Chosen for Chevening: How to Make Your Application Stand Out

Greetings from London! If you’ve been following my social media you’ll know that I was awarded a Chevening scholarship to do my Masters’ degree in the UK (self-congratulatory woohoo). (It’s still too early to write a ‘Libyan in London’ observatory post although you know your opinionated blogger has much to say already).

As a recipient of this scholarship, there’s an unspoken obligation to ‘pass on’ the knowledge to others, and to support the next generation of postgrad scholars. There’s already a number of guides from Libyan Chevening alumni available online (for ex. here and here) and lectures (like this one coming up in Benghazi). In that tradition, I’ve opted to take advantage of the little free time before drowning in readings to give my own take, especially since applications for 2019/2020 are open until November 6.

However, this post will not repeat what already exists online on the application process itself. Instead, I want to address the comments I see from unsuccessful applicants who want to know why they were not selected. The application process for any scholarship is not simply about meeting the basic criteria (undergrad degree, work hours, grammatically-correct essays), but about standing out and showing that it is worth investing in your education. Because at the end of the day, a scholarship is an investment, and the return on this investment is an active citizen who utilizes what they learn to contribute to solving issues and positively impact their community and country. With that in mind, I hope this guide will help, well, guide you through the application process to succeed in achieving a scholarship.

A scholarship for a postgraduate degree isn’t something that you should casually apply for. There are several questions to ask yourself and self-reflection before making a decision that can have a large impact on your life, either positively or negatively. Some of these questions are:

1. Will this scholarship help my mission/career path?

This is probably the most important question, essentially being honest with yourself about whether you need to continue your education. In some cases, work placement would be more beneficial. Leaping into academia isn’t easy, because you’ll have an intensive one-year programme that will need your full time and dedication. If you do decide to take this leap, knowing what you want out of the experience will help you in better determining what programme of study would be best for you.

I chose to continue my education because I was working a lot on post-conflict recovery and reconstruction, and my architecture background didn’t prepare me for working on development issues. For this reason, I decided to pursue a masters in urban design for development.

If you do decide that you want to study a Masters, the next question is:

2. Is the programme I want to study important for Libya?

This one is a bit more difficult to answer up front because for a country like Libya, everything is important. We need practitioners and policy makers in almost every field, from urban design to governance to education to health to….you get the idea. Chevening realized this and removed the list of ‘priorities’ for potential Libyan scholars.

But that doesn’t mean what you want to study will automatically get approved. Saying that you want to study a M.Sc in Mechanical Engineering because that’s what you did your undergrad in doesn’t sound like anything particularly important, but saying you want a masters in Mechanical Engineering because you want to support the development of local industry, and you’ve already began working to support a small manufacturing startup will show that your goals are more in line with the Chevening criteria.

What’s cool about the UK is that they offer several programs that focus on merging disciplines with development theory, which means that you can learn how to apply a technical skill in a developing country like Libya. It also means that you don’t have to do your Masters in the same field as your undergrad, if you have work experience in that field.

3. What have I contributed to my community?

Like I mentioned before, winning a scholarship means proving to the selection committee that you are exceptional. High academic grades are important but there are thousands of students across the country who have an A+. It’s your extra-curricular activities that will highlight your creativity and potential. Whether you volunteer in your spare time for issues like women’s rights or environment or education, or have contributed to your university’s student union, or worked to support local authorities in service delivery, the cause you’re passionate about says a lot about who you are as an active citizen. In my case, it was showing the committee that I wanted to work on an issue that was important for the country, namely socially-responsible and holistic reconstruction in Libya.

Now, civil society in Libya is still in its infancy and extra-curricular activities aren’t in high abundance, but it’s here that your creativity will show. Leadership and networking skills are a high priority for Chevening, and how you mobilize people is a great way to show them off. Joining the Scouts or Red Crescent is a great way to get started; network with the people you meet there in order to learn about opportunities elsewhere. What you should avoid doing is volunteering somewhere for a month or two just to pad your application; if you’re not passionate about something, it will definitely show.

