Death and Architecture

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Phaeno Science Center | Zaha Hadid Architects (Source)

The recent death of Zaha Hadid last week came as a shock to the architectural community. At just 65, one of the most prolific and globally renowned architects would design no more. Her death has come at the height of her fame, as countries across the world having been vying to have a Hadid design built in their cities.

But unlike the recent deaths of Michael Graves or Frei Otto, themselves big names in the field, Zaha’s death has also rippled across the public sphere. Social media has been filled with posts coming from a wide number of countries, all mourning the loss of the architect. People from the Middle East in particular, seeing Zaha has one of the few global success stories that originated in the region, expressed their sadness at losing an important Arab icon. Zaha’s death has, even for a brief moment, united a fragmented world, and connected people through architecture in an entirely new way.

But what is it about Zaha Hadid that created this impact? Was it because of her iconic designs? That was definitely a factor, but she did not have a monopoly on iconic architecture. I believe that the main reason why Zaha’s death is a surprise is because she died before this design era did.

Despite the highly stressful nature of the profession, architects usually outlive their heydays. To put it another way, architectural eras die before their architects do. I.M Pei, a famed architect of the past, is still around at the ripe old age 95, but his designs do not have the impact that they used to. Last year, German architect Frei Otto passed away. Like Hadid, he experimented with building form, materials and new technologies, producing beautiful tensile structures that were considered the height of innovation in their time. But unlike Hadid, by the time Otto had breathed his last, tensile structures were no longer new and unconventional, and his death did not resonate further than the architectural community. In a sense, once the architectural era is over, the architects of that era fade along with it.

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Hall at the International Garden Exhibition | Atelier Frei Otto (Source)

But architecture is currently in the middle of a new era, one that has superseded postmodernism and is described by some as ‘parametricism’ or ‘neo-futurism’. It is a style that is characterized by its heavy dependence on new technologies in order to create and actualize the designs that are produced. Whether high-technology produces better architecture is a topic best left for another day, but Zaha was one of the pioneers of this style.

And in the height of this era, Hadid’s passing is untimely. In Matthew Frederick’s beloved architecture student book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, he writes:

“Architects are late bloomers. Most architects do not hit their professional stride until around age 50! There is perhaps no other profession that requires one to integrate such a broad range of knowledge…[it] takes a long time, with lots of trial and error along the way.”

The picture that accompanies this entry is, in a twist of dark irony, a sketch of Zaha Hadid.

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A page from Matthew Frederick’s book 

But it is not the sudden stop of a career in bloom alone that has made Hadid’s career resonate with people. Her designs were iconic, putting her in the top tier of the professional known as ‘starchitects’. Starchitects are known for creating buildings so fantastical and unique that they capture the interest of the public, which, in a profession that is often ignored by its complexity, is a new phenomenon. Their designs invite people to stare, to take pictures, and to get a conversation going about the buildings we use. And let’s face it, with a field like architecture, where complex philosophy accompanied by a convoluted terminology are mixed with confusing mathematics about loads and structure, it’s not exactly inviting to the average layman. And so those like Hadid and Gehry and Libeskind, with their new, fun forms, bring architecture that much closer to the people they are meant for.

But like I stated previously, these architects are not the pioneers of icons. What is different about their icons is that they have come at a time when the world is more connected than it has ever been before. You can view thousands of iconic buildings at the touch of a button, and explore the achievements made in architecture without leaving your room. And with the internet’s constant thirst for the unusual and buzzworthy, starchitecture is perfectly suited for that need.

Of course, in architectural circles, there is a constant debate over whether starchitects cheapen the profession, and rely on spectacle rather than design integrity for their fame. I’m going to be honest, I often stand on the anti-starchitect side of the debate, being an architect that believes in the human scale and preferring the role of architecture for social change over the soaring cantilevers and exaggerated glass of overpriced starchitecture.

