Inside Libya’s Burgeoning Youth Art Scene

The Berka Barracks in Benghazi, known colloquially as the Turkish Castle, is a U-shaped building in the middle of the Keesh district. A double row of arched windows line the length of the building’s walls and gives the building a stately look. Once a military outpost that housed Ottoman soldiers, the barracks have become abandoned and neglected over the decades, like most of Benghazi’s historic and cultural sites.

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

But during the first week of February, the castle played host to a cultural event, the first to take place on the premises in years. The event in question was the ARRA Gallery, a three-day art event organized by a group of civil society organizations and activists to highlight the young Libyan talent. Consisting of discussion panels, live drawing sessions and film screenings, visitors could also browse the temporary exhibition of work.

“The aim of this project is to give young Libyan artists exposure to the rest of society,” said Aya Mohammed, the main organizer of the event. “We want to encourage these artists to showcase their work, but we also want to show the world a different side of Libya.” Aya told me that the gallery is just the first phase of a bigger project to make Libyan art more global.

In a city like Benghazi, where intense fighting and a dire humanitarian crisis has plagued the residents for over two years, the idea of an art gallery may seem counterintuitive. But this gallery is just the latest event in a steadily growing art scene among Libyan youth. While politicians and fighters destroy the country, disenfranchised young people are using art as an outlet for creative expression, and, increasingly, paving the new for a new profession and new opportunities.

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

The 2011 revolution and subsequent war was a catalyst for new art movements in the country. Music, graphic design, photography and even graffiti were taken up by young people who were eager to express their passion in the rapid changes happening around them. Galleries, book fairs, carnivals and other cultural events were being organized in Benghazi, bringing together artists from the past generations with the new generation.

There was a lull in artistic creativity in the years after as Benghazi’s security situation rapidly deteriorated. Civil society, one of the main promoters of culture, was facing threats by religious extremists who saw no need for art in their post-revolution vision. The 2014 war made humanitarian relief the most urgent priority for the besieged city.

But, as life had begun to slowly return, so did the art scene. A popular Facebook group, ‘Art Lovers’, is an online forum with tens of thousands of members from across Libya to share their art and get tips on how to improve. This group organized one of the first art galleries in Benghazi after the start of the war, a statement of resilience in the face of conflict. A series of art events followed, from the publishing of the first Libyan manga comic, Habka Magazine, to the opening of Tanarout, a culture club that celebrates the arts and humanities. These events have created a momentum that has encouraged more youth to engage in creative hobbies.

This growing trend is not confined only to Benghazi. Cultural events are being frequently organized in Tripoli’s many art houses, covering everything from painting to writing to music. A new center called Warraq Art Foundation has recently opened its doors, and a new project aims to set up cultural palace in a historic public building. And art galleries and crafts fairs continue to be organized in more disenfranchised cities like Ajdabiya, Waddan, Ghat and Sebha.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

The use of art has grown as well, not just as an expressive medium but also to shed light on important social issues. The Aegis Gallery held last November was organized to commemorate the Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, and cartoonist Suhaib Tantoush draws satirical images on the everyday struggle of Libya citizens. Popular musician Fuad Gritli is known for his tongue-in-cheek songs on Libya current events, and artist Abdullah Hadia uses themes and symbols from Libyan folklore to revive cultural traditions.

But while the will and passion persist, there are still obstacles that deter the growth of these art movements. Weak infrastructure, worsening financial problems and a lack of cultural awareness still cripple the art scene, as the shadow of war still looms over the country. Citizens whose basic needs are not met do not have the luxury of focusing culture, and art has a historically infamous reputation in Libya as not being a “real” profession. “Art is a new market,” said Noureldine Elhouni during a panel on art magazines in Libya. “Investors are afraid to put their money in such a new sector.” And Libya is not exempt from problems faced by aspiring artists around the world, including a lack funding and sustainability.

A new movement of religious extremism has also emerged as a threat to this burgeoning youth art scene, particularly in East Libya. A shipment of books was confiscated by a police check point on its way to Benghazi, and religious authorities in the area claimed that the books promoted, among other things, secularism and atheism.  While this act was met with strong outcries – even prompting a widespread hashtag on social media which pressured the police to make a statement – it is a worrying indicator of things to come.

A visitor to the ARRA Gallery remarked to me that the gallery was an important statement in light of the recent fears, made all the more significant by its location in a culturally historic building. It will be more difficult to stem the tide of art in Libya as the community continues to grow, especially as new artistic avenues and techniques are explored. While the policy makers and government authorities continue to stall the development of the country, it’s clear that the youth have become the new safeguards of art and culture.

 

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).

Tribalism in Post-Revolution Libya

“شن قبيلتك؟” (What is your tribe?)

Get stopped at a checkpoint in any region in Libya these days, and this question will invariably come up. A tribe has become more than just a moniker in Libya after the 2011 revolution; it’s a form of identification, used by others to determine where you come from, what your political beliefs are (or should be) and where your loyalties lie.

