Million Dollar Metros and Migrants in Taxis: The Need to Rethink Libya’s Transportation Planning

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Benghazi’s street grid system. While the city center is a dense network of roads, the system hasn’t been able to grow fast enough outside this core. (Image generated by City Roads via OpenStreetMaps data)

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” – Gustavo Pedro

Of all the milestones that defined my ‘coming-of-age’ in life, none were as transformative as the day I finally got a car. As a person who loves getting involved in multiple projects, meeting up with different people, and generally being in as many places as possible, it was incredibly frustrating to be driven around, and have to wait around for my next ride. There were endless arguments in my family about how often I was out, but no one was willing to give me (an admittedly not-so-great driver) their car.

Around the world, getting your own car is a milestone only in a certain number of countries. The common factor? Cities with limited or no public transport, and with large sprawling suburbs.

In a country like Libya, that suffers from the dual curse of subsidized petrol and low density urban planning, having a car is crucial if you want to live. The average Libyan in a big city lives in a suburban neighbourhood that most likely has very little available services in walking distance, and will spend at least a quarter of their day in a car. Much of that time is spent stuck in traffic with all the other Libyans who need to drop off their kids at school, buy groceries, or one of a million tasks that require an automobile. If you live on a main road, the sound of honking horns and the pollution wafting into your windows becomes commonplace.

Cars gridlocked during a celebration in Benghazi, 2013

So what happens when you don’t have a car in Libya? For the countless residents who can’t afford to buy a car, every day is a struggle.

Before 2011, there were at least some options for the car-less. You could get a black-and-white taxi who, for 2 or 3 dinars, would take you to most places in the city. At one point, the ’25 cent’ minibuses (حافلات ربع) became quite popular. As the name states, you could hail the minibus for a number of routes through the city, and it would only cost you 25 qroosh. And of course, you could walk, although outside of the city center sidewalks are very intermittent and – especially if you’re a woman – it’s not always a comfortable experience.

After the revolution, things became trickier. Taxi cabs almost completely disappeared in Benghazi, along with the minibuses. There’s a number of theories around this, with some saying that a lot of taxi drivers were intelligence officers in the Gadhafi regime. But the most probably reason is that there was a more lucrative way to make money after the revolution; joining a militia. Car sales also went up, as salary increases and new wealth distribution decrees (such as student grants) increase the disposable income of individuals. Regulations also allowed the importing of used cars, something heavily restricted under the old regime.

Whatever the reasons, traffic increased exponentially in Libyan cities, from barely legal drivers to the infamous Toyota pick-up trucks of militia groups. But a lot of people – especially non-Libyans – still needed to get around and had no car. The only reliable method of getting a ride was using a peculiar form of entrepreneurship that emerged before the revolution. Residents who were strapped for cash would use their car to drop people off, and it was known as sayara khasa (سيارة خاصة) or private car. If you were walking on a road and a car flashed their headlights at you, they were offering you a ride. Think of it as a grungy version of Uber but without the app.

I remember thinking that the idea of getting in a car with a random stranger who decided to become a private taxi was really weird, especially since it was an unregulated service essentially on the black market. Until I actually needed one.

Back before I bought my freedom of mobility with my cherished Hyundai, I broke the permanent retainer on my teeth and needed to urgently go to the dentist. The problem? My parents were both at my grandmother’s funeral, along with all my car-owning relatives. We lived on the Western side of Benghazi and the dentist was 20 minutes away by car on Dubai St. Everyone told me to wait until they could drop me off the next day, but the sharp bit of metal wire in my mouth said otherwise. Completely out of options, I got on the main road and hailed my first sayara khasa.

It was a thrilling experience, because suddenly I wasn’t trapped by geography or time anymore. I had this unexplainable sensation of control. My parents were mortified. No self-respecting Libyan family would let their daughter take a private car! Those things were for migrants and teenage boys going to the beach. They paid for my lessons at a driving school the next week.

Car-sharing services have evolved considerably in the past few years in Libya. With the advent of good mobile data connections, more and more apps have been popping up which essentially do what Uber and Careem and Bolt offer in other countries. One of the first to emerge in Benghazi was Rahal, an investment project by the Bank of Commerce and Development. Unlike the private car service, which is seen by the average middle-class Libyan as a less-than-prestigious option, these new apps are tapping into this market. They use high-end cars driven by well-groomed young men in business casual clothing. One service received backlash after posting a job ad for their ride-hailing service, which including the requirement of being “an engineer or doctor” from potential applicants (great use of a degree, bro). But the marketing tactic here is obvious. This is not your garbaja private car driven by a downtrodden citizen. It is a service for “عيال ناس” or respectable people.

Aside from the very problematic social justice issues at play here, what is interesting is that these middle-income families are using these services. Despite the average household having at least two cars, younger Libyans are slowly transitioning out of owning a car. There’s a number of factors which can be attributed to this. One is the actual expense of the car. Because the prices skyrocketed after the 2014 economic collapse, it took me two years of work before I could afford one. The second issue is that of driving and parking. As more and more motor vehicles clog Libyan streets, driving has become a nightmare. Traffic jams, endless honking, people violating traffic rules; driving in Libya can be terrifying. Despite the war, the number one cause of death in Libya is road accidents. I know many Libyans, both young and old, who refuse to drive to avoid the sheer stress of the experience.

