Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a writer and businesswoman based in New York City. In 2011, she made four trips to Libya to cover the revolution and war and returned twice in 2012. She is working on a book that will follow Libya's first year post-Gaddafi. Between 2002 and 2011 she traveled regularly to Afghanistan and published often on Afghanistan's politics, economy, culture and the U.S. counterinsurgency there. Her articles have appeared in the op –ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and New York Post, and in the Weekly Standard, Daily Beast,,,and many other publications. She tweets regularly (@annmarlowe) and blogs on Libya, the Arab Spring, the links between war and art and the cultural aspects of counterinsurgency for World Affairs at:

Her monograph on the life and intellectual context of David Galula was published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in summer 2010. Ms. Marlowe has also published two memoirs and is one of the contributers to A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Ms. Marlowe is a regular guest on the John Batchelor radio show discussing Libya, Afghanistan and counterinsurgency. She has also appeared on Fox's "Happening Now", PBS’s “Ideas in Action” with Jim Glassman, VOA, RTTV, and other television programs. She has spoken at U.S. Army bases, the Army War College, U.S. State Department, the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Present in Paris, and American colleges. In 2009, she was a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution and returned there for a research fellowship in 2010.

Ms. Marlowe was born in Suffern, New York in 1958 and educated at public schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She received her B.A. in philosophy magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1979 and studied classical philosophy there in the Ph.D. program in 1979-80. In 1984, she received an MBA in finance from Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

The People of the Book vs The People of the Kindle

February 27th, 2014

Originