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This is how I remember it: There were missiles coming down, and it was pitch black. It wasn’t the missiles that scared us, we were used to them. It was the darkness, mostly, not being able to see what happened if something did hit the house. It was also the emptiness, knowing that most of the neighbours had already left, that there would be no one to call out for help. The morbid anticipation of what could happen was one of the worst parts of the war.

We packed in the dark, consoling our fears with the plan that we’d leave at sun-up, that we couldn’t stay anymore. We had no idea where we would go and we didn’t care. We just had to go.

One thing I vividly remember is that we didn’t lock the doors of the rooms. My dad said, “If we lock them, they’ll break the doors down to get into the rooms.” He didn’t want them breaking our doors. We had accepted the fact that our house would be broken into, that there would be thieves who would try to get into our rooms, take our stuff, vandalize. We moved anything valuable to the roof’s stairwell, in case a rocket hit, in case the house went up in flames. We did this mechanically, matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t the most absolutely horrifying experience we had ever been through, that the idea of displacement, of being homeless, possibly losing our house forever, wasn’t so maddeningly awful that we wanted to drop to our knees and cry.

We left in the morning, with whatever we could fit in the car. I took one last walk around the house, the street, not really believing that we were going. The neighbourhood was dead. The stray cats and dogs we had been feeding were walking around aimlessly, brushing against my ankles. We were one of the only families left in the area, and there was no one else to feed them.

That feeling of disbelief stayed with me for a while, as we moved from house to house, country to country, living out of suitcases. Surely we’d be back in a few months. It can’t go on this long forever. We read every news story, every rumor, desperate for any shred of information. We scanned countless pictures on countless social media pages to see if we could recognize our house. Months turned into years, and we settled uncomfortably into the fact that we weren’t going back anytime soon. We sought out the stories of families who eventually went back to their homes, listening with hope to the stories of those who found their houses untouched, listening with poorly disguised misery to the stories of houses found in ruins, houses robbed of everything, even the windows, even the doors. I thought of our doors, and how my dad was afraid that they would be broken.

Fear turned into anger, and anger turned to depression. I had a recurring dream where I would drive into the neighbourhood and go back to our house. Sometimes it would be destroyed, sometimes there would be a mound of dirt preventing me from entering, sometimes I would find people living in it, zombies, bodies of dead soldiers. I would stand on the roof of the rubble and look at the burned trees and red sky and feel helpless. And then I would wake up.

I was always angry when I read the stories of displaced families. “They packed their belongings and left in a rush,” “100,000 families fled,” “They traveled to look for a new life and a safe place.” Families don’t leave everything behind in a rush, the thought is there in the back of their mind as soon as the fighting breaks out, they think it over a million times, even in the space of a day. You can’t just leave your old life behind, you can’t just forcibly start over. They never talk about that in the news stories, they never talk about the dreams and the constant feeling of disorientation. Every aspect of our lives was on hold, every plan put off, because we were waiting. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, we didn’t know what we’d find after the guns dropped and the smoke cleared. But we couldn’t move on, bound with thousands of other families in the excruciating wait.

Every meeting with neighbours ended in tears and sighs. Every time someone asked me, “Have you seen your house yet?” made me want to scream, to tell them that I didn’t know because of the fighting, how could I know?

The backdrop to this personal struggle was the war, the city exhausted by all the fighting and death and chaos. A bullet broke through the window of a house in one of the neighbourhoods we were staying in, killing a young girl. Her sister found her sprawled on the floor of her bedroom in a pool of blood soaking the textbook she was reading. A missile fell onto the living room of another house, destroying everything. No one was in the room at the time. Hearing these stories while you’re in your own home is one thing, you are able (to some extent) to dismiss it and create your own reality inside those four walls. But when you’re floating, un-anchored, there’s a sickening feeling of vulnerability.

I feel almost guilty talking about such a material thing, but there’s no way around it. Our house wasn’t just the place we lived, it was my sanctuary. I longed for my bed, my books, my old familiar comforts. Before this house, we had never lived in one place for longer than a year. I grew up unanchored, but at least that was something we did willingly. This house was the first place that belonged to us. The bedroom was mine, it was built for me, the garden was made for us to run in, every inch of the house was designed for my family’s use. Knowing that I could go anywhere, and this place would always be there when I came back, was my comfort. Having that comfort unexpectedly taken away was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. My relationships with friends outside this context because strained. What could I say to them outside of the reality that consumed me? One friend got married, another got her Masters’ degree, one started a new job he was passionate about. Me? Homeless, aimless, waiting.

The most maddening thing was not knowing. If we knew what had happened to the house, at least we would have some peace of mind. Even if it was destroyed, even if there was nothing left, we would know, we’d have some closure and could start planning for what comes after. But the guessing and speculating and being told to expect the worst took a toll on our psyche.