This line of thinking has also prompted another new use of the car; deliveries. Rather than going out to get a pizza or shawerma, why not pay someone to bring it to you? This model has become extremely successful in the past few years in the big cities. Start-ups like Sofraji in Tripoli took off immediately. Delivery Benghazi came along a few years ago and offered not just food delivery but delivery of anything. Pharmaceuticals, makeup, and even groceries can all be delivered to your house in Benghazi with apps such as Spiza. Young enterprising Libyans are now coming up with a range of ideas for new car-based services and merging several options together. Mashwary recruits drivers with their own cars to offer drop-offs or deliveries, while Servo is trying to expand their range of services offered and become a one-stop shop for Libyans on the go. There are also women-only options for more conservative families.

Right now you’re probably thinking, if cars are the problem, then are alternative car-based services really the solution?

Private school bus service (Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/RahalApp/)

In some cases, having one guy deliver 40 food orders in a given neighbourhood is better than having 40 cars out in the street. But the issue of traffic jams during rush hour can’t be fixed with an app, which is why Rahal are planning to launch a school bus service for private schools in Benghazi. A new bus service recently launched in Tripoli called Alsahem. For 1.5 dinars you can ride on one of their 3 routes, which span quite a large distance. The buses are clean and well-maintained, but the services are still not very popular.

The challenge of public transportation in Libya isn’t just technical but cultural. Just like with private cars vs. ride-hailing apps, the type of transport that is used is determined by perception. As the War on Cars podcast noted, buses just aren’t sexy. And in Libya, this lack of sexiness is a real obstacle. Even a bus driven by an engineer or doctor won’t necessarily appeal to people the way a private car does. A bus is a social equalizer, giving people from different backgrounds the same services and treatment. In a xenophobic and socially stratified place like Libyan cities, this is a difficult product to sell.

So what kind of public transport is sexy? One of our governments believes that a metro is the solution. Last year, the GNA’s Minister of Economy announced a 10 billion euro plan to built a metro system in Libya to boost the economy and provide jobs. The downside to this announcement was that it was done in the middle of an active conflict in Tripoli, and was only met by anger from Libyans, particularly those who remember the failed railway project from pre-2011. But a tram or subway system might just be a game changer for Libyan cities. For the Libyans who travel abroad and use well-developed public transport in Istanbul or Europe, the idea could be appealing. And for disenfranchised groups such as immigrants who are unable to use the new app-based services due to their higher costs or exclusionary nature, having more mobility options could change their relationship to the city.

In a country where the road infrastructure can’t be built as fast as the neighbourhoods, where the airports are struggling to operate, and as war continues to make mobility one of the biggest challenges to daily life, all these things can seem like a pipe dream. But car culture will never be sustainable, and even a place like Libya is not immune to the problems of automobile-dominated cities. While I love my car, I’ve probably now put more money into maintaining it than what it actually cost me.

Small changes like pedestrianizing shopping streets during Ramadan, and more people walking or jogging as a form of exercise, demand a change in the way we plan our cities. Urban life in Libya has changed drastically in the past 10 years, and this presents a real opportunity to pioneer new transport changes, so we can finally be rid of our car dependency, and, hopefully, design more inclusive cities for everyone.


Special thanks to Wissam Salem for his help on writing this post.

Book Review: Desert Encounter; Documenting Libya’s Cycles of Violence

“What rebellion? There is no rebellion; there is only a desperate fight for existence on the soil which our fathers possessed long before us.”

62133363_423941841792172_1536561443913072640_nFor many who researcher or read about Libya, the most common lament you’ll hear is the sheer lack of resources about the country. You’d be hard pressed today to find accurate reporting or studies during the nation’s current turbulent transition, while the Gadhafi era is considered a ‘black hole’ in the country’s history due to the regime’s practice of isolating itself from the rest of the world. But it is Libya’s colonial period that offers a peculiar absence of information.

What makes it so strange is the fact that there was much documentation done during the Italian occupation of Libya. Considered one of the most brutal attempts at colonization in the world, Italian authorities of the time had no issue boasting of the bloody tactics used to subdue Libyans, even as they denied it was a genocide. But after the defeat of the fascists and the declaration of Libya’s independence, many archives were allegedly destroyed in Italy.

The most likely explanation is that Italy, conscious of the reparations they would have to make to the country they brutalized, attempted to minimize the extent of the horrors committed by destroying the evidence. The results of these actions continue to play out in Libya today, a country haunted by the legacy of violence but without its memory, leaving it trapped in a vicious circle. We’ll never truly know about the concentration camps, the institutionalized genocide, and the amount of Libyan blood lost.

All that really remain are fragments, such as the ethnographic studies conducted by Italian researchers in an attempt to learn how to divide and control Libyan communities, or the maps created to plot the development of Libyan cities for Italian immigrants. There also remains the memory of our grandparents, blurred over the decades by new waves of violence. Historians such as Ibrahim Ahmed Elmehdewi and Khalifa Tillisi have translated Italian records into English, while newer efforts such as Ali Hussein’s ‘Alagailah: A Camp of Suffering’ attempt to relive that period through storytelling.

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across a rare book written by neither Italians nor Libyans, which give an outsiders view to that era of history. Knud Holomboe’s ‘Desert Encounter’ is one of these gems. Written by a Dutch Muslim convert, Holmboe chronicles his road trip through North Africa as he attempts to reach Mecca, and what he found when he crossed Libya.

I found this book almost by accident, looking for documents on Italian concentration camps. My extensive googling led me to this book, almost hidden away in the scant listings on Libya. Right off the bat you can tell it’s going to be interesting; banned in Italy almost immediately after its release in 1931, the author assassinated shortly after its publication in Jordan. While the tone of the book is not overtly political, it can be read as a condemnation of colonialism and the neoliberal policies that underpin it, celebrating instead a more spiritual way of life.

