Ramadan Television In Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poster for Dragunov, a Libyan Ramadan series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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)

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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.

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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).

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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.

Benghazi’s Neighbourhoods and Their Ideologies

Most big cities around the world are organized based on a system of streets and districts. Neighbourhoods are often formed on the periphery of busy commercial centers, in quiet residential areas where familiarity between people doesn’t extend beyond physical recognition and a formal head-nod.

But of course, Benghazi breaks that tradition. Rather than adopting big city idiosyncrasies (impersonal, enormous, chaotic), it has instead developed a hybrid of urban culture and small town quirks.

Take, for example, the layout of the city. Benghazi’s core is its downtown, located on a jut of land overlooking the Mediterranean, since the city’s economy was historically dependent on its sea port and salt trade. Later, Greek town planner C.A.Doxiadis drafted a vision for the city to promote a concentric-circle plan, with the downtown being the core. The concentric circle design is a standard template in urban planning, and is beneficial for cities experiencing rapid growth.

But while Benghazi’s downtown is (or, was) a commercial center, it never quite shook off the neighbourhoods that had existed in the area. These include El-Sabri, Sidi Khraibeesh and Souq El-Hoot, districts that once housed Benghazi’s oldest families and contained a medley of architecture styles and landmarks that extend as far back as the Ottomans. (If you notice a switch in my use of present and past tenses, I still have trouble reconciling the fact that we’ve ostensibly lost our downtown in this war).

Most of the old families had long moved out of these areas, but the buildings they left behind still bore their names. The Kanoun building, the Benkato mosque, the Kikhia house, etc. all form a downtown that is familiar in the minds and hearts of Benghazi’s older generation. My favorite part of walking through the downtown with my parents is hearing them reminisce on old memories. My father riding his bike around the Silphium plaza or haggling with Jewish merchants in Souq El-Jareed, my mother studying in the Manar Palace (temporarily used by the university) and eating lunch with her friends beneath the horseshoe arches of the terrace.

Benghazi expanded to the North, South and West, but the traits that made up the old neighbourhoods did not dissipate. Instead, they moved with the families, creating neighbourhoods across the city where people know each other intimately, where strangers asking for directions are invited inside for food and tea, where a wedding or funeral tent is set up in the middle of the street and no one complains, because the neighbourhood celebrates and mourns together. Some say that, because the people who came to Benghazi broke away from their tribes and became part of the diverse social fabric of the city, they recreated the tribal system they were familiar with. In Benghazi, there isn’t much that separates family, friends and neighbours.

Today, the neighbourhoods in Benghazi can roughly be described as “upper” or “lower” class, although the description isn’t universally accurate. Gadhafi’s systematic destruction of the city created an even playing field, economically speaking. That is to say, lower class ‘sha3biya’ areas can house university professors and other intellectuals, while many upper class areas have no working sewage system.

El-Wahayshi is considered Benghazi’s “slum”. Containing mostly old housing developments, the area has a high drug-trafficking rate, and many immigrants coming from impoverished countries live there. Tabalino, on the other hand, is considered a “rich suburb”. A relatively new area, most of the houses are impressive marble-encased villas surrounded by high walls. But aside from the houses, the districts are almost imperceptible from one another. Both have the same small shops selling vegetables, cigarette kiosks and mobile phone stores. Both have public schools with the same architecture and the same level of education. Both have potholes that fill with rain water in the winter.

I remember reading an article that described the Hadayek area as “affluent” and laughing at the description. Hadayek is a relatively nice area, paved streets and sidewalks and trees (the name translates to ‘the Gardens’), but it doesn’t contain any features that make it particularly affluent, or distinguishes it from ‘less affluent’ areas. I guess maybe it’s because I’ve lived here for so long, but the shabby facades and accumulated dust and debris from years of neglect have made all the districts in Benghazi similar to me.

The neighbourhood mindset has had a certain degree of effect in the current war. I’ve seen many articles analyzing the political, cultural and economic factors that have come into play, but I have rarely – if ever – read an analysis that including the anomaly of Benghazi’s urban composition.