4. Do I want to study in the UK?

The UK has a lot to offer when it comes to education, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea (pun intended). Some people choose to apply because this is the only scholarship opportunity they can find, while they may have their heart set out on another country. In this case, look into scholarships such as the Civil Society Leadership Award, the Fulbright Scholarship, the DAAD scholarship and others. (If the deadline has passed, follow up on the page for it to reopen for the next year)

5. What do I want to do when I come back?

This one is again tricky to answer, because we’ve gotten out of the habit of planning for the long term in Libya thanks to sudden airport closures, a fluctuating local currency and the political legitimacy crisis. In this context, my advice is always to integrate flexibility into your goals, and plan locally. It’s hard to predict what will happen in Libya a day from now, so it’s safer to work on a smaller scale like your community or city. At the end of the day what matters is that you DO want to achieve something, and regardless of the situation, if you have that drive, you will manage to succeed. I’ve seen countless initiatives, projects and businesses thrive in the most unlikely circumstances, whether in the middle of a war in Benghazi or in the isolated city of Sebha. It’s by no means easy, but it’s not impossible.

If you have any further questions about the application process, just include them in the comments!

Surviving War Between Semesters: Life of a Benghazi University Student

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

Faculty of Engineering campus, with the Faculty of Science in the background. Benghazi University before the war

If I were to apply for graduate school right now, my summer activities list might look something like this:

  • Cultivated ability to identify the areas of a house least likely to be hit by missiles
  • Obtained negotiation skills to survive dangerous check-points
  • Learned to drive around careening tanks

Obviously these activities don’t actually involve architecture or urban planning (unless you count the house part, which I doubt many universities will). Part of being an ‘Arab Spring’ student is that much of our education involved learning skills that don’t raise our employability level so much as they contribute to staying alive, as we gain our academic credentials in almost bold-faced defiance of the reality around us.

But regardless of the circumstances, my academic life in Benghazi University has always been an unorthodox experience. Even before the revolution, students had to navigate the political and social complexities of Libya. Gadhafi’s face stared at us from the ‘Political Theory’ courses that were mandatory for all students, which we swallowed in bitter silence. His revolutionary guard lurked every corner; you never knew who was listening. Three-day conferences for all new university students about the ways of the Jamaheria were unavoidable, as men in badly tailored suits droned at us about respecting the system.

And then the revolution happened, layering the already politically saturated campus with even more confusing ideologies. Life on campus was, to me, a mirror image of our society at large. But the need to graduate and excel in our chosen field dominated over our interest in the political squabbles happening in the halls of the General National Congress in far-away Tripoli. We were all conscious that a degree meant starting a new phase of life, and every civil disobedience that stopped university for days delayed this phase, every fallen rocket threatened to destroy our futures.

Unlike most teenagers on the brink of adulthood, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I’ve always had a passion for visual design, and from a young age I would diligently pull out my accrued collection of art supplies and practice drawing. As I got older, I realized that architecture provided the balance I needed – flexibility and a chance to freely express myself, with a structure that appeased the mathematics-oriented part of my mind that I inherited from my engineer parents. “It’s final,” I declared to my friends one afternoon in the sixth grade. “I’m going to be an architect!”

And then we moved to Libya.

The education institution in Libya is not an encouraging system. Students memorize rather than learn, teachers are punitive rather than nurturing, and the end goal is not to acquire knowledge but rather to acquire a degree.

This is why I fully expected that enrolling at Benghazi University (at the time, Garyounis University) would not be the ivy-league experience I had envisioned for myself. I went to the entrance exams like a person condemned. What could I hope to learn in a place where the furniture was at least 30-years old and the professors a group of aging memories from better days long since passed?

