If I were to apply for graduate school right now, my summer activities list might look something like this:
- Cultivated ability to identify the areas of a house least likely to be hit by missiles
- Obtained negotiation skills to survive dangerous check-points
- Learned to drive around careening tanks
Obviously these activities don’t actually involve architecture or urban planning (unless you count the house part, which I doubt many universities will). Part of being an ‘Arab Spring’ student is that much of our education involved learning skills that don’t raise our employability level so much as they contribute to staying alive, as we gain our academic credentials in almost bold-faced defiance of the reality around us.
But regardless of the circumstances, my academic life in Benghazi University has always been an unorthodox experience. Even before the revolution, students had to navigate the political and social complexities of Libya. Gadhafi’s face stared at us from the ‘Political Theory’ courses that were mandatory for all students, which we swallowed in bitter silence. His revolutionary guard lurked every corner; you never knew who was listening. Three-day conferences for all new university students about the ways of the Jamaheria were unavoidable, as men in badly tailored suits droned at us about respecting the system.
And then the revolution happened, layering the already politically saturated campus with even more confusing ideologies. Life on campus was, to me, a mirror image of our society at large. But the need to graduate and excel in our chosen field dominated over our interest in the political squabbles happening in the halls of the General National Congress in far-away Tripoli. We were all conscious that a degree meant starting a new phase of life, and every civil disobedience that stopped university for days delayed this phase, every fallen rocket threatened to destroy our futures.
Unlike most teenagers on the brink of adulthood, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I’ve always had a passion for visual design, and from a young age I would diligently pull out my accrued collection of art supplies and practice drawing. As I got older, I realized that architecture provided the balance I needed – flexibility and a chance to freely express myself, with a structure that appeased the mathematics-oriented part of my mind that I inherited from my engineer parents. “It’s final,” I declared to my friends one afternoon in the sixth grade. “I’m going to be an architect!”
And then we moved to Libya.
The education institution in Libya is not an encouraging system. Students memorize rather than learn, teachers are punitive rather than nurturing, and the end goal is not to acquire knowledge but rather to acquire a degree.
This is why I fully expected that enrolling at Benghazi University (at the time, Garyounis University) would not be the ivy-league experience I had envisioned for myself. I went to the entrance exams like a person condemned. What could I hope to learn in a place where the furniture was at least 30-years old and the professors a group of aging memories from better days long since passed?
Instead, I found myself in a system that challenged me, that pushed me into doing better, that stretched my limits and my abilities in a way that, I would dare to say, competes with top tier universities. Yes, our furniture was old and our resources were limited, but with the internet and the support between students, we honed our skills and fought toe-to-toe with the multi-headed dragon that is architectural education. Our professors were ruthless; they would expect nothing but the absolute best we could produce. They managed to take a group of students with no background in arts (some had never even made a simple craft before), and turned us into individuals that could define the dimensions of a room by sight, that could cut paper with millimeter precision, and who, with more practice, could become real architects.
My younger self would never admit this, but my education at the architecture department of Benghazi University is one of the richest academic experiences I had ever known.
We were on a semester break when the 2011 revolution happened. Benghazi was freed in five days, and no one knew what would happen next. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. The university was closed, only the staff were allowed inside as they determined what to do with the fate of thousands of students. But the students, being young and seizing the opportunity that freedom afforded them, were already engaged in several activities and projects in Benghazi’s burgeoning civil society. No one was really concerned about resuming our studies. The campus wasn’t going anywhere, and we were learning a host of new skills. Med students got a chance to turn theory into practice as they volunteered in hospitals, media students were being snapped up by the rapidly-growing collection of news channels and press. Others also got the chance to test out new fields, pursuing their true passions rather than whatever they were stuck learning at university. Like many other architecture students, I began using my design skills to produce graphics for various organizations, easily learning new software programs and skills on the spot in the charged atmosphere of the revolution. Anything felt possible in those days.
After the last stronghold in the country fell and the country was ‘officially’ liberated, we were informed that classes would resume.