For example, when the war begin, one of the first districts to be liberated was El-Selmani. Selmani is an old, high-density area comprised of a maze of narrow streets. It isn’t so much a large swath of houses as much as it’s one house, with children and women and men walking the narrow streets like hallways to play or borrow ingredients or just to stand on the corner and chat. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Selmani who didn’t know their neighbours in at least a four street radius. And so, when the war began and the extremists began fighting army members for access to various districts, the people of Selmani instinctively knew who was whom. And due to the Selmani residents’ overwhelming support for the army, the extremists were weeded out and fighting stopped in the area after three days.

But in Laithi it was the opposite. Laithi is another old neighbourhood, expanding across much of West Benghazi and containing a mix of new and old buildings. Before the war, the district was humorously referred to as “Laithi-stan” due to the overwhelming number of people who were pro-Ansar Shariah (dark humor, I know). When the war began, the men of the area closed off the main streets, snipers were positioned in key locations and those who supported the army inconspicuously left. When the fighting began, all their strategizing was put in motion and it remains a site of continuous battle to this day.

Now, what makes a neighbourhood predominately pro-Ansar or pro-Army? It’s obviously not just a coincidence that people with similar ideologies happened to live near each other. As mentioned previously, neighbours are akin to family for many people. People who grow up next to each other are bound to have their beliefs influence one another. What’s become apparent in this war is that many families with those who have a member in the fight will ferociously defend that side, and so the same seems to go with neighbours.

Another anomaly in the war is the fact that we have military bases located in residential neighbourhoods. The February 17th militia base is across from the university quarters and the Rafallah Sahati militia base is in Hawari. Not surprisingly, these areas have been evacuated (or people were forced to leave under threat of violence). The number of displaced families has reached a little over 46,000 registered IDP families, and the relocation and humanitarian assistance for these families has proven to be one of the biggest problems in the crisis. The psychological damage of the displacement is probably the worst. There are fears also that the ideological reasons for the war and the tribal elements are tearing apart the social fabric of the city.

It’s this humble (sort of) blogger’s opinion that this last fear is not as worrying as it would be if we were talking about a city other than Benghazi. Our society is, if not many other things, at least resilient. This is not the first war or the first crisis that we have ever faced, and while tensions may be high now, I don’t believe (or hope, at any rate) that we’ll see any lasting damages.

On Choicelessness in Libya, or Why Developing Countries are All the Same

It seems like the only books I can really dive into these days are those that relate, on some level, to Libya. I’ve started at least half a dozen books this year, only to lose interest about a third of the way through. While philosophically-rich love affairs, the expansion of the universe and dragon-filled fantasy all make for interesting books, they just couldn’t grasp my interest.

Part of my travel rituals include buying at least one book from the place I visit. And so, rushing through a bookshop in Paris right before my flight home, I picked a book from the shelf with a familiar title – Americanah. I can’t remember where I had heard of it (probably social media) but I remember it had caught my attention.

Americanah is a love story, a fictional memoir and social observations, all wrapped into one. It tells the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who moves to America because her university studies had stopped due to political instability (well, doesn’t that sound familiar?). In America she discovers an unfamiliar culture and, even more unfamiliar, the sudden distinctiveness of race. She goes through the typical immigration struggles before finally establishing herself as a “non-American black” blogger, writing insightful and sardonic posts about her daily observations. But when she starts to feel unfulfilled, she travels back to the motherland to start a new life and reclaim her old love. But her return has revealed that she’s changed; she’s no longer a Nigerian but an Americanah (or, in Libya-speak, a double shafra).

Now before you go looking for your own copy to read, keep in mind that it may not everyone’s cup of tea. It hit home for me for obvious reasons, but it speaks through the perspective of a very niche demographic; those wandering, identity-confused souls who come from different countries. Conversely, it is a good way to put yourself in those travel-warn shoes, so read it with those disclaimers in mind.

With some of my older blog posts (like Double Shafra Culture or What It Means to be Libyan), I was getting comments from people across the globe saying that they, too, faced similar experiences in their own countries. Most of these people came from developing countries like Libya. It’s interesting to discover that our situation is not really that unique, and that developing countries seem to face the same obstacles, albeit in different degrees.

In Americanah, tyrannical military leaders were overthrown, but replaced with a corrupt system that elevated the rich and created a poisonous class division that debilitated the nation’s development (where have I heard that before). The aspirations of the youth became intrinsically tied to getting a visa and leaving the country to build a better life abroad (Libyan youth today). For Obinze, Ifemelu’s love interest, having his visa expire plunged him into an endless cycle of fear at being caught and desperation to find a solution that would allow him to stay. Ifemelu was never perfectly comfortable in America because the issue of race dominated, and because she was always looking at the culture from outside the “circle”, being unable to fully immerse herself in it. And yet, when she returned to Nigeria, she found aspects of her old culture that she could no longer stomach, being torn between here and there. This is the biography of every expat caught between two places.

