10 Years On

“We, who think we are about to die, will laugh at anything.”
― Terry Pratchett

I told myself I wasn’t going to write anymore anniversary posts about February 17. I mean, what is there left to say? Life has changed for the worst for most Libyans, and the empty platitudes about sacrificing for the future seem hollow at best and horrifying at worst when you realize that the future is going to built on the bodies of countless people who have been taken from us and the countless places which have been decimated by all the injustice, cruelty and greed that we are capable of.

Is this depressing? Yeah. Am I depressed? I’ve gotten over it, mostly. I’ve already wasted the best years of my life on this sadness, I won’t waste anymore. Reading through the posts of the past 10 years on this blog and seeing the steady decline of my optimism and hope is a weird experiment in real time of how far the human spirit can be crushed. I turned twenty right after the start of the revolution and now as I approach 30 I wonder if this world-weary cynicism is something that is common with growing up or if living through this decade of pain is what did it. Who would I be right now if the revolution didn’t happen? Where would I be? I wouldn’t have met all the amazing people that I did if it never happened, but then again, a lot of them would probably still be alive.

This blog is probably the reason why I’m writing this. I set it up in 2011 once the internet connection came back to Benghazi after months of being cut off from the world, so I could upload all the articles and thoughts that I wrote during that time. I wanted to be one of the many voices who could ‘finally speak out’, and I wanted to document everything because it was – and I guess still is – a historic moment that I lived through. I called it ‘Journal of a Revolution’, not the most creative name. But as it became less and less of a revolution, my writings became less about documenting history but rather ranting angrily as I saw the country crumble around me.

I lost faith in the revolution on September 19, 2014, Black Friday, when 14 people, including two 18 year-old activists, were assassinated in Benghazi, one day of many years of terror in the city. On that day, I stopped calling it a revolution and started calling it what it was; a war. From the start, it was a war of Libyans killing one another over ideological differences, and over who could control the country. A war with proxy actors, all fighting for a place that we were barely struggling to live in. The ideology of February 17 and September 1 began to look identical, because that’s what happens with people’s revolutions, eventually. I can see now that each one started with noble causes, each one needed sacrifices and a lot of power to succeed, and they each eventually stopped being about building a country for all in favour of a country for some.

I’m sorry if you clicked on this link thinking that I was going to write about what happened to the country in the past 10 years. I don’t know what’s happened to the country. I can only tell you what’s happened to me. I was a naïve architecture student when the revolution happened, and I graduated as a displaced person with severe trauma in a city that was half destroyed by terrorism and ugly politics. I started reading about Libya before the revolution, not just what my parents told me but the actual history. I read about the Kingdom, about colonialism, about the fact that our country has been built on a cycle of revolution and violence and instability, a Sisyphean exercise in nation-building.

But Nada, you screech, we should try and break this cycle of violence! Yeah, great, so inspiring. Except fucking how? Do you know what it’s like to work within the system, to try and change things and make an impact? Revolutions are easy, you just destroy the things you don’t like. Building things, like a government, like infrastructure, like people, that’s not easy. And it’s not easy when your little civil society projects trying to make a difference are wiped out by a giant Howitzer missile.

Building a country needs leadership and strong people who are prepared to get their hands dirty. I’m not a strong person. I’m a kid who had delusions of grandeur that were swiftly broken, and now I’m an adult who can’t even attend a government meeting without dealing with waves of anxiety. I vomit when I hear about another crime of another person who was shot or run over or tortured. I can’t sleep at night without making sure all my family members are safe at home or at least accounted for. I dream about car accidents, masked men driving blacked out pick-ups, mines exploding in my face if I step on them. And I have no patience for people who spout platitudes about revolutions.

I could write also about all the wonderful things have happened despite all the horrors. I can write about how much more developed Benghazi’s civil society is. I can write about how people are speaking up more and using their own ways to dissent against authorities. I could tell you about the beautiful projects I’ve seen in technology, medicine, architecture, energy, education, finance, about all the cool new businesses that young people are setting up. But you might mistake these stories as the overarching conclusion, that, despite all the obstacles, we still thrive and resist.

That’s not the conclusion.

We don’t resist and thrive because we overcome our circumstances. We do so because this is where we live, and we have to live, because the only other alternative is to bury ourselves in a grave and accept that everything is terrible. We have no other choice but to resist. And that’s not admirable, it’s sad, that we have no choices.

Am I being harsh? Yes. I live in a harsh country that punishes you for having hope. 10 years ago I would have told you that Libya would be so developed, so advanced, that we would catch up to the rest of the world. Today, I would tell you that it would be a miracle if we could get out of our multiple crises in another 10 years. If we could have electricity running 24 hours a day, if we could address our water scarcity and salination crisis, if we could withdraw our money from the bank and have the purchasing power to provide enough for our families.

At this point you’re probably thoroughly sick of all this self-pity and despair. But you wanted a recap of the past 10 years in Libya, didn’t you? Here it is. The reality. If you want a positive spin on February 17, ask the people who lined their pockets and got the hell out after lighting the dynamite, they’re the ones telling us to keep the hope and pray for a better day. I’m just here capturing the zeitgeist of my city, which is what I always set out to do with the blog.

