The Politics of Libyan Identity

The most fascinating topics in Libyan society are almost always the ones that people discuss the least. These controversial issues often elicit intense passions and discomfort, which is why they’re usually kept under the proverbial rug. One such topic is that of religion, although in our post-revolution, post-ISIS era, it’s becoming harder to avoid discussing it. While on the surface people resort to the old cliche “we’re a moderate Sunni Muslim country”, there is a noticeable tug away from traditional religious practice, particularly among the youth, towards more critical thinking and investigation. It’s a slow change, but a dialogue has started.

However, there is one issue that seems resistant to dialogue; the Libyan identity. Yes, my favorite topic, one that I’ve blogged about numerous times before and yet, even after all this time, I still can’t comprehend it.

What is a Libyan? What makes a person Shergawi or Gherbawi? Are Southern Libyans subconsciously seen as less Libyan? Do the Amazigh define themselves more by their nation or their ethnicity?

To explore these questions and the broader field of Libyan identity requires a very comprehensive knowledge of Libyan history, society, politics, culture and geography, and even then, you’re not guaranteed to make head or tales of it.

One topic of debate on the Libyan identity is whether Libyans are Arab or North African. Ethnically speaking, Libyans are a mix of many different races, going back to the long history of foreign occupation in the country. The rise of Nasserist Pan-Arabism in the past few decades has strengthened the Arab identity angle, cemented by the Islamic revival movement in the region. But are Libyans Arab? I would argue, based on our local culture, not really. Even the language we speak, our Libyan dialect, is not pure Arabic, but an amalgam of Amazigh, Italian and other influences.

The Libyan Amazigh flatly reject the Arab narrative, due not only to the ethnic basis of their identity but to the history of oppression experienced at the hands of invading Arabs. However, this has also influenced a kind of hostility they hold to non-Amazigh Libyans today, to the point where many Amazigh families refuse to allow their children to marry outside of the ethnicity.

I consider both sides of the argument, the unyielding Arabists and Amazigh, to be too extreme. A non-Amazighi is not automatically an “Arab”, and we definitely shouldn’t let the Arab identity overtake and dilute our unique North African culture.

When gathered with friends or relatives, I sometimes like to steer the conversation towards the issue of Libyan-ness. The results are usually a passionate discussion between various perspectives, and which show that even in Libyan society, there is no definitive answer. In Benghazi especially, where everyone comes from wildly different backgrounds, everyone has their own views on the matter.

I decided to take this conversation to Twitter, following an interesting discussion I had with a friend on tribal perception in Benghazi, a pluralistic city that boasts the elimination of the tribal system. We were talking about the marriage “conditions” that some families place on their kids, including tribal limitations. I was aware that this mentality existed in the smaller tribal towns, but was surprised to learn that even in Benghazi, some people use it as a yardstick. Even more surprising was the knowledge that, here in our supposedly tribal-less city, a person’s roots still mattered. The question was relatively straightforward; “Is a Benghazi denizen of West Libyan origin considered a Shergawi (East Libyan) or a Gherbawi (West Libyan)?”

Benghazi is the historic capital of Barga, a beacon of East Libya but with a large populace of people whose roots come from all over Libya (there was a substantial exodus from West to East over the decades due to war, famine, searching for opportunities, etc.). Unlike other Libyan cities, people in Benghazi do not define themselves based on their tribe or tribal origin. Before the revolution, we just considered ourselves Libyans from Benghazi. But the revolution unearthed and revived regional and tribal sentiments, which have been gaining popularity, much to the chagrin of Benghazinos whose loyalty and identity is linked only to their city.

The question I asked on Twitter elicited dozens of replies and conversations, and showed the complexities and confusion of this identity issue among Libyans.

One of the most common answers was, “What difference does it make if they’re Shergawi or Gherbawi?”, or, “You are Libyan, nothing more”, many claiming that the distinction of East vs. West is something that shouldn’t even be discussed.

This is the logic applied to most controversial issues in Libya. If we deny the problem exists, it’ll just go away. Hostility between the North Libyan provinces has always existed, exacerbated by the recent geo-ideo-political conflict in the country, and people’s solution to this hostility is to claim that there is no East and West, that we’re all just Libyan. Besides being untrue, it also rejects identities that have been formed and affected by centuries of history, and recklessly erases the diversity that makes Libyan communities unique.