Every Libyan belongs to a tribe. Whether it’s a small family in an obscure desert town, or a million-strong clan that spans the nation, the tribe forms part of the core of the Libyan identity itself. A person who does not have a tribe is not Libyan, not really, and is given one of the numerous derogatory labels that have been cultivated in the Libyan vernacular, a result of the heightened (exaggerated) pride at our Libyan-ness. (Of course, these labels are only applied to those poor souls from surrounding countries, Chadiaa, Tunsee, Masri, never to a person from, say, Europe or North America).

Prior to 2011, tribalism was buried deep under the surface, at least in my hometown of Benghazi, perhaps to counter Gadhafi’s manipulation of tribal sentiments in order to stay in power. One notable example of this is the renaming of the Eastern town of Tokra to ‘Al-Agoria’, after the Agori tribe that live as a majority in the area. Many speculate that the cause for this name-change was to sow discord between Eastern tribes, who have historically always been united.

But Gadhafi only used what had already existed. Tribal alliances, feuds and migrations go back much further in Libyan history, and still influence the country to this day. The age-old conflict between Misrata and Bani Walid, the story and background of ‘tajreedat habib’ (تجريدة حبيب) in Derna, the East-West divide, the geographic tensions between the Tebu and Tuarag, etc.; all affect, to some degree, the Libyan situation.

It was only after 2011 that the extent of tribalism in Libya came to light. A person who was born and raised in Benghazi would point to a city in West Libya that was fighting Gadhafi and say, “That’s where I came from”, indicating their tribal lineage. Protest signs would declare things like ‘the Tarhouna tribe stands with the revolution!” and “Werfella for February 17th!”. Of course, this didn’t really alarm anyone; if anything, it was encouraged, because it showed that Libyans from all tribal backgrounds were united, and that it was Libyans, not outside actors, who stood against Gadhafi. Nothing is more Libyan than a Libyan tribe, after all.

But it didn’t take long for old tribal grievances to appear once again. Clashes became common between Zawiya and Wershefana, Misrata was flexing its muscles in Bani Walid, and the federalist movement in the East used tribal alliances to gain influence.

Many critics of the federalist movement who claim that it would cause the country’s division seem oblivious to the fact that the country is already divided along tribal and regional lines. Even if its not part of the official legislation, there is a distinct triad of identities in the country; Bargawi, Tripolitianian and Fezzani, and each has a strong basis in tribalism.

But do you need to be part of one of the tribes of the region in order to embody its identity?

This is where the Benghazi anomaly comes in. Benghazi is a tribeless city, that is, no tribe is from Benghazi. A commercial city built on its sea port and salt trade, merchants came from across the country and turned the city into a thriving metropolis. This is where the nickname “رباية الذايح” (upbringer of the wanderers) came from, and its been estimated that around 190 tribes are represented in Benghazi’s million+ population. Much of the city’s inhabitants can trace their ancestry back to Misrata and Bani Walid. And yet, Benghazi sits as the de facto capital of Barga, the Eastern region, and those in and around the city exist in harmony, exemplifying a tribal equilibrium.

My own tribal background is a mix of various origins. My fathers’ parents moved from their tribal hometown to Benghazi before Libya’s independence, to start a new family and a new life. My mother’s grandparents each found their own way to Benghazi, each from a different city, each drawn towards this Eastern beacon. Ask around, and you’ll find that this is the background of most Benaghza. Some are ‘new’ to the city, while others can trace their family’s presence here from the time of the Ottomans.

And this, according to many, is part of Benghazi’s downfall today.

Tribalism in Libya’s current turbulent situation is a double-edged sword. In the East, it has been a unifying factor, while in the West and South, it has fueled the fighting. Benghazi, without a clear tribal focal point, continues to face an ideological war that is forcibly being re-narrated as tribal and regional. Where we were once all Benaghza, we are now Misratis, Tobrukis, Sebhawis, etc. The city has been broken down into its constituent parts and each is careful scrutinized, measured and judged. If you’re from that tribe (and therefore from its respective city), then you must support this side, right? At the height of Operation Karama, a malicious rumor began circulating that people of West Libyan origin were being kicked out of the city, despite the fact that the instigator of Karama is himself of West tribal origin, despite the fact that both sides in the conflict are made up of a mix of tribes, and DESPITE the fact that at least half of Benghazi is from West Libyan origin.

Tribalism makes a good scapegoat for those who want to deliberately twist the reason for the East’s instability, but what’s sad is that many people have stepped into these roles, turning rumor into reality. Your tribe did not initially determine the side you chose to support, but it has slowly come to do so now. And really, can you blame someone for being with or against a certain side when they hear their tribe or city insulted across social media pages and the media?

In Mansur Bushnaf’s ‘Chewing Gum’, he writes, “Libyans are attached to their tribes, each dragging it like an umbilical cord behind him.” Even those we call “huthoor” (حضور), those whose families were brought up in the cities and who have no tribal affiliations, have felt the pull of a tribe, a force reaching in through centuries, which now colours the interactions and outcomes of their lives. I could once tell people my name without having it mean anything other than who I was. But now, my name is attached to a host of pre-conceived suppositions, even if none of them are actually true. You come from this city, you are sympathetic to that political party, you follow these customs. No, don’t try to deny it, your name gives it away.

