Young Exodus

ـــ لماذا ندفن أنفسنا في هذه القرية المنسيّة.. المغبرّة؟”
ـــ ما رأيكم في السفر؟
ـــ إلى أين؟
ـــ العالم واسع.. ثمة آفاق دائماً
ـــ ألن يأكلنا الحنين؟
“ـــ الحنين لهذا القَفْر؟! للعجاج؟! لبلاد أهلها دائماً في عجلة من أمرهم ولا يفعلون شيئاً؟

ـــ أحمد يوسف عقيلة

You hear about the physical death in Libya, the accidental missile strikes or stray bullets, but you don’t hear about the little deaths, the prolonged withering of hope until nothing is left but abject, indifferent resignation. Libya has become a mass grave for the dreams of its young people.

It’s a conversation that comes up when talking about the state of the country. Those who can leave and have the means to have already packed up, three years back when it was apparent that things weren’t getting better anytime soon. Those who want to leave but are stopped by the multiple obstacles in their way (visa rejection, black market inflation) make up many of Libya’s youth today. I’ve heard too many stories from friends about multiple visa applications to study abroad (only to be rejected each time), of working two or three jobs to make the same living that one job could once achieve for you, of applying to any opportunity online that will give them a brief respite from the oppressive uncertainty and chaos. There’s not much left in Libya in the way of good education or promising job opportunities. Even those trying to create their own opportunities know that their success will always be limited by the situation.

Of course, these are the more privileged youth, those who received a decent education or have a supportive family encouraging them to seek their chances elsewhere. Then there are the young people from that section of society that is hidden and ignored, from poor families who have been hit hardest by the crisis (what poor families? say those in denial, those who still believe in the lie about the prosperous oil country). These young people, without enough “connections” to get them a job or scholarship, without any of the opportunities to give them a fighting chance, with a family that needs their support, will sacrifice their own futures for a chance to survive in increasingly impossible circumstances. Young men take up arms to fight in a war that makes no sense to them, young women married off to the highest bidder “to reduce the burden on the family.”

I remember one young fighter who said,  “We’re only fighting for our fallen friends; we know there’s nothing to look forward to when the battle is over.” This is the motivation that drives many Libyans to look for a way out. No notion of nationalism, or patriotic responsibility, is strong enough to keep people in a country that will take your best years and give you nothing in return. Those you know who’ve left call back to say, “Why are you still there? Get out while you can!”

Of course this phenomenon is not new; the country’s legacy of instability and war has always driven Libyans to find better prospects. The large diaspora abroad, disproportionate to the population, is a testament to that. But it’s never been this critical, the need to leave has never felt so urgent. Everything that has happened since the revolution has happened suddenly, so that even the imminent collapse of the country might strike us overnight. The past five years has taught us that it’s only going to get worse.

It’s easy to see Libya as a sinking ship that needs to be evacuated as soon as possible. But there are a few young people who are grappling with the issue through the lens of a moral dilemma. These youth, who rode the wave of hope following the revolution and achieved some level of success in their endeavors, are now wondering whether it would be right to leave. After all, wasn’t the point of the revolution to rebuild a new Libya? (it’s hard to remember what the point of the revolution really was though) If they leave, who will be left to help the country? But this group is a dwindling minority, as it becomes apparent that there isn’t much left to rebuild, that one person can’t change a society that remains steadfastly immobile. It’s a pessimistic and depressing view, but it’s also the reality now.

There’s a passage from Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” that really gets to the core of the problem in any conflict country:

“…they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real life happened in that somewhere else…”

But they know, to some extent, that leaving the country does not mean leaving behind also the burden of being a Libyan. In that ‘somewhere else’, you will go through the humiliation and struggle of being a refugee, that you will still have to work tirelessly to make ends meet (probably in a job less fulfilling than the one you left behind), that you will be plagued by longing and homesickness and the familiar comforts of your community. I know one young woman who was abroad when her father became very sick in Libya. If she left the country, she may not be able to come back, but if she didn’t return, she might never see him again. Even outside of Libya, you’re still in a prison of sorts. But right now, leaving is the only solution that one has any control over.

Every month or so, I say goodbye to more friends, who leave in search of choice and in escape of war. Every evening, I sit with those who’ve remained and repeat the same questions; stay and fight, or leave? will the country ever get better? if we don’t leave now, will we regret it later? And every night, we walk away without answers.

Roundup 2: More Libyan Blogs to Follow

Have I ever told you how awesome it is seeing Libyan growth on the internet? I probably have, but there’s no harm in emphasizing how important it is to see Libyans utilizing this flexible platform. Last year I wrote about five Libyan blogs that I enjoy, and now that list has grown.

