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.

Advertisements

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.

 

How Gender Stereotypes in Libya Are Killing Individuality

Were you that young girl who was told that she should being playing with dolls instead of playing soccer? Are you that young man who had to fake masculinity in order to avoid being mocked? In Libya, our gender stereotypes have been carved in stone long, long, ago, and any slight deviation outside these very rigid definitions can lead to teasing, ostracizing, or worse.

I grew up as a sort-of tomboy; I preferred jeans to dresses, and cut my hair short (much to my mother’s horror). I didn’t care for make-up, and while other little girls dreamed and planned their wedding day, I was busy writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction and thinking of the day I could travel to New Zealand to see the set of the movie myself. In short, I was very much a deviation from the mainstream.

Within my circle of close friends, those who’ve known me, it was never an issue, because that’s who I’ve always been. I was only made aware of my being “different” and “weird” when I started university. While the other girls were dolled up with perfectly matching outfits (where did they find the time? I always wondered) I quickly stuck out like a sore thumb in class with my worn-out hoodies and flip-flops.

“My mom said I shouldn’t graduate until I get engaged,” was the rationale behind the time and effort these girls put into looking as presentable as possible. I picked up on the “dress code” pretty quickly; a bulky headscarf wrapped in whatever latest fashion the Turkish/Khaleeji soap operas were airing, with matching shoes/bag/nails, and a brightly-coloured outfit that said, “I can be bold and fashionable but also modest enough that you don’t feel ashamed showing a picture of me to your mom.”

“Why do you dress like a boy?” one girl asked me. I looked down at my outfit, a plain blue shirt and jeans. “Uhhh…” I was stuck. How do you explain the concept of unisex clothing, or non-gendered fashion, to a person who was raised to see the world in pink and blue? It wasn’t that I deliberately dressed androgynously, it was just that I didn’t care enough, and more importantly, I didn’t have the time. My life did not revolve around the eventuality of my marriage, and I didn’t feel the desire openly assert my femininity. It didn’t matter though, because the rumors started all the same. There’s something wrong with her. Where is her mother? She’s not normal. 

I might have been affected had I cared what people thought of me, but my own world of friends gave me that layer of protection against the inane gossip. But not everyone has this kind of support system, and it is hurting a generation of young Libyans who feel that they have to conform to these ridiculously narrow definitions, who put so much effort into fitting in that it comes at the expense of sacrificing who they are.

The problem of rigid gender norms isn’t just an issue for girls. Boys are drilled from a young age on what it means to be a man; you should be out on the street with your friends, you should control your women (mothers, sisters, etc.), there’s no room for emotions. It’s both comical and sad to watch 8-year old boys strut around with their chests puffed out and adult language warbling from their mouths, a caricature of how men should act displayed on them like an ill-fitting suit. It’s infuriating to see a 12-year old boy driving a car with his mother next to him, because “boys should drive”. The young boy who would rather stay inside and read with his sister, or the man who would rather pursue his dream of being an artist instead of making money as a “CEO” to get married, or even that guy in class who gestures as he talks and hates violence, they are all “abnormal”. He’s weak, he’s not a real man, aspersions are cast on his sexuality.

While bullying between girls can be insidious and underhanded, with boys its very much out in the open. Fist fights are, after all, part of ‘being a man’. Since Libya is far from being ready to talk about sexuality, those who would rather lead an alternative lifestyle have to instead repress any unorthodox feelings and conform to their parents’, and society’s, expectations.

These gender stereotypes plague us everywhere; in the workplace (teaching is a woman’s job, only men can be pilots), in our personal lives, and even in our politics (the dad should vote on behalf of the family). They feed the culture of oppression against women and gendered violence against both sexes, and validate bullying.

I recognize that gender roles are a construction of the society and culture we live in, but isn’t it time to re-examine that society and these norms? We need to come up with a new definition of the term “normal”, because the current one is excluding a substantial part of society and killing their creativity and self-expression. It is harrowing and exhausting to hide who you are, and I for one am sick of being told to lower my voice because women aren’t supposed to speak loudly, I’m tired of feeling pity for young boys who are humiliated because they’d rather hold a brush than a gun.

To the young Libyans who aren’t normal, like me, who feel pressured to act a certain way, who are afraid of being alone or attacked if they let their light shine, give society the middle finger and live the way you want. The alternative, or the double life, is not better, and those that will appreciate who you are will find you eventually. The stereotypes are outdated and if we don’t break them, who will?