On a very real level, tribalism has become a gateway in Libya to some very ugly discrimination and some very primitive practices. Politicians are voted in based on their last name rather than their skills, and there is an outcry when a certain tribe isn’t “represented” on a committee or governing body, and nepotism is more widespread than ever before. People from certain tribes are now afraid to travel in certain areas, and your experience at a checkpoint could hinge on the name printed on your ID card. What positive aspects there were of a tribal system in Libya – social protection, a form of restorative justice, etc. – has been overshadowed by the negative aspects. A civil country cannot be built on a system that categorizes people based on something as arbitrary as a last name.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of tribalism in Libya. It is a very complex, extensive topic, and it requires a contextual understanding of Libyan history to really grasp how ingrained this phenomenon is in our country. As the conflict continues, tribalism is getting more or more radical. While I’m sure that cities like Benghazi, formed by all of Libya, will survive, I definitely worry about the consequences of the fighting today and the legacy it will leave for future generations.

Adventures in Libyan Arabic

[Correction: In an earlier version, I translated the term “سلال القلوب” as “basket of hearts”. The correct translation is “remover of hearts”]

The comic below is from “Itchy Feet: Travel and Language Comic“, one of my personal favorite webcomics.

Itchy Feet ComicAh, languages. The stitching that keeps the fabric of societies bound together and functioning. The skill that makes humans superior to other animals. The trait that enriches our cultures and heritages.

I’m horrible at them. As in, I got a D+ in my Arabic language course at university and it exceeded my expectations.

I mean, it’s not like I can’t learn a new language, it’s more about how much effort and dedication it requires. Some people have a natural bent for picking up new languages. I’ve met Libyans who’ve never left the country and yet know English better than native speakers. Valadmir Nabakov produced masterpieces in English and it was his third language.

But me? Nope. I’ve got about one and half languages under my belt, and I’m pretty satisfied with that. While I would love to speak with the flowing lilt of Italian or the animated babble of French, the moment I look up language guides and see the mass of grammar rules, I give up on the spot. If you’re not planning on writing epic poems and just want to learn up to a conversational level, the easiest way to do that is speak with natives or immerse yourself in the culture of your preferred language. It is, after all, as much a cultural thing as it is memorizing a new alphabet and vocabulary.

And as the comic above illustrates, sometimes learning the formal version of a language isn’t as useful as you’d think. There are numerous versions of Arabic, each differing based on the country or region you’re in. And within that country, you’ll find even more sub-languages. Take Libya, for instance. The Eastern and Western dialect are distinctly different. But within the Eastern dialect there are still further more dialects. A person from Benghazi can be distinguished from a person from Tobruk, or Derna, by the way they talk. I once saw someone joke about it on Twitter, saying Libya is a country where you encounter a new dialect every 40 km you go. This is similar to many Arabic-speaking countries.

I always feel like Libyans don’t fully appreciate the richness of our local dialect. We have some clever, fun and bizarrely interesting phrases and words. Take this one:

“ياهارب من الغولة يا طايح في سلال القلوب” (You’re either running from the monster or running into those who rip out hearts)

While that clearly sounds macabre to the average English speaker (more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than common idiom), the meaning is actually equivalent to ‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’. Ours is just a little more *vivid*.

Another (less morbid sounding) Libyan idiom is: “كلام الليل مدهون بالزبدة” (Words spoken at night are greased in butter), which means that it’s easy to say things and make promises at night (when you’re sleepy) when you might not do so while alert. The butter metaphor alludes to the ease with which butter can be spread.

Another saying, which is very pertinent to the situation in Libya regarding our infamous rumor mills, is “قاله شن علمك الكذب, قال اللي نسمعه انقوله” (He was asked where he learned how to lie, he responded, “I repeat everything I hear”). This is sort of a cautionary tale about the harm in spreading rumors, and yet, even though we have an age-old idiom about this very problem, it still persists. Go figure.

Along with these idioms, the Libyan dialect has a lot of Italian loanwords that we picked up during the colonization in WWII (along with some pretty rad Italian-style architecture). The words are given a Libyan-twist to make them more pronunciation-friendly. If a Libyan tells you to stop at the ‘sima-fro‘, he/she means the traffic intersection, if they tell you look nice in your ‘goun-a‘, they’re talking about your skirt. As Libya continues to become more exposed to the rest of the world, a lot of English words are also getting “Libyanized” and added to the colloquial vernacular. ‘Fanash-et’ literally means “I finished”, it’s the word finish with a ت added at the end.

So, you’re probably wondering if Libya is some kind of weird wonderland (which, yeah, it kinda is), but these examples serve to show you how colourful our local dialects are. Unlike Modern Standard Arabic, these dialects are more flexible and can be expanded, as shown by the quick adoption of words from other languages. [If you’re interested in learning more about Libyan sayings, there’s a pretty cool Twitter account that posts them, although not with translations, which you can check out here. I also found this neat blog post on common Libyan terms in West Libya, which you can see here.]