I applied for a job outside the country, because I had to break out, but mostly because I couldn’t wander in my city anymore. The idea that my home was a few neighbourhoods away but completely inaccessible to me filled me with impotent rage. I was already an expert in the suitcase life, it was just a matter of putting some distance between me and the misery. My parents didn’t protest, knowing that there were no good argument they could come up with for my staying. So I moved and tried to forget. But I still scanned the news and the pictures every day, still asked around for any new updates.

Last month, after the area was finally freed, my dad was allowed to enter. He went alone because they would only allow one person from each family. He came back, his face drawn. The pictures he took on his phone showed our rooms in shambles, everything taken out of the drawers and dumped on the floor, holes in the wall from the bullets, glass shards from the windows strewing the floor. But it was standing. It had survived the war, even though we barely did. My mom sent me the pictures, and I let out the first breath of relief in two years. The only thing my dad brought back from that first visit was a textbook from his library that he needed for a course he was teaching. I guess the shock had made him revert to that matter-of-fact mechanism.

He went back a few more times, bringing out more stuff, but when the fighting escalated in the nearby neighbourhood they wouldn’t let him back in. It was enough though, enough to give us a new dose of hope. Around us, the city is healing.

Ramadan Television In Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poster for Dragunov, a Libyan Ramadan series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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

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.

Please Keep Your Emotions and Reactions Inside the Ride at All Times

Here’s another thing they don’t tell you about war; it’s not a phenomenon with a linearly ascending timeline of bad to good, or bad to worse. Instead it follows a pattern similar to the line you see on an EKG monitor. Things seem to be picking up, and everyone’s thinking ‘this is it, the war is nearly over!’ But then something happens which brings down morale, and this cycle continues in varying degrees. It’s an emotional rollercoaster which leaves you mentally exhausted.

Fighting had stopped in Benghazi for the past few weeks. We usually get these periods of calm once in a while in between the clashes. Death and destruction is a tiring business, and both sides need a break every so often. During this lull, a video was posted on Facebook depicting the Engineering Faculty of Benghazi University, up in flames. The video then jumps to a later scene, where the flames have died out and the burned hulk of the building is visible; broken windows, blackened twisted metal, roofs caving in.

I’m going to skip over the part here where I’d normally try to articulate my feelings upon seeing the video, because the internet doesn’t need any more human bleakness. Instead, I’ll tell you that I avoided social media for the rest of the night, and went to class today in the school our Faculty is using temporarily. Although after the video, the term ‘temporarily’ might not be very accurate anymore. No one knows when exactly the fire happened, but we’ve all taken it as indication that the end is still very far off.

To say that people in Benghazi are fed up with this nightmare is an understatement. The highs and lows of the war, the unexpected shortages and missiles, and the prolonged waiting has all been very agonizing. Even the latest announcement of a new (newer?) unity government and the signing of the UNSMIL peace agreement has been met with almost complete indifference. Keesh square is empty except for children playing in the park and student drivers practicing in the parking lot. Social media posts range from “well, let’s hope it works out this time” to “meh, whatever”.

Elementary schools have resumed in Benghazi, which has brought some small measure of happiness. But the reopening of schools has meant horrible traffic congestions, which kind of negates the happiness.

Civil society is around too, trying to fill in the gaps left by the government, which has proven to be a difficult task after the recent threats made by government officials accusing civil society activists of treachery, implementing foreign agendas and other equally ridiculous claims. What’s not ridiculous is having an intelligence officer calling you out of nowhere and demanding documents and other details about your work. That shit is scary. It doesn’t matter which MENA country you live in, when mukhabarat call, you panic. No one wants a file with their name on it sitting in one of their file cabinets.

A year ago I was fueled mainly by anger, indignation and vitriol. I hated everyone who ignored Benghazi or, worse, people who judged us from afar and stole our narrative online. It felt so good to rage, breathing self-righteous flames of fury on anyone who crossed my path. Being in Benghazi felt like a badge of honour that shielded me from blame for my destructive behaviour. Today I’m mostly numb. I don’t have any feelings, just because it’s given me peace of mind. I think the same can be said for most people here. Unlike the soldiers and fighters on the front lines, we can’t just take a break from the war.

There’s a military checkpoint that was set up somewhere near to where we’re living temporarily (the same ‘temporary’ stay as the university). This checkpoint had two kiosks on either side of the road for the soldiers to sit in when they switch shifts. The road was divided by old tires and empty ammunition boxes, to control car movement. The grass nearby was littered with debris from the soldiers; old fire pits, a small chicken coop, sofas with upholstery that had seen better days. Needless to say, it was not exactly a sight for sore eyes. One days, as we were driving past, we noticed that everything was gone. The kiosks, the tires, the chickens, everything. It was as if there was never a checkpoint there at all. I don’t know why they left, but we took it as a sign that, when the war is over, all the artifacts and debris will be taken away over night, and it’ll be like there was never a war to begin with.

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.