Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Short Stories and Innovations with the Internet

In order to stave off the creeping depression that threatens to engulf me after almost 40 days (argh!) of war, I will try to blog more often to retain these last beads of sanity before I start talking to the furniture. (I’ve met a really nice cabinet though)

The Young Writers of Benghazi has finally announced the winners of its online short story contest! Yes, we have been delayed, due to internet outages and being refugees and whatnot. But we figured, since everyone’s stuck at home complaining of boredom, why not publish the stories now?

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed with the writing contests we’ve held so far (online and at a local school) was the number of stories written in English. Now, we’ve made it clear that the story can be in either Arabic or English, but the majority chose English. I’m not sure if this is an additional challenge the writers chose to place on themselves, or whether it’s easier to express themselves and write in the English language. (I believe it’s the latter)

Arabic as a written language has been rather static. Because Arabic literature is still very limited in every aspect, the language hasn’t had a chance to grow and meet the contemporary needs of the people. What has instead happened is the development of local dialects; ‘slang arabic’, if you will.

I learned Libyan arabic (specifically, East Libyan, or ‘Shergawi’), from listening to my parents speak to each other. When I spoke it at university, they were amused that I could barely communicate and yet used ‘outdated’ terms that they hardly ever heard; the vernacular my parents had retained from our life abroad was the Shergawi of a different time, and had gone through changes. This kind of language development we see in individual countries with their colloquial local dialect isn’t happening to the formal Arabic that is the lingua franca of the Middle East and North Africa. It should be noted that it’s the youth who are responsible for this phenomenon. While I used to ask my parents to translate for me, it’s now me that’s translating the new ‘youthspeak’ for them.

Is that why Libyan youth prefer formal creative writing in English? It’s definitely something that should be investigated. I am toying with the idea of holding a writing contest that specifically asks people to write in informal Libyan Arabic. I think the results would be very intriguing.

But I bring this us up to segue into my next talking point, which is a blog called ArabLit. It focuses on Arabic literature and the issues related to reading and writing in the MENA, including the topic of language. I’ve been a fan for quite some time, because with the politics and unrest and numerous other issues in this region, no one has time to write about (or are uninterested in) its more human aspects. Recently it featured a post about the Young Writers of Benghazi, which was pretty awesome! Yes, the point of this entire paragraph was to brag, sue me.

As our little contribution to the world of Arabic literature (or rather, English literature written by Arabs. Huh.), we’ve posted the winning stories of our contest onto Wattpad, partly so we could have one place to keep the work we receive, and partly to nudge Libyans out of their Facebook cocoon into the World Wide Web. The condition for the writing contest was that the story have an underlying message or meaning, especially since the country’s going through such a rough time. Special thanks go to Wafia Sayf of the inspirational Volunteer Libya team for helping us to judge the stories (love you Wafia <3).

Alright, drum roll please. The winners of the stories are:

3rd Place: The Orphan Rami by Soliman F. Al-Faitouri from Al-Marj. The moral: Understand a person’s situation before you judge them. You can read the story here.

2nd Place: Why?! by Isra’a Faraj El-Sha’ri from Benghazi. The moral: Hard work is important if you want to achieve a fulfilling life. You can read the story here.

1st Place: Know Better by Safa Salah Hosson from Houn. The moral: Breast cancer awareness and why campaigning for it is important. You can read the story here.

Now, what is particularly awesome about the stories is that they came from different cities across Libya. The fact that our best story was sent to us from a small town in Southern Libya shows how much talent we have hidden here that can be unearthed through online initiatives. (You can check out the previous winning stories on our Wattpad page here).

Keeping in the vein of online initiatives is a project called Benghazi Skype School. Because the new school year in Benghazi hasn’t started due to the war (I cannot express how painful it was to write that sentence), a series of online lessons has been planned out by a group of Libyans. The kids at home watch lessons on their computer screens from teachers who have volunteered their time to teach them.

Another initiative is the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for supplemental education. This is being advocated for by FW:Knowledge, a project that aims to help Libyans utilize the internet for academia and general knowledge building. They recently set up a Twitter session to collect a list of online sites that offer free courses and resources, using the hashtag .

These type of projects do have their drawbacks. Internet access in Libya still isn’t widespread, and the slow speed makes livestreaming courses difficult. But it can help some people, which is important to recognize.

So I guess you could say the moral of this post is: internet access and more advocacy for open source education that targets Libyans has a lot of potential and should be looked into. Also, war sucks, make it end. Over and out.