But seeing the effect of Zaha’s death has led me to soften my stance a little on this issue. I can’t deny that her designs have enriched the field and have sparked important debates. And while I’m not a fan of her less-than-moral approach to designing buildings for dictatorships, I have been inspired by her work and can recognize the genius behind it.

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Palacio do Planalto | Oscar Niemeyer (Source)

But I would like to see more appreciation of architectural genius from the general public, even if that genius is around long after the fads they create have faded into the past. One such person that I wish had received more recognition is Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architect who passed away in 2012. The engineer of the city of Brasilia, Niemeyer’s modernist interpretations of civic buildings are now beautiful relics of a bygone era. While Zaha’s buildings can be described as ‘a bold vision of the future today’, Niemeyer’s idea of futuristic architecture was more grounded, using curving white surfaces and stark forms to create expressive yet rational buildings. Just as Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center captured hearts today, Niemeyer’s Palácio do Planalto or Niterói Contemporary Museum evoke a similar grandeur, albeit one that is tethered to its time.

One may grieve at the death of great architects, but that sadness comes mainly from the knowledge that we will never see them design more buildings. But they leave behind a legacy that is rarely achieved by any other profession. Hadid joins the annals of architectural history alongside Niemeyer and Otto and the countless others who have shaped the built environment. One could say that, as long as their buildings still stand, an architect never truly dies.

 

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.

Flying While Libyan

السفر قطعة من العذاب” – سيدنا محمد”

The infamous green Libyan passport, soon to be a relic of a bittersweet era

The infamous green Libyan passport, soon to be nothing more than a relic of a bittersweet era

Libyans don’t agree on much these days. But there is one thing that seems to be universally accepted; the quality of life in the country has dive-bombed after the 2011 revolution. Aside from the physical struggles to achieve the most basic day-to-day tasks, or the staggering loss of life, there’s another more abstract concept that Libyans yearn to have; leadership. Or, to put it another way, a strong sovereign nation.

The void of a national authority that has some respect (or at least sway) on a global level is most felt when travelling abroad. Since the revolution and subsequent wars, it has become increasingly difficult to fly in and out of the country. The number of countries that allow Libyans to enter visa-free can be counted on one hand, and even to these nations, heavy restrictions have been placed.

Historically, the ease of travel in Libya has fluctuated between simple enough to horribly frustrating. There was a time (or so we’re told by our parents) where Libyans could travel to most countries easily and be treated with the utmost respect. The Libyan passport used to carry significance abroad. Fast forward to the Gadhafi-era sanctions imposed on Libya, and all flights in and out of the country were completely stopped. Anyone who wanted to travel abroad had to take a car or bus to a neighbouring country (often Tunisia or Egypt) and fly from there. During the more difficult trips I take now-a-days, my parents like to remind me that they once had to drive the 24+ hour trip from Benghazi to the Tunisian border, and get searched by border guards, often in extreme weather conditions.

Fast forward to just before the revolution, and aviation in Libya was picking up. International carriers offered flights from Libyan airports to a wide range of destinations, including London, Rome and Malta. Libya was beginning to reconnect once again to the rest of the world. Sure, our hand-written bright green passports elicited a few raised eyebrows from customs, but no one had any reason to think badly of Libyans flying to other countries.

And then the revolution happened, and the aviation industry went down the drain. Benina airport has been closed for over a year, Sebha airport for almost two years, while Tripoli International Airport has been reduced to ash-covered arches standing in the middle of smoldering rubble. Many of the planes belonging to the Libyan Arab Airlines, Afriqiyah Airways and Buraq Air (the three biggest Libyan airlines) were lost in the attack by Fajr Libya on Tripoli’s airport. (Meanwhile, a new airline has miraculously appeared, going by the name of Libya Wings. Its history, like its sudden appearance, is shrouded in mystery and controversy).