Rather than deny our regionalism, we should investigate the foundation it’s built on, and start to redefine what our region or city of birth means to us. Being passionate about your locality is not a sign of weak nationalism but a way to strengthen the plurality of this nationalism. And more importantly, creating a stronger link to your community will combat other societal issues such as tribalism.

I have always been vocal in my disdain for tribalism in Libya. I emphatically reject the notion that my tribe is my identity, my sigil, because it has had no role in formation of my identity as a Libyan and a Benghazi denizen. But it would be the height of hubris for me to act like it means nothing in my interaction with other Libyans. In this post-revolution nation, the Western tribe of my last name will always cast a shadow on my Eastern-ness, and on any political stance I take. If I question the behaviour of the East’s army? Oh well, she’s not really Shergawi, after all. If I criticize a Shergawi politician? Go back to the Western city your grandparents came from!

The identity issue frequently leans on the side of the ridiculous and irrational. My grandfather came from a city in Western Libya, and despite the fact that I have never been there, I will always be linked to that city. Conversely, a person born and raised in that city, and considers it his/her own, will always been seen to some extent as an “outsider”, because they do not belong to one of the tribes.

Why should the tribe be the identifier? Why shouldn’t I be able to define my own sense of self? We fall back on these primitive practices because they are familiar, the norm. The moment I leave Libya, no one cares what my tribe is. I can lie and name any other Libyan tribe as my own, and no one will be able to tell for certain “who I am”, because our tribes are built on arbitrary historic and geographic events and not on any real, tangible differences.

To me, a Shergawi is a person born and raised in the East, who calls the region home and cares about their community. The same should apply to the East and South. We should not impose identities on others. A Libyan should be allowed to define who they are based on where and what they feel most comfortable with. An identity should be constantly changing and developing.

Instead of rejecting the existing regional realities in Libya, we should instead reject the idea that a last name determines our loyalty, our political affiliations and our very sense of self. It is our neighbours, our friends and our community on whom the formation of our identities should be based. I believe Libya will prosper once we begin building resilient societies built on these real foundations.


I want to reiterate that the politics of Libyan identity is a multi-faceted issue. My view are based on my personal upbringing and experiences. There are Libyans who believe that their tribe is the most important aspect of their life, and others, their ethnicity. What I wrote above is a radical outlook specific to my individual beliefs, and the truth, if it exists, lies somewhere in between these radical opinions.

Dispatches from the Dark

Most countries mark the passage of seasons by the changing colours of the trees. In Libya, we mark it by the power cuts.

It must be summer, because the electricity has been cut not once, but twice today, marking a grand total of five hours of electricity. Five hours of scrambling for power sockets to charge our drained devices and our emergency lights. Five hours of rants reverberating around the house about the electricity company.

During the final week of my thesis preparations, a false summer blew through Benghazi and triggered the universally-loathed power cuts. In a panic and a frenzy, I would rush across the city from relative’s house to relative’s house, calling beforehand to make sure they had electricity so I could charge my laptop and continue working.

Based on personal experience, there’s very little that’s worse than a power cut. War? Meh, as long as the rockets don’t hit my house. Food shortages? We can live on pasta. Maybe the only crisis we’ve experienced in Libya today that is worse than the power cuts is the liquidity problem. It’s been months of apocalyptically long lines in front of the banks as people are allowed to withdraw only a minimum amount of cash to meet their basic needs. Which, as the price hikes continue on all imports, is getting to be a shorter and shorter list of needs. Do I really need to buy coffee this week? My favorite cookies have doubled in price, have to pass on those. I hope I don’t get sick because I don’t think my wallet can survive a trip to the pharmacy.

But the panic that comes when you need to meet your thesis deadline and you’re suddenly thrown into the dark ages comes in a very, very close second.

It’s a despicable, humiliating and downright depressing way of life, one that makes even the most gung-ho Feb 17 supporter grumble about our post-revolutionary existence. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the most pressing issues your corrupt, ineffectual politicians discuss are how to provide flour, oil and tomato paste to the cities before Ramadan. And they triumphantly declare that they have worked out a plan, as though the years of their backwards rule that ran the country into the ground is suddenly vindicated. Hey, you know what’s better than flour and oil? A fucking functional country.

But this is just me during a power cut; surly, angry and annoyed. The electricity will come back, and I’ll turn on the air conditioner and try to cool off physically and psychologically. Around the country, millions of Libyans are experiencing the same frustrations. We are united by the struggle to survive, even if we’re not united on any other issue.

And I sit in the dark and whisper to myself, this nightmare has to end eventually. Right?