What did the past 10 years teach us? We learned how to identify different weapons by their sounds. We learned what collective fear feels like. And we learned that in the face of death, the best thing to do is laugh, and hold one another tightly.

Book Review: The Return

“Nabokov and Conrad [were right]…They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved…But Pasternak and Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed…What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” – Hisham Matar, The Return

Libyan expats and exiles often talk about the pain and difficulty of leaving Libya, of being unable to return or see relatives. For them, being deprived of the country for the past few decades has been a bitter loss. However, these recollections are often met with incredulity and disbelief by Libyans in the country, who would give anything for the chance to live in the United States or Britain, or for a brief respite from the overbearing omnipresence of family and social expectations. It’s this chasm between two different kinds of struggle that is difficult to bridge, and a prime source of tension between the two groups.

Hisham Matar is one of the very few Libyans who is trapped in between; stuck in a chasm that is neither here nor there. Raised in Libya and exiled by Gadhafi, his father was kidnapped, detained, and most likely killed by the regime, and Matar has spent much of his life consumed by the search for answers. I was introduced to Matar through his first novel, In The Country of Men. This book, and the one that followed (Anatomy of a Disappearance), were both coming-of-age tales of a young boy who has to come to terms with his father’s disappearance. In The Return, fiction is replaced by the real life account of Matar’s search for his father.

For much of his readership, Matar’s book is a unique glimpse into the life of a person and nation haunted by a dictatorship. But for myself, and for most Libyans, the book is more personal. Every recollection of some small detail in Libya, past or present, evokes a feeling of kinship with the author, as though he is speaking directly to us and acknowledging our shared experiences. This is why my reading of the book has been more critical.

Scattered throughout the book are glimpses of his father’s life, who fought constantly against the regime. Under Gadhafi, these tales of resistance might have once sparked romantic admiration in Libyans who were equally appalled at his rule. But being on the other end of a revolution that failed to transition into a state, it makes one wonder whether the “dissidents” against Gadhafi knew what they were doing. Many fought with the goal of overthrowing him, but very few – if any at all – understood what it took to turn Libya into a democratic nation. Reading about his father’s training and army-building in Chad only brings forward feelings of disapproval now; these dissidents are no longer viewed as heroes but as reckless, irresponsible anarchists.

The same goes for Matar’s account of the revolution and immediate aftermath. The hope and nationalism and potential he wrote about in such beautiful prose is gone in Libya, replaced instead with horror at the movement we had once supported, which is now dismantling the country. One point I really took issue with was the judgement he cast on Libyans. “The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: people would come to long for the days of Qaddafi.”

Is that really the most unimaginable thing though? Are the public acts of beheading something we ever imagined happening in Libya? The devaluation of the dinar to the point where Libyans are going hungry, something we could imagine? No matter how much you hated him, to deny that life under his rule could possibly be anything worse than a failing country where hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been forced out of their homes and cities is to convey a supreme ignorance of the current situation.

There was another instance of this judgement that irked me. Matar talks about the “unfinished state of modern Libyan architecture”, blaming it on the nation’s “lack of self-regard”, unaware that many Libyans – who save their modest income for decades to build their houses – oftentimes run out of money when it comes to “finishing” the house. It is a harsh observation, which is a running theme in the book. The only time he seems to praise Libyans is when he discusses their role in the revolution. Of course, as Libyans, we are often harsh towards each other, although we disapprove when it’s done publicly.

All in all, the Libya that Matar writes about is one that is long gone. He dwells on the past excessively, and romanticizes a revolution that has brought about one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history. While the book is called ‘The Return’, Hisham Matar is not returning to the country he knew but rather to a new Libya, one that he is seeing for the first time.

Again, my reading of the book was critical, because I feel such a personal connection to the things Matar writes about. For me, it’s not the account of a heartbreaking story from a third world country. It’s a history that I too have lived, a reality I’m currently burdened under.

But I ultimately recognize that this is his story. As much as I want to be involved, to say, “No, this is how things happened,” it’s not my account, it’s not my history. And its his personal narrative is what makes the book so fascinating. From his life as a child in Tripoli, to the impermanence he carries around while growing up, and that particular feeling of being stuck in time, Hisham Matar has lived an extraordinary life, one that he describes in what is undoubtedly a masterful form of writing.

The most fascinating part of the book, for myself, were the encounters and correspondences with Seif Al-Islam. It’s difficult to imagine Seif sitting in a London hotel, having a chat with a dissident’s son, or texting and using emojis. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine Seif anywhere that isn’t in front of a camera, speaking platitudes or threatening destruction. However, Matar’s description of the tyrant’s son aligns with the general impression that I’ve seen; a visible, almost strained, attempt to appear professional while trying to suppress the inherited madness of his father. But Gadhafi junior represented something else to Libyans in the country that was not seen by exiles; an opportunity for change, to finally throw off the Jamaheria and start to become a developing country. Inside Libya, we’re only now realizing how the country was changing before 2011. A friend of mine told me, “If we had waited three years, the revolution wouldn’t have happened, because the people would no longer feel a need to revolt.” I’m not sure how true this statement is, since it was more a revolution of anger than one of demands, but it highlights the noticeable difference between the false ideals of Al-Fateh to the new vision of Gadhafi junior.