It starts with Holmboe in Morocco, deliberating how to reach Mecca. While he initially plans to cross the Mediterranean by boat, he is convinced by another travel to attempt a road trip by car. He passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, with an Arab boy and American companion, catching only brief glimpses of French occupation, the names of resistance fighters reverently whispered by the occupied populations.

During this time, he shares musings with the roving clans that accommodate them during the nights. Among the ones that struck me was how Holmboe, being a devote Muslim, believes that Islam has become ‘diluted’ in North Africa, with people following superstitions rather than a pure interpretation of the religion. Throughout the book – and while he does occasionally acknowledge the privilege he is afforded for being a white man in a colonized region – these kinds of observations make an otherwise interesting story somewhat uncomfortable.

By the time he reaches the borders of Libya, he begins to encounter problems. The Italian occupiers were very strict when it came to movement through and around Libya, and they make it difficult for him to pass by putting him through layers of menacing bureaucracy. What is interesting here is the division of Libya:

“If you…sign a declaration…it is possible that I may obtain permission for you. There are two Governments, one in Tripoli and one in Cyrenaica. I will also have to obtain permission from Benghazi.”

History repeating itself today? I remembered here all the running around we had to do for my previous workplace to get permissions from the two governments of Benghazi and Tripoli in order to be able to work.

Almost immediately, the signs of cruelty can be seen in the occupation of the country. He meets the ‘Arab population’ – who are almost always referred to as bedouins – dressed in rags, looking haggard and thin, and always gazing silently during Italian festivals or exhibitions. He finds bedouin camps along the way, who share stories of resistance and defeat.

“…we are treated like dogs – worse than dogs; we have surrendered. It was impossible to continue to fight against the Italians…they blocked up our wells with concrete so that the cattle could not drink…now we are starving to death slowly. I think the Italians want to destroy us utterly. We are getting more and more ignorant, more and more poor, more and more like the animals they call us.”

Holmboe was very sympathetic to the Libyan people, and is it possible that there was some embellishment in what he wrote, but even this thought didn’t prevent me from feeling a sense of grief over what I read. Libyans are a proud people, and the complete subjugation under colonialism had not only material consequences but also psychological, not just of trauma but also broken dignity.

I also felt something I didn’t expect; a deep and growing rage, not just at what had happened to my country but in the fact that we don’t remember, that we continue to allow foreign actors like the current Italian government to insidiously involve themselves in our affairs. As Holmboe makes his way East towards Benghazi, he continues to see further cruelties. The tribes in East Libya – referred to as the ‘free bedouins’ – had continued fighting Italian occupation under the leadership of Omar Mukhtar, and were met with even more aggressively punitive measures.

Another interesting historic precedent is the use of foreign troops, repeated again by Gadhafi’s hiring of mercenaries during the 2011 war. Holmboe encountered Eritrean troops brought in by the Italian. When he asked why there were so many, they replied, “Because they are the only troops we can depend on…they are absolutely loyal,” whereas Arab soldiers mostly refused to fight other Arabs. “Here we have to kill almost the whole population before they understand that we are the stronger.”

61551976_624846001260268_6310179875567173632_nAfter a harrowing ordeal of getting lost in the desert near Naufilia, he finally makes his way to Benghazi, where he witnesses the daily hangings of any dissident Libyans. He also encounters “sympathetic” Italian officers, who express their disdain towards the system they work for. “What can you expect from people who don’t speak a word of Arabic, and who live under the strange delusion that civilization if culture?” These characters are put into relief by their counterparts, who don’t spare any derogatory words in their contempt of Libyans, who they see as being unable to ‘develop’ the land and therefore don’t deserve it.

The most difficult part of the trip was the expanse between Marj and Tobruk, an area that the Italians were not able to control, due to the presence of resistance fighters who hid in the caves around the Green Mountain. During this trip, Holmboe was captured by bedouins, who released him after learning that he was a Muslim. He then arrives to Derna where people are arrested and hanged for mere trifles, as the occupation was on edge due to the “rebellion” against them. During this stretch, he is captivated by the Arabs/bedouins he meets and the sufi practices of the people. Much of the book contains his reflections on spirituality, his own personal quest which is what led him to pass through Libya initally.

Eventually, he is arrested and deported, where he makes his way to Egypt to meet with Libya’s exiled king. The book ends on a bitter note, looking cynically at the future of the region. Holmboe never lived to see the king return, unite the country and declare independence from Benghazi in 1954. But his book was an attempt to shed light on what was happening in Libya, and he tried to advocate against Italian occupation during the remainder of his life.

It is estimated that the Italian colonization of Libya ended in the murder of almost one third of the population. Few documents exist today which detail this bloody history. Gadhafi attempted to mold the country in his post-colonial vision,  but greed and madness led him to repeat many of the tactics used by the Italians, a legacy that he once vowed to undo. In Libya, I believe our loss of memory is our undoing, condemning us in the Sisyphean task of rebuilding our country by repeating the same historic events. Foreign occupation, revolutions, wars and constant uncertainty is a cycle that we have to break out of, by first acknowledging it. Desert Encounter is, if nothing else, an excellent and emotional book, and a good place to start.

You can get your copy of Desert Encounter from Dar Fergiani publishers at this link here.