During the last writing contest my organization held, I wrote a blog post about how the majority of submissions were in English, despite the fact that most of the participants spoke Arabic as a first language. We had even received submissions in broken English, as though the participants would rather struggle to write with a language they weren’t proficient at, rather than write in the language they knew. As I mentioned in the post, it got me thinking about holding a writing contest in colloquial Libyan, the language we use everyday when interacting with one another.

The logo of the 'Write in Libyan' contest. The two red hat things are 'shennas', traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

The logo of the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest. The two blobs hanging on the letters are ‘shennas’, traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

Well, we did end up hosting that very contest! And the results were as I had predicted; there was a larger level of participation, as well as more enthusiasm from our general audience. The essays themselves were also more emphatic, it seemed. You’ll definitely write best if you write in the language you communicate with the most, right?

We wanted to keep the premise simple; write an essay about one of three topics we had offered, in, of course, Libyan Arabic. The generous folks over at Libyan Youth Voices let us make a call for essays on their website, as well as the promise of featuring the best essay on their site.

Of course, this idea was not without it’s criticism and detractors. While the overwhelming majority of people told us that they liked the idea, others told us that they believed encouraging writing in a local dialect would push people away from the purer, more universal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Local dialects are, of course, corrupted versions of MSA with geographic and historical factors influencing them.

But my response to this is that people are already speaking in local dialects. No one in Libya talks to one another in MSA. We even use it online on social media. While MSA does have it’s place in the formal press and other professional settings, it’s the local dialect that is most often used by the average Libyan citizen. And since the goal of our organization is to encourage the average Libyan to express themselves, we might as well do it in the language they are most comfortable with.

Another criticism came from our use of the term “Libyan”, when we specifically meant Arabic Libyan. There are actually a number of other languages spoken in Libya besides Arabic, such as Tamazight (mainly spoken by Amazigh Libyans), Greetli (spoken by Libyans of Greek descent, but it’s dying out), Tamahaq (spoken by Tuareg Libyans), along with others.

Now, this is a legitimate criticism. Libya is more diverse than is usually admitted, especially by die-hard pan-Arabists, and to claim that “Libyan” only means Libyan Arabic is wrong. My only defense here is that we don’t have the resources include, for eg., a Tamahaq or Ghadamsi in the writing contest, since we don’t know how to read them.

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

However, after some asking around, we got into contact with Libyan Amazighis who told us they’d be more than happy to help out with a Tamazight writing contest, and we are currently working to ensure that this becomes our next contest. While I’m way out of my scope here in terms of expectations for what impact this contest will have, I think it’s an important gesture nonetheless to encourage tolerance of different ethnicities and to really appreciate the cultural diversity we have. It would also move the organization near political territory, as Amazigh Libyans have been protesting for Tamazight to be recognized as an official National language. But hey, we gotta take risks once in a while, and this is a good cause.

Back to the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest, one of the organization’s team members had the brilliant idea of contacting Dr.Khaled Mattawa. Dr.Mattawa is a Libyan author and writer. He’s also a pretty big deal (as evidenced by his Wikipedia page). He’s won several awards, the latest being the MacArthur ‘Genius Prize’ for his work translating Arabic poetry into English. He was generous and gallant enough to judge the entries from the contest, and in record time (a mere day!).

The winning essay, as determined by Dr.Mattawa, was entitled “مختلفين مش متخالفين” (We’re Different, But Not Enemies), by Mohamed Ezawi, a Libyan from Tripoli. The essay was published on Libyan Youth Voices as promised, and you can check it out here or, to read the intro in Arabic, here. It’s an essay about the importance of difference of opinion and belief in Libyan society, and how we tend to make the erroneous assumption that those of a different mind are our adversaries. It’s an essay that strikes at the heart of the current Libyan conflict, and I hope the message reaches as many Libyans as possible.

The other winners are (you can read the essay on Wattpad by clicking on the name below):

2nd Place: “The Love of Ownership” by Hadeel Alfasay

3rd Place (two entries tied): Why Are You Smiling” by Mukhtar Al-Zlitni and “All We Have is Facebook” by Amel 

You can also read the 1st place winner on Wattpad here.

I believe it’s also noteworthy that the participants mainly focused on the ‘Libyan Culture’ option when writing their article, and chose a certain facet of Libyan culture to write about. I felt that this showed a profound level of creativity on their part for choosing those angles, as opposed to a traditional or cliche take on Libyan culture. (I personally would have written a long-winded piece on Libyan culture as reflected in our local architecture, because I’m a stuffy 50-year old academic trapped in the body of a young adult). There was also a level of humor and comic-relief in the pieces, which I loved because it captured that light-hearted aspect of Libya that I love so much. Libyans can find humor even in a war, which you can see in the multiple memes that have emerged since the revolution (side note: someone should make an archive of Libyan memes. Told you, I’m a stuffy academic). I think the hard times that have become the hallmark of Libyan existence for the past 100 years or so has led to this resilience of spirit, and finding the bright side in any situation. It’s not so much apathy in the face of difficulty as much as it’s a coping mechanism, Libyan style.