Overall, this book is an emotional rollercoaster, and reading it as a Libyan definitely coloured my experience. But I still highly recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the situation in Libya, or to anyone really who really enjoys good prose. I was incredibly thrilled to hear that it had won a Pulitzer prize, and I hope this will motivate more Libyan writers to pick up a pen and share their own narratives. God knows we have such fantastic stories to tell.

Learning From A Revolution

Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come round again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.” ― Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Here it is; the five year mark. You remember, don’t you? Standing in front of the courthouse, our faces flushed from the rally and the excitement, telling any journalist who asked us about our prediction for the new Libya, “Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”

We gushed about our “new country”, our arrogant enthusiasm justified by the innocent hope and happiness that underlined it, as though we already visited the future and knew with confidence what would happen. Hard to believe it’s only been five years. It feels like fifty.

Must be a record,”Fastest Destruction of a State”. Most effortless, too. We were so busy being tricked with all the parades and fireworks – the superficial festoons of freedom – that we didn’t notice the men behind the curtain, who came out and took apart the puppet show that we thought was real.

Five years later, we are shocked, ashamed, horrified. Those journalists we spoke to five years ago can’t even enter the country anymore to see the results of the revolution. We’ve lost everything in what one can argue is an ironic twist of karma, what we did to the pro-Gadhafi side is now being done to us by creatures more terrifying than they (or we, for that matter) ever were.

I always tell myself that I’m not going to write an anniversary post, after the third year when I slowly, painfully realized that it had become a sham, that the revolution and the achievements and the country weren’t really ours anymore. But that fateful day comes round, and I find myself reminiscing at how so much could change in such a short span of time.

The February 17 revolution, whether I like it or not, will always be a core event for me. It has left me with beautiful memories and a wretched life. It made me hopeful, it helped me discover my value as a person and unearthed new traits I didn’t know I had, it opened my eyes to a new outlook on life, and it turned me into a monster.

It never ceases to amaze me how an otherwise normal person, a member of society and a generally decent individual, can so easily be made to support massive amounts of violence, bloodshed and destruction. In any other setting, they would be horrified. But manipulated by ideology, influenced by the poisonous effect of mob mentality, they turn into something not at once evil, but at once repulsive, hideous.

This is what happened to me in 2011. I’m not trying to justifying my behaviour and beliefs during that time, by saying I became blinded by revolutionary fervor and lost myself in the din of possibilities, because there was a small voice, in the back of my head, who hesitantly pointed out the problems that were also appearing. I ignored that voice, allowed it to become lost among the screams of “Libya is free, Libya is free!” all around me. That’s on me.

Sadly, many Libyans have not learned from the mistakes of 2011. Instead, they have transplanted their obsequious cheerleading onto other, more fragmented causes. Those too, will fail them, and there will be an existential scrabble to find, or create, new belief systems, and on and on until there will be nothing left to believe in. One could look upon our situation and conclude that revolutions forge hope while war creates misery, but we couldn’t have had one without the other

The revolution was not built on mendacious or malicious reasons. We were fed up, people were oppressed and unjustly treated, the status quo needed to change. It was not for a love of chaos that we marched against the regime. But the moment the first black flag unfurled on the battle field, the moment the first family was forced out of their home for what they believed, we should have stopped. Taken a step back. Reassessed where the revolution was going. But we didn’t, pushed on by our own momentum, unable to assess anything, unable to feel anything but our own vague thirst of freedom.

We did stop, eventually, too late, suddenly realizing the setting we were in. Mouths agape, we ask in horrified voices, what happened? How could it all have fallen apart like this? Like those from whom the veil of madness is abruptly lifted, we gaze in awe at the very destruction we supported.

We sit now in our broken country, angry at ourselves, at each other, at anyone who comes near, disillusioned, hopeless, wishing we could turn back the clock five years earlier.

If I could go back in time to my young, foolish, naive 20 year old self, I would shake myself by the shoulders and shout, “Stop! Don’t do it! Thousands will sacrifice themselves for nothing! You will lose everything you hold dear! It’s not worth it!” But hindsight, they say, is 20/20. My younger, foolish, naive self will probably look at me, laugh, and say, “What are you talking about? Just come and see what it’ll look like in five years!”

When people ask me about the February 17 revolution, I don’t hesitate anymore in admitting that I regret being part of it, part of the movement it became that is still ongoing to this day. I think the turning point for me, the moment of revelation of “Oh crap, what have we done,” came sometime in 2013, when I realized that things weren’t going to end well in Benghazi. No one is denying that February 17 began with noble intentions, but it’s very difficult to extract what the revolution used to be from the movement we see today. Even without the numerous foreign elements that invaded the country, a lot of injustices were committed in the name of February 17 by Libyans themselves.  