Film Review: Freedom Fields, and the Perpetual Struggle for Choice

I’ve been in London for three weeks now, and I’m already dreadfully homesick for Libya. I know right now that every Libyan’s dream is to get out of the country, but there is so much emptiness (at least for me) outside the enclosure of our society. There’s no familiarity here, and it’s probably a side-effect of the war but I’m finding it difficult to bond with people who haven’t been through that same experience that I have. I’m probably being annoyingly pretentious to my Libya readers (my double-shafra-ness is showing *hides in shame*) but there you have it. Home is home, even if it’s broken.

I got a chance to briefly go back when I attended the screening of the documentary ‘Freedom Fields’, which chronicles the struggles of the Libyan National Women’s Soccer Team (“football team” for you annoying non-North Americans). I got a ticket by being my Libyan self and looking for a wasta (connection) because it sold out quite quickly. I’m sure you’re digging through your memories right now and remembering ‘oh yeah, there was a thing about a women’s soccer team a few years ago’. There was a lot happening in Libya back in 2012 and after the sensation died down we didn’t hear about the team anymore.

This film covers what did happen after the huge controversy, and follows the lives of these women over five years. Specifically it covers three main storylines; Na’ma, a Tawerghan woman living in a camp in Tripoli who’s circumstances have given her a nothing-to-lose iron will; Halima, a bombastic and passionate doctor-to-be; and Fadwa, an ambitious and headstrong young woman.

I think the film is geared more towards foreign audiences, to give them a rare glimpse into the lives of Libyans, but it really struck a chord with me as a Libyan viewer, simply because even we don’t have access to the kind of media that gives us a perspective on how different Libyans across the country live (how many of us have seen the inside of a Tawerghan camp?) but also how similar we all are (that constant societal pressure for women to get married and ‘settle down’ affects us all regardless of tribe or social class). The women portrayed in the movie could have been anyone I know, neighbours or friends or colleagues. For this reason the movie felt so personal to watch.

This point is particularly notable for me (and I believe for other Libyans) because I’m sure many people never looked into the issue of the women’s soccer team, we never realized that behind the controversy and Facebook wars, there were regular Libyan women who just wanted to play soccer (which is not that outlandish an idea, women have always played sports in Libya, it’s just that they’ve never played so visibly before). It’s incredibly sad to realize this in hindsight but the lost battle of the team set the tone for all the struggles that activists fought after the revolution, as our rights as women and citizens were put on the chopping block. If we had known this now, I think more people would have been vocal about this cause back in 2012.

The filmmaker is British-Libyan Naziha Areibi, who came to the premier decked out in a farmela and silver ‘abroug jewelry. She is completely invisible throughout the movie, acting only as a camera, but I’m sure that her relationship with the people played a large part in how she was able to shoot (and because Libyans aren’t the kind of people who would let you just passively watch but get you involved in the conversation), and it would have been interesting to see behind-the-scene footage into how the women interacted with this documentary process.

What I admired most about the structure of the film is that it is free from any kind of political or social statement. To be sure, there are a lot of political undertones in the film, but only in how it immediately ties with the lives of the players, and always told through their voice. You hear of the frustrations they have with a revolution that didn’t fulfill its promise of freedom, of the increasing isolation Libya faced after the 2014 war and all the restrictions that came with it. Even with the social aspect, you just see Libyans living their everyday lives, without any sensationalism or exaggeration. You know how merciless I get when it comes to representation of Libyans, but this film gets my Authentic Libyan™ seal of approval.

Being reminded of my own experiences as a woman in Libya, coupled with the heartbreak of what our country is capable of and yet unable to attain because of the situation, left me in tears at the end of the movie (it might have also been the homesickness). Yes there are still good and strong people in Libya who are trying to resist the hopelessness, but there is always that fear of how long they can last. How long can a person put up a fight and pick themselves up when they’re down, when the fight is against the very reality of your country?

This film is one of a few but growing number of media that covers Libya without casting the war as the main character, including the Tatweer Enjazi documentary on the entrepreneur contest of the same name, and the work of the Elkul channel. Yes, they are few and far in-between, but it’s a great start to begin magnifying Libyan voices and counter the wave of Western-produced garbage about our country.

I’m not going to spoil the film too much because you should definitely go and watch it for yourself. The next screening will be in Amsterdam, and the production team is currently trying to organize screenings inside Libya itself (if the situation permits). Whether you like it or hate it, as long as we can start a discussion in our country on what choices we give to our women and our society at large, maybe one day we’ll have a national women’s soccer team again.

The Militia War Against Libya’s Youth

Since 2011, militias have always posed a threat to Libya’s young male population, who – without many economic opportunities or sense of belonging – become susceptible to the recruitment campaigns that promise youth the chance to “protect the revolution”. Of course, the biggest incentive is not ideological but financial; the salary offered by militias dwarfs that which can be obtained in the public or private sector. The militarization of youth is a problem that requires a strong nation to tackle, but in Libya’s fragmented system of governance, the problem is only getting worse.

There is a small but active group of young people, made up of civil society activists, culture enthusiasts, tech geeks, and others, who are creating their own spaces within this chaos. They organize events and sessions to come together and celebrate their passions, and along the way attract other disillusioned youth in the country. These small but strongly bonded networks are often the only outlet for creative self-expression, and a lifeline for young people who feel “different” from the mainstream.

But the militias and military, increasing affected by religious influences, are now beginning to crack down on these safe havens. A few days ago, a Comic Con event was raided in Tripoli by Salafi militia, who accused them – among other things – of “inciting violence” and “crimes against public morals and Islam”. Despite the fact that the organizers had received a security clearance for the event, many of them were still arrested, and there are reports that some attendees in custody have been abused.