The few smaller airports that still function in Libya (Maetiga, Labrag and Tobruk) are woefully unequipped to deal with the number of passengers and flights that have suddenly been forced to resort to them. Labrag airport in particular has gained a notorious reputation due to the staff’s tendency to randomly prevent passengers from flying for any number of personal reasons. Maetiga airport, purportedly run by a militia, has enacted a primitive rule whereby young women are not permitted to travel alone unless a male relative signs a consent form. A few airports in the South (Ghat, Temenhint and Kufra) are still limited to local flights, which are anyways still badly needed as the roads in and out of Fezzan become increasingly dangerous. The only international flights available to Libya these days are to Istanbul, Amman, Tunis, Khartoum and Alexandria.

These cities, which are jokingly referred to as “the new Libyan capitals”, (on account of the high influx of Libyans who pass through them), have recently put in motion more restrictive measures for Libyan citizens. Istanbul, shortly followed by Amman, now require visas for Libyan citizens. Tunisia has “temporarily” rerouted all Tunis-bound flights to Sfax airport. Aside from these destinations, many countries will not grant Libyans a visa due to the current state of affairs in Libya.

Another facet of difficulty was added when it was declared that new electronic passports were to be issued for Libyan citizens. The green passport will soon be obsolete (any passport issued pre-2008 is already obsolete in Tunisia) and citizens need to get the new passport as soon as they can. This has proven to be a Herculean task, as the online registration site for a passport appointment is either overbooked or filled with glitches, and people have begun resorting to bribery out of desperation, adding another unneeded layer of corruption. I’ve heard of bribes reaching up to 3000 LYD for a single passport. Even ‘wastas’ (connections) are no guarantee of getting a new blue passport. If you don’t have the older green passport, you’re essentially stuck inside the country until you can somehow miraculously get a new passport. For Libyans who depend on overseas medical treatments (which, considering our local heathcare system, is a lot), this passport crisis can be fatal.

If you can manage to get a new passport, and a visa to the country you need to visit, and you managed to book a flight (which will probably be delayed by several hours, which is the norm), you will then need to tackle another beast; the black market currency rate. Since the Libyan dinar is no longer a hard currency, you cannot convert dinars at other airports. With the banks closing off most financial services, Libyans are stuck with the black market exchange, in which the value of the dinar has been steadily plummeting. A US dollar is now worth over 3 LD, meaning any trip you plan could end up clearing your savings. If you run into any trouble while abroad, whether financial or otherwise, there’s no guarantee that our ineffectual embassies will help you out (one embassy per government, in some countries) as they are too embroiled in the legitimacy crisis.

Picture for a moment the feelings of the average Libyan citizen, who, after suffering through a dictatorship, war, and terrorist invasion, is now treated sub-humanly by other countries, because they either don’t want you in their country for too long or because they fear that you might harm them. Imagine being utterly helpless to even get a new passport for your ailing parent who needs medical treatment abroad. Imagine losing most of your life’s earnings over what should be a typical trip to a neighbouring country, or having to sleep in an airport because of the constant flight delays. Just like the days of the sanctions, Libyans are being treated like pariahs and are forced into isolation. It’s a humiliating experience to be told to stand in a “special” line and watch as everyone’s bags (whether old, young, sick, handicapped) are thoroughly searched, enduring scornful glances from the local authorities because you happened to be born in the wrong country. Especially for Libyans, who have a lot of pride (perhaps the last remaining evidence of a better time) this kind of treatment is hurtful.

There is one type of Libyan who hasn’t experienced much trouble with travel, however. At Labrag airport recently, I saw members of the House of Representatives, the Transitional Government and the Constitutional Drafting Assembly, all milling about waiting for a flight to Tunis (no doubt to cozy up to the new president of the GNA). In their hands was the red diplomatic passport, just another symbol of the ever widening chasm between the average Libyan citizen and their representatives. Their obliviousness to the struggles of the citizens they represent is only too apparent in these kinds of situations.