Keeping myself narrowly focused on these kinds of projects, along with my writing, is my own form of coping with the current situation. Libya’s now the flavour of the month for analysts and the news, and everyone’s talking about the war, but I’m frankly sick of wringing my hands (figuratively speaking, I’m not that old) and getting into a funk over something I can’t really change. I pray for the best, but I’m going to do what my ancestors have done before me and just adjust to the situation and try to find the bright side. And that’s as optimistic as I’m going to get for you guys for now.

ترجمة الأفكار

انا عمري ما درت وعد للسنة الجديدة* بس السنة هذه قررت اني حنحاول نكتب ونقرأ بالعربي اكثر, بذات على الأنترنت. مش عارفة شن اللي اثر عليه اكثر. احد الأسباب هو اني نبي نقرأ الاداب الليبي باللغة الأصلية امتاعة. في نهاية السنة قرأت “نزيف الحجر” من المؤلف الليبي ابراهيم الكوني, بس بالأنجليزي. القصة رائعة, بالذات اللي يبي يتعلم اكثر على جنوب ليبيا, بس حسيت انه فيها حاجة ناقصة, وحقيقةً هذا الشعور اللي يجيني لما نقرأ اي كتاب مترجم. (الأسثناء الوحيد هو العلكة بقلم منصور بوشناف).

احد اصدقائي عطاني كتاب على تاريخ بنغازي, ولكن هو بالعربي و مافش منا نسخة بالإنجليزي (هو اصلاً مترجم من الإيطالي). في البداية كنت مترددة ولكن حبي لتعلم تاريخ مدينتي غلبت على خوفي من العربي.

انا مش حالة ميئوس منها بكل فـ العربي, راه! وهذا هو السبب الثاني اللي خلاني نكتب اكثر بالعربي (متأكدة ان اصحابي على التوتر مستغربين فيه, كنها البنت انقلبت بالعربي!) في ناس, لما يتعرفوا علي, يحسابوني دبل شفرة (يعني ازدواج في الجنسية) كيف نازلة من الطيارة. ولكن انا عشت في ليبيا نص عمري. قريت الثانوية في مدرسة انجليزية و معظم اصحابي يعرفوا اللغة, ولذلك ما حصلتش فرص واجد اني انمارس اللغة العربية. (تعرفوا كم مرة انعاود فيها القصة هذه؟ سئمت منها!)

السبب الثالث هو اني نبي نعتمد على نفسي اكثر. اصبحت كسلانه ونقعد نسأل في أهلي ان يترجمولي. على سبيل المثال, كتبت مقال على منتدى الشباب التونسي-الليبي اللي حضرتها في تونس الشهر اللي فات. كتبت عليه مقال بالأنجليزي, ولكن لأنه حدث عربي, مفروض يكون بالعربي, فسألت أمي ان ترجمها لي. انا عارفة انه هي مش حترفض لكن متأكده انه كبدها درهت مني (قصة “ترجميلي يأمي” هذه بدأت اول ما خشيت للجامعة) (الرابط للمقال بالأنجليزي هنا وبالعربي هنا)

ايضاً في مقال كتبتها لمدونة “مشروع سلفيام” على حقوق المرأة في ليبيا, كتبتها بالأنجليزي, وهم ترجموها اللى ليبي. شعرت بالأسف اني ماقدرتش نكتبها العربي. (سألتهم لماذا ترجمت بالليبي و ليس بالعربي و قالولي انه ناس تستجيب لليبي اكثر!)

في منتدى الشباب اللي ذكرتها, احد المشاركين سمعني نتكلم بالعربي و قال “العربي امتاعك كارثة!”. شكراً, انا عارفة العربي امتاعي كارثة, مافيش داعي اتشهدر! بس في قرارة نفسي عارفة ان الأمر غريب, بنت ليبية عايشة في ليبيا وماتعرفش تحكي عربي كويس. نقدر انلخص مشكلتي بي:

  • (مانعرفش الفرق بين العربي الفصحى والليبي (وهذا سئ لما انتعامل مع عرب اخرى.
  • مانقدرش نتعلم قواعد النحو. خذيت مادة “اللغة العربية” في اولى جامعة ونجحت فقط لأني حفظت اية القرآن وبيت الشعر. مانعرفش حتى قواعد اللغة الأنجيليزية وماعنديش استعداد نحفظهن
  • اللغة العربية صعبة بكل! بالذات قصة الذكر والانثى. وامتى نستعمل الـ”ة” و امتى الـ”ا”؟ وتلخبيط الس و الص, الخ.

قررت اني على الأقل نتمكن من الليبي وبعدين انخش عالعربية الفصحى كان عايشني ربي. لكن في حاجة لاحظتها لما نكتب بالعربي. نحساب الموضوع اني انترجم اي حاجة كنت نبي نقولها بالأنجليزي. بس حسيت ان كلامي فقد الروح وراء المعنى, مثل الكتب المترجمة اللى حكيت عليهن.اكتشفت ان التعبير بلغة اخرى لها بعد اخر لم استطيع ان اتمكن منها, ولذلك تعبيري فاقد هذا البعد. لقيت روحي انحاول انترجم تفكيري نفسى الى حاجة نستطيع ان نوصفها بالليبي.(احد المرات نتكلم مع صديق على الفيسبوك و حاولت نكتب بالعربي. قال لي, “انت شخصيا مختلفة لما تكتبي عربي!”)