Ramadan Television In Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10425185_1524140087808184_4797113902548065548_n

Poster for Dragunov, a Libyan Ramadan series

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

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

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

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

CkwOI_ZWYAAI11Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peculiar Power of Libyan Flags

The other day I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine, 99 Percent Invisible, which covers the history of designed objects. One aspect of design that the podcast is obsessed with is that of flags. As I listened to one flag-centric episode, it was mentioned how people generally never put much thought into the design of a flag, but at the same time tend to have an emotional reaction to the sight of a flag; whether proud, angry, wary, whatever.

This got me thinking about the Libyan flag, and the many emotional reactions I’ve seen over the years. It’s remarkable the strange journey this otherwise innocuous piece of cloth has been through. Like everything else in our country, the Libyan flag (or flags, rather) has a history of grandeur, controversy and violence.

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza (Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza
(Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Let’s wind the clock back to the mid-19th century. It’s the era of the Ottoman empire, and a dark green flag with three crescent moons flies in Tripoli, the flag of the Tripolitiania Wilaya. This is one of the oldest Libyan flags known, but it represents an occupation rather than a proper identity.

Over in Cyrenaica, the air is filled with dust from the construction site of the Benghazi municipal building, as the city turns into another key point for the Ottoman Empire. This building will be decked with a number of different flags over its lifetime. One such flag is what we know today as the flag of Barga; black cloth with a white crescent and star in the middle, which was raised after Cyrenaica broke away from Italian rule. A similar red flag was used in the French-controlled Fezzan around the same time, while a light blue flag, a green palm tree and a white star designated the Tripolitianian Republic. Before these three regions adopted their individual flags, a variant of the Italian flag dominated in Tripolitiania and Cyrenaica.

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory (Source)

Now, why those colours and symbols, you wonder? I actually have the same question, although one can assume that not much thought was put into the design the flags during that turbulent time. Of the three, the Tripolitianian flag, while being the most garish, also seems to have the most symbolism. A green palm tree, common in Libya, and which acts as a frame of our ocean views, and a light blue background, a colour you see often while strolling in Tripoli, whether sky or sea.

I did some digging, but I couldn’t seem to find any resources that could shed light on the meanings behind the flags. If you ask around, people will often give you romantic answers about martyrs and religion and things like that, although who knows, that could be the reasoning behind the designs.

But anyways, I digress. When Libyan independence was declared by King Idris in 1951, the first Libyan flag was born. According to this Wikipedia page, the flag of Barga (the province formally presided by King Idris) was used, with red added to symbolize blood and green to symbolize prosperity. This design was the work of Omar Faiek Shennib, a key figure during the Senussi monarchy. Some have also remarked that the design of the flag is a mix of the three provincial flags (red for Fezzan and green for Tripoli, on a Barga backdrop). This may or may not have been intentional, but all good design manages to accrue multiple meanings over time. A reading of the ’51 Libyan constitution will highlight the strict guidelines for the flag’s exact design (I’m looking at you, people who unforgivably stretch it out and butcher it in Photoshop for your designs).

From 'Good Flag, Bad Flag', compiled by Ted Kaye

From ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag’, compiled by Ted Kaye

But this flag was only fated to fly for 18 years before the Fateh revolution/coup of 1969. Gadhafi experimented with pan-Arab flags before finally settling on a national flag; the infamous green. The first, and to date only, national flag that is a single colour in the history of vexillology. One could view this as a completely selfish move (deprive the nation of a strong symbol) or as a complete lack of design initiative. However, I think it was part of Gadhafi’s branding strategy; a green flag to go with the Green Book and the Principles of the Green Revolution. It is a personal flag that represents the Gadhafi ideology rather than a proper national symbol. Libya was Gadhafi and Gadhafi was Libya; that was the meaning behind the flag.

So it’s understandable that when, during the 2011 uprising, one of the first symbols to be burned was the green flag, along with the revolutionary ‘mathabat’ and, during a bonfire blaze that I’ll never forget, copies of the Green Book. And what became the symbol of the revolution? That’s right, the tri-coloured Kingdom of Libya flag, later to be known affectionately by Libyans as Bou-Najma-wa-Hilal.

But this move was not without criticism from supporters of the revolution. Even while young men were being killed in front of Benghazi’s largest military base, some Libyans took to social media to convince others not to change their profile picture to the tri-coloured flag, and not to rally under it. They didn’t want the association with the monarchy, a system they feared would replace Gadhafi because of the re-emergence of the flag. Instead, they asked people to use a picture of Omar Mukhtar, a politically-safe symbol that all Libyans could agree on.

But whether it actually was the association with the monarchy, or maybe because the colours were so bold and defiant, the tri-coloured stuck, and eventually made an official come-back as the Libyan flag. Buried for 42 years, and yet against all odds, it came back. Talk about the power of symbols, huh?