 

The aim of writing this post isn’t to set up a pity party, but rather to raise attention to this issue. The media, government agencies and even the airlines themselves are indifferent, particularly since they don’t hear a unified voice calling for improved conditions and hell, even just for a modicum of respect and help. Libyans deserve better than this, and war or not, things can, and SHOULD, get better.

A Tale of Two Cities

By the fourth year, the bombings and assassinations had become common in Benghazi. The sounds blended into the city’s background noise. Traffic horns, supermarket crowds, booms. We never accepted it, but there it was anyways.

These sounds, familiar to us, took Paris by surprise this week, shattering the pattern of the city’s busy existence. Terrorism is a hideous thing, but it’s made more horrifying when it catches you unaware, filling your surroundings with violence and bloodshed.

But unlike Benghazi, there’s a system in place, a procedure to follow, to protect the city from falling into further chaos. Also unlike Benghazi – where our own young men turned on us – these men came from somewhere else, filled with unexplained anger and blood lust. While nothing has been properly confirmed yet, there’s a lot of speculation that these attacks were carried out “in revenge” for France’s role in combating ISIS. Why they would target innocent civilians who have nothing to do with the jets over Deir al-Zour, nobody speculates on, because this is not an ideology based on rational thinking. It’s built on reactionary propaganda and the manipulation of emotion.

This wound will hurt France now, but its pain will continue to affect the refugees, Muslim or otherwise, long after the last bullet-ridden window pane is fixed. And it wasn’t just France that lost people. Morocco, Spain, Tunis, nationals from many countries were killed in the attack, “in revenge” for something they had no control over.

And Paris is the kind of city where people come together, a hub for travelers from across the world, discovering a beautiful city with a rich history, remarkable architecture and a good-hearted people. On my first trip there, I was slightly anxious. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were reports of hate crimes against Muslims, so I didn’t know what to expect. But my fears were alleviated on arrival; everyone was kind, helpful, welcoming. Which makes these attacks, to me, all the more heinous.

Social media, as usual, has misdirected the incident and broken it down into a series of talking points, arguments and other irrelevant drivel. Suddenly Paris is about defending “true Islam”, suddenly its about the bombing in Beirut, it’s about the forgotten Palestinian cause. A whole host of flags of different Arab countries become profile pictures, trying to out-number the France-flag picture in some kind of twisted competition. Those flags should be accompanied with the slogan “I only express solidarity with Arab countries when a Western one is attacked.”

In this tangle of self-righteous expression, the message of global solidarity against a merciless terror is lost. Yes, Islam doesn’t advocate senseless slaughter, but clearly some Muslims believe it does, a problem we ignore in our scramble to reassure the rest of the world that we’re not secretly murderers. Instead, prove it to the world by working to prevent another massacre. Yes, the Beirut bombing was severely under-reported, but why would you take that out on the fallen in Paris? They didn’t ask to be gunned down and get media attention, so pay your respects and direct your anger to the wider problem. Yes, Syria and Palestine and Libya are all forsaken, but they won’t be remembered if you only bring them up to prove a point about misdirected media.

If one thing is to be concluded from all this, it’s that we’re all suffering, whether prolonged in years or in a sudden bursts. Instead of turning on each other, it would be wiser to turn on the enemy. Not the young men who are brainwashed and confused, but to the radicalization process itself, to the vacuum of opportunities and the lost chance at a decent life.

To Benghazi, all this arguing and anger and confusion blends into the background, along with the explosions. We’ve given up on profile pictures and empty hyperbole a long time ago, and have taken matters into our own hands. We are, very slowly, recovering, having to do it, as usual, by ourselves. Paris will recover too, and probably faster, because they have more support. I don’t resent them for that, I’m glad that they do, because I’ve had to witness the same nightmare first-hand and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. We’re both cities made up of a rich diversity with a passion for culture, we’ve both experienced the same shock and heartache from the same sick, twisted ideology, and we’ll both, in time, move on.