What I’ll say is, I don’t regret protesting against Gadhafi, because while life under his rule was better, it was still horrible. He needed to know that we were fed up, that we wanted our country back and that we wanted to achieve our potential at citizens. I believe our mistake was in demanding a complete upheaval of the regime, because we had literally nothing to replace it with, and no experience or background in nation-building. No amount of revolutionary zeal and good intentions can run a country, and that was our fatal flaw. The ultimate goal was to improve Libya, and I believe that we could have, and should have, done it a much different way, one that didn’t involve creating sides and that didn’t lead to the large losses we see today.


Hashtag Activism, from the Digital World to the Streets of Libya (Part II)

Around this time last year, I wrote an article entitled “The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged“, which focused on the way Libyans were utilizing social media to try and create change. The article is no longer online, but just to give a rough summary of it, I pinpointed several hashtags used on Twitter and events set up through Facebook to mobilize people on a number of pressing issues for Libya at that time.

A year later, the use of social media by Libyans has continued to expand. Despite the crippling circumstances that has brought civilian life to a halt in many parts of Libya (such as the 14+ hours of power outages witnessed on a daily basis in most cities nation-wide), there has been a noticeable influx of Libyan users on social media sites. There is a “migration”, as many have put it, from the familiarity of Facebook to other platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. While these platforms offer a variety of ways for Libyans to express themselves, it has also given them a chance to voice their concerns and criticisms on their failing state.

“Hashtivism” has been a growing trend worldwide, with Libya being one of the latest to use the internet as a platform for social change. These types of movements are not without their detractors though. Many have accused online campaigns of being the lazy man’s activism, or “slacktivism”, allowing everyone to feel a sense of fulfillment by liking or retweeting something without actually making any impact.

And this criticism has been voiced by Libyans too, who are skeptical about what internet initiatives can actually do for the country. Many efforts on the ground have failed to make an impact, as evidenced by Libya’s slide into civil war. Indeed, many have called for the complete shut down social media sites in the country because of their propensity for spreading rumors and calls for violence.

But one actually needs to be here to see the extent that the digital world has spilled onto Libya’s streets. An ideal illustration of this is the online hashtag campaign  (Reduce the rent, have a blessed Ramadan), which called on landlords to reduce the cost of rent, particularly for displaced families. This campaign saw a fair bit of success, as people began reporting on landlords lowering the cost of rent, in some cases making rent free for a month or two.

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Sign on a bulletin board in the Benghazi Medical Center, circulating the hashtag that began online calling on landlords to lower the cost of rent

Another laudable campaign began as an initiative by a Tripoli resident to promote peace. Salah Sokni, a popular online satirist, visited four cities in Western Libya with a sign that simply said,  (Libya towards peace). He posted the pictures of his visits on Facebook, and this sparked a nationwide campaign, complete with Facebook page, as Libyans posted pictures of themselves with the same slogan, calling for an end to the conflict. Sometimes it takes one person to voice a sentiment that is there under the surface, for everyone to express it. This slogan was later adopted by H2O, a Tripoli-based youth CSO, as part of a project to promote peace through soccer matches, entitled  (In the field for peace).

(Source: Salah Sokni's FB page)

(Source: Salah Sokni’s FB page)

But hashtag activism isn’t just growing to promote specific concepts. It’s also being used increasingly to pressure policy makers and those in positions of power. After the announcement by UNSMIL of the final draft of the peace agreement between the warring factions, Libyans from both sides of the conflict called on their representatives to sign the agreement using the hashtag  (Yes to signing the agreement), and expressing their frustration with the ongoing war and instability. The Constitution Drafting Assembly has also been looking for feedback from citizens through the hashtag   (Libya’s Constitution)

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

The error message that appears on sites blocked by LTT

As internet use in Libya continues to grow, government institutions have begun to take notice too. Following in the steps of the dictator before them, online sites have been blocked or have become difficult to access. This began shortly after the end of the revolution when users were reporting that +18 sites were blocked by the main internet provider in the country, Libya Telecom and Technology (LTT). This company took it further when online news site Alwasat was blocked in Western Libya, itself leading to an online campaign decrying this censorship. It’s been reported several times that accessing Facebook had become incredibly difficult, leading to speculation of whether LTT had manufactured this block. Today, to access Google in Libya through LTT, Google Libya (with safe search turned on), is the default mode, and cannot be changed even manually. While these restrictions are relatively small, they signal a worrying trend in online freedom, especially with the growth of internet activism.

Hashtags continue to rise in popularity among Libyans, who use them not just for activism, but to share laughs, to commemorate and commiserate, and learn what their fellow countrymen are thinking. It can be a rallying cry, such as the phrase (Libya, even if the struggle is long), coined by murdered activist Abdulsalam Almismari and the final tweet by Tawfik Bensaud. As the war continues and Libya’s public places remain inaccessible for protests, online platforms have been transformed to become the new public squares.