The Drone Flew Over Benghazi That Night…

…over the heads of the annoyed but unwitting denizens of the city. It didn’t make a distinctive sound, more like a vibration. You could hear it in your pulse, long and low and continuous. Sometimes it dropped lower and you could swear the windows were rattling in their frames.”

“Why should the drone appear now, after months of absence? Could it have something to do with those rumors of captured Americans? And if the city is unsafe for foreigner, who’s even operating the damn thing?”

“As usual, the list of unanswered questions in Benghazi remains long and confusing. The citizens no longer care much, with their focus being on surviving a day-to-day existence. That’s not to say that living in the city is impossible, but the string of bombings and assassinations have left people rattled. We’re not used to this type of violence. Hell, there’s a good chance it’s not even Libyans perpetuating the violence. With a grudge from the Syrian regime over Libyan fighters in their country, to terrorist organizations eyeing the country’s aimless young men as fresh meat to recruit, the list of possible suspects almost matches the list of questions.”

“The drone watches all of this. Flying, observing, collecting information to be processed by minds and machines more sophisticated. Is the government even aware that there is a drone flying over the second largest city in the country it governs? I’m sure the list of things the government is oblivious to could fill several libraries. But I’m not sure if this is one of them. They’re definitely getting help from “friendly” nations. But assisting the current Libyan government is like giving a screwdriver to a fish; it possesses neither the appendages nor the necessary brain power to do anything useful with it.”

And so concludes the saga of Benghazi’s drone…for now. I actually wanted to write a rant on the abysmal state of journalism in the social media era (did I rant on this before?), but the drone was interrupting my thoughts. Also, I didn’t have a opening paragraph in mind. Two and two!

Screw journalists. Those soulless word zombies, ready to tear out the organs of a nation, ideology or a struggling city just for a story. Facts? Verified witness accounts? Pfff, just type out a few superlatives in the title, make vague allusions to some righteous cause that people want to defend (or tweet about to look righteous, same difference) and BAM! you have a moderately interesting story that’s bound to get a few likes/retweets/reddits (I don’t actually use reddit so I’m not very familiar with the terminology, but I assume it has the same general premise as other social media sites. Plus the users are called “redditors” so whatever, not like I’m far off the mark).

My rage is not new, but it is amplified. Following the chaotic events that have happened in Benghazi these past few months, every major and minor publication is rushing to write some article about the city, because, hey!, the US ambassador was killed here, remember? (Of course you remember, every right-wing loon has the name of the city hashtagged in the bio of their twitter account, as though every stone in the city is responsible for the death of a guy they had never even heard of prior).

But they can’t actually visit Benghazi. The city is a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and sundry other terrorist groups (according to that one post in a facebook group. A reliable facebook group, mind you).

So these journalists, in their rabid search for material to write about a country they probably couldn’t locate on a map, send out tweets and emails and requests to anyone who’s written the word “Libya” more than twice. “Hi there, would you be interested in answering a few questions for XYZ magazine about the situation in your city? Nevermind that you might be lying about your identity and current whereabouts! It’s not like it would happen on a social media site. What is this, MySpace in 2005? Guffaw! Also yeah ask your friends for quotes, too.”

Let me simplify the equation in case my midnight writing is hard to follow:

Journalist + Seeking Story – On The Ground Reporting = Bullshit

Don’t get me wrong. Even journalists who are on the ground can excrete bullshit reports. But the equation above is a surefire way to find articles with more semicolons than there are facts. I’m not going to link the recent wave of Libya-related articles because I don’t want to pollute my page with yellow journalism, but just type “Libya” or “Benghazi” in your search engine and you won’t be disappointed (in the results, I mean. You WILL be disappointed in the level of garbage being published. Unless you hate Libya, in which case piss off).

Now, I’ve been known to rage against globalization and the rise in stupidity being imported and exported. But I genuinely feel that, now that we’re all “connected” in the age of technology, there’s just been less effort to do things right. Back when the internet was used almost exclusively for porn, journalists weren’t distracted by arbitrary popularity indicators. You either sold papers or got viewership. But now you not only need to check how well your story is doing on various mediums, but see who else is talking about it, thanks to the rise in sites who’s sole aim is to regurgitate links from other websites. 

If the average human’s attention span can be held in a head-lock by the thrill of human attention being given on their social media pages, what makes journalists immune to this same pitfall? I would even venture to presume that the phenomenon is magnified for them, since they’re not just dealing with a handful of likes or reblogs, but dozens, hundreds, in some cases even thousands. The rush they get must be huge, not just for being acknowledged, but because they will see the attention as validation for their performance as a journalist. “Whoa, 3,000 likes and counting! Man, I’m an awesome online journo!”, they say, fist pumped in the air once before it returns to the crusty Cheetos bag in their dank living room.

