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.

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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.

A Question of Morals

“Morality, too, is a question of time.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Libya’s civil society has never been popular. Since its prominent emergence in 2011, it has been one battle for survival after another. From government institutions accusing activists of fueling instability, to religious extremists targeting CSOs for “importing anti-Islamic ideals”, to average citizens decrying civil society as an unwanted byproduct of the February 17 revolution and subsequent collapse.

And yet, despite the obstacles and the threats, civil society has persisted in trying to make a difference, particularly in areas where no other formal institutions can operate. While the common notion is that of civic activists as privileged youth looking for a photo opportunity, it’s a mostly thankless job that requires an endless supply of patience as you navigate through the countless security procedures and arrangements to implement any kind of project. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to implement anything openly these days without facing a torrent of hate, criticism and downright violence reactions.

I’ve chronicled the difficulties of being a civil society activist in Benghazi over the past few years, from the hope and invincibility we felt after the revolution to the crippling fear in the face of extremist groups. As Benghazi began to heal from the latest war, we felt again that glimmer of hope, only to have it extinguished just as brutally as last time. It seems that the pattern continues; no matter the ruler or dominant ideology, civil society is detested.

And what is it that civil society does that could warrant such repulsion? Last year, a group of grassroots organizations decided to hold a community get-together under the theme “Tea and Milk Unites Us.” Tea and milk is a common breakfast drink in Libya (with well-boiled black tea and condensed milk if you’re a purist like me), and the idea was to unite a society fragmented by war through a symbol enjoyed by everyone.

The backlash was swift; “Men are dying on the field while you hold these useless events!” “You have no respect for the war waging near you!” etc. etc. The general objection was that of holding any kind of event during a time of war, despite the fact that these events tried to help the general population heal and forget for a moment the trauma of war.

During the last Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, an art gallery was held, again in the Children’s Theater (we don’t have many venues because, again, war). And once again, the online reaction was saturated with vitriol. “Talking about violence against women while violence against our troops goes on?” “Look at these girls/how they’re dressed/outside their homes/etc.” The general rule seems to be that the more women appear in these kinds of events, the worse the reaction will be. Here we began to see the accusations of “immorality”. The objection became less about the war and more about what’s considered decent in our “conservative Muslim society.”

Cue yesterday’s Earth Hour celebration in Benghazi yesterday.  Held on the campus of the Faculty of Medicine, the event consisted of candles that filled the quad, the traditional one hour lights-off, and a concert. This time, the criticism was almost entirely focused on the offense to our cultural decency and morality as Libyans.

On the internet, it’s advised to never read the comments. Unfortunately, when it comes to Libya, I do read the comments. People will express things online that they’d never say in person, and it’s interesting to know what the general attitudes shaping public opinion are in a city like Benghazi. For this event, it appears that increasing conservatism is sweeping through society. Here the reactions ranged from, “pop songs have nothing to do with Earth Hour awareness” to “Look at these devil worshipers!”

It went one step further, with demands that those who organized the event should be arrested, a move reminiscent of the days when Ansar Shariah were targeting activists. These calls, along with recent orders restricting CSO activity in the East, is a worrying sign that once again, civil society isn’t safe.

But is civil society immoral? A concert, particularly one in which both men and women are on stage and singing English-language songs, isn’t entirely natural in Libya, but not entirely uncommon either. If we’re speaking of customs and traditions in Libya, conservatism is a relatively new concept. But if the issue is of what’s acceptable today, it becomes a more complicated discussion. Benghazi and the East opposed extremist ideology because of how violent it was, and more importantly, how foreign it seemed. And yet, people are quick to vilify these events as being against public decency, deaf to the fact that they sound very like the ideology they fought so vehemently against.

It’s a tricky issue, one that is being used by various groups to sway public opinion to the point where the definition of Libyan morality is being molded before our eyes (if we assume morality is subjective and not universal). And the victim in the middle, as usual, is civil society.

Inside Libya’s Burgeoning Youth Art Scene

The Berka Barracks in Benghazi, known colloquially as the Turkish Castle, is a U-shaped building in the middle of the Keesh district. A double row of arched windows line the length of the building’s walls and gives the building a stately look. Once a military outpost that housed Ottoman soldiers, the barracks have become abandoned and neglected over the decades, like most of Benghazi’s historic and cultural sites.