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.

 

رسالة مفتوحة الى رئيس وزراء ليبيا, فائز السراج ,من مواطنة في بنغازي

بعد التحيه,

المفروض اني انهنيك على دخولك الى طرابلس باقل اضرار ممكنة. في بلاد زي بلادنا, واللي اي حركة سياسية ممكن تسبب في حرب, دخولك بسلام يعتبر انجاز رائع.

انا حنكون صادقة معك, فكرة حكومة الوفاق ماكنتش مقتنعة بها واجد. لأن الفكرة كلها كانت تدور حول قضية عدم تسليم السلطة من الحكومات السابقة, من شرذمة من السياسيين الفاسدين اللي حطوا السلطة والمال فوق كل شىء. ولذلك انا ماحسيتش ان تكوين حكومة الوفاق انجاز, بل ابتزاز.

لكن مرات الحاجة الصحيحة في العالم الافتراضي والحاجة الضرورية في الواقع يكونان عكس بعضهن, وللأسف هذه كانت هي احدى المرات. شفت مدينتي تمزقت من مجموعات متطرفة وخشت في حرب شعواء. شفت اصدقائي في العاصمة يعانون من صعوبة الحياة اليومية وخائفين من المجموعات المسلحة. سمعت قصص من اهلي في الجنوب عن تدهور وضياع فزان وعزلهم عن باقي البلاد.

لهاذا السبب, انا حندعمك, وحندعم حكومة الوفاق. ربما يكون مش هو الاختيار الصحيح, ولكن لأن الوضع لم يعد يحتمل و مافيش اختيار اخر.

ولكن هذه الثقة اللي عطيتها لحكومتكم غصبا عني, ياسيد سراج, ممكن ان تسلب بكل سهولة. لأن مش عندك حكومة سابقة و لكن حكومتين فلك ان تتعلم من اخطائهم. سبب خراب ليبيا معلق في رقاب هاتين الحكومتين. المؤتمر الوطني العام قووا المليشيات وتحالفوا مع الشيطان, اما مجلس النواب فاختبؤوا في قلعة و زادوا نار الحرب وقود. هم الاثنين سمعوا صراخ الناس و تجاهلوهم.

انا متأكدة ان عندك فريق كامل من المحللين و المساعدين يقولولك في نفس الكلام هذا. لكن انا انقول فيه لك لأني عايشه في وسط هذه الواقع. نجاحك بالنسبه ليا مش نجاح سياسي, نجاحك هو انقاذ ماتبقى من هذه المدينه وهذه البلاد. و فشلك حيعني النهاية بالنسبة لنا. سواء نبو ولا مانبو, حياتنا و حياتك مرتبطات, و انا حندعمك علشان ننقذ حياتي.

لو في حاجة وحدة بس تقدر اتديرها في فترة حكمك, خلي الحاجة هذه انك تسمع للشعب. مطالبنا حاليا مش صعبات واجد, بس وظيفتك مش فقط انك توفر الاشياء الاساسية. ايضاً, وظيفتك مش انك اتعود بالبلاد الى الوضع اللي كانت فيه في 2011, لأن هذا الوقت كان بداية المشاكل لنا. الان عندك الفرصة انك تكون اول رئيس وزراء ينهي عقلية “الثوار”. نحن معش نبو ثورة, نبو دولة. مش دولة لبنغازي فقط, او دولة لطرابلس او مصراته فقط. نبو دولة للجميع.

كون اول رئيس وزارء ليبي لا يتهم الشباب بتعاطي حبوب الهلوسة  لما يتظاهروا ولكن اسأل عليش يتظاهروا. كون اول رئيس وزراء لا ينشر الاكاذيب و المؤامرات على عدوه, لكن يتفاهم معه. كون اول رئيس وزراء يبدأ في حل الازمة, وما يشاركش في ازديادها.

نحن الاثنين معماريين, ونعرفوا كيف انصمموا مباني و مدن للناس. و نعرفوا ايضا ان افضل تصميم في نظرنا احيانا لا يستجيب الى احتياجات الناس. نحن مش طالبين افضل تصميم و تحقيق اهداف خيالية, اللي نبوه فقط هوحياة طبيعية. نبو نمشوا لمدارسنا وجامعاتنا وأعمالنا بدون خوف من القذائف العشوائية. نبو انسافروا بدون مانحسوا بالذل والمهانة اللي قاعدين انتعرضوا لها توا. نبو العدالة, والامن و الامان, والحرية. نعم, الحرية. صح, نحن الان ضعفاء, لكن هذا لا يعني انا نردوا الى القيود من جديد من اجل الامان.