The Blurry Outline of Libyan Youth, and the Struggle Between Generations

Libyan youth from different geographic, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds working together and presenting their demands for the constitution as one group, to representatives of the CDA

Libyan youth from different geographic, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds working together and presenting their demands for the constitution as one group, to representatives of the CDA

I’ve been engaged in several youth-oriented projects in Libya lately, and I’ve come to realize several things about the oft-spoken-of-but-rarely-heard-from character that is the ‘Libyan Youth’. There is this idea of Libyan youth, an archetypal character that is almost a trope. This character is brought up by those in power, those trying to gain power or those who speak loudly of Libyan issues. The most popular platitudes include, “Youth are the flame of the revolution! Youth are the future!”

The “youth” they speak of are often characterized by the mental image of a young man in baggy clothing and a cap (I doubt very much whether anyone visualizes young women when they speak of youth) sitting in a street corner, throwing away their non-existent future while a vague dark shadow of bad influences lurks behind them. Everyone is concerned for the Youth, everyone knows they are important somehow, but this demographic is never investigated beyond the usual talking points.

To add to the unclear image, there is no national definition of who exactly qualifies as youth in Libya. 50-year old politicians like to half-joke that they, too, are part of the youth collective, because they are young at heart, and this should make them just as qualified to work on issues pertaining to youth. This kind of shameless imposition is neither uncommon or surprising; in Libya, the more labels and badges you can forcefully apply to yourself, the more you can control.

It’s very easy (and also accurate) to blame the older, aging generations for this blatant restraint and marginalization of Libya’s largest demographic. There are many factors that come into play that aid this injustice; cultural and social norms that place trust in the elderly over others, the lack of adequate education and empowerment for younger generations, and the lack of a national youth strategy or representative committee to protect youth rights. But there are other factors that contribute to perpetuating the status quo.

But this brings us back to the initial question; what is the definition of a Libyan youth?

There is no nationally agreed-upon fixed definition. Most agree that a person is a ‘youth’ by the time they’re 18. But the other side of the limit is fluid. Some youth CSOs consider 30 to be the maximum age a person can consider themselves a youth, while others go as far as 35 or 40. Many youth organizations don’t work with a fixed limit because, in their words, “we don’t want to leave anyone out.”

This is another point I’ve noticed, where youth, even when brought together and explicitly asked to discuss youth issues, will instead focus on issues of the country as a whole. They don’t see themselves as an entity separate from the rest of society, and this extends to their concerns for the country. In a workshop on the role of youth in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, two of the proposed projects focused on providing education to adult Libyans that haven’t finished schools. Let me reiterate; these are Libyan youth, concerned about the education of adults. Whether this reflects the selfless nature of the future generation, or their naïvity, is debatable.

There is a gap, in Libyan society, between the younger generation and the old. This gap became more pronounced after the revolution, especially between the generation that was hit hardest by Gadhafi’s reign of terror and the “February 17th” generation. You can hear the difference in the way they talk, see it in the way they behave, and really comprehend it when you interact with both. My generation has considerably more opportunities than their parents; things like travelling and technological access have helped Libyan youth to become relatively more open-minded and aware. (Of course, that could just be the youth in my own social circles)

This gap means that there is a difference of priorities. But the disproportionate representation and hold on power between the generations means that the priorities, concerns and aspirations of the majority of Libyans go ignored. Like most of the MENA region, Libya suffers from a chronic youth unemployment problem, which breeds more problems like militarized youth and an unsustainable economy. As you can tell from the current status of Libya today, youth issues are not exactly the first thing on the minds of our politicians. When it comes to young Libyans, the only thing the people in power seem to care about is how many they can ship to the front lines.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the elderly. Nor do I think they should all be excluded from political and social life. But the truth is there in plain sight, even if it’s an ugly one; Libya’s revolution was taken over by a power-hungry generation that granted themselves license to run the country the way they saw fit, and bought off the younger generation with empty promises and small sums of money. The exclusion of youth from the process of nation-building has had the consequences you see here today (along with other factors, of course).

This is also why our small-but-resilient civil society have such a high percentage of youth involvement. No, scratch that, youth are the fundamental component of civil society. Their efforts and energy are key to making projects successful, and the older members of civil society are very conscious of this fact.

Libyan youth are more than just a blurry, undefined component of society; they are not a vague campaign promise, and including them in the nation-building process is more than just a favour that you can grant them. Youth are literally the future of the country, so stop using that as a catch phrase and start acting on it.

Wajeej, the Libyan Way to Make Some Noise

logoI’ve noticed that I have been neglecting my blog lately, for a number of reasons. I’ve been keeping busy with a number of projects that have kept me from being more engaged on here. But another reason is that living for an extended period of time in a country that’s falling apart sort of kills the writing spirit. And I’ve noticed that it’s not just me; a lot of Libyans have been becoming increasingly quieter these days; there isn’t much left to say.

One astute person, Rawad Radwan (@LibyanP) noticed this absence of (positive) Libyan expression and decided that people needed a safe, neutral space where they could express themselves. This was how the Wajeej blog was born. At its core, Wajeej is made up of a group of active Libyan bloggers and writers, bringing their ideas and thoughts together in one place.