This kind of action has become a trend in Libya, where a popular youth event – after gaining publicity online – leads to outraged responses from people and a swift reaction from the dominating military group. The Earth Hour event in Benghazi witnessed the almost exact same crackdown, when, despite obtaining security clearance, negative online reactions led to the arrest of the organizers. What’s incredibly frustrating is that the outrage is incited by young people behaving, well, like young people. Hosting concerts, singing, dressing up as favorite characters, things that are typical behaviour for youth in any country, are shocking for a population that has grown up in isolation from the rest of the world.

This year has been particularly bad for Libyan culture. Tanarout, a popular cultural center in Benghazi, was forced to shut down because of the harassment of neighbours. Youth writers who contributed to a book – Sun on Closed Windows – received death threats when an explicit excerpt of one of the stories made its way online. This particular incident also led to the closure of another cultural center in Tripoli for several days. Earlier this year, books were confiscated in Marj on the basis that they were also spreading “immoral” ideologies.

The list of ideologies that militias and the conservative populations seem to be terrified of is rather extensive and thematically incoherent: Satanism, atheism, shi’ism, Freemasonry, Zionism, homosexuality and, ironically, ISIS ideology. In most cases, it’s young people who are the victims of these bizarre allegations and highlights the growing divide between generations. The misunderstanding of youth and their trends happens in any society, but in Libya it can put your life at risk.

What’s particularly problematic is that the medium which puts young people in danger is social media, the same platforms that youth use to get together and share their ideas, interests and points of view. It’s saddening that this same medium which gives them some escape from their reality also poses a threat to their safety. Any online post that shares info about an event will inevitably see the comments section filled with enraged citizens worried about the morality of their society. In particular, the pictures of women seem to rile up the more vitriolic trolls. “Look at those whores,” one commenter says about a picture of girls who are modestly dressed and holding books. In order to respond to this public outcry, the militias swoop in and “save” these susceptible youth by arresting and beating them.

The crises and war have turned Libyans into a nation of people who can readily accept violence and death, in the process making them intolerable to the celebration of life, culture and the vibrancy of youth. As spaces for self-expression continue to shrink in the country for young people, more and more are looking towards countries where being yourself isn’t a crime. Meanwhile, the militias continue to protect a revolution that started as a call for individual freedom, by taking those freedoms away one by one.

76 Hours in Tripoli

 

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Near the Tajourian seaside

For all my aggressively pro-Benghazi sentiment, there’s a special place in my heart for Libya’s capital city. Large, loud, bustling, with excellent coffee that almost makes up for the traffic congestion, the indifferent enormity and beauty of Tripoli is like a haughty love interest. I enjoy glimpsing a shadow of Benghazi in the Italian facades of downtown Tripoli, or the pedestrians walking down the seaside. But the accent of the passersby shatters that illusion; hearing ‘halba‘ instead of ‘wajed‘, or seeing the black shenna atop the heads of old men on street corners, instead of the distinct crimson of the East, reminds me of where I actually am.

No Libyan will admit this, in our long-standing tradition of stubbornness, but we love visiting other regions and cities. It’s that feeling of being not-quite-away from home, but far enough that you notice the small differences, which I think we find endearing. My Libya travels have been contained to the East, which makes the rare trips to the capital all the more exciting. West Libya is an entirely foreign place to me, while the South is still more of a mystery. (I’ve still unsuccessfully been able to visit Fezzan, but it hasn’t stopped me from continuing to try)

This trip was marred by the Libyan conflict, as everything is nowadays. “Are you sure it’s safe to go?” “I heard they kidnap Shergawis.” “Tripoli is not what it used to be, don’t be surprised when you arrive.”

The airport was bigger than I expected, and knowing that there wasn’t a three-hour car ride ahead of me (a la Labrag) was enough to keep me in high spirits. Driving around the city, I picked up on the familiar patches of the skyline, re-learning the architecture. There were more bullet holes in Tripoli then when I last arrived over two years ago, and the people a bit more forlorn. But there was also a lot of life, a persistent need to keep going, an unwillingness to succumb to the situation. The ugly rumors online about how terrifying Tripoli had become are as unfounded as the reports of Benghazi’s complete destruction. But people persist in these rumors, because we have developed a hideous sense of victory when we hear of a rival city’s demise, as though this failure justifies our petty political beliefs.

“There’s Bou Sita, if you look hard you can see the boat that Sarraj sailed in on.” It’s a new joke, but there’s nothing funny about the very serious armoured cars guarding the naval base. Around the city, you can spot stenciled graffiti in support of the GNA, but it’s not convincing. Real graffiti is not that meticulous, not that earnest in its message. These suspicions were confirmed by people I spoke with. “We had hope in them at first, but not anymore. What have they achieved?”

It was hard to get used to hearing from people in Tripoli that some of the militias are keeping the peace. Militias are all bad, aren’t they? We uncompromisingly rejected them in Benghazi,  a decision whose consequences we’re still facing. But it’s all for the ultimate greater good. Isn’t it? But Tripoli isn’t Benghazi, and their situation is not our situation. In Benghazi we don’t have tens of thousands of IDPs from other cities all seeking refuge, we don’t have the debilitating political expectations from unseen outside forces. When situations go to their extreme, we lean on one another. But in Tripoli, it’s every man for himself. Which is why I have to accept that, whatever my feelings are, my opinions are irrelevant to this city. اهل مكة ادرى بشعابها, as they say.