Roundup: Libyan Blogs You Should Be Following

I’ve written before on trends in internet usage among Libyans, and I consider myself lucky to be present at a time where online activity and social media usage has just taken off, because it offers a unique chance to see how a formerly isolated country is now virtually connecting to the outside world. In particular, it’s fascinating to see how this connection is affecting Libyan society on the ground.

Libyan social media migration has moved from Facebook to Twitter and now to blogging, showing an increasing tendency to share thoughts and opinions with a wider audience. Of course, much of these points of view revolve around the current (unfortunate) circumstances of the country. But my hope is that this trend increases and we’ll see more focus on social and development issues.

For now, I’d like to share my favorite Libyan blogs. The list is a mix of English and Arabic blogs with different fields of focus, offering (to me) a well-rounded look at life in Libya. In no particular order, they are:

6. Project SilphiumThis blog began as an initiative to raise the voice of Libyan women as they continue to fight for their place in society alongside men. It brings up issues faced by Libyan women, both young and old, and from various backgrounds. That’s what I really love about Silphium, they give women a chance to share their own stories and provide a safe platform for them to speak their mind.

5.  Mohammed Eljarh’s Blog: There’s something about reading analyses on the Libyan situation from foreign analysts that never feels quite right, as they are often oblivious to the underlying factors and motivators in the country. That’s why reading Eljarh’s takes on Libya are so refreshing; he is an authentic Libyan voice who focuses on the key issues, with an understanding of the political and social composition of the country. Sometimes it’s better to read it from an actual native, ya know?

4. Ahlam Badri’s Blog: I was fortunate enough to meet Ahlam Badri during a workshop here in Benghazi. She’s an active and energetic woman with an eye and an ear for interesting topics and current events. While the bulk of her blog posts focuses on the Scouts (she is a Scout leader), she also writes for other sites, such as HuffPost Arabi.

3. Showbak: Anas Benguzi is a young Benghazino with a wealth of talents. From film-making to graphic design, he shows remarkable skill and an eye for good art. And one of his talents includes amazing writing. What I love about Showbak is that Anas’s writing is like reading art turned into words. You need to know Arabic to fully appreciate this blog, and he captures the spirit of Benghazi and it’s people in their essence. Reading his blog posts is an emotionally grasping experience.

2. Wake Up Benghazi: The thing about a blog written by a practicing architect is that you get good writing AND awesome graphics, all in one post. Mutaz Gedalla, the author of Wake Up Benghazi, covers a wide range of social issues in the city, offering a blend of advice, analysis and the personal insights of a Benghazi resident. It’s one of my personal favorite Libyan blogs (yes, I am biased towards anything Benghazi)

1. Tawfik Bensaud’s Blog: There was a young man from Benghazi who had a way with words. He was active, passionate and left a lasting impression on all those who met him. He was assassinated nearly one year ago for his outspokenness. Tawfik loved writing and reading, and his mature writing belied his young age. The best way to honour his memory is to keep his thoughts and words alive.


Of course, a post on Libyan blogs wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Libya Blog initiative. Sponsored and run by a number of international media outlets and organizations, this initiative trained a large number of Libyans on blogging skills. You can find a list of the blogs that were set up on their site here: http://libyablog.org/

I really do hope that blogging continues to gain popularity in Libya, and I hope we’ll see further initiatives like Libya Blog to encourage more Libyans to utilize this medium of expression. If there’s one thing we’ve gained from the revolution, it’s free expression, and the best way to safeguard it is to use it.

If you have any suggestions for other Libyan blogs that deserve attention, please mention them in the comments!

A Benghazi Resident’s Take on Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” Movie

Benghazi just can’t catch a break. As if an all-out war isn’t enough, the city is being vilified nation-wide by those who see the war as a misdirected endeavor, and the people of Benghazi are being accused of, yes, destroying their own city! I won’t point out the insensitivity and blatant ignorance of this stance. If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll be familiar with the slippery slope that led our city to the circumstances it’s in today. The war is horrific and it’s hurting us, but it was also an inevitability brought about by the same people currently pretending like there were other options.

