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.