وهذا اعتقد لماذا الكثير من القصص اللي نحصلوا فيهن في مسابقات كتاب بنغازي الصغار بالأنجليزي برغم  انّ الناس لغتهم الأولى عربية,واللغة العربية الفصحى لا يوجد بها “الروح” او قد تسميها “العقلية” العصرية. هي لغة قديمه مثل باقي اللغات, ولكن مجتمعات هذه اللغات تطورت و المجتمع العربي توقف. معظم المصطلحات الجديدة (انترنت, لابتوب, اوتوماتك, الخ) هي كلمات انجليزية.

  اللغة ليست فقط وسيلة تواصل بل ايضاً انعكاس على الثقافة والمجتمع والعوامل التي تؤثر فيهم. يوجد 22 دول عربية و لكن كل دولة لها لهجة وتعبيرات خاصه بيها, وحتى في الثقافات. الأردني يختلف على المصري والليبي يختلف على البناني, وكلنا مختلفبن على المغربيين اللي ماحد يفهم في كلامهم. (تحية الى الشعب المغربي!)

اللغة العربية جميلة وبليغة جداً, وهي مناسبه جداً للشعر والأشياء الرسمية. ولكن لما تبي تحكي مع اصحابك؟ هل تقول “كِيفْ حالكم ؟” او “شن الجو!”.

انا مازلت بطيئه في الكتابة, وعندي غلطات واجدات (حنسأل أمي اتراجع المقال قبل ماننشرها!). لكن عارفة ان مع الوقت حنتعود. هذه فرصة ليس فقط لتطور لغتي بل ايضاً حتى تفكيري لكي نكتشف هويتي كـ ليبية. كل سنة وانتم طيبين


*New year’s resolution, no Arab equivalent to this term so I improvised 

The Year of Reading Libyan Literature

2014 has not been a kind year to Libya. The tense security situation in the country that has been building up these past few years has finally culminated in an all-out war in several cities around the country, and Benghazi has been hit particularly hard. Fighting is still taking place as I type this.

cover (5)Books have been a great way to escape this frustrating reality. I’ve read more than usual this year, and my hunt for interesting reading material led me to discover Chewing Gum, written by Libyan playwright Mansour Bushnaf. (which I’ve already fawned about here)

I’ve discovered that reading Libyan literature is, for me, a much more personal experience than reading other kinds of books. It’s a thrilling experience to walk through the streets of your country’s capital 100 years ago, or go on the deadly march to a concentration camp and share the tears your people shed at past injustices. It’s also easier to relate to the characters as they grapple with the same Libyan struggles as you.

My first foray into Libyan literature came several years ago when I read ‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar, after it was recommended to me by a cousin. What I most distinctly remember was the awe I felt at reading a book that took place in Libya, and contained details of a dictatorship that we grew up resenting and fearing. I wasn’t interested in the writing itself as much as I admired the book’s mere existence.

Reading Chewing Gum brought back those intimate recollections and, being older now, left me with a thirst for more Libyan books. I have been fortunate enough to obtain them, thanks to the kindness of friends (like Maraim Badri <3) as well as through the awesome Darf Publishers, a publishing house founded by Libyan publisher Mohamed Fergiani.

This has also been a year of young literature, as the Young Writers of Benghazi published the winning stories of our writing contests. It’s a different, but ultimately just as rewarding experience, to read the stories produced by our youth, who are just starting out on what I hope is a long literary career.

While I’ve already reviewed the books on Goodreads, I’m summarizing them here for anyone who’s looking for recommendations. Fingers crossed that this list will grow in 2015.


Al-agaila: The Camp of Suffering: A Boy’s Tale by Ali Hussein

مابي مرَضْ غير دار العقيلة, وحبس القبcover (4)يلة, وبعد الجبا من بلاد الوصيله” – رجب بوحويش

“I have no ailments except the house of Agila, the tribe’s imprisonment and the distance from my roots” – Rajab Abu Huweesh

Those lines form the beginning of a famous Libyan poem written by camp prisoner Rajab Abu Huweesh. (which you can read here, with English translation when you scroll over). Al-Agaila was a concentration camp located in the town of the same name, one of several set up in Barqa (East Libya) by Fascist Italy. Because of the Libyan resistance to Italy’s occupation and colonization, the camps were set up to keep a hold on the population and prevent them from joining the fighters. I know what you’re thinking; whoa, Libyan suffering goes way back. Our history is drenched in blood, tears and anguish.