Another thing about Tripoli that is both endearing and embarrassing is that I’ve never spent a dinar there. I go from friend to friend, being hosted in that famed Libyan hospitality, and fights over the bill always end up with me losing to the argument of “You’re our guest!” Even when buying fruit at a kiosk, the vendor dismissed me with a wave of his hand as I try to pay, saying “Next time,  المرة الجاية.” I unconvincingly tell friends, “I’ll be hosting you when you visit me in Benghazi soon,” both of us knowing that they won’t be visiting Benghazi soon, that I don’t even want them to see Benghazi when it’s like this, with its rubble and its anger.

You don’t have to go far to find Benghazi anger though. Tripoli hosts thousands of Benghazi families who have fled the East, some unable to return because their neighbourhood still isn’t under LNA control, and some because it is. For the latter, it’s a self-imposed exile, a decision that hasn’t been taken without some measure of bitterness. I’m acutely aware that being able to travel freely between cities and regions in Libya has become something of a luxury.

In the morning of my departure, I bought an early-morning cup of coffee from a nearby kiosk. In Benghazi, as a woman, I could never stand in a line with a group of sleepy-eyed Libyan men at a coffee kiosk. But my visitor status to the city affords me this brazen opportunity. I walk around for a bit taking in the morning air, forgetting for a brief moment the war, the hatred, the divided country, and enjoyed being a regular citizen visiting the capital city of her country.

Tripoli is also where I first met Tawfik Bensaoud, during that last trip two years ago, ironic considering that we’re both from Benghazi. We had our first real conversation waiting at the airport gate for our flight back. I don’t remember what we talked about, probably politics or civil society, but I remember being content. Tawfik is gone, and the airport is gone, but Tripoli is still here, Benghazi is still here. We can only go forward now.

 

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Faiez Serraj from a Benghazi Resident

Dear Prime Minister Sarraj,

I guess I should start by commending you on entering Tripoli as peacefully as possible. In a country where any political move can set off a chain reaction of violence acts, this is a promising achievement.

I have to be honest. The idea of a unity government has never really appealed to me. It is centered on the concept of pandering to a corrupt group of politicians and war lords who refuse to hand over power, and flies in the very face of the principles of democracy that we destroyed our country to obtain. It feels not like achievement, but like blackmail.

But, what is right in theory and necessary in practice are occasionally two very opposite things. I have watched my city become torn apart by extremist groups and plunged into an ugly war. I have seen friends in Tripoli live in fear and dread under militia rule. I have heard heart-wrenching accounts of Libyans in Fezzan as they describe a deplorable way of life in complete isolation from the rest of the country.

For this reason I support you, and I support the Government of National Accord. Not because it is right, but because the current situation is unacceptable and intolerable, and we have no one else.

But trust that is begrudgingly given, Mr. Sarraj, can be easily revoked. You have not one, but two failed governments to learn from. Do not repeat their mistakes, for the appalling state of Libya today lies mainly on their shoulders. The General National Congress allowed itself to become fragmented and manipulated by illegal armed groups, and allied themselves with the devil. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, sat in a safe, stately castle, fanning the flames of war, as they watched Libyans suffer below, ignoring their pleas for help.

I’m sure you have a team of advisers and analysts telling you the same things I’m writing here. But I am writing it to you because I am living in the middle of it. Your success to me will not be a political achievement, it will be the return of life to my city, to my country. And your failure will mean our doom. Whether we want it or not, our lives are intertwined with yours, and my support comes from my sense of self preservation. Don’t ever forget that.

If there is only one thing you can do differently from your predecessors, please make it that you listen to the people. Our demands have become very basic, but that doesn’t mean you should only provide the bare minimum human needs and consider your job done.

Your job is also not to return Libya to the state it was in following the end of the revolution in 2011, because it was that period that eventually got us here. I ask you, on behalf of a nation sick of instability, to be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the “thuwar” mentality. We do not want a revolution, we want a country. Not a country for Benghazi, or a country for Misrata or Tripoli, but a country for everyone.

Be the Prime Minister that doesn’t accuse youth of taking pills when they protest, but instead ask why they are protesting. Be the Prime Minister who, instead of propagating conspiracy theories about his opponents, reconciles with them. Be the Prime Minister that finally puts a stop to the destruction, instead of being another contributing factor towards it.

You and I are both architects. We know how to design spaces and cities for people to exist in, to live in. And we both know that even the best laid designs can fail to meet the needs of the people. We are not asking for fantastical plans and lofty goals; we just want some semblance of normal life. We want to go to work or school without fearing falling missiles. We want to travel without being treated like pariahs in other countries. We want justice, and security, but also freedom. Yes, freedom. We are weak, but that does not mean we want another set of chains on our wrists in exchange for security.

You are in a position of power, and you may be tempted to make restricting decisions. But never forget, Mr Sarraj, that Benghazi, even when broken, will not tolerate those who lord power over it. Work with us, not against us, and let us save Libya together.

Yours sincerely,

Nada Abdulgader

Benghazi Libya

March 31, 2016

The Peculiar Power of Libyan Flags

The other day I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine, 99 Percent Invisible, which covers the history of designed objects. One aspect of design that the podcast is obsessed with is that of flags. As I listened to one flag-centric episode, it was mentioned how people generally never put much thought into the design of a flag, but at the same time tend to have an emotional reaction to the sight of a flag; whether proud, angry, wary, whatever.