To reuse a tired cliche, the world seems to be divided into two; people who live in developed countries, and people who aspire to one day live in developed countries. It is, after all, much easier to leave your problems rather than try to fix them, especially problems on the scale of war and national corruption. Those who do end up making the journey from developing to developed aren’t always entirely happy; the myth of the “silver platter life” vanishes once you start working a minimum-wage job while trying to support a family, navigating through real and imagined discrimination and spending your nights gripped in deportation fears.

And the developing countries? They experience dictatorship, coups, revolutions, war, eventually attain some years of tenuous stability, and sometimes go on to make something of themselves. But the roots of the problem still remain, and the cycle eventually repeats itself. In Americanah, Obinze observes that,

“…everybody in this country has the mentality of scarcity. We imagine that even the things that are not scarce are scare. And it breeds a kind of desperation in everybody. Even the wealthy.”

I could fill this blog with half the book’s text because it’s very quotable, but instead I’ll focus on the observations that really hit home. What most stuck out for me was Ifemelu’s observations on choicelessness.

“[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

The war in Libya has definitely been a catalyst towards the exodus we’re now seeing of Libyans to other countries (Tunis, Amman, Cairo and Istanbul are often described as Libyan states because of the number of Libyans who now live there), but this choicelessness has always existed. While life under Gadhafi is more preferable to the current hell, it still had that choked feeling of helplessness. There’s a reason why self-actualization and esteem are on the top of Maslow’s pyramid, and while we’ve been demoted a few levels on that pyramid, young Libyans (and other youth in developing countries) still strive for self-expression and personal growth. Ifemelu reflects, during on of her first nights back in Lagos, as she tries to sleep in the extreme humidity due to a power outage, “A painful throbbing had started behind her eyes and a mosquito was buzzing nearby and she felt suddenly guiltily grateful that she had a blue American passport in her bag. It shielded her from choicelessness. She could always leave; she did not have to stay.”

She did not have to stay, but many Libyans have to. I think some of the spite towards double shafras comes from the fact that they are “shielded” from this reality, that they’re not stuck here. And, sometimes not intentionally, double shafras act superior for it. That was one of the criticisms that Ifemelu faced when she began expressing her disdain over aspects of Nigerian society; that she was being judgmental and lording over others. Even valid criticism can be de-legitimized if it’s said in the wrong tone. She herself is critical of other Nigerian returnees, writing in her blog, “…we spend all our time complaining about Nigeria, and even though our complaints are legitimate, I imagine myself as an outsider saying: Go back where you came from! If your cook cannot make the perfect panini, it is not because he is stupid. It is because Nigeria is not a nation of sandwich-eating people…It is a nation of people who eat beef and chicken and cow skin and intestines and dried fish in a single bowl of soup, and it is called assorted, and so get over yourselves and realize that the way of life here is just that, assorted.”

Now, I don’t know if I would use something like couscous as an analogy to the way of life in Libya (maybe 3usban, because it sounds bizarre when you describe it and looks worse, but really isn’t that bad), but her criticisms are a good example of the friction between returnees and locals. If (when?) Libya stabilizes, we might see a lot more of this, as those who left now might come back one day, and they will invariably find themselves in a Libya different from the one they left. To avoid the mistakes we’ve made in the past with regards to returnees, I think we need to find a new, more tolerant dynamic that both sides should adopt.

I’m hoping I can get back to just enjoying regular literature without Libya-esque symbolism and analogies, because those kinds of books always lead me through a cycle of wonder to frustration to hopelessness and back. I think I find these books fascinating because I still don’t have that whole live-in-a-war-zone/returnee/Third-Worlder identity thing down yet, and it’s insightful to read how others have dealt with it. If you’re the type to still hope, it also offers a promise that this is just a phase our country will eventually get over. My next book is Welcome to Night Vale, which is about an otherworldly fantasy town with sinister goings-on. And yes, I’ve already created a connection to Benghazi.

Tribalism in Post-Revolution Libya

“شن قبيلتك؟” (What is your tribe?)

