

But I ultimately recognize that this is his story. As much as I want to be involved, to say, “No, this is how things happened,” it’s not my account, it’s not my history. And its his personal narrative is what makes the book so fascinating. From his life as a child in Tripoli, to the impermanence he carries around while growing up, and that particular feeling of being stuck in time, Hisham Matar has lived an extraordinary life, one that he describes in what is undoubtedly a masterful form of writing.

The most fascinating part of the book, for myself, were the encounters and correspondences with Seif Al-Islam. It’s difficult to imagine Seif sitting in a London hotel, having a chat with a dissident’s son, or texting and using emojis. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine Seif anywhere that isn’t in front of a camera, speaking platitudes or threatening destruction. However, Matar’s description of the tyrant’s son aligns with the general impression that I’ve seen; a visible, almost strained, attempt to appear professional while trying to suppress the inherited madness of his father. But Gadhafi junior represented something else to Libyans in the country that was not seen by exiles; an opportunity for change, to finally throw off the Jamaheria and start to become a developing country. Inside Libya, we’re only now realizing how the country was changing before 2011. A friend of mine told me, “If we had waited three years, the revolution wouldn’t have happened, because the people would no longer feel a need to revolt.” I’m not sure how true this statement is, since it was more a revolution of anger than one of demands, but it highlights the noticeable difference between the false ideals of Al-Fateh to the new vision of Gadhafi junior.

Overall, this book is an emotional rollercoaster, and reading it as a Libyan definitely coloured my experience. But I still highly recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the situation in Libya, or to anyone really who really enjoys good prose. I was incredibly thrilled to hear that it had won a Pulitzer prize, and I hope this will motivate more Libyan writers to pick up a pen and share their own narratives. God knows we have such fantastic stories to tell.