Over at the Young Writers of Benghazi, we wrapped up another online writing contest, this time in cooperation with Wajeej Blog. The theme was to write a blog post, with the winning entries to be published on Wajeej. The aim was to get people to view blogging as a viable form of self-expression, and perhaps encourage them to start their own blogs. I’m currently brainstorming ideas to hold blog-writing workshops in Benghazi with other bloggers, to get more people familiar with this medium. With my university thesis and the dozen other things I have on my plate, I may not be able to actualize these plans anytime soon, but it’s definitely a goal I hope to achieve in 2016 (perhaps make 2016 a year of Libyan blogging?)

Another Libyan organization, the Tanweer Movement, also held a blogging contest, to award the best Libyan blog. The winner was announced during a great cultural event in Tripoli (you can see highlights of the event through the hashtag ). The winning blog is Khawater Bint Shareef, a blog on the thoughts of a young Libyan woman. You can check it out here.

And now, without further ado, here are more Libyan blogs that you, faithful reader, should check out:

7. The Silphium Gatherer: Started by a Libyan academic, Silphium Gatherer is a great resource on academic material about Libya’s history, politics, culture and a number of other topics. With material on Libya being as scarce as it is, this blog is a invaluable place to learn more about the country.

6. Abdulkarim Dwaini’s Blog: Abdulkarim is an active young Libyan who is the director of the Libyan Youth Culture Changemakers organization, which operates from Waddan, Libya. His blog highlights the key issues and events that he feels are important for civil society and Libya’s growth. It’s a refreshing look at Libyan civil society through the eyes of a motivated, inspiring young man.

5. Amjad Badr’s Blog: Another active young Libyan, Amjad is the director of Hexa Connection, an organization that promotes technology and tech activism among young Libyans. Amjad’s blog covers a range of topics, from personal recollections to thoughts on important Libyan issues. He also started the initiative #أنا_ادون to encourage more Libyan bloggers.

4. Fetrasha: Started by a good friend of mine and a great Libyan thinker, Ahmed Mahmoudy’s stream of consciousness posts are food for thought, offering insights into the mind of a Libyan youth who’s experienced both revolution and war. While the blog is still new, it’s definitely one to follow. Ahmed also runs Yes We Can, a youth organization based in Benghazi.

3. Wissamiyat: A seasoned Libyan writer, Wissam has been blogging for a number of years now. His writing covers current events in Libya, personal musings and trends in Libyan society. He’s also part of the Libyanblogs.org collection (which I mentioned in part 1), and also does his part to encourage Libyan blogging.

2. Tehrees: The author of this blog was also the 3rd place winner of our blog-writing contest. Tehrees is a blog popular particularly among Libyan youth, as it touches on important social issues through a unique writing style. An example of this is a modern day interpretation of dialogue between Sidi Khraibish (representing Benghazi) and Sidi Alasmar (representing Zliten), two historic Libyan figures, touching on the terrorist attack in Zliten and the war in Benghazi. It’s a personal, emotional way at looking at the events in Libya, a reprieve from the bland, empty political analyses we’re so used to hearing.

1. Rawad Radwan’s Vlog : This one is actually an exciting addition, because it’s a vlog (video blog), one of the first Libyan vlogs to appear on my radar, in fact. Rawad Radwan is an active Libyan with a mission to constantly seek out the silver lining in the Libyan situation, but with doses of pragmatism. Rawad vlogs about his personal interests as well as Libyan current events.


If this selection doesn’t keep you busy enough, you can head over to Wajeej to read the three winning entries of our Blog-Writing Contest. They are:

Third Place: “Here is Benghazi” by Ahmed Ben Omran

Second Place: “When You Plan to Emigrate” by Ghada Twair

First Place: “Why Do I Go On?” by Mohammed Ezzawi

You can also check out Huna Sotak (translated to, Here is Your Voice), an initiative started by Radio Netherlands Worldwide to give Arab youth a platform to express themselves. They have a Libya project entitled “Here is Libya”, with posts from different contributes. One of my personal favorite contributors is Ali Latife, an introspective young Libyan who writes on the situation in Libya and the hardships of being a young Libyan in the Middle East today. (you can read samples of his work here, here and here).

The most salient features of this list are that the writers are both young and active in their communities. These are Libyans with something to say, and who hold important insights on the state of the country. As more Libyans continue to use social media, and as social media becomes one of the few outlets left in the country for self-expression, I think we’ll be seeing an increase in the number of Libyan blogs. My hope is that, if our country eventually stabilizes, this will transition into published literature. In any case, I hope that the digital thoughts of Libyan, both young and old, won’t be confined to cyberspace, but will find its way into our collective culture.