حضرتك قاعد الان في منصب سلطة, و تقدر ان تقرر اي حاجة, من ضمنهن قرارات تكبح الحريات. لكن من فضلك لاتنسى, ياسيد سراج, ان بنغازي, حتى و هي مكسورة, مش حتسكت لأي شخص يحاول ان يكبت حريتها. خلينا نشتغلوا مع بعضنا, مش ضد بعضنا, وننقذ هذه البلاد.

مع تحياتي,

ندى عبدالقادر,

بنغازي ليبيا

31\03\2016

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Faiez Serraj from a Benghazi Resident

Dear Prime Minister Sarraj,

I guess I should start by commending you on entering Tripoli as peacefully as possible. In a country where any political move can set off a chain reaction of violence acts, this is a promising achievement.

I have to be honest. The idea of a unity government has never really appealed to me. It is centered on the concept of pandering to a corrupt group of politicians and war lords who refuse to hand over power, and flies in the very face of the principles of democracy that we destroyed our country to obtain. It feels not like achievement, but like blackmail.

But, what is right in theory and necessary in practice are occasionally two very opposite things. I have watched my city become torn apart by extremist groups and plunged into an ugly war. I have seen friends in Tripoli live in fear and dread under militia rule. I have heard heart-wrenching accounts of Libyans in Fezzan as they describe a deplorable way of life in complete isolation from the rest of the country.

For this reason I support you, and I support the Government of National Accord. Not because it is right, but because the current situation is unacceptable and intolerable, and we have no one else.

But trust that is begrudgingly given, Mr. Sarraj, can be easily revoked. You have not one, but two failed governments to learn from. Do not repeat their mistakes, for the appalling state of Libya today lies mainly on their shoulders. The General National Congress allowed itself to become fragmented and manipulated by illegal armed groups, and allied themselves with the devil. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, sat in a safe, stately castle, fanning the flames of war, as they watched Libyans suffer below, ignoring their pleas for help.

I’m sure you have a team of advisers and analysts telling you the same things I’m writing here. But I am writing it to you because I am living in the middle of it. Your success to me will not be a political achievement, it will be the return of life to my city, to my country. And your failure will mean our doom. Whether we want it or not, our lives are intertwined with yours, and my support comes from my sense of self preservation. Don’t ever forget that.

If there is only one thing you can do differently from your predecessors, please make it that you listen to the people. Our demands have become very basic, but that doesn’t mean you should only provide the bare minimum human needs and consider your job done.

Your job is also not to return Libya to the state it was in following the end of the revolution in 2011, because it was that period that eventually got us here. I ask you, on behalf of a nation sick of instability, to be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the “thuwar” mentality. We do not want a revolution, we want a country. Not a country for Benghazi, or a country for Misrata or Tripoli, but a country for everyone.

Be the Prime Minister that doesn’t accuse youth of taking pills when they protest, but instead ask why they are protesting. Be the Prime Minister who, instead of propagating conspiracy theories about his opponents, reconciles with them. Be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the destruction, instead of being another contributing factor towards it.

You and I are both architects. We know how to design spaces and cities for people to exist in, to live in. And we both know that even the best laid designs can fail to meet the needs of the people. We are not asking for fantastical plans and lofty goals; we just want some semblance of normal life. We want to go to work or school without fearing falling missiles. We want to travel without being treated like pariahs in other countries. We want justice, and security, but also freedom. Yes, freedom. We are weak, but that does not mean we want another set of chains on our wrists in exchange for security.

You are in a position of power, and you may be tempted to make restricting decisions. But never forget, Mr Sarraj, that Benghazi, even when broken, will not tolerate those who lord power over it. Work with us, not against us, and let us save Libya together.

Yours sincerely,

Nada Abdulgader

Benghazi Libya

March 31, 2016

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.

Roundup 2: More Libyan Blogs to Follow

Have I ever told you how awesome it is seeing Libyan growth on the internet? I probably have, but there’s no harm in emphasizing how important it is to see Libyans utilizing this flexible platform. Last year I wrote about five Libyan blogs that I enjoy, and now that list has grown.