Instead, I found myself in a system that challenged me, that pushed me into doing better, that stretched my limits and my abilities in a way that, I would dare to say, competes with top tier universities. Yes, our furniture was old and our resources were limited, but with the internet and the support between students, we honed our skills and fought toe-to-toe with the multi-headed dragon that is architectural education. Our professors were ruthless; they would expect nothing but the absolute best we could produce. They managed to take a group of students with no background in arts (some had never even made a simple craft before), and turned us into individuals that could define the dimensions of a room by sight, that could cut paper with millimeter precision, and who, with more practice, could become real architects.

My younger self would never admit this, but my education at the architecture department of Benghazi University is one of the richest academic experiences I had ever known.

We were on a semester break when the 2011 revolution happened. Benghazi was freed in five days, and no one knew what would happen next. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. The university was closed, only the staff were allowed inside as they determined what to do with the fate of thousands of students. But the students, being young and seizing the opportunity that freedom afforded them, were already engaged in several activities and projects in Benghazi’s burgeoning civil society. No one was really concerned about resuming our studies. The campus wasn’t going anywhere, and we were learning a host of new skills. Med students got a chance to turn theory into practice as they volunteered in hospitals, media students were being snapped up by the rapidly-growing collection of news channels and press. Others also got the chance to test out new fields, pursuing their true passions rather than whatever they were stuck learning at university. Like many other architecture students, I began using my design skills to produce graphics for various organizations, easily learning new software programs and skills on the spot in the charged atmosphere of the revolution. Anything felt possible in those days.

After the last stronghold in the country fell and the country was ‘officially’ liberated, we were informed that classes would resume.

An incident at university under the Gadhafi regime still comes to mind after all these years. The Gadhafi family had a row with the Swiss government, although the details of the incident were murky, as was everything related to the Gadhafi family in those days. One day soon after I saw two revolutionary guards marching up to the entrance of the library, a miniature coffin covered in the Swiss flag being carried on their shoulders. They put the coffin down and shuffled aimlessly about as students glanced at it in passing, perhaps afraid that even staring too long might rouse suspicion. However, I think the guards realized the comical pitifulness of the effigy. It was removed half an hour later.

Truthfully, I don’t remember much about campus life after the revolution. What I do recall is the enthusiasm of the students and teachers alike. It could have been the 9-month vacation that rejuvenated everyone, or the abstract notion of freedom that still made us giddy. I threw myself back into my work with renewed enthusiasm, developing my abilities as an architect. There were subtle but noticeable changes in the university itself, as students became more vocal about their rights and the administration attempted to boost the reputation of the university. Every grievance was fronted by the question, “Why did we have a revolution if this kind of thing is happening?” Another change was the posters that adorned many of the buildings. On these posters were the names and faces of students who fought and died in the revolution, and each department honoured their fallen comrades.

But it wasn’t long before the deteriorating security situation of the city began to reflect on campus life. There was a sense of general uneasiness, and the campus would clear out by the afternoon. Before, we were wary of the guards, but now we were concerned about something not as tangible; the uncertainty of the situation we were in. Uneasiness also returned on a political level, as the factions forming in Libyan society were also forming among the student body. As the political problems escalated, people were discussing their beliefs less and less, the one tried-and-tested mechanism we knew of to protect ourselves. The backdrop to this tense environment was the ominous sound of rockets from the nearby militia base, which kept everyone on edge. Why did we have a revolution?

The instability in Benghazi came to a head after the army forces decided to fight back against militias and extremist groups. United under the banner of Operation Karama, fighting escalated in many parts of the city. Because of Benghazi University’s proximity to the February 17 militia base, this meant rockets launched by the militia against fighter jets invariably landed in our campus. Just as they had done three years previously, classes were indefinitely suspended.

We thought that the suspension wasn’t going to last more than a few months, but we had underestimated the intensity of the situation. Unlike the revolution, where the fighting happened in other parts of Libya, this was going on within our city. Passing by the empty university, I could see militia cars parked next to the gate of our campus.

