The Elusive North African Identity

Yes, reader, I know, it has been (checks calendar) six months (!) since I last posted anything on here. Part of the reason has been the general whirlwind of life (I’m not a procrastinating architecture student anymore) but the other more pressing reason is to do with security. You know me, I don’t like blogging unless it’s a contentious issue that’ll start Twitter wars, but unfortunately the time where I could speak freely without real-world consequences has passed in Libya. The all-seeing Eye of Sauron is back, in a more disorganized, flip-flop wearing form – and it’s staring at me. I have a lot of posts on the backburner which I can’t risk publishing now, but fear not! your reckless Benghazi blogger will not be deterred. The Libyan saga is far from over and I will be here to chronicle it all, I will just be more careful in my timing and personal safety.


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Maghreb pocket change

Now, I’m no anthropologist, but indicators are pointing to more progress when it comes to the science of categorizing people. Race, ethnicity and nationality are getting a closer inspection, especially as more minorities are able to make themselves heard through new media platforms. The intersection of religion and identity is also becoming more scrutinized as global debate continues on the issue of integration.

One type of identity that personally affects me is that of North Africa, and one which I feel doesn’t get a lot of attention in (non-francophone) discussions. I’ve always been focused on the Libyan identity, but I always thought of it in a vacuum. Lately I’ve been contemplating more on our identity in the wider regional context.

I’m think that some strides have been made in separating North Africa from the Middle East (evidenced through the increasingly ubiquitous ‘MENA’ acronym) and the term ‘Greater Maghreb’ (a more politically correct version of the Arab Maghreb) is starting to be used more often in the mainstream. Of course the biggest culprit of lumping the MENA region together is Western media, where the difference between a Moroccan and an Omani isn’t discernible to those audiences.

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The Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli Libya. Roman ruins can be found throughout the Maghreb

The Greater Maghreb is comprised of the five North African states (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). We have our own Maghreb Union which theoretically should work on promoting political and economic cooperation between the five countries – such as allowing free movement – but the political and historic issues among the five nations has limited what the Union can actually achieve. Morocco violated the sole achievement of the Union (visa-free travel) by placing a visa restrictions on Libyans and maintains a closed border with Algeria over the Western Sahara issue. Libya showed disregard for the union when it changed the passport colour from green to blue. Four of the five states are francophone due to French colonization, while Libya instead inherited good coffee and pasta (and nothing else) from Italian occupation.

This francophone difference has created a kind of barrier between Libya and its Maghreb brethren. Because of the widely different local dialects, French has acted as a lingua franca for these four countries which Libyans do not have access to. I have frequently been that lone Libyan among Maghreb friends as they happily chat away in French before realizing that I couldn’t understand anything. Speaking in our own local dialects doesn’t help much, as theirs is peppered in French while my East Libyan accent is closer to Egyptian than to anything Maghreb. We end up unenthusiastically conversing in broken English (or broken traditional Arabic).

The first level of  “identity” in the Maghreb is Amazigh and Arab, which acts as a source of many tensions. The Amazigh claim to be the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa while the Arab inhabitants supposedly came from the Muslim conquerors of the continent (ostensibly all “descendants of the prophet Muhammed”). The problem with painting North Africa in this black and white narrative is that it’s extremely narrow. (If you’re a racist Amazighi or Arab, you can jump to the comments section now to make your incoherent rant.)

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Sidi M’Cid bridge, Constantine, Algeria

The region has witnesses countless occupations, migrations and other movements, and so to claim that you are from a separate distinct ethnicity is hard to believe – and indeed hard to prove. In Libya, while many Amazigh follow the more extreme practice of only marrying within their ethnicity, claims of being “pure” Amazighi should be taken with a grain of salt. An Amazighi man I know in Tripoli conducted a DNA test to assert his pure blood, only to discover that he had almost no Amazighi heritage. The same goes with the so-called Arab inhabitants, who are more likely descendants of Amazigh tribes from across the region who have chosen to intermarry, rather than being purely from the Arab Gulf. Add to this the Turkish, Greek, Phoenician, Moorish, Sub-Saharan African and colonist movements, and you’re looking at a smorgasbord of different ethnicities.

I’m sure someone will chime in claiming that they have an obscure document passed down by their great-great-great-grandfather which is definitive, inarguable proof that they are indeed a full-blooded straight-from-the-sand-dunes Arab (thanks Nasserism), and could probably name the palm tree in Saudi Arabia that their ancestor owned, but I’m not convinced that this really applies to the majority North Africans, simply because it’s not realistic.

(Do note that here I am talking about biological origin and not identity. Whether a person feels Amazighi or Arab is an entirely different issue.)

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Crags off the Mediterranean in Korbous, Tunisia

My skepticism was stoked when I wanted to learn where my dad’s tribe came from. At first I was told that it migrated from the “Saqiyah Al-Hamra” in the Western Sahara/Morocco. Later I was told that, no, we are actually from the Arab Gulf. Then I was informed that the tribe is really an Amazighi tribe that “became Arabized”. Later on I was told that, actually, we’re descendants of North African Jews. All these claims have “the documents to prove it.” A university friend of mine told me that her Oasis-based tribe came from Yemen. Later I read that this tribe was Amazigh who had lied to Arab occupiers to avoid persecution. All of these clashing narratives have made me question the validity of what people claim about their heritage.

It is an unfortunate habit in the MENA region that we always want to be from somewhere other than our own countries, we want to belong to other groups because we are not able to create a sense of belonging together. We weave improbable narratives to meet these ends. National identity has tried to unite different ethnicities and groups, but in the case of Libya it is disintegrating rapidly. The Arab-Amazigh narrative is a useful political tool which polarizes an already tense situation (and has been used by colonialists in the past) and erases an underlying Maghreb identity which could be used to build a strong region on the basis of economic, political and cultural growth and development. But instead we’re too busy nit-picking over where each drop of our blood comes from. If you feel Arab or Amazigh because of language or upbringing, that’s entirely up to you, but you are missing out on a great opportunity to be part of something unique to our region because of these self-imposed limitations. You can have a combined identity, one doesn’t have to cancel the other.

I recently visited my fourth of the five Maghreb countries, and I have found more similarities than I expected. It’s in the way we look, our shared vocabulary, in our local culture, music, cuisine and traditions. Discussions of who has the better Ma’louf music or who taught couscous-making to the others are light-hearted and fun, because we are discussing mutual heritage that we all enjoy. There is a familiarity by proximity that I can’t quite describe, and a sense of reassurance that we could be part of something bigger, that isolation isn’t our only fate.

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The old medina, Casablanca, Morocco. ‘Medina Quarters’ are unique to North Africa (with a few influenced in Malta)

Today, many Libyans hold grievances against the other Maghreb countries because they “don’t have our backs” during this period of instability, which is somewhat true but not entirely unexpected due to the lack of unity in this region in the first place. Aside from the romantic dreams of shared cultural festivals and exchange programs by your fanciful blogger, regional cooperation is in fact a necessary prerequisite for security, as well as political and economic stability. It is not a luxury that we can afford to turn our noses up at, because mutual interests upstage hurt feelings.

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The Politics of Libyan Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.