Over at the Young Writers of Benghazi, we wrapped up another online writing contest, this time in cooperation with Wajeej Blog. The theme was to write a blog post, with the winning entries to be published on Wajeej. The aim was to get people to view blogging as a viable form of self-expression, and perhaps encourage them to start their own blogs. I’m currently brainstorming ideas to hold blog-writing workshops in Benghazi with other bloggers, to get more people familiar with this medium. With my university thesis and the dozen other things I have on my plate, I may not be able to actualize these plans anytime soon, but it’s definitely a goal I hope to achieve in 2016 (perhaps make 2016 a year of Libyan blogging?)

Another Libyan organization, the Tanweer Movement, also held a blogging contest, to award the best Libyan blog. The winner was announced during a great cultural event in Tripoli (you can see highlights of the event through the hashtag ). The winning blog is Khawater Bint Shareef, a blog on the thoughts of a young Libyan woman. You can check it out here.

And now, without further ado, here are more Libyan blogs that you, faithful reader, should check out:

7. The Silphium Gatherer: Started by a Libyan academic, Silphium Gatherer is a great resource on academic material about Libya’s history, politics, culture and a number of other topics. With material on Libya being as scarce as it is, this blog is a invaluable place to learn more about the country.

6. Abdulkarim Dwaini’s Blog: Abdulkarim is an active young Libyan who is the director of the Libyan Youth Culture Changemakers organization, which operates from Waddan, Libya. His blog highlights the key issues and events that he feels are important for civil society and Libya’s growth. It’s a refreshing look at Libyan civil society through the eyes of a motivated, inspiring young man.

5. Amjad Badr’s Blog: Another active young Libyan, Amjad is the director of Hexa Connection, an organization that promotes technology and tech activism among young Libyans. Amjad’s blog covers a range of topics, from personal recollections to thoughts on important Libyan issues. He also started the initiative #أنا_ادون to encourage more Libyan bloggers.

4. Fetrasha: Started by a good friend of mine and a great Libyan thinker, Ahmed Mahmoudy’s stream of consciousness posts are food for thought, offering insights into the mind of a Libyan youth who’s experienced both revolution and war. While the blog is still new, it’s definitely one to follow. Ahmed also runs Yes We Can, a youth organization based in Benghazi.

3. Wissamiyat: A seasoned Libyan writer, Wissam has been blogging for a number of years now. His writing covers current events in Libya, personal musings and trends in Libyan society. He’s also part of the Libyanblogs.org collection (which I mentioned in part 1), and also does his part to encourage Libyan blogging.

2. Tehrees: The author of this blog was also the 3rd place winner of our blog-writing contest. Tehrees is a blog popular particularly among Libyan youth, as it touches on important social issues through a unique writing style. An example of this is a modern day interpretation of dialogue between Sidi Khraibish (representing Benghazi) and Sidi Alasmar (representing Zliten), two historic Libyan figures, touching on the terrorist attack in Zliten and the war in Benghazi. It’s a personal, emotional way at looking at the events in Libya, a reprieve from the bland, empty political analyses we’re so used to hearing.

1. Rawad Radwan’s Vlog : This one is actually an exciting addition, because it’s a vlog (video blog), one of the first Libyan vlogs to appear on my radar, in fact. Rawad Radwan is an active Libyan with a mission to constantly seek out the silver lining in the Libyan situation, but with doses of pragmatism. Rawad vlogs about his personal interests as well as Libyan current events.


If this selection doesn’t keep you busy enough, you can head over to Wajeej to read the three winning entries of our Blog-Writing Contest. They are:

Third Place: “Here is Benghazi” by Ahmed Ben Omran

Second Place: “When You Plan to Emigrate” by Ghada Twair

First Place: “Why Do I Go On?” by Mohammed Ezzawi

You can also check out Huna Sotak (translated to, Here is Your Voice), an initiative started by Radio Netherlands Worldwide to give Arab youth a platform to express themselves. They have a Libya project entitled “Here is Libya”, with posts from different contributes. One of my personal favorite contributors is Ali Latife, an introspective young Libyan who writes on the situation in Libya and the hardships of being a young Libyan in the Middle East today. (you can read samples of his work here, here and here).

The most salient features of this list are that the writers are both young and active in their communities. These are Libyans with something to say, and who hold important insights on the state of the country. As more Libyans continue to use social media, and as social media becomes one of the few outlets left in the country for self-expression, I think we’ll be seeing an increase in the number of Libyan blogs. My hope is that, if our country eventually stabilizes, this will transition into published literature. In any case, I hope that the digital thoughts of Libyan, both young and old, won’t be confined to cyberspace, but will find its way into our collective culture.