But it wasn’t until October 15th that we realized how bad it was going to get. Benghazi University became a battle ground, as army forces attacked the militia groups hiding inside the campus itself. Picture after picture of the campus buildings on fire and in ruins dotted social media as we collectively mourned the loss of our university. The administration had assured the students that all their records were safely moved and were available in a temporary location. But it didn’t quite lessen the blow we felt. Benghazi University was the first university established in Libya, and it was up in flames.

It’s September 4th, 2015, and Benghazi University has been closed for one year and four months. Tomorrow classes will resume. The university has designated several public schools across the city to be used temporarily. The medical college campus is still intact, as it is located in another part of the city.

I’m overcome by feelings of happiness and despair at the thought of returning. Happiness because I finally have a chance to graduate, but despair in knowing that it won’t be the same. Many students have left, either transferred to another university or unable to return because of the war. Many professors, too, have gone.

I won’t get to present my thesis in the studio where I had learned to become an architect. I won’t get to take a graduation photo in front of our department building with the rest of my class, and I will never get the chance to take once last stroll through the faculty as a student. I know these are minor, almost negligible grievances, especially compared with what many others have lost during this war. But it doesn’t hurt me any less.

They say college life is supposed to be the best years of your life, but for us they were years mixed with anxiety and hardship and fear. We didn’t see students hanged on campus like our parents before us had witnessed, but we’ve experienced our fair share of horror. I guess Benghazi University has had a more turbulent history than most other universities.

I’m sure that one day, in the future, the buildings will be repaired, the campus will be cleaned up, and new books will line the library shelves. The university will continue to produce doctors, lawyers, engineers and others professionals for Libya. My only hope is that these new generations will not have to experience university life the way we did, and that campus life will finally reflect a city at peace.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 4

If you’ve been keeping up with our higher-education memoir series, this is the final installment, where we ruminate on life after graduation. As always, this is Ali’s POV, while mine is over at Ali’s blog.


Postgrad Blues

While I had chosen to completely numb my expectations of life after graduation, the initial ‘reality ensues’ kick remained quite painful. I suddenly had an abundance of free time in which I had nothing to do in except laze around, play video games, watch movies and look for jobs. Moreover, what social life and human contact I had were completely thrown out of the window. Being the only child not only worsened that, but it also put more pressure on me to get a job and move to the ‘next level’ in life.

What you don’t learn in university is that life really can be tough. That, and graduation is really not worth it – it doesn’t lead to anything unless you have ‘the connections’ to secure a decent job. Doubly so in a small, oversaturated labor market such as Bahrain: plenty of graduates and skilled candidates to go around, not enough jobs to actually accommodate them.

The only job opportunities that are open to a fresh graduate tend to be quite banal: aggressive cold-calling salespeople or outdoor sales, vehicle drivers, waiters or hotel receptionists, and graphic design. I tried the sales thing for a month and I hated it with every atom in my being. What university also doesn’t teach you is that sales jobs are like chameleons: they come under many names but they are all the same. Here’s some of them: business development executive, marketing executive, sales executive, client account manager, and client services executive. They also all work the same way: cold-call someone, set up a meeting, attempt to convince them to purchase your company’s services, meet a bazillion times, hope that the deal actually goes through.

Not my thing whatsoever.

But I digress. What makes post-graduation life difficult is not the inability to find a job but how your dreams, future plans and self-worth get crushed into a fine thin paste, assuming they are not outright evaporated. How? Allow me to elaborate:

A. Jobs

There’s a good chance that the job you actually want and is really an entry-level position has some very stringent experience requirements. Usually something such as 3 years in an equivalent position. The problem with this is that it reeks of fuzzy, catch-22 logic. You can’t get the job unless you have experience in it, but you can’t get experience unless you get the job. It’s like the chicken or the egg, but very, very real. By the way, scientists say the egg came first.