This got me thinking about the Libyan flag, and the many emotional reactions I’ve seen over the years. It’s remarkable the strange journey this otherwise innocuous piece of cloth has been through. Like everything else in our country, the Libyan flag (or flags, rather) has a history of grandeur, controversy and violence.

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza (Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza
(Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Let’s wind the clock back to the mid-19th century. It’s the era of the Ottoman empire, and a dark green flag with three crescent moons flies in Tripoli, the flag of the Tripolitiania Wilaya. This is one of the oldest Libyan flags known, but it represents an occupation rather than a proper identity.

Over in Cyrenaica, the air is filled with dust from the construction site of the Benghazi municipal building, as the city turns into another key point for the Ottoman Empire. This building will be decked with a number of different flags over its lifetime. One such flag is what we know today as the flag of Barga; black cloth with a white crescent and star in the middle, which was raised after Cyrenaica broke away from Italian rule. A similar red flag was used in the French-controlled Fezzan around the same time, while a light blue flag, a green palm tree and a white star designated the Tripolitianian Republic. Before these three regions adopted their individual flags, a variant of the Italian flag dominated in Tripolitiania and Cyrenaica.

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory (Source)

Now, why those colours and symbols, you wonder? I actually have the same question, although one can assume that not much thought was put into the design the flags during that turbulent time. Of the three, the Tripolitianian flag, while being the most garish, also seems to have the most symbolism. A green palm tree, common in Libya, and which acts as a frame of our ocean views, and a light blue background, a colour you see often while strolling in Tripoli, whether sky or sea.

I did some digging, but I couldn’t seem to find any resources that could shed light on the meanings behind the flags. If you ask around, people will often give you romantic answers about martyrs and religion and things like that, although who knows, that could be the reasoning behind the designs.

But anyways, I digress. When Libyan independence was declared by King Idris in 1951, the first Libyan flag was born. According to this Wikipedia page, the flag of Barga (the province formally presided by King Idris) was used, with red added to symbolize blood and green to symbolize prosperity. This design was the work of Omar Faiek Shennib, a key figure during the Senussi monarchy. Some have also remarked that the design of the flag is a mix of the three provincial flags (red for Fezzan and green for Tripoli, on a Barga backdrop). This may or may not have been intentional, but all good design manages to accrue multiple meanings over time. A reading of the ’51 Libyan constitution will highlight the strict guidelines for the flag’s exact design (I’m looking at you, people who unforgivably stretch it out and butcher it in Photoshop for your designs).

From 'Good Flag, Bad Flag', compiled by Ted Kaye

From ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag’, compiled by Ted Kaye

But this flag was only fated to fly for 18 years before the Fateh revolution/coup of 1969. Gadhafi experimented with pan-Arab flags before finally settling on a national flag; the infamous green. The first, and to date only, national flag that is a single colour in the history of vexillology. One could view this as a completely selfish move (deprive the nation of a strong symbol) or as a complete lack of design initiative. However, I think it was part of Gadhafi’s branding strategy; a green flag to go with the Green Book and the Principles of the Green Revolution. It is a personal flag that represents the Gadhafi ideology rather than a proper national symbol. Libya was Gadhafi and Gadhafi was Libya; that was the meaning behind the flag.

So it’s understandable that when, during the 2011 uprising, one of the first symbols to be burned was the green flag, along with the revolutionary ‘mathabat’ and, during a bonfire blaze that I’ll never forget, copies of the Green Book. And what became the symbol of the revolution? That’s right, the tri-coloured Kingdom of Libya flag, later to be known affectionately by Libyans as Bou-Najma-wa-Hilal.

But this move was not without criticism from supporters of the revolution. Even while young men were being killed in front of Benghazi’s largest military base, some Libyans took to social media to convince others not to change their profile picture to the tri-coloured flag, and not to rally under it. They didn’t want the association with the monarchy, a system they feared would replace Gadhafi because of the re-emergence of the flag. Instead, they asked people to use a picture of Omar Mukhtar, a politically-safe symbol that all Libyans could agree on.

But whether it actually was the association with the monarchy, or maybe because the colours were so bold and defiant, the tri-coloured stuck, and eventually made an official come-back as the Libyan flag. Buried for 42 years, and yet against all odds, it came back. Talk about the power of symbols, huh?

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi's courthouse rally, April 2011

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi’s courthouse rally, April 2011

I didn’t grow up in a very Libya-centric household, so the flag was definitely new to me. I think it was new to most Libyans as well, thanks to Gadhafi’s determination in completely burying and eliminating any old symbols. And even if you didn’t want a monarchy, it still represented a better, more honourable time for Libya.

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. (I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer)

And since symbolism is scarce in a country that acted as company name for a self-obsessed megalomaniac for 42 years, we totally abused it. To say that it was everywhere is not an exaggeration. Everyone owned at least a handful of flags, volunteers were painting every available public surface red, black and green, and the logos of government institutes and civil society organizations alike had some variant of the flag design. Now, while the colours may look nice on a flag, they were not very pleasing to see on, say, historic monuments. We reached a red, black and green saturation point (no pun intended), and with the development of Libyan graphic skills, we’re slowly moving away from (over)using the revolutionary colours.

But the tri-coloured flag of the Kingdom wasn’t the only one to appear in public plazas and protests. In Western Libya, another flag that was new to us began to wave in the wind; the Amazigh flag. In cheery yellow, green and blue stripes, with a bold red Tinfagh letter yaz in the middle, the Amazigh flag represents not a nation, but a people, and in Libya’s case, a minority oppressed by Gadhafi. The unfurling of this flag was, in its own way, another stance of defiance against the regime. (You can read about the design here, and it’s definitely rich in literal symbolism.)