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

But during the first week of February, the castle played host to a cultural event, the first to take place on the premises in years. The event in question was the ARRA Gallery, a three-day art event organized by a group of civil society organizations and activists to highlight the young Libyan talent. Consisting of discussion panels, live drawing sessions and film screenings, visitors could also browse the temporary exhibition of work.

“The aim of this project is to give young Libyan artists exposure to the rest of society,” said Aya Mohammed, the main organizer of the event. “We want to encourage these artists to showcase their work, but we also want to show the world a different side of Libya.” Aya told me that the gallery is just the first phase of a bigger project to make Libyan art more global.

In a city like Benghazi, where intense fighting and a dire humanitarian crisis has plagued the residents for over two years, the idea of an art gallery may seem counterintuitive. But this gallery is just the latest event in a steadily growing art scene among Libyan youth. While politicians and fighters destroy the country, disenfranchised young people are using art as an outlet for creative expression, and, increasingly, paving the new for a new profession and new opportunities.

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

The 2011 revolution and subsequent war was a catalyst for new art movements in the country. Music, graphic design, photography and even graffiti were taken up by young people who were eager to express their passion in the rapid changes happening around them. Galleries, book fairs, carnivals and other cultural events were being organized in Benghazi, bringing together artists from the past generations with the new generation.

There was a lull in artistic creativity in the years after as Benghazi’s security situation rapidly deteriorated. Civil society, one of the main promoters of culture, was facing threats by religious extremists who saw no need for art in their post-revolution vision. The 2014 war made humanitarian relief the most urgent priority for the besieged city.

But, as life had begun to slowly return, so did the art scene. A popular Facebook group, ‘Art Lovers’, is an online forum with tens of thousands of members from across Libya to share their art and get tips on how to improve. This group organized one of the first art galleries in Benghazi after the start of the war, a statement of resilience in the face of conflict. A series of art events followed, from the publishing of the first Libyan manga comic, Habka Magazine, to the opening of Tanarout, a culture club that celebrates the arts and humanities. These events have created a momentum that has encouraged more youth to engage in creative hobbies.

This growing trend is not confined only to Benghazi. Cultural events are being frequently organized in Tripoli’s many art houses, covering everything from painting to writing to music. A new center called Warraq Art Foundation has recently opened its doors, and a new project aims to set up cultural palace in a historic public building. And art galleries and crafts fairs continue to be organized in more disenfranchised cities like Ajdabiya, Waddan, Ghat and Sebha.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

The use of art has grown as well, not just as an expressive medium but also to shed light on important social issues. The Aegis Gallery held last November was organized to commemorate the Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, and cartoonist Suhaib Tantoush draws satirical images on the everyday struggle of Libya citizens. Popular musician Fuad Gritli is known for his tongue-in-cheek songs on Libya current events, and artist Abdullah Hadia uses themes and symbols from Libyan folklore to revive cultural traditions.

But while the will and passion persist, there are still obstacles that deter the growth of these art movements. Weak infrastructure, worsening financial problems and a lack of cultural awareness still cripple the art scene, as the shadow of war still looms over the country. Citizens whose basic needs are not met do not have the luxury of focusing culture, and art has a historically infamous reputation in Libya as not being a “real” profession. “Art is a new market,” said Noureldine Elhouni during a panel on art magazines in Libya. “Investors are afraid to put their money in such a new sector.” And Libya is not exempt from problems faced by aspiring artists around the world, including a lack funding and sustainability.

A new movement of religious extremism has also emerged as a threat to this burgeoning youth art scene, particularly in East Libya. A shipment of books was confiscated by a police check point on its way to Benghazi, and religious authorities in the area claimed that the books promoted, among other things, secularism and atheism.  While this act was met with strong outcries – even prompting a widespread hashtag on social media which pressured the police to make a statement – it is a worrying indicator of things to come.

A visitor to the ARRA Gallery remarked to me that the gallery was an important statement in light of the recent fears, made all the more significant by its location in a culturally historic building. It will be more difficult to stem the tide of art in Libya as the community continues to grow, especially as new artistic avenues and techniques are explored. While the policy makers and government authorities continue to stall the development of the country, it’s clear that the youth have become the new safeguards of art and culture.