Get stopped at a checkpoint in any region in Libya these days, and this question will invariably come up. A tribe has become more than just a moniker in Libya after the 2011 revolution; it’s a form of identification, used by others to determine where you come from, what your political beliefs are (or should be) and where your loyalties lie.

Every Libyan belongs to a tribe. Whether it’s a small family in an obscure desert town, or a million-strong clan that spans the nation, the tribe forms part of the core of the Libyan identity itself. A person who does not have a tribe is not Libyan, not really, and is given one of the numerous derogatory labels that have been cultivated in the Libyan vernacular, a result of the heightened (exaggerated) pride at our Libyan-ness. (Of course, these labels are only applied to those poor souls from surrounding countries, Chadiaa, Tunsee, Masri, never to a person from, say, Europe or North America).

Prior to 2011, tribalism was buried deep under the surface, at least in my hometown of Benghazi, perhaps to counter Gadhafi’s manipulation of tribal sentiments in order to stay in power. One notable example of this is the renaming of the Eastern town of Tokra to ‘Al-Agoria’, after the Agori tribe that live as a majority in the area. Many speculate that the cause for this name-change was to sow discord between Eastern tribes, who have historically always been united.

But Gadhafi only used what had already existed. Tribal alliances, feuds and migrations go back much further in Libyan history, and still influence the country to this day. The age-old conflict between Misrata and Bani Walid, the story and background of ‘tajreedat habib’ (تجريدة حبيب) in Derna, the East-West divide, the geographic tensions between the Tebu and Tuarag, etc.; all affect, to some degree, the Libyan situation.

It was only after 2011 that the extent of tribalism in Libya came to light. A person who was born and raised in Benghazi would point to a city in West Libya that was fighting Gadhafi and say, “That’s where I came from”, indicating their tribal lineage. Protest signs would declare things like ‘the Tarhouna tribe stands with the revolution!” and “Werfella for February 17th!”. Of course, this didn’t really alarm anyone; if anything, it was encouraged, because it showed that Libyans from all tribal backgrounds were united, and that it was Libyans, not outside actors, who stood against Gadhafi. Nothing is more Libyan than a Libyan tribe, after all.

But it didn’t take long for old tribal grievances to appear once again. Clashes became common between Zawiya and Wershefana, Misrata was flexing its muscles in Bani Walid, and the federalist movement in the East used tribal alliances to gain influence.

Many critics of the federalist movement who claim that it would cause the country’s division seem oblivious to the fact that the country is already divided along tribal and regional lines. Even if its not part of the official legislation, there is a distinct triad of identities in the country; Bargawi, Tripolitianian and Fezzani, and each has a strong basis in tribalism.

But do you need to be part of one of the tribes of the region in order to embody its identity?

This is where the Benghazi anomaly comes in. Benghazi is a tribeless city, that is, no tribe is from Benghazi. A commercial city built on its sea port and salt trade, merchants came from across the country and turned the city into a thriving metropolis. This is where the nickname “رباية الذايح” (upbringer of the wanderers) came from, and its been estimated that around 190 tribes are represented in Benghazi’s million+ population. Much of the city’s inhabitants can trace their ancestry back to Misrata and Bani Walid. And yet, Benghazi sits as the de facto capital of Barga, the Eastern region, and those in and around the city exist in harmony, exemplifying a tribal equilibrium.

My own tribal background is a mix of various origins. My fathers’ parents moved from their tribal hometown to Benghazi before Libya’s independence, to start a new family and a new life. My mother’s grandparents each found their own way to Benghazi, each from a different city, each drawn towards this Eastern beacon. Ask around, and you’ll find that this is the background of most Benaghza. Some are ‘new’ to the city, while others can trace their family’s presence here from the time of the Ottomans.

And this, according to many, is part of Benghazi’s downfall today.

Tribalism in Libya’s current turbulent situation is a double-edged sword. In the East, it has been a unifying factor, while in the West and South, it has fueled the fighting. Benghazi, without a clear tribal focal point, continues to face an ideological war that is forcibly being re-narrated as tribal and regional. Where we were once all Benaghza, we are now Misratis, Tobrukis, Sebhawis, etc. The city has been broken down into its constituent parts and each is careful scrutinized, measured and judged. If you’re from that tribe (and therefore from its respective city), then you must support this side, right? At the height of Operation Karama, a malicious rumor began circulating that people of West Libyan origin were being kicked out of the city, despite the fact that the instigator of Karama is himself of West tribal origin, despite the fact that both sides in the conflict are made up of a mix of tribes, and DESPITE the fact that at least half of Benghazi is from West Libyan origin.