Wajeej, the Libyan Way to Make Some Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Libyan Arabic

[Correction: In an earlier version, I translated the term “سلال القلوب” as “basket of hearts”. The correct translation is “remover of hearts”]

The comic below is from “Itchy Feet: Travel and Language Comic“, one of my personal favorite webcomics.

Itchy Feet ComicAh, languages. The stitching that keeps the fabric of societies bound together and functioning. The skill that makes humans superior to other animals. The trait that enriches our cultures and heritages.

I’m horrible at them. As in, I got a D+ in my Arabic language course at university and it exceeded my expectations.

I mean, it’s not like I can’t learn a new language, it’s more about how much effort and dedication it requires. Some people have a natural bent for picking up new languages. I’ve met Libyans who’ve never left the country and yet know English better than native speakers. Valadmir Nabakov produced masterpieces in English and it was his third language.

But me? Nope. I’ve got about one and half languages under my belt, and I’m pretty satisfied with that. While I would love to speak with the flowing lilt of Italian or the animated babble of French, the moment I look up language guides and see the mass of grammar rules, I give up on the spot. If you’re not planning on writing epic poems and just want to learn up to a conversational level, the easiest way to do that is speak with natives or immerse yourself in the culture of your preferred language. It is, after all, as much a cultural thing as it is memorizing a new alphabet and vocabulary.

And as the comic above illustrates, sometimes learning the formal version of a language isn’t as useful as you’d think. There are numerous versions of Arabic, each differing based on the country or region you’re in. And within that country, you’ll find even more sub-languages. Take Libya, for instance. The Eastern and Western dialect are distinctly different. But within the Eastern dialect there are still further more dialects. A person from Benghazi can be distinguished from a person from Tobruk, or Derna, by the way they talk. I once saw someone joke about it on Twitter, saying Libya is a country where you encounter a new dialect every 40 km you go. This is similar to many Arabic-speaking countries.

I always feel like Libyans don’t fully appreciate the richness of our local dialect. We have some clever, fun and bizarrely interesting phrases and words. Take this one:

“ياهارب من الغولة يا طايح في سلال القلوب” (You’re either running from the monster or running into those who rip out hearts)

While that clearly sounds macabre to the average English speaker (more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than common idiom), the meaning is actually equivalent to ‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’. Ours is just a little more *vivid*.

Another (less morbid sounding) Libyan idiom is: “كلام الليل مدهون بالزبدة” (Words spoken at night are greased in butter), which means that it’s easy to say things and make promises at night (when you’re sleepy) when you might not do so while alert. The butter metaphor alludes to the ease with which butter can be spread.

Another saying, which is very pertinent to the situation in Libya regarding our infamous rumor mills, is “قاله شن علمك الكذب, قال اللي نسمعه انقوله” (He was asked where he learned how to lie, he responded, “I repeat everything I hear”). This is sort of a cautionary tale about the harm in spreading rumors, and yet, even though we have an age-old idiom about this very problem, it still persists. Go figure.

Along with these idioms, the Libyan dialect has a lot of Italian loanwords that we picked up during the colonization in WWII (along with some pretty rad Italian-style architecture). The words are given a Libyan-twist to make them more pronunciation-friendly. If a Libyan tells you to stop at the ‘sima-fro‘, he/she means the traffic intersection, if they tell you look nice in your ‘goun-a‘, they’re talking about your skirt. As Libya continues to become more exposed to the rest of the world, a lot of English words are also getting “Libyanized” and added to the colloquial vernacular. ‘Fanash-et’ literally means “I finished”, it’s the word finish with a ت added at the end.

So, you’re probably wondering if Libya is some kind of weird wonderland (which, yeah, it kinda is), but these examples serve to show you how colourful our local dialects are. Unlike Modern Standard Arabic, these dialects are more flexible and can be expanded, as shown by the quick adoption of words from other languages. [If you’re interested in learning more about Libyan sayings, there’s a pretty cool Twitter account that posts them, although not with translations, which you can check out here. I also found this neat blog post on common Libyan terms in West Libya, which you can see here.]

During the last writing contest my organization held, I wrote a blog post about how the majority of submissions were in English, despite the fact that most of the participants spoke Arabic as a first language. We had even received submissions in broken English, as though the participants would rather struggle to write with a language they weren’t proficient at, rather than write in the language they knew. As I mentioned in the post, it got me thinking about holding a writing contest in colloquial Libyan, the language we use everyday when interacting with one another.