B. Dreams

Not having a job can put a damper on your dreams. It’s either because you can’t get a job which will make you eligible for your dream job, scholarship or career plan or alternatively, because you can’t get any money with which to work towards your dreams. While some people might have very broad or vague dreams which they will bend or claim flexibility on (that’s me), there are people who do have very specific plans or dreams for the future. The result is the biggest depression-inducing shock of their life as I have witnessed in many a friend.

C. Your self-worth

Oftentimes, post-graduation quickly devolves into a very routine existence of wake up, eat, sleep. This routine, coupled with things such as family pressure, an overabundance of time and having your dreams crushed can make a person feel extremely useless or worse, think themselves as a burden on those around them. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lock yourself into a cyclic trap of depression.

Finally, if you thought university was full of incompetence or disorganization and how you’ll be leaving all of that behind, don’t hold your breath going into the ‘real’ world. It is the exact same. You have those who have it figured out, and those who don’t. Even the biggest of companies harbour complete messes within their walls.

As you can see, without the right mindset or support, graduation is an abrupt, sudden shock in the life of a student. This is why I pretty much tell all of my still-students friends to not rush towards graduation. The suckerpunch will come – no need to ask for it in advance.

Is university the best time of your life? I would say no, not in the Middle East. Rather, university is more akin to ‘Life-Lite™’. You get a nice little sandbox to play in, discover how society functions and understand yourself and your peers better. It fills in most of your time with things to do and manage. In essence, university manages your life for you while you learn the ropes of society.

What it doesn’t teach you is how to manage your life completely on your own. It also doesn’t teach you crucial skills such as navigating workplace politics or how things really do happen in the real world. You’ll have to learn those on your own time, my fellow graduate or graduate-to-be.

That brings us to the grand question: are you kind of screwed coming out of university? Was it all a waste?

Well no.

University probably helped refine and temper you as a person, simply think back from when you first entered and where you are today: I’m sure you’ll find a lot to be proud of or at the very least, some things you may not be so-proud of but can rest easily that you have experienced or tried them.

So what can you do? Well, I would say that you should stay hopeful, continue to pursue your dreams and interests and not give up so easily. Surround yourself with good advice and supportive allies. Cultivate a hobby or two. Set up gatherings. Stay in touch with people. Use your newfound time to learn something, do something or join something. Create activity in your day-to-day life. If you don’t do it now, you’ll do it later: most people with jobs or marriages almost always get horribly bored a year or two into their job or marriage without any of the aforementioned in their life.

Remember, a job, marriage and kids are not the only valid moves to play in life. The trick is to find out what you can and want to play.

You can almost say that’s the beauty of life.

So go ahead. Try living.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 3

This is third installment of our education series. If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I’m featuring the voice of Ali here, while my own is over at his blog. Enjoy!


The Drop

By 2011, the administration in my university was more or less nuked as a direct result of the ‘Arab Spring’. After some two months or so of university being put on pause, classes started up again, but this time around almost everything that was fun in university was removed.

A good deal of tutors had packed up and left while others started packing up. Moreover, the summer scholarship abroad became history remembered by few and building 24 was put down: it got stripped of everything it contained and turned into a boring empty space. Classes also started becoming more vague and aimless.

But more importantly, it was time for me to pick a major in business. I had a choice between banking and finance, accounting, management or marketing. Against every bit of my parents’ wishes (or my dad’s more specifically), I picked management because I was informed that it would have tones of psychology in it and that was that; not that I regret my decision whatsoever. It turned out to be the jack-of-all-trade’s degree: the perfect companion to a person with far too broad of an attention span and a finger in every pie, so to speak; something I found out later in life.

Sadly, having to choose a major also caused a split in my group of my friends as each went on his or her own way and we couldn’t meet up as frequently as before thanks to scheduling differences. Over the coming years, the split got bigger until I was spending most of my time with one or two people at the most, assuming I wasn’t alone to begin with.