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi's courthouse rally, April 2011

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi’s courthouse rally, April 2011

I didn’t grow up in a very Libya-centric household, so the flag was definitely new to me. I think it was new to most Libyans as well, thanks to Gadhafi’s determination in completely burying and eliminating any old symbols. And even if you didn’t want a monarchy, it still represented a better, more honourable time for Libya.

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. (I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer)

And since symbolism is scarce in a country that acted as company name for a self-obsessed megalomaniac for 42 years, we totally abused it. To say that it was everywhere is not an exaggeration. Everyone owned at least a handful of flags, volunteers were painting every available public surface red, black and green, and the logos of government institutes and civil society organizations alike had some variant of the flag design. Now, while the colours may look nice on a flag, they were not very pleasing to see on, say, historic monuments. We reached a red, black and green saturation point (no pun intended), and with the development of Libyan graphic skills, we’re slowly moving away from (over)using the revolutionary colours.

But the tri-coloured flag of the Kingdom wasn’t the only one to appear in public plazas and protests. In Western Libya, another flag that was new to us began to wave in the wind; the Amazigh flag. In cheery yellow, green and blue stripes, with a bold red Tinfagh letter yaz in the middle, the Amazigh flag represents not a nation, but a people, and in Libya’s case, a minority oppressed by Gadhafi. The unfurling of this flag was, in its own way, another stance of defiance against the regime. (You can read about the design here, and it’s definitely rich in literal symbolism.)

But not everyone cares for this symbolism. Many Libyans don’t like seeing the flag (to put it politely), because of its perceived exclusionary nature; i.e. you’re not part of our race. It also represents a collective Amazigh identity that transcends borders, which makes some newly nationalistic Libyans a little uncomfortable.

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

Flag revival seems to have been the theme of the new Libya. Bring out your old symbols, brush off the dirt, and pick off where you stopped 42 years ago. Remember the black flag of Barga? When the federalist movement began to gain steam in 2012, they also needed a symbol. And what better symbol than the flag of the political province that they’re trying to revive? Suddenly black Barga flags began to appear more often, as calls for federalism and a more unified Barga identity began to strengthen.

This, too, was met with criticism, although of a much more furious nature. Detractors of federalism accused the movement of trying to divide the country. Suddenly the flag went from being a historic symbol to one of exclusion; like with the Amazigh flag, the black flag of Barga represents a subset of Libyans with their own distinct identity , history and demands.

Being the pro-federalist that I am, I promptly changed my profile picture to the Barga flag back in 2012, until the federalist movement began to move away from rights for Eastern Libya towards a more hostile, tribal-based ideology. I still like the flag, but unfortunately it has become too immersed in negative connotations today, and having a Barga flag profile picture may be seen as being associated with those connotations, the down side to flag symbolism.

And speaking of negative flag symbolism, the Gadhafi flag didn’t exactly go the way of the tri-coloured in 1969. Many people and cities who oppose the revolution still hang the Gadhafi green on their buildings, in defiance of an uprising that doesn’t represent them. Many groups in the armed conflict in Libya today use “evidence” of green flags among other armed groups as proof of being pro-Gadhafi and, in effect, fair game to attack. One group accused of charging in with green flags has been the Libyan army in Benghazi, who, in response, have increased the number of tri-coloured flags around their checkpoints and on their cars. Wars of symbolism can be fought just as feverishly as wars of guns and missiles, apparently.

During a workshop I attended to analyze draft of the new Libyan constitution, the article that mentions the flag came up. Now, you’d think, with crucial state-building and policy-making articles in the constitution, we wouldn’t give much time to an article about flag design. But no, we spent a good half hour heatedly debating whether or not the tri-coloured should be the Libyan flag.

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Some said that it was a no-brainer, half the country’s already covered in the colours now anyways. But some said that, no, the flag doesn’t represent everyone. Those whose children died under the banner of the green would never vote yes for a constitution that enshrined the flag their children died fighting against. I spoke to a CDA member who told me that even among the Assembly, there were members who were against the tri-colour.

But surely we can’t bring back the Gadhafi green? The people whose children died fighting this flag wouldn’t agree either. So what’s the solution? One person in the workshop proposed creating a new flag, along with a new anthem, that would help to unite all Libyans under (literally) one banner.

I’m personally undecided on this issue, because on the one hand, while the tri-coloured represents the first Libya to me, I can’t deny that the flag has become heavy with other symbolism, much like the Barga flag. As the green became the brand of Gadhafi, the red-black-and-green has become the brand of February 17th, a revolution-turned-ideology that many Libyans no longer want to be part of, and that many Libyans do not feel they are a part of to begin with.