In Libyan, the term ‘wajeej‘ (in arabic, وجيج) is used to describe a constant stream of chatter. It’s common to criticize a talkative person of speaking too much ‘wajeej’. However, the connotation used here is not negative, but rather encouragement to have people speak up. The main aim of the Wajeej blog isn’t just to share the views of Libyan writers but to allow others to participate with their opinion pieces. Since Libyans primarily rely on Facebook or the limited space of Twitter to express their thoughts, this blog is a much needed change from the typical (and, these days, rather hostile) social media spaces.

The response so far has generally been very positive, which isn’t a surprise since there are very few civil and online initiatives being taken these days, so people are thrilled when they see anything new being set up. The challenge here will be sustainability, keeping the blog active and ensuring it doesn’t die.

So far I’ve only contributed two pieces, one on the vital #Unite4Heritage campaign started by UNESCO, and another article I’m rather proud of entitled ‘Benghazi After the Storm‘. It’s been a bit tricky juggling work and deadlines with quality writing, and again also because summoning the motivation to actually write about Libya is difficult.

However, I think the coming weeks and months will show a change for Libya. People are becoming increasingly fed up with the situation, and peace building efforts in and out of the country are beginning to show promise (well, I think they are, but just because I’m getting desperate). What we need at this stage is less empty analyses from so-called ‘Libya experts’ and more authentic Libyan voices.

So, if you’ve got something to say, and want your voice to be heard, send in your submissions and let us hear your wajeej!

A Fragmented Country

The other day I had attended the screening of a film entitled ‘Prosecutor’. It was about Luis Moreno Ocambo, the eponymous prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, detailing his work with regards to African countries. During the movie, there was a brief flashback to his earlier work as a judge in Argentina.

There was one scene specifically that I can’t get out of my head. It was of a courtroom, where the trial of an Argentinian dictator was taking place. It was slightly grainy film footage, and you could see people had filled up every corner of the wood-lined room. When the verdict of guilty was read out, there was a close up of a woman who leaned on a railing, burying her face in her arms and sobbing.

I imagine she had lost someone during the brutal reign of the dictator. Maybe more than one person. This was for her, probably, the moment she had dreamed of. The moment justice was finally served, a moment of closure for whatever pain and heartache she had gone through. It was a very brief shot, maybe a few seconds, but it really stayed with me.

Because this is a moment that many people in Libya desire. More than desire, it consumes them. So much so, that they are willing to take justice into their own hands, because waiting for a legal court institution to be set up and put their minds at peace is too long a wait. We’re known for being emotional, impulsive people. We’re quick to love and quick to hate, too. Right now, it’s more of the latter.

Many people felt that justice was served when our own dictator was killed. Many more are waiting for the trail of other officials from the era of the dictator. But as I type this, injustice is still being generated. What else do you get out of a war?

Of course, there is the slight complication that everyone sees justice differently. For some, it’s killing the person who killed your loved one. For others, it’s burning down their house, or killing their loved ones. If someone’s city gets hit by a suicide bombing or a plane strike, well, that’s just one more point for ‘our team’. As things escalate, very few people see actual jail time as justice anymore.

Right now, we’re a nation of six million people with a grudge, and each wants the other’s eye on the end of their knife. And I’m not the exception. On the contrary, I am also angry, I have also lost people and I also have a bone to pick with those who champion the same people that have terrorized my city. It fills me with rage to see a militia leader glorified as a brave man, likened to heroes of the resistance and given pomp and status. It’s done more for the spite value than actual admiration, and I try to rise above such petty goading, but it’s difficult. They do it to hurt us, and it hurts. How do we make them understand what we’ve gone through, that we have legitimate reasons for supporting the side that we do? Even if we screamed it at them through a bullhorn, they probably still wouldn’t pay attention. Everyone’s entitled to their own delusions, I guess.

And yes, you’re probably saying, “But what about your delusions, oh wayward Benghazina?” Again, I’m not an exception. But seeing a car blow up and burn the driver before your eyes isn’t a delusion. Staring down the barrel of a shotgun as a masked 17-year old asks why you want to go back to your house isn’t a delusion. Hearing a man on television promise to plunge your city into another ‘Iraq’, or that they will come to you ‘with slaughter’, isn’t a delusion. These are very real incidences, and more than once they have forced us to rethink how far the severity of the actions we’re willing to accept can go, in order to save ourselves and our city from these menaces.

And for some, who do not live through the situation and thus don’t comprehend it, believe the actions are not acceptable. This where many of the misunderstandings have come from, and what is currently widening the chasm between people. They think we want to prop up another dictator (although we are the ones who initiated the uprising against the previous dictator) and that we wish to wage conflict against them too. And there are plenty of idiots more than eager to fill the position of vengeful rival.

A lot of people say, ‘oh many nations before you have gone through this, but they always make it through the tough times.’ While that’s a very lovely sentiment to hold on to, it’s doubtful when you look around. I find myself questioning more and more lately whether we can make it through in one piece. Will we fragment into parts, each its own nation? Maybe it would be easier. It’s certainly tough to wonder how we’ll be able to all live together after this.

