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?

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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.

The Death of Democracy in Libya

Yesterday, Libya’s House of Representatives held an urgent session in their Tobruk headquarters to vote on an issue of the utmost importance. No, not the peace process. Or the war. Or the terrifying ISIS threat. Nope, the issue that brought an unprecedented number of representatives together (ever since their first session) was, of course, extending their mandate in Libya.

For those of you with hazy memories, the House of Representatives was set up to replace the expired General National Congress, which, to no one’s surprise, also extended their mandate. The idea was that new elections would instill a better legislative body that the Libyan people could put their faith in – faith that the GNC had ripped to shreds.

These elections happened in 2014, right after the launch of Operation Karama in Benghazi. By that point, many citizens were fed up with the process of voting in new officials, hence the low turnout for the HoR elections. Those who did vote were the more optimistic citizens, who held on to the hope that a new governing body might pull Libya back from the abyss.

Elections were held, votes counted, and the HoR – which was to be based in Benghazi – was formed. However, certain political groups did not win as many seats as they had intended, and plans were set in motion to handicap the HoR before it had even begun working. Airports were attacked, representatives threatened, suspicion cast on the relocation to Tobruk (due to the conflict in Benghazi), etc. Ultimately, the GNC refused to hand over power, citing incredibly vague reasons that were a cover for their actual excuse, “Nu uh, we don’t wanna.” In order to cement their position, they strong-armed the Supreme Court into passing an order to dissolve the HoR, under duress by their militias.

I was one of the people cheering on the HoR, because I was fed up with the malicious incompetence of the GNC and their childish attempts to derail what was becoming an increasingly off-balanced democratic transition. Anything would be better than them, and a government that was closer to my own city might actually focus on the multitude of problems we were facing for a change.

But over time, the HoR lost the desperate trust of the people. Their repeated promises to fight terrorism and fix the country never materialized into anything more than bold words spoken through a microphone. The usual divisions predictably appeared within the HoR itself, and they repeated the same unprofessional gaffs as their predecessors. It became harder to defend their actions to those on the other side of the conflict. During one session – at the height of the war in Benghazi – members voted on raising their own salaries, a move that sparked universal fury (the first time all sides in the conflict agreed on something) and marked a steep loss in the tenuous support they had already had. But, the one fact that could be reliably turned to was that the HoR, despite their incompetence, were voted in democratically and recognized by the international community.

In the backdrop of all this was the threat (or, to some, the promise) of a military council, to replace the fragmenting HoR. This threat/promise continues to grow as the HoR’s mandate comes to an end.

According to the amended constitutional declaration of 2011, the HoR’s term ends with the completion of the constitution, or within 18 months from the start of the CDA’s work. In exactly 14 days from now, that 18 month deadline will be reached. We have no constitution, a government in the West that refuses to hand over power, and now a government in the East that is doing exactly the same thing that caused us to demand a new government in the first place. Hope, Libya’s last remaining hope, is a Government of National Accord, that combines the GNC, HoR, and nearly all the political factions in Libya fighting for a piece of the pie.

The HoR, as part of their Roadmap Committee, proposed a backup plan in the event that the national dialogue fails and a unity government isn’t formed; extending their mandate. Yesterday’s vote was a step towards ensuring that this plan was implemented, much to the ire of Libya’s enraged population.

The deadline to accept the national dialogue proposal is supposed to be October 20th, as it coincides with the end of the HoR’s term. By extending their mandate another six months, the HoR is basically inviting UNSMIL to extend this confounding process of forming a new government, which in turn will prolong the war.

Except, Libyans can’t wait another six months. We can’t wait another day. This plan should have been signed months ago so that the process of ending the conflict can begin, a conflict that is now entering its second year. The latest report by the UN indicates that over 2 million Libyans are directly affected by the war and need assistance. This extension is a blatant act of despicable, self-important selfishness that clearly shows how ignorant and insensitive the HoR is to the suffering of the country. Their excuse, that they don’t want to leave the country in a political vacuum, is an exact repetition of what the GNC said, confirming in the minds of Libyans everywhere that these government are just two sides of the same coin.

This move signifies something more than just another shameless power grab by corrupt Libyan politicians; it’s another nail in the coffin of Libya’s democratic transition. Every succeeding election saw a smaller turnout than the one before it, as every governing body we elect fails us. It’s incredibly common to hear citizens say “I’d rather cut my finger off than dip it in ink again” (a reference to dipping your finger in ink after casting a ballot). It’s one thing for your fellow countrymen to screw the country over while you look on helplessly, but it’s an entirely different thing when you know that you were the one who voted them into office to begin with. There is a phobia now surrounding elections, since our governments seem unable to hand over power without pointless extensions and wars. Libyans who staunchly supported the revolution now lament the loss of Gadhafi, and seriously discuss the potential benefits of reinstating military rule under Khalifa Heftar. The unity government itself is an un-democratic concept, as it centers around the distribution of power to political entities that had refused to hand it over.

It’s been said often since the end of the revolution that Libyans aren’t ready for democracy. I think the problem is that Libyans aren’t ready for politics. Either way, democracy can’t save Libya now, and the term itself has become a hated word. All that is desired is some semblance of stability, regardless of the cost. Some say that you cannot have a stable country without freedom, but Libya has neither stability nor true freedom. We are caught between greedy politicians, a growing terrorist threat and an indifferent international community. If the unity government is not formed, Libyans will not rally around the HoR, and we can’t keep waiting for perpetually unending dialogue negotiations. There are any number of scenarios that could happen by Oct. 20, each one more ominous than the last.

Surviving War Between Semesters: Life of a Benghazi University Student

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

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.