The Camp of Suffering is part tale, part historic documentary. It opens with a brief glimpse of life under Gadhafi before fading to the Italian invasion and occupation, through the eyes of the narrator and his father. The first half of the book details the boy’s life and struggles in the inhuman camp, while the second half takes place in Benghazi and the boy’s new life. At times, it was very heartbreaking for me to read about life in the camp and the inhuman treatment they underwent through starvation, rape and systematic punishment. While the writing leaves something to be desired, it’s still a compelling read. Some choice quotes from the book:

“In Al-Agaila you could lose your smile if you lost hope”

“Son, do you know that the people of the city call [Benghazi], ‘The Mother of the Orphans’. This was proven to be correct, as the city took me into her arms and I would be her son forever.”

Maps of the Soul by Ahmed Fagih-

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Maps of the Soul can be described as the coming-of-age tale of a young Libyan man, although the book itself is much more than the story of one person. It’s the story of Tripoli, or rather one chapter in its long and ancient history.

A restless young man named Othman El-Sheikh longs to leave his static village life and find his prospects in Tripoli. Circumstances allow him to run away from the village and pursue his future, and the novel centers around this journey. He starts in abject poverty and works hard to build up a life, only to have it snatched away when the Italians force young Libyan men into the military to fight their battle in Abyssinia. Again Othman uses hard work and sheer determination to rise in the ranks, and he almost succeeds before losing it all again.

This is a very Libyan book, and by that I mean it’s richly saturated with Libyan life, rituals, and customs, weaving through the fabric of Libyan society. Othman is the archetypal Libyan youth, unsatisfied with society’s expectations and trying to break free, although the invisible chains of these expectations ultimately hold him back. From the book:

“It was thus the rule to say “no” when you should say “yes”, and to say “yes” when your feelings screamed to say “no”.”

“The truth is not what you say about yourself, but what rumors said about you.”

While the book mainly features Libyan men and their struggles, Fagih did not leave out Libyan woman, and mentions several times the harsh restrictions society placed on its female half, especially in contrast to Italian society.

“Perhaps there was no point in a woman like her receiving an education, because it would simply cast a harsh light on the degradation in her life without giving her the power to change it.”

In the background to all this is Tripoli itself, and the reader can experience the sights, sounds, smells and taste of the city through Othman as he moves throughout the city, from the tiny winding alleys of the Arab quarters to the Jewish and Italian districts, describing the historic landmarks as he interacts with them.

One quote that really stuck with me, in light of Libya’s current situation:

“But despite the wounds, the dark clouds, and the stolen, scorched earth, it was still your homeland. You didn’t have any other homeland, and more than being stone, tree and earth, it was people, hearts and emotions”

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar-

cover (2)What better way to end my year of reading Libyan than to finish it with a book by my first Libyan author. This book contains many of the same elements that ‘In the Country of Men’ comprised of; a young narrator, a strained parental relationship, a dissident father, a disappearance.

However, unlike his first book, Matar doesn’t mention Libya by name, instead referring to it as ‘our country’. The clues are all there; the overthrown monarchy, the deceptive revolution, the vendetta against opposition. However, this aspect is left more in the background, perhaps to keep the focus instead on the boy’s growth into the space his father left behind.

Nuri is the only son of a former minister turned political dissident. The boy’s relationship with his father is strained and emotionally detached after the death of his mother and his father’s marriage to a new woman, but this changes when his father goes missing, kidnapped by the regime he fought.

This kind of story has been a very real tragedy for many Libyan dissidents abroad, one of the most famous being Mansour Kikhia, whose body was discovered in Gadhafi’s freezers decade after his disappearance in Egypt.

The real lead in this book is Matar’s writing. He beautifully conveys his character’s emotions and development, giving deep meaning to the simplest detail, with the plot added almost as an afterthought.


coverA few other books I discovered this year were Khalifa Al-Tellisi’s ‘An Encyclopedia of Libya’s Inhabitants’, which contains information on all of Libya’s tribes, their origins and family trees. African Titanics, written by Eritrean author Abu Bakr Khal, takes place mainly in Libya and deals with the issue of illegal immigration, is also a highly recommended read.

Reading all these books has reaffirmed my belief that Libya’s revival will come through literature and the arts. Its power lies in its ability to bring our culture back to life through the written word, and translating our experiences and history into something accessible.

Next year I might overcome my intimidation of Arabic and dive into Sadeg Al-Neihoum and Ibrahim Al-Koni’s bodies of work. We also have new writing contests planned over at the Young Writers of Benghazi. The war will hopefully end in the near future and we can make 2015 a year to properly celebrate Libyan culture. I hope you all have a happy new year!

(If you’re interested in getting any of the books mentioned here, just click on the title of the book to head over to its Amazon page)

What It Means To Be Libyan

Yes, it’s another culture post. I’m a Libyan who’s obsessed with the intellectual revival of my country, okay? While political flame wars are fun, it’s the artistic manifestations of this unstable and contrasting country that piques my interest. I’ve written about our cultural bankruptcy and Libya’s lost literature. And yes, I’ve revisited this topic several times before.