But not everyone cares for this symbolism. Many Libyans don’t like seeing the flag (to put it politely), because of its perceived exclusionary nature; i.e. you’re not part of our race. It also represents a collective Amazigh identity that transcends borders, which makes some newly nationalistic Libyans a little uncomfortable.

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

Flag revival seems to have been the theme of the new Libya. Bring out your old symbols, brush off the dirt, and pick off where you stopped 42 years ago. Remember the black flag of Barga? When the federalist movement began to gain steam in 2012, they also needed a symbol. And what better symbol than the flag of the political province that they’re trying to revive? Suddenly black Barga flags began to appear more often, as calls for federalism and a more unified Barga identity began to strengthen.

This, too, was met with criticism, although of a much more furious nature. Detractors of federalism accused the movement of trying to divide the country. Suddenly the flag went from being a historic symbol to one of exclusion; like with the Amazigh flag, the black flag of Barga represents a subset of Libyans with their own distinct identity , history and demands.

Being the pro-federalist that I am, I promptly changed my profile picture to the Barga flag back in 2012, until the federalist movement began to move away from rights for Eastern Libya towards a more hostile, tribal-based ideology. I still like the flag, but unfortunately it has become too immersed in negative connotations today, and having a Barga flag profile picture may be seen as being associated with those connotations, the down side to flag symbolism.

And speaking of negative flag symbolism, the Gadhafi flag didn’t exactly go the way of the tri-coloured in 1969. Many people and cities who oppose the revolution still hang the Gadhafi green on their buildings, in defiance of an uprising that doesn’t represent them. Many groups in the armed conflict in Libya today use “evidence” of green flags among other armed groups as proof of being pro-Gadhafi and, in effect, fair game to attack. One group accused of charging in with green flags has been the Libyan army in Benghazi, who, in response, have increased the number of tri-coloured flags around their checkpoints and on their cars. Wars of symbolism can be fought just as feverishly as wars of guns and missiles, apparently.

During a workshop I attended to analyze draft of the new Libyan constitution, the article that mentions the flag came up. Now, you’d think, with crucial state-building and policy-making articles in the constitution, we wouldn’t give much time to an article about flag design. But no, we spent a good half hour heatedly debating whether or not the tri-coloured should be the Libyan flag.

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Some said that it was a no-brainer, half the country’s already covered in the colours now anyways. But some said that, no, the flag doesn’t represent everyone. Those whose children died under the banner of the green would never vote yes for a constitution that enshrined the flag their children died fighting against. I spoke to a CDA member who told me that even among the Assembly, there were members who were against the tri-colour.

But surely we can’t bring back the Gadhafi green? The people whose children died fighting this flag wouldn’t agree either. So what’s the solution? One person in the workshop proposed creating a new flag, along with a new anthem, that would help to unite all Libyans under (literally) one banner.

I’m personally undecided on this issue, because on the one hand, while the tri-coloured represents the first Libya to me, I can’t deny that the flag has become heavy with other symbolism, much like the Barga flag. As the green became the brand of Gadhafi, the red-black-and-green has become the brand of February 17th, a revolution-turned-ideology that many Libyans no longer want to be part of, and that many Libyans do not feel they are a part of to begin with.

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014 (Yes, the picture is from far away, but that’s as close as I ever want to get to those guys)

There’s one last flag I haven’t mention that has also adorned lamp posts and buildings in the new Libya; the infamous Alqaeda standard and the mortifying ISIS black banner. The former appeared as early as 2011, while the latter took its place in the subsequent years. Unlike the other flags, this has been met not with anger so much as cold fear. As Libyans continue their symbolic fighting over green, red-black-and-green, or an entirely new set of colours, this flag of death threatens to cover its inky blackness over all of Libya.


Jk, I wouldn’t want to end the post on such a dark note (pun totally intended this time).

At the end of the day, they’re just pieces of cloth sown together. They’re not much different than the pyjama shirt I’m wearing. And yet, we manage to saturate them with so much meaning, so many hopes and aspirations, and sadly, so much of our fellow countrymen’s blood, that they take on a life of their own. It is really wise to give so much power to such a symbolically malleable icon? Before you answer that, ask yourself if it’s okay to arrest a man for defacing that icon, or if you would break a friendship over it? Yes, the flag you hold is an extension of your beliefs, but do you want your beliefs weaved into something whose meaning can so easily change? There is always the fear that you begin to soak the many meanings of the flag, to change who you are, so that you feel justified in holding it, and thus allowing us to become controlled by our symbols.

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

A graphic designer friend of mine who, frustrated by the Gadhafi era, the 2011 revolution, regional sensitivities and the complete abandonment of Benghazi by the rest of the country, took matters into his own hands and designed the “Flag of Benghazi”. The aqua-green “ocean” represents the huthoor, people from West Libyan origin, while the reddish-brown “land” represents the people from bedu, or East Libyan, origin. These are the people who, in a country torn by East vs. West animosity, have managed to create a city for themselves to live together. The lighthouse sits on a peaceful white background, with the words “Benghazi Lives” emblazoned underneath. Unlike the politically or regionally-charged Libyan flags, this one captures the spirit of the city; its people. He only designed it as a response to the current situation, but if it ever gets proposed as an official city flag, I’m sure that it too will meet with controversy. In any case, it’s the only flag, in this long historical mess of flags, that I currently feel represents me.