I think back to the girl leaning against the rail of that courtroom during a very distant era, crying in joy, and wondering if she had gone through what we had. Did she, perhaps, also break friendships over the war? Did she also find herself isolated more and more from other citizens in her country? And did she also justify actions that she might later regret?

War is ugly, but civil war is positively heinous, because the charade of national unity and solidarity is dropped as everyone is eager and willing to sink their claws into one another. People will love and hate at the drop of a hat and without any influence of principles or ethics. And we just keep fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces, until one day we’ll all find ourselves alone, with no one on our side.

Timeline: Benghazi in 2014

This has been without a doubt the worst year for Libya in a long time. We’ve witnessed terrorism, war and the rapid erosion of the nation as a whole. Rather than celebrating the New Year, Libyans are left wondering and worrying in fear if their country will even still exist in 2015.

In the tradition of yearly recaps, I’ve compiled a timeline of events from my social media pages from January until now. With the speed that events have taken, it can be easy to forget everything we’ve gone through to reach this point, which ultimately leads to shallow and uninformed analyses of the situation in Libya. *cough cough*

What I’m including here are events that have had a direct impact on my life, as a citizen of Benghazi. Most of it is bleak, but there have been a few rays of happiness here and there. (Pictures are from photographer Fadellulah Bujwary’s page unless otherwise stated)

Football - 2014 CAF African Nations Championships - Final - Libya v Ghana - Cape Town

The Libyan National Soccer Team (Source)

January 30th: Fighting breaks out in several districts of Benghazi between the Special Forces and a militia known as Ansar Al-Shariah

February 1st: Libya wins the African Nations Championship after scoring 4:3 in the penalties round to Ghana. Celebrations across much of the country

February 7th: Protests across the country against the General National Congress, after announcement that it would be extending its stay in power

February 14th: Retired general and Benghazi revolutionary’s commander Khalifa Heftar delivers a speech declaring that the GNC must be suspended and elections held to vote in a new government

February 20th: Elections across the country for the Council of 60, the constitution drafting assembly. Some cities, such as Derna, were unable to vote due to threats by armed groups and/or boycotters


Protester in Benghazi

February 26th: Protests and road blocks in many districts of Benghazi, sparked by anger at the continuing assassinations and deteriorating security situation of the city

February 28th: State of alert declared in Benghazi after 4 assassinations in one week. Protests continue in Benghazi.

March 5th: Special Forces commander Wanis Bukhamada’s son freed after being kidnapped by militia groups

March 11th: Ali Zeidan, Prime Minister of Libya, ousted by the GNC after a vote of no confidence

March 17th: A military college in Benghazi is bombed, killing and wounding several graduating recruits

Aptril 10th

Hajer Abdulhamid, who survived a terrorist attack that killed her father

April 5th: Calls for a 10-day civil disobedience strike in Benghazi in response to the city’s deteriorating security situation

April 9th: A technician in the Libyan air force, Abdul Hamid Imam, died after a bomb planted in car exploded. His baby daughter and wife were in the car with him

April 19th: Municipal council elections held in Benghazi

Municipal council elections in Benghazi

Municipal council elections in Benghazi (picture from election council’s FB page)

May 3rd: The Electron Youth Forum, a 3-day event with activists from all cross Libya, opens in Benghazi, despite clashes the night before between Ansar Shariah and the Special Forces

May 8th: Najia Tayyeb, a women known for sweeping Benghazi’ seaside promenade since the revolution, was shot in a drive-by shooting

May 9th: Clashes between Ansar Shariah and the Special Forces in Benghazi

May 16th: Operation Dignity, an offensive led by Khalifa Heftar against Ansar Shariah and militia groups, starts in Benghazi. Benina International Airport closes due to attacks by Ansar Shariah

May 20th: The University of Benghazi closes indefinitely

May 26th: Muftah Bouzaid, prominent Benghazi journalist and political analyst, is assassinated

A pro-army, anti-terrorism protester in Benghazi

A pro-army, anti-terrorism protester in Benghazi

May 27th: Mohamed Zahawi, Ansar Shariah spokesperson, holds a press conference in which he states that America is their enemy and that they will fight all who support Khalifa Heftar

May 30th: Protests in Benghazi against the continued assassinations in the city and in support of Operation Karama

June 3rd: Fighting intensifies in Benghazi between the Libyan army under the banner of Karama, against Ansar Shariah and militia groups.