The logo of the 'Write in Libyan' contest. The two red hat things are 'shennas', traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

The logo of the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest. The two blobs hanging on the letters are ‘shennas’, traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

Well, we did end up hosting that very contest! And the results were as I had predicted; there was a larger level of participation, as well as more enthusiasm from our general audience. The essays themselves were also more emphatic, it seemed. You’ll definitely write best if you write in the language you communicate with the most, right?

We wanted to keep the premise simple; write an essay about one of three topics we had offered, in, of course, Libyan Arabic. The generous folks over at Libyan Youth Voices let us make a call for essays on their website, as well as the promise of featuring the best essay on their site.

Of course, this idea was not without it’s criticism and detractors. While the overwhelming majority of people told us that they liked the idea, others told us that they believed encouraging writing in a local dialect would push people away from the purer, more universal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Local dialects are, of course, corrupted versions of MSA with geographic and historical factors influencing them.

But my response to this is that people are already speaking in local dialects. No one in Libya talks to one another in MSA. We even use it online on social media. While MSA does have it’s place in the formal press and other professional settings, it’s the local dialect that is most often used by the average Libyan citizen. And since the goal of our organization is to encourage the average Libyan to express themselves, we might as well do it in the language they are most comfortable with.

Another criticism came from our use of the term “Libyan”, when we specifically meant Arabic Libyan. There are actually a number of other languages spoken in Libya besides Arabic, such as Tamazight (mainly spoken by Amazigh Libyans), Greetli (spoken by Libyans of Greek descent, but it’s dying out), Tamahaq (spoken by Tuareg Libyans), along with others.

Now, this is a legitimate criticism. Libya is more diverse than is usually admitted, especially by die-hard pan-Arabists, and to claim that “Libyan” only means Libyan Arabic is wrong. My only defense here is that we don’t have the resources include, for eg., a Tamahaq or Ghadamsi in the writing contest, since we don’t know how to read them.

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

However, after some asking around, we got into contact with Libyan Amazighis who told us they’d be more than happy to help out with a Tamazight writing contest, and we are currently working to ensure that this becomes our next contest. While I’m way out of my scope here in terms of expectations for what impact this contest will have, I think it’s an important gesture nonetheless to encourage tolerance of different ethnicities and to really appreciate the cultural diversity we have. It would also move the organization near political territory, as Amazigh Libyans have been protesting for Tamazight to be recognized as an official National language. But hey, we gotta take risks once in a while, and this is a good cause.

Back to the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest, one of the organization’s team members had the brilliant idea of contacting Dr.Khaled Mattawa. Dr.Mattawa is a Libyan author and writer. He’s also a pretty big deal (as evidenced by his Wikipedia page). He’s won several awards, the latest being the MacArthur ‘Genius Prize’ for his work translating Arabic poetry into English. He was generous and gallant enough to judge the entries from the contest, and in record time (a mere day!).

The winning essay, as determined by Dr.Mattawa, was entitled “مختلفين مش متخالفين” (We’re Different, But Not Enemies), by Mohamed Ezawi, a Libyan from Tripoli. The essay was published on Libyan Youth Voices as promised, and you can check it out here or, to read the intro in Arabic, here. It’s an essay about the importance of difference of opinion and belief in Libyan society, and how we tend to make the erroneous assumption that those of a different mind are our adversaries. It’s an essay that strikes at the heart of the current Libyan conflict, and I hope the message reaches as many Libyans as possible.

The other winners are (you can read the essay on Wattpad by clicking on the name below):

2nd Place: “The Love of Ownership” by Hadeel Alfasay

3rd Place (two entries tied): Why Are You Smiling” by Mukhtar Al-Zlitni and “All We Have is Facebook” by Amel 

You can also read the 1st place winner on Wattpad here.

I believe it’s also noteworthy that the participants mainly focused on the ‘Libyan Culture’ option when writing their article, and chose a certain facet of Libyan culture to write about. I felt that this showed a profound level of creativity on their part for choosing those angles, as opposed to a traditional or cliche take on Libyan culture. (I personally would have written a long-winded piece on Libyan culture as reflected in our local architecture, because I’m a stuffy 50-year old academic trapped in the body of a young adult). There was also a level of humor and comic-relief in the pieces, which I loved because it captured that light-hearted aspect of Libya that I love so much. Libyans can find humor even in a war, which you can see in the multiple memes that have emerged since the revolution (side note: someone should make an archive of Libyan memes. Told you, I’m a stuffy academic). I think the hard times that have become the hallmark of Libyan existence for the past 100 years or so has led to this resilience of spirit, and finding the bright side in any situation. It’s not so much apathy in the face of difficulty as much as it’s a coping mechanism, Libyan style.