Overall, the quality of education continued to drop sharply over time. It also didn’t help that I was the guinea pig of my university due to my status as a student of ‘the first batch’. The only thing that kept me sane was my relationships with my tutors as mentors and friends in addition to my student friends. Other than that I was mostly zoned out in class, with only half a grip on what’s going on. Luckily, I didn’t miss out on much so my grades weren’t affected.

By the time my graduation project rolled around, I was completely burnt out in regards to university. I completely stopped caring at this point. I just wanted it all to be done with, to hell with grades. I want to go and experience the real world. The real-real world that is; my graduation project was to work for a company on a ‘real’ project, but it was so disorganized and chaotic, I was convinced that this cannot be the way companies operate in the real world.

On the bright side however, my character and personality was vastly improved after 2012 thanks to a refreshing summer exchange program and a more balanced view on life. I realized a year later that not only had I matured a great deal throughout my university years, but I also built up an almost inhuman resistance to whatever adversity that came through my way thanks to all the downers I encountered until then. Losing some 25 kilograms did wonders to my self-confidence as well, now that I was ‘in shape’.

Come June 2013, I had submitted my final project report and completed all things university. For all practical intents and purposes, I had graduated, minus the actual certificate and a fancy party. It was time to roll out.

The Graduation Gauntlet | Part 2

Alright, here’s part deux of The Graduation Gauntlet, a look at university education in the MENA,through the eyes of Ali. For my perspective, you can check it out on his blog here.


The Carefree Years

By the time year 2 and 3 rolled around, I had settled into a bit of a comfortable rhythm at university: I had found a core group of friends with which to hang with 24/7 and could identify with to some extent as ‘my people’. A typical day would consist of going to class, meeting with my group, enduring class and then going out with the group, usually visiting the recreational area or carpooling outside of university and over to a restaurant or something.

I had also started to build a relationship with most of my tutors through after-class chit-chats, usually about completely irrelevant topics in comparison to class. Most of my classes weren’t very interesting in and out of themselves, but the class conversations and tutor personalities often made up for that. The interesting classes were my elective ones, such as music composition, music around the world and general law. Other fun ones included theater and journalism, but alas, one could only take one or two electives at any given time.

It was also at this time that university really was a lot of fun. I had great tutors, a good group of friends and easy access to entertainment. As an example, the recreational building in my university (henceforth dubbed building 24) was a nice place to be during year 1 and 2 of university. It contained generous amounts of sofas, satellite TV as well as a TV connected with a Playstation 3. Students would either ‘rent’ one of the available games or bring their own games and set up a ‘king of the hill’ style getup where the winner gets to continue playing as challengers rotate. I had sunk many hours into Street Fighter 4, Soul Calibur 4 and Mortal Kombat 9 in that building.

If you weren’t the video-gaming type, building 24 still had other fun for you: miniature football, table tennis, billiards and for some strange reason, a leg-press machine in the middle of the building which later paved the way for a full gym. The building itself quickly gained status as the place to be in-between classes. It got so popular, some students would come before classes just to get a couple of games in the morning.

But of course, there had to be someone to ruin it for everyone else. During year 1 and 2, there was no such thing as an attendance policy in my university. You were expected to be an adult and attend your classes or skip them if you felt you didn’t need them. I think it was a good system that should’ve lasted. But who am I kidding? Of course it was abused.

Students would skip their classes and spend their entire day in building 24, then complain and moan once they get an assignment and realize that they can’t do any parts of it. It got worse when some students got the bright idea of coming in first thing in the morning simply to hide behind sofas and make out.

A year after, the free attendance policy was revoked and turned into a ‘20% absence and you’re out’ policy. More amusingly however, students were actually given a chance to prevent this from happening: an open ‘forum’ was set up for a whole day where any student could come and argue in favor of keeping the free attendance policy. Unfortunately, most visitors did not present a reasonable viewpoint as much as they merely went to grumble and complain about the coming change.