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014 (Yes, the picture is from far away, but that’s as close as I ever want to get to those guys)

There’s one last flag I haven’t mention that has also adorned lamp posts and buildings in the new Libya; the infamous Alqaeda standard and the mortifying ISIS black banner. The former appeared as early as 2011, while the latter took its place in the subsequent years. Unlike the other flags, this has been met not with anger so much as cold fear. As Libyans continue their symbolic fighting over green, red-black-and-green, or an entirely new set of colours, this flag of death threatens to cover its inky blackness over all of Libya.


Jk, I wouldn’t want to end the post on such a dark note (pun totally intended this time).

At the end of the day, they’re just pieces of cloth sown together. They’re not much different than the pyjama shirt I’m wearing. And yet, we manage to saturate them with so much meaning, so many hopes and aspirations, and sadly, so much of our fellow countrymen’s blood, that they take on a life of their own. It is really wise to give so much power to such a symbolically malleable icon? Before you answer that, ask yourself if it’s okay to arrest a man for defacing that icon, or if you would break a friendship over it? Yes, the flag you hold is an extension of your beliefs, but do you want your beliefs weaved into something whose meaning can so easily change? There is always the fear that you begin to soak the many meanings of the flag, to change who you are, so that you feel justified in holding it, and thus allowing us to become controlled by our symbols.

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

A graphic designer friend of mine who, frustrated by the Gadhafi era, the 2011 revolution, regional sensitivities and the complete abandonment of Benghazi by the rest of the country, took matters into his own hands and designed the “Flag of Benghazi”. The aqua-green “ocean” represents the huthoor, people from West Libyan origin, while the reddish-brown “land” represents the people from bedu, or East Libyan, origin. These are the people who, in a country torn by East vs. West animosity, have managed to create a city for themselves to live together. The lighthouse sits on a peaceful white background, with the words “Benghazi Lives” emblazoned underneath. Unlike the politically or regionally-charged Libyan flags, this one captures the spirit of the city; its people. He only designed it as a response to the current situation, but if it ever gets proposed as an official city flag, I’m sure that it too will meet with controversy. In any case, it’s the only flag, in this long historical mess of flags, that I currently feel represents me.

A Brief History of Local Libyan Governance, and Carving Out Community Libyan Spaces (Pt.1)

Untitled-2

City Hall Model 3

It’s an architectural post, oh my god! You know what that means. Yes, my graduation project is going very well, thank you for asking! The reason for the excitement is, obviously, that I’m going to be a graduate very soon (and removing the insolent ‘student’ description from my IDs, huzzah). I’ve also been bedridden for over a week due to a nasty concussion, which meant no coffee, so the five or so cups I had today to make up for it might also be a small contributing factor to the energy.

So, what is my graduation project, (or, more formally, my “thesis”, a term that totally wigs me out). If you had asked me during the first four years of school, I would’ve adamantly insisted that I’d be designing a community center, for a number of reasons. It’s a dynamic architectural building type, it’s a space that’s badly needed in a country of people that don’t have many places to publicly congregate. And, more importantly, a community center perfectly marries my love of architecture with my firm devotion to civil society, a design project that will keep me in my element and allow me to launch my career in public-use architecture and design.

That is, uuuuntil my professors had a talk with me. Now, we’re big on the number three in the architecture department, so by the time you hit your final year, everything is in threes. Case studies, program proposals, and of course, theses statements. I presented my first statement, the community center, with all the pomp and circumstance I could muster. I then added a library as statement numero duo, to show that I was serious about doing a community building, and I threw in the city hall almost as an afterthought. A city hall is a political building, and the last thing any Libyan wants is to deal with more politics.

“We’ve reviewed your thesis proposals, and we feel that a city hall would be the best project for you,” the committee told me.

“Umm, well, you’ll actually find that I present a much stronger case for the community center, several pages of case, actually, haha,” I countered, barely able to keep from rising out of my seat and slapping someone.

“No one in the department has ever done a city hall before. We want you to go for it.” And they walked out of the studio, leaving me shocked and with a rapidly growing desire to lunge at my lead supervisor’s thick neck.

I had practically already designed the goddamned community center in my head, could they not sense that through my adulation of the building type and my pristinely printed words of longing that I wanted a COMMUNITY CENTER?

I (or the coffee) may be embellishing the devastation I felt at not getting the thesis I wanted, most likely a symptom of the war and the need for dramatics. I was pretty bummed out at not getting the center, but the more I read about city halls and municipal architecture, and the more I investigated Libya’s own unique municipal situation, the more I realized that this would be an interesting, if politically saturated, project.