One of the very first incidents that sparked the descent down this slope was the killing of American ambassador Chris Stevens. This event launched the start of Benghazi’s international vilification, as pundits and citizens alike decried the Libyan revolution and the international intervention that bolstered it. “We shouldn’t have gotten involved at all!” they screech, oblivious to the fact that if NATO hadn’t intervened on March 19, 2011, there would be a pile of cold ash where I’m currently sitting. Vacuous terms like BenghaziGate and Benghazi Truther were coined by people who most likely could not point out Benghazi on a map. Possibly most comical of all, my city’s name has become almost permanently linked in the media with Hilary Clinton, a politician who hadn’t even seen Benghazi.

So you can imagine my ire one afternoon when I received a message from a friend with a Youtube link and the message, “watch this and start tweeting.” The link was for the trailer of the new “13 Hours” movie, based on the book by the same name. I had heard rumblings about this movie before, knew that it was being filmed in Malta, but other than that I dismissed it as just another attempt to cash in on the Libyan revolution. There have been myriad books and movies made dramatizing and/or analyzing the events of 2011 onwards, mostly from  Western journalists who seemed to have left their professionalism at the airport when they walked into this country. But this movie takes unprofessional and irresponsible Western arrogance one step further.

Pictured: Above, the actual city of Benghazi.  Below, NOT Benghazi.

Pictured: Above, the actual city of Benghazi.
Below, Malta, I guess? Basically some place that ISN’T Benghazi.

Right off the bat, the film starts off so very wrong. You get an overhead shot of a seaside Middle Eastern town. How can you tell it’s Middle Eastern? Why, there’s a dome and minaret! And all them Middle East places look alike, don’t they? It’s not like Benghazi has it’s own unique and rather gorgeous architectural composition accrued from various eras in its history. Nope, just show people a dome and tell ’em it’s Benghazi, same thing.

The opening shots are followed by a scene of Americans being stopped by armed men, who accost them in the standard “Hollywood Arab” accent. This scene sets the tone of the rest of the trailer, an explosion-laden standoff between “the good guys” (our valiant Americans) and the evil Benghazians who like to eat Westerners with their breakfast sfinz. It’s basically a sausage-fest filled with heavy artillery, fire and well-groomed beards. So, yeah, a typical Michael Bay flick.

Benghazi Boy Scouts, marching during a culture parade in the city. Not pictured: Flip flops

Benghazi Boy Scouts, marching during a culture parade in the city. Not pictured: Flip flops

Interspersed through the movie are clips of disheveled children wearing grimy flip flips, standard scenes for any movie on this region. If you don’t have domes and dirty kids in flip-flops, your audience may not recognize where the movie is taking place.

I think what primarily bothers me about the movie is that the people of Benghazi are either the gun-wielding terrorists or confused onlookers. What about the Libyan guards that lost their lives defending the compound? What about the regular citizens who arrived on the scene and tried to help the Americans? What about the medics who tried to resuscitate them? What about the protests the next day decrying the heinous and barbaric attack? Benghazi is well-known for its hospitality and kindness to guests, especially those from abroad. The terrorist attack that night was a shock to the entire city, it wasn’t just another day-in-the-life-of-an-Arab-city.

Scary Benghazi residents wielding frightening weapons. Cuz there's only one type, right Mickey?

Scary Benghazi residents wielding frightening weapons. Cuz there’s only one type, right Mikey?

What the movie will also probably ignore is the repercussions that the incident had on Benghazi. International organizations and offices all packed up and left, leaving the government with no real reason to resolve the security problem. On the contrary, they continued to indirectly support Ansar Shariah and the other militia groups, leaving Benghazi’s residents at the hands of unstable murderers. Our name was smeared in international media, becoming synonymous with conspiracies and chaos. Instead of being helped, we were shunned and ignored, left to combat terrorism on our own. This is a fight we’re still fighting to this day.