Like all good things, building 24 didn’t last for long either. By year 2 it had gained a reputation as either ‘Africa’ due to its overpopulation and dirtiness or as a ‘seedy underbelly of immorality’, depending on who you asked. Either way, it would soon become a place that no ‘self-respecting student’ would enter or spend time at. Boo.

Things were still pretty good otherwise. However, I remained a cynical bastard; I figured that next year would probably get worse and lucky for me, turns out I wasn’t so wrong. Not that remaining cynical did any good to my popularity or character, of course.

The Graduation Gauntlet

I wanted to do something a little different this time. A friend of mine (the awesome Ali) suggested we could to a collaboration piece. Instead of the typical rant on politics, society, or the other headline-making problems that plague our part of the world, we decided to focus on something that never seems to get much attention; education. Specifically, university education, and our own personal experiences.

To mix things up a little, this is Ali’s point of view, and you can catch mine over on his blog here. We divided up our work into four parts, each focusing on a different part of the journey. We’ll upload each part once a day.


Year 1| The Reset

I think I am on the complete opposite side of Nada on university. Fresh out of a school of ‘hard knocks’ so to speak, I was completely nonchalant about the idea of enrolling into university. I knew it was supposed to be a big decision that sets in motion the direction of your coming years, but I had trouble imagining that for two reasons.

The first is that I’ve always been the one kid who never knew what they wanted to be. When other kids were busy enthusiastically saying ‘I want to be an astronaut!’, I was the child who would look at you in total, genuine confusion.

The second is that I was both glad to be out of school and yet fully convinced that university would be a lot like school while simultaneously hoping that it isn’t, if that makes any sense. Moreover, I had actually entered university with a completely broken spirit.

School consisted of three terrible years of survivalism so to speak. It was full of bullying, freeloading and delinquency, starting with exchanging insults and vulgarities in the morning all the way to sabotaging the teacher or classroom in some way as to cancel class. In a class full of people who would (and did) take a piss in the class’ cupboard, I felt like the only sane person. In retrospect, this sounds very melodramatic, but I honestly cannot describe it any other way.

But I digress, that was just one half of why I had a broken spirit. The other half was being limited by my choice of university: I could have gone to a university with many fields and disciplines, but incredibly terrible teaching and student life versus going to a university that has just opened its doors. It told tales of a student-teacher relationship based on respect and a vibrant, active student life. It didn’t take long for me to take a chance by going with the new one, but it came at the cost of only having four fields to select from: business, ICT, engineering or logistics. None of which I was particularly interested in.

Combine having no idea of what to pursue with that of a broken spirit and you get complete nonchalance about entering university. Furthermore, my school experience had turned me into a shut-in cynic so I couldn’t hold the skepticism about university being different. The only difference I had a guarantee on is that university would 100% contain the alien species known as ‘girls’.

I chose business as my field based on a very pragmatic line of thinking: business is the broadest field. I might be able to decide on a path within it once it’s time to select a major. Furthermore, it’s the most likely to get me employed. Employment equals money and money means I can pursue my hobbies and interests once they are de-mystified!

Yep, that was pretty much it.

Thus started my university journey. While I was by all accounts and means, an incredibly bright student, I also had the manners, emotional intelligence and social skills of a neanderthal. School had conditioned me to be defensive, introverted and extremely bitter and blunt. I had all the grace of a slug.

I was fond of provoking or opposing authority figures and I was absolutely incapable of getting along with most people because of how much I voiced disagreement or ‘called’ their ‘stupidity’ in my opinion. The next two years of university would prove to be a very intense crash course in learning how to deal with people. I’m still amazed to this day how my tutors actually put up with me, nay, they even engaged with me. If I was teaching myself, I would either ignore or kick myself out of class for being an asinine little shit – but I guess they saw there was something beyond that crusty, hard exterior.