Tribalism makes a good scapegoat for those who want to deliberately twist the reason for the East’s instability, but what’s sad is that many people have stepped into these roles, turning rumor into reality. Your tribe did not initially determine the side you chose to support, but it has slowly come to do so now. And really, can you blame someone for being with or against a certain side when they hear their tribe or city insulted across social media pages and the media?

In Mansur Bushnaf’s ‘Chewing Gum’, he writes, “Libyans are attached to their tribes, each dragging it like an umbilical cord behind him.” Even those we call “huthoor” (حضور), those whose families were brought up in the cities and who have no tribal affiliations, have felt the pull of a tribe, a force reaching in through centuries, which now colours the interactions and outcomes of their lives. I could once tell people my name without having it mean anything other than who I was. But now, my name is attached to a host of pre-conceived suppositions, even if none of them are actually true. You come from this city, you are sympathetic to that political party, you follow these customs. No, don’t try to deny it, your name gives it away.

On a very real level, tribalism has become a gateway in Libya to some very ugly discrimination and some very primitive practices. Politicians are voted in based on their last name rather than their skills, and there is an outcry when a certain tribe isn’t “represented” on a committee or governing body, and nepotism is more widespread than ever before. People from certain tribes are now afraid to travel in certain areas, and your experience at a checkpoint could hinge on the name printed on your ID card. What positive aspects there were of a tribal system in Libya – social protection, a form of restorative justice, etc. – has been overshadowed by the negative aspects. A civil country cannot be built on a system that categorizes people based on something as arbitrary as a last name.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of tribalism in Libya. It is a very complex, extensive topic, and it requires a contextual understanding of Libyan history to really grasp how ingrained this phenomenon is in our country. As the conflict continues, tribalism is getting more or more radical. While I’m sure that cities like Benghazi, formed by all of Libya, will survive, I definitely worry about the consequences of the fighting today and the legacy it will leave for future generations.

Wajeej, the Libyan Way to Make Some Noise

logoI’ve noticed that I have been neglecting my blog lately, for a number of reasons. I’ve been keeping busy with a number of projects that have kept me from being more engaged on here. But another reason is that living for an extended period of time in a country that’s falling apart sort of kills the writing spirit. And I’ve noticed that it’s not just me; a lot of Libyans have been becoming increasingly quieter these days; there isn’t much left to say.

One astute person, Rawad Radwan (@LibyanP) noticed this absence of (positive) Libyan expression and decided that people needed a safe, neutral space where they could express themselves. This was how the Wajeej blog was born. At its core, Wajeej is made up of a group of active Libyan bloggers and writers, bringing their ideas and thoughts together in one place.

In Libyan, the term ‘wajeej‘ (in arabic, وجيج) is used to describe a constant stream of chatter. It’s common to criticize a talkative person of speaking too much ‘wajeej’. However, the connotation used here is not negative, but rather encouragement to have people speak up. The main aim of the Wajeej blog isn’t just to share the views of Libyan writers but to allow others to participate with their opinion pieces. Since Libyans primarily rely on Facebook or the limited space of Twitter to express their thoughts, this blog is a much needed change from the typical (and, these days, rather hostile) social media spaces.

The response so far has generally been very positive, which isn’t a surprise since there are very few civil and online initiatives being taken these days, so people are thrilled when they see anything new being set up. The challenge here will be sustainability, keeping the blog active and ensuring it doesn’t die.

So far I’ve only contributed two pieces, one on the vital #Unite4Heritage campaign started by UNESCO, and another article I’m rather proud of entitled ‘Benghazi After the Storm‘. It’s been a bit tricky juggling work and deadlines with quality writing, and again also because summoning the motivation to actually write about Libya is difficult.

However, I think the coming weeks and months will show a change for Libya. People are becoming increasingly fed up with the situation, and peace building efforts in and out of the country are beginning to show promise (well, I think they are, but just because I’m getting desperate). What we need at this stage is less empty analyses from so-called ‘Libya experts’ and more authentic Libyan voices.

So, if you’ve got something to say, and want your voice to be heard, send in your submissions and let us hear your wajeej!