I know people will tell me not to jump to any conclusions til the movie is released, that it is, after all, just a movie. But many others have already pointed out that the release of this movie will coincide with Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign launch. So it seems that this entire movie boils down to the spoiled bickering of Americans as they grapple for power, using the murder of a good man to gain political leverage over one another. Not unlike Libyan politicians, then. Between all this, a beautiful city, my city, is reduced to so much hyperbole in a debate that lost relevance long ago.

Benghazi is not anyone’s conspiracy theory, and it sure as hell isn’t just a single unfortunate incident that defines a city with a rich history. Benghazi is Euesperides, a prosperous Greek city founded centuries ago. Benghazi is Berenice, a city named after princesses and queens. Benghazi is ‘the mother of the orphans’, lovingly named so by the orphans that make up this eclectic, strong, resilient city. Part of me is almost glad that the depiction of Benghazi in this movie is so hilariously inaccurate, because then people won’t associate the real Benghazi with it.

And who knows, maybe in the future, it an ironic twist, the term ‘Michael Bay’ will be adopted into colloquial Benghazi speech to refer to a colossal, factually incorrect screw up.

War and Eid

I’ve been actively avoiding social media these days. Everyone is filled with the holiday spirit, and I don’t want to infect anyone with my grumpiness. I mean, I do wish that everyone would have a joyous and festive Eid, but I also want to mope and complain that I’m still displaced, that the electricity keeps getting cut, that the bombs haven’t stopped, etc. etc.

That’s not something people want to read on Eid, and especially not people in Benghazi, who do not need to be reminded of the reality we still continue to live in. That’s why I have stayed my tongue (or rather, my fingers) from writing anything and being this year’s Eid Grinch.

And then I remembered that I’ve been neglecting my blog. I have been rather busy these days, but that isn’t why I’ve been avoiding writing anything here. I think it’s because I’ve discovered that more people are reading it than I thought, which kinda weirds me out. I write the way I talk; to hear my thoughts out loud. The fact that people are listening means I have to be more careful with what I say. And that’s just annoying.

But it’s Eid, and people are too busy celebrating to read a blog post, and I really need to get some stuff off of my chest.

Like, for example, the fact that this Ramadan was much better than the horrific, blood-soaked one we experienced last year, but that it still wasn’t very good. That it has now been seven months since I’ve last seen my house, and I have no idea whether it’s still standing or not. That all of my friends are in different countries around the world, and that I might never get to see them again.

Celebratory events and occasions help to push these things out of the way for a time, coating our grim existence with a veneer of mindless joy. But it no longer helps me, I feel that every uncertain day is eating away at me, as I try to grasp onto any constant in my life but finding nothing. I imagine that this is what it must be like to float out to sea, completely stranded and surrounded by miles of nothing in every direction. I guess have some kind of existential agoraphobia.

It could just be a funk, and I’ll bounce back in a day or two. It could just be that while celebrations help people forget, they just brings things into a more focused perspective for me. We say, hopefully next Eid we’ll be back home, and things will be back to normal. But I don’t want to wait until the next Eid. What if things aren’t normal by then? Where will I even be at that time? When you live through a war, long-term thinking is a dangerous pastime.

People in Benghazi are trying to celebrate as normally as possible, as though we can’t hear the missiles overhead, or ignore the 12-hour power cuts. We’re exchanging plates of Eid pastries and people are uploading pictures of themselves in traditional outfits as they greet each other in our streets and houses. You can almost tangibly feel the conscious effort people are making not to brood on the war. We fasted for a month, and in difficult circumstances, we deserve to celebrate! We need to forget, and this is as potent an opium as we can find.

So we’ll revel for a few days, pretend like everything’s tolerable, all the while secretly hoping and praying that this will end soon. Dear God please let it end soon.

I hope you have a happy Eid.