It’s really been an eye-opening experience these past few months to work on a design project that is linked to a government structure that is constantly evolving and changing, which is in fact in the midst of a historic change. When I undertook the thesis, Libya had just implemented the temporary local council system, meant to act as a place holder for the real deal. When I presented my initial findings a year later, Libya had a completely new legislative body, a completely new set of alterations to the local governance law, and, perhaps most starkly felt, a completely new power struggle.

Untitled-1

Preliminary abstract conceptualization; What is Benghazi?

I’m not gonna lie, it may have been filled with politics, but my preliminary thesis defense was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I spent a full hour going toe-to-toe with the 6-headed dragon that was the thesis committee, discussing everything from federalism to tribal politics to responsible administrative design to Benghazi’s evolving public life. It was like a large Twitter debate in real life, but actually respectable and intelligent. I loved how my professors were acutely aware that the situation in Libya would have the biggest impact on my project, that I am working on a building that is akin to handling mercury.

Which brings me back to…local governance in Libya; what’s going on, what was going on, and what will the future hold?

To sum up everything I’ve read, Libya has all the necessary elements to make it the type of country to rely heavily on decentralization. We have always had, at every point in history, some form or other of decentralized power distributed among the land. This was most clearly manifested through the federal system under the newly independent Kingdom of Libya in 1951, with three provinces, two capitals and one hell of a lot of territorial baggage. It’s interesting to note now that, with the decaying of any and all concrete state-structures today, an organic return to the old system has been the most persistent feature of this brave new Libya.

I was also surprised to learn that Gadhafi actually began his rule pushing for further decentralization, allotting a lot of power to the governorates. This was, of course, in the few years before he lost in marbles and abolished the governorate system entirely. But, while the complex system of the shabiyat and Jamahiriya still mystifies me, I’ve learned that there was a method in his madness. It is, or so I postulate, a form of extreme decentralism, so localized that it hardly even feels like there is power on a municipal level. Those I spoke to who experienced the full force of the mu’tamarat shabiya recall only hazy memories (we still haven’t reached a point in our post-revolutionary recovery where people will openly admit that they attended those meetings, sadly enough).

Enter February 17, a complete reshuffle of the country, and along with it, many strong and rising voices calling out for decentralization. It’s important to note that the decentralism demanded post-Feb 17 wasn’t just about having more administrative decisions, it was strongly linked to the regional and tribal identities that were largely oppressed/manipulated by the Gadhafi regime.

To understand local governance today, one needs to read Law 59 of Year 2012, the Local Governance Law issued by the Ministry of Local Governance under the Transitional National Council, and its numerous addendum. You’ll also need to get your hands on the bylaws governing each independent Municipal Council (something a friendly smile and some wasta with the council can help with) to understand the structure governing each. There’s also numerous other laws all detailing the sleep-inducing minutiae of the municipal council’s many roles, responsibilities and duties. All I can tell you is, I’m so glad I did not major in political law, and I have a new-found respect for people who do (not really, why would you do that to yourself?)

Now, the general structure should be, Ministry -> Governorate -> Municipality -> Municipal Council -> Municipal branches. We’ve jumped over the governorate stage, which is supposed to come later, and went straight to the councils. Elections across Libya led to the formation of initially 99 municipal councils (later expanded to 112 or so, such as the Benina municipality’s decision to break off from Benghazi). We still don’t have any governorates, but even defining that at this point is iffy because the draft writers of the local governances chapter on the new Libyan constitution haven’t really made any definitive choice in whether we should have governorates (preferred by those who don’t want/like federalism) or “regions” (a term used so butthurt anti-federalists feel less afraid.) Hell, they haven’t even been able to decide on the capitals of Libya (latest draft stating some wishy-washy nonsense about a political, economic and cultural capital, intending to appease all and pleasing none).

Untitled-3

Facade lighting study for Model 2

Now, a question posed by the thesis committee was, what difference does it make if Benghazi is the capital of the province of Barga, or the capital of the Benghazi governorate, or just another city in the Libyan vastness, for a city hall project? The answer is, quite a lot actually. A city hall, as building typologies go, carry a lot of symbolism in the exterior design. What kind of city Benghazi was, is and will be should be represented in some way or another in the edifice. No one can deny the rich political and historic significance of Benghazi, and this needs to be represented not only on the facade but also in the way the building is used, how the people and surroundings interact with it. Five years ago, we had mu’tamarat shabiya. Today, we have a municipal council. Five years from now, who knows what form of local governance we’ll have in Benghazi, and it’s necessary, nay, imperative, that the building is designed true to the turbulent and important city that it stands in.