Keeping myself narrowly focused on these kinds of projects, along with my writing, is my own form of coping with the current situation. Libya’s now the flavour of the month for analysts and the news, and everyone’s talking about the war, but I’m frankly sick of wringing my hands (figuratively speaking, I’m not that old) and getting into a funk over something I can’t really change. I pray for the best, but I’m going to do what my ancestors have done before me and just adjust to the situation and try to find the bright side. And that’s as optimistic as I’m going to get for you guys for now.

Short Stories and Innovations with the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libya’s Lost Literature

In the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the job of the firemen is to burn books. Because in a totalitarian society, nothing is more dangerous than a conscious citizen:

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door…Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”

Another aspect of books is the spread of words and therefore thoughts and ideas. In George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak was the method employed to combat this threat to the autocracy:

“…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. “

Oppressive dictators think alike, and Libya’s former tyrant was no different. In order to keep a leash on the minds of the people, Gadhafi abolished Libya’s previous culture, replacing it instead with an engineered image of him as saviour of the country (and indeed, of Africa in general). It wouldn’t do to have other heroes, which is why the shrine of Omar Mukhtar in Benghazi was demolished. Nor it would be prudent to read anything other than what Gadhafi says or approves of, which led to systematic control and censorship of speech.

An old photo of a historic street in Benghazi, with the Omar Mukhtar shrine visible at the end.

An old photo of a historic street in Benghazi, with the Omar Mukhtar shrine visible at the end.

Many writers were imprisoned, tortured and/or killed. Libraries and cultural centers were shut down, turned instead into “mathabat” , meeting halls for Gadhafi’s thugs. Publishing companies were shut down, replaced by state owned ones. His “green book” was taught as gospel in schools and university. What few newspapers, radio stations and television channels existed were all controlled by the regime. Writing in Libya was a dangerous profession.

So it’s no surprise that when the revolution happened, a tidal wave of words, both written and spoken, washed over the country. The opinions and beliefs that everyone had secretly held were finally uttered, hindered no more by the regimes’ wall of silence. In Benghazi alone over 100 magazines and newspapers were founded, because everyone had something to say. Books were published about the regime, channels and radio stations were established.

This wave of words has ebbed since then. Most people now use Facebook to express themselves, but this isn’t without its consequences. Rumors and fear-mongering are a prominent feature on social media and Libyan press agencies. We’re still learning the privileges and repercussions that freedom of speech gives us.

The Benghazi Bookshop on Jamal St., downtown Benghazi.

The Benghazi Bookshop on Jamal St., downtown Benghazi.

The literature situation is still rather dismal. In Benghazi there’s only a handful of bookstores, with limited selections available. Tripoli is better in this regard, but only slightly. Many have said that Libya is not a nation that likes reading, but there is evidence that indicates the contrary.

A used-book fair was held in both Tripoli and Benghazi, with an unexpected turnout. From this article on the fair:

One visitor, clutching a novel and a volume of poetry, said that there were so many people at the fair, it was quite overwhelming. “I had the impression that Libyans are not readers,” she said, “so I am very surprised.”

But with limited resources it will still be difficult to encourage the newer generations to read. This is partially the reason why I started The Young Writers of Benghazi. Encouraging aspiring writers and producing literature on a local level will give us the chance to showcase the literary talents in Libya, tackle issues that directly pertain to our culture and society (as opposed to importing books), and will give Libyan literature a chance to flourish. So far the support we’ve gotten and the talent we’ve seen among Benghazi’s students have been incredible.

My first exposure to Libyan literature came when I read “In The Country of Men” by Hisham Matar. It’s a captivating book about the life of a boy with a dissident father, growing up in Gadhafi’s Libya. I had read it before the revolution, and seeing the same emotions about the tyranny that I felt written down before me was a new experience. I knew that most Libyans felt the same way, but were too afraid to voice it.

Further research into Libya’s literature revealed a side of our culture I was unaware of. There were writers and poets, both young and old, who had received recognition outside the country. Sadeq Neihoum, Ibrahim Al-Koni and Hisham Matar are just a few of those with incredible writing that we are largely unaware of.

Famous Libyan Writers

Famous Libyan Writers, from left to right, top to bottom: Al-Sadeg Al-Neihoum, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Khalifa Al-Fakhri, Khalifa Al-Tellisi, Wahbi Al-Bouri, Ahmed Al-Faqih and Sa’eed Sifow

Supporting local writers, poets and journalists will strengthen our culture. It’s imperative for Libyans to turn to books and other forms of the written word to fortify their own thoughts and protect their newly gained freedom of speech. Just as the absence of books and knowledge strengthens a dictatorship, their propagation will strengthen our democracy.