And who is the victim here? The poor developing countries they’re writing about. If semi-credible press agencies publish/air these unconfirmed stories, some people will believe them. These people will tell others, citing the semi-credible source. It gets around, until parties interested in dealing with this country reconsider, which leads to the actual deterioration of the country. Not because it really was a safe haven for criminals/terrorists/West-hating crazies, but because that’s what people believed. The terrorists catch wind and think,”Yeah, they said there’s a whole bunch of us in that city, let’s go join them!” You see where I’m going with this?

Okay, so perhaps the situation I outlined is stretching the bounds of reality just a little. There must have been some event that had happened which led to the rumors circulating, and which caused these rumors to manifest as reported events. But I have heard stories that ended up being complete fabrications too many times for my paranoia meter to be working properly anymore, and propaganda wars have been in full swing in the MENA lately. I’m not going to be wearing a tinfoil hat anytime soon, but I will continue to be wary of journalists who are interested in Libya.

When Architecture Suffers From Identity Crisis

“You used to live abroad, didn’t you?” I had become used to my professors eventually asking this question, and despite four years in the department, the same inquiry still pops up.

“Yes, I did. Did my accent give it away?” I grinned sheepishly. I still get uncomfortable when people bring it up, and the faint lilt in my Libyan accent always gives me away.

“A little, yes. But I noticed it in your designs.” I was slightly taken aback. I knew that my designs were a little different, but not that they reflected anything about my personal life.

“Haha, yeah, I guess I was really influenced by my childhood.” I felt myself entering dangerous territory. I didn’t want to be accused of lifting designs from the internet, what the students call their source of ‘inspiration’.

“Yes, it’s apparent. You try very hard to make them Middle Eastern, but it looks like an outsider’s interpretation. I admire your effort to return to your roots, though.”

The project that we had this conversation over was a landscaping task for a small house. I had initially begun with the aim of giving it a Spanish Colonial Revival feel, because I found that style comfortably familiar. Mediterranean-meets-Middle East, if you will. Spain’s architecture reflects it’s mesh of East and West very organically.

This might explain why I was attracted to it, but the resulting design was neither Spanish Colonial or Middle Eastern.

32You’d be hard pressed to find a house that looks like this in the Middle East. This screams middle class white neighbourhood, but the architecture of the house and the privacy afforded by the clustered trees hint of something else.

That ‘something else’ was my attempt to design something that was both climatically and culturally Libyan, while staying in my comfort zone. When I look at it, I don’t feel that it’s ugly or repellent. But there is something off, not quite right.

The other students reveled in the options afforded them by Middle East design, with tiles being the dominant ground cover, palm trees and water features in every nook and cranny, and a sterile white colour palette.

The next project was a small park in the middle of a busy district in Benghazi, and at that point I abandoned all pretense of designing something Middle Eastern. I read up on the urban landscaping revival in the West and the standards they had set.

Middle Eastern cities are the anti-thesis  to Western cities. The former focuses on privacy, the latter revels in public space. Arabs try to shield themselves from their weather while Westerners invite it into their homes.

So a Western design in an Arab city is perhaps an invitation to folly, but I had had enough of faking different styles and attempting to do something I was uncomfortable with.

Prefinal poster copy

I was much more satisfied with this design than the previous one, and interestingly enough, my professors also responded more positively than before. I guess all those adages about being ‘true to yourself’ are more than just sappy self-help quotes.

For my neighbourhood design (urban planning course), I decided to attempt a balance, by utilizing my (Western) style, but adding the primary concepts of MENA design with a twist, to make it fit together.

Final2 copyFor the airport design, there was very little room to add a distinct style, as successful airports are dictated by their functionality and economic standards. Overall, I’m really satisfied with the development of my work this semester, though I could still improve my time management when it comes to deadlines.

Like writing, I have found that designing helps me articulate my personality, and understand myself better. I need to avoid the pitfall of trying to mash contradicting principles which result in a design that gives the impression of cognitive dissonance. Architecture is problem solving among other things, and a non-orthodox approach does not condemn the proposed solution to failure.

Whether you’re influenced by the East, West, or another direction entirely, it’s important to be sincere with yourself and with your client. No matter how much you try to dress up or photoshop your design, nothing can truly disguise dishonest architecture.

A good example of this is in Dubai. The skyscrapers and impossible innovation are interesting if you observe them in a vacuum. But for these things to be in the middle of an Arab city, in our climate and culture, reeks of inconsistency. The struggle to bring the region up to modern city standards is admirable, but importing foreign designs and ignoring the surroundings never bodes well.