Pictured: Something difficult to find Libya (the book, not chewing gum)

Pictured: Something difficult to find Libya (the book, not chewing gum)

What really pushed me to write about it again was a book, namely Chewing Gum, by Mansour Bushnaf. I stumbled on this book almost by accident. There was a BBC report called “killing books in Libya” in which the author himself describes the dismal state of publishing in the country. My compulsive googling habits led me to discover his recently published book, and my rage at being unable to attain a copy led naturally to a prolonged Twitter rant at the injustice of not being able to buy books written by people in the same country they come from. 

But a good samaritan noticed my twitter tirade and compassionately bought me the Kindle version of the book, which you can get here by the way. I won’t review the book here since I’ve already done so on Goodreads, but I do want to highlight my reaction upon reading and finishing it.

First off, since I have the unfortunate habit of underestimating Libyan talent, I was taken aback at the literary prose of the book. This is a translated book by the way, a fate that leaves many a written word stripped of the beauty and context of the original language. But the English prose here is even superior to many native English novels I’ve read. Picking my jaw up off the floor, I continued.

The subject matter, whoa. Prostitution, alcohol, love affairs, class division. Libyans like to pretend that this dark underbelly of society doesn’t exist, despite the overwhelming majority of society having some connection to it. But for someone to write about it, and sympathetically no less, was akin to revelation. Why don’t we talk about it? Why are Libyans so afraid of admitting that our social structure is unhealthy and unjust? If you thought ‘systematic repression that has become too ingrained into our subconscious’, then we’re on the same wavelength.

The novel was also, surprisingly, feminist. The repeated symbol of a woman whose intense passions have broken her down because of society’s inability to support her, was refreshing without being too preachy. And the heroine, Fatma, is a symbol of sacrifice for higher aspirations. Relatability, man.

An aged Libyan man wrote a strong female lead. Take a moment to let that sink in.

Libyan horse-riders. Horse riding is a popular sport in Libya. Painting by Libyan artist Ramadan Bakshishi

Libyan horse-riders. Horse riding is a popular sport in Libya. Painting by Libyan artist Ramadan Bakshishi

The story is actually a novelette, and left me with a thirst for more Libyan storytelling. The raw emotion and honesty in Chewing Gum presents a strong impression of one of the many facets of Libyan identity. Our identity is shaped by our surroundings, which is in turn formed from history. We don’t know much about our history because half of it is buried and the other half is being manipulated for political leverage.

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King Idris, a much beloved figure symbolizing a more prosperous time for Libya. (Painting by Tariq Al-Shebli)

Never mind history books, Libya has virtually no books, let alone some kind of widely available, neutral source of history where we can all read up on the path that led us to this crumbling wasteland of a country. “Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.” I know it’s a trite, overused cliche, but it’s also true.

Libyans wouldn’t be apathetic (I hope) towards these new entities insistent on forcing an Islamist or Western identity if they had read Libya’s history and realized that we’re not insane fundamentalists who obsessively segregate genders or openly engage in debauchery. But the truth is painfully obvious when someone posts a picture of a younger Libya, where, for example, women and men both engage in social activities together, and people quote “Wow, I can’t believe this used to be Libya.”

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A Libyan Mona Lisa. Western and Eastern themes often overlap in the art and literature of Libyans. Painting by Libyan artist Khalid (last name unknown)

We can’t believe it because we don’t know anything about it apart from aged photographs and our grandparent’s vague recollections. Without books, without history, Libyans will be mired in this identity crisis, trying on different cultural standards and discovering that none of them fit just right. We need to know who we are as a people and not wait for someone to tell us, because, news flash, Libya is a tempting place for several countries to manipulate and screw us over.

When you ask a Libyan to describe their society, you’ll often get the answer “we’re conservative”. People mistake this for being religious, when it actually just means that Libyans care about what other people think, which is most certainly not an Islamic trait. And it’s sad that we don’t have a more comprehensive answer, or that we limit ourselves to a very narrow political/religious identity. Even the attempts to describe the current conflict as ‘Islamist vs. Liberal’ is way off the mark, since the average Libyan is more moderate than anything else.

A painting entitled 'Refugees' by Libyan artist Ali Enaiza, inspired by the refugees of Ajdabiya during the revolution

A painting entitled ‘Refugees’ by Libyan artist Ali Enaizi, inspired by the refugees of Ajdabiya during the revolution

For the last three days there has been a cultural gallery here. I went to see the books available, but was sad to find that that section was gone (I went late on the third day). Instead I perused through the artwork and photography. There was some very impressive stuff (again, underestimated). Ask the average Libyan about famous artists and you might get one or two names at best.

One of the artists told us about a disagreement he had with his father. “He told me that I was wasting my time by painting,” he said, echoing a common reaction in Libya towards the arts and humanities. This is just my opinion, but I strongly, strongly believe that it’s the arts that will help us form a more national identity than any other pursuit.

Religion has played a large role in Libyan identity. So has tribalism, regionalism, politics, and our long history of invasion and occupation. The 2011 revolution provided a chance for us to finally show the world who we are, and in my opinion, we stuttered. Libyan culture is, among other things, an amalgam of outside influences. This will continue to be our predominate image until we start looking back through our history and start forging our own unique identity. One thing that needs to stop is our desperate cling to one homogeneous Libya. We can be united while still being diverse.