Oh the drama.

University was otherwise a strange hybrid of great times and bad times. Bad times would be the boring classes I had to endure and generally stumbling about this ‘socializing’ thing. Great times however, were finding out that university is different.

For the first time in my life, I was actually treated with respect by my tutors who also would level with you personally. Student life had multiple activities and fun events, my tutors were from all over the world and being a student at university felt like a privilege or perk due to how much help was available to me during the initial two years. There was even a summer scholarship to go abroad with no requirements save for proving you have decent English!

That one was a funny one however: I got rejected because I have too high a level of English and the scholarship’s purpose was to learn English. Ouch.

Still, times were looking up and I eased up over the two years, yet I remained a cynical bastard nonetheless. One that complained too often and too vocally for his own good.


The Inner Workings of Airport Architecture, and Benghazi’s Gateway to the World

“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, “As pretty as an airport.” Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only exception of this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs.” – Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Second architecture post in a row! I’m on a roll.

So, what comes to mind when you think of an airport? Long lines, long hallways, uncomfortable chairs, overpriced “tax-free” stores. But have you ever fathomed how an  airport functions? Ever questioned what lies beyond all those security-only doors?

Or maybe you’re like me, and you never paid attention to the details beyond getting to your gate and getting the trip over with. I guess there is a certain excitement and anticipation for first-time flyers, though. The idea of traveling to another place, seeing new people and cultures, and so on.

But I’m no fan of airports. I’ve been traveling across continents since primary school, and for me, the charm (if it ever existed) has worn off long ago. Now I associate airports with fatigue, suspicious glances and navigating between multicultural crowds of people with varying degrees of hygiene.

While this outlook is indeed depressing, it’s useful for me as an architect, because I can design my airport with a view to improving the flaws generally associated with these global doorways.

An airport is like a city on it’s own. It works 24/7, and deals not only with transporting people but with ensuring a high level of security, which has been the focus of airport design particularly in the West after 9/11. While it is a transitional space to passengers, the amount of detail that go into airport design is minute. Ever noticed how you never run into departing passengers when arriving, or arriving passengers when departing? All part of the design.

This of course is not to mention the air control tower, the fuel storage and fire station, besides a whole host of other functions that are vital to a successful airport.

First off, I probably should have mentioned that our design project this semester is an airport. Five to seven million passengers annually, 18 gates and all the trimmings. The site is the location of the current Benghazi airport, specifically the new terminal being built.

What, you didn’t think I’d go this long without mentioning Libya, did you? Of course our airport is nothing to brag about. In fact, it is a continuous source of shame for the city. The terminal currently in use was actually an air force base constructed by the British during WWII. Feast your eyes on a relic of history.

SAM_2604Gorgeous, isn’t it? This, ladies and gentlemen, is Benina International Airport. Oh, but wait, the beauty doesn’t end here. Take a look at our air control tower –

SAM_2616Okay, but in all seriousness, it’s not as horrible as this (yes it is, I’m trying to mask the horror). There is a genuine effort by the airport to spruce the place up.

SAM_2652Now there’s plans to open a temporary concourse to take the load of the current terminal, which is working way over capacity. These buildings will be converted once the new terminal is opened. Work had begun before the revolution and the foundations and ground floor have even been constructed. After the revolution, work has yet to continue, as it goes with much of the projects in Benghazi.

On a side note, I went to photograph a derelict park today, which is the site for our new landscape project. One man said to me, “Please help make this place beautiful again.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was only there for a school project. The city desperately wants to be developed, but there’s so much work that it seems a daunting task.

We are trying to rebuild after a 42 year dictatorship that actively tried to run this country to the ground. This has become a mantra for me, but it’s not less true. We’re not giving up on the country just yet.

(And yes, I realize I totally digressed from the main topic, but what’d you expect from a blog called ‘Journal of a Revolution’?)