Salwa Bugaghis voting in the Parliamentary elections, hours before she was killed

Salwa Bugaghis voting in the Parliamentary elections, hours before she was killed (picture from Salwa’s FB page)

June 25th: Parliamentary elections held across Libya. Derna and Kufra do not participate due to armed groups. Lawyer and activist Salwa Bugaghis murdered inside her home in Benghazi

June 28th: Ramadan begins in Libya

July 8th: Daily multiple assassinations in Benghazi since the start of Ramadan

July 13th: Militias from surrounding cities attack Tripoli International Airport

July 17th: Fariha Berkawi, former GNC member, assassinated in Derna

July 23rd: Fighting escalates between Ansar Shariah + militias (now calling themselves The Revolutionary’s Shura Council) against the Special Forces

July 26th: The Benghazi Revolutionary’s Shura Council (BRSC) makes a statement demanding that the results of the Parliamentary elections be cancelled

July 29th: Continued attacks on the Special Forces base by the BRSC leads to their retreat out of Benghazi

August 1st: Reports that Ansar Shariah declares Benghazi an ‘Islamic emirate’. Large protests in Benghazi in support of the army and against Ansar Shariah and the BRSC.

Pro-army, anti-terrorism protest in front of Tibesti Hotel, Benghazi

Pro-army, anti-terrorism protest in front of Tibesti Hotel, Benghazi

August 4th: The democratically elected House of Representatives convenes in Tobruk due to the unstable situation in Benghazi

August 13th: The House of Representatives ratify a law stating all militia groups must disband

August 24th: Tripoli International Airport is set on fire by Misrati militias. Assault by Ansar Shariah continue on Benina International Airport

10686722_768272909900871_6066513142209257968_nSeptember 19th: Tawfik Bensaud, one of Benghazi’s most prominent activists, is assassinated, along with his friend and fellow activist Sami Elkwafi. They are the 13th and 14th assassination attempts of the day.

September 29th: UNSMIL organizes peace talks in Ghadames between all sides. They fail to produce any tangible change

October 2nd: Activists in Benghazi celebrate International Day of Peace

October 12th: The new school year in Benghazi is delayed indefinitely due to violence in the city

October 15th: The final phase of Operation Karama begins in Benghazi, starting an all-out war in the city between the Libyan army and the terrorist groups

October 31st: The Libyan army takes control of Selmani, among other districts in Benghazi

November 6th: The Libyan Supreme Court makes a vague ruling that the House of Representatives must be dissolved, under duress from militia groups

November 11th: Petition is circulated demanding that Benghazi be declared a disaster zone

December 3rd: The Libyan army takes control of the Bel’own district of Benghazi

December 23th: The Libyan army launches an assault on the Laithi district of Benghazi. Ansar Shariah, who control the area, kill several civilians and burn houses in retaliation

December 26th: Over 1400 violent deaths in Benghazi this year (source)

Project Silphium, a Conversation on Women’s Rights in Libya


Activists in Tripoli, Libya, taking part in the 16 Days campaign. (Picture taken from the GVB Program FB page here)

You might have heard about the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, a campaign that seeks to end violence against women. Every year it starts on November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) and ends on December 10 (International Human Rights Day). These 16 days are used to raise awareness on a multitude of issues such as rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation, to name a few.

An excellent Op/Ed piece in Libyan Youth Voices has been published recently entitled “Sound the Alarm, Tightening Spaces for Women in Libya“, which highlights a series of worrying developments concerning women in Libyan society.  From the article:

There used to be a glass ceiling in Libyan society, I know it was there because I experienced it first-hand. However, the glass ceiling has since shrunk to a wooden shed. I’m afraid to actually admit this out loud but if everyone keeps brushing off these accumulating incidents, we’re going to end up in a cement grave.

With the eroding state of the country and the ever-growing war, how can Libyan women combat these problems? One group of Libyans decided to utilize the power of the internet and launch Project Silphium, a blog with real life stories and experiences, written by Libyan women for Libyan women. From the blog’s description:

Silphium was a plant that was used in Cyrene (Shahat) as a medicine. Project Silphium on the other hand heals through lots of rants, views and opinions of Libyan women with real life stories and struggles, aiming to reach out and empower women all over Libya.

The blog is the efforts of both Libyan men and women, working as writers and designers. While it’s still relatively new (less than a week old), it has already attracted a lot of attention. One of the co-founders told me that the idea came from the frustration that much of the news articles on Libyan women didn’t represent them and how they felt.

They also expressed excitement at the reaction the blog was getting, especially that “young people are responding” and contributing their experiences.

Part of the success of this project can be attributed to the simple yet powerful impact that sharing real life stories can have. Under the cloak of anonymity, Libyan women can send in their own stories/rants in either English or Arabic. Having a safe platform with which to express yourself and to be heard is one of the greater aspects of the internet and one that has proven to be a profound change-maker.

So far the blog has featured posts like “There’s More To Life Than Just Men and Make-up“, “انا مسلمة و اطالب بحقوق المرأة” (I am Muslim and I Demand Women’s Rights) and “انتِ اكثر بكثير من زوجة رجل ليبي” (You Are More Than Just the Wife of a Libyan Man).

This will give outsiders a chance to hear the raw and diverse narrative of women in Libya, and hopefully, will give Libyan men a chance to better understand the emotions and struggles of their fellow citizens.

(You can check out Project Silphium’s Facebook page here or, if you’re a Libyan woman, contribute your own story and send it to projectsilphium@gmail.com )

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.