An incident at university under the Gadhafi regime still comes to mind after all these years. The Gadhafi family had a row with the Swiss government, although the details of the incident were murky, as was everything related to the Gadhafi family in those days. One day soon after I saw two revolutionary guards marching up to the entrance of the library, a miniature coffin covered in the Swiss flag being carried on their shoulders. They put the coffin down and shuffled aimlessly about as students glanced at it in passing, perhaps afraid that even staring too long might rouse suspicion. However, I think the guards realized the comical pitifulness of the effigy. It was removed half an hour later.
Truthfully, I don’t remember much about campus life after the revolution. What I do recall is the enthusiasm of the students and teachers alike. It could have been the 9-month vacation that rejuvenated everyone, or the abstract notion of freedom that still made us giddy. I threw myself back into my work with renewed enthusiasm, developing my abilities as an architect. There were subtle but noticeable changes in the university itself, as students became more vocal about their rights and the administration attempted to boost the reputation of the university. Every grievance was fronted by the question, “Why did we have a revolution if this kind of thing is happening?” Another change was the posters that adorned many of the buildings. On these posters were the names and faces of students who fought and died in the revolution, and each department honoured their fallen comrades.
But it wasn’t long before the deteriorating security situation of the city began to reflect on campus life. There was a sense of general uneasiness, and the campus would clear out by the afternoon. Before, we were wary of the guards, but now we were concerned about something not as tangible; the uncertainty of the situation we were in. Uneasiness also returned on a political level, as the factions forming in Libyan society were also forming among the student body. As the political problems escalated, people were discussing their beliefs less and less, the one tried-and-tested mechanism we knew of to protect ourselves. The backdrop to this tense environment was the ominous sound of rockets from the nearby militia base, which kept everyone on edge. Why did we have a revolution?
The instability in Benghazi came to a head after the army forces decided to fight back against militias and extremist groups. United under the banner of Operation Karama, fighting escalated in many parts of the city. Because of Benghazi University’s proximity to the February 17 militia base, this meant rockets launched by the militia against fighter jets invariably landed in our campus. Just as they had done three years previously, classes were indefinitely suspended.
We thought that the suspension wasn’t going to last more than a few months, but we had underestimated the intensity of the situation. Unlike the revolution, where the fighting happened in other parts of Libya, this was going on within our city. Passing by the empty university, I could see militia cars parked next to the gate of our campus.
But it wasn’t until October 15th that we realized how bad it was going to get. Benghazi University became a battle ground, as army forces attacked the militia groups hiding inside the campus itself. Picture after picture of the campus buildings on fire and in ruins dotted social media as we collectively mourned the loss of our university. The administration had assured the students that all their records were safely moved and were available in a temporary location. But it didn’t quite lessen the blow we felt. Benghazi University was the first university established in Libya, and it was up in flames.
It’s September 4th, 2015, and Benghazi University has been closed for one year and four months. Tomorrow classes will resume. The university has designated several public schools across the city to be used temporarily. The medical college campus is still intact, as it is located in another part of the city.
I’m overcome by feelings of happiness and despair at the thought of returning. Happiness because I finally have a chance to graduate, but despair in knowing that it won’t be the same. Many students have left, either transferred to another university or unable to return because of the war. Many professors, too, have gone.
I won’t get to present my thesis in the studio where I had learned to become an architect. I won’t get to take a graduation photo in front of our department building with the rest of my class, and I will never get the chance to take once last stroll through the faculty as a student. I know these are minor, almost negligible grievances, especially compared with what many others have lost during this war. But it doesn’t hurt me any less.
They say college life is supposed to be the best years of your life, but for us they were years mixed with anxiety and hardship and fear. We didn’t see students hanged on campus like our parents before us had witnessed, but we’ve experienced our fair share of horror. I guess Benghazi University has had a more turbulent history than most other universities.
I’m sure that one day, in the future, the buildings will be repaired, the campus will be cleaned up, and new books will line the library shelves. The university will continue to produce doctors, lawyers, engineers and others professionals for Libya. My only hope is that these new generations will not have to experience university life the way we did, and that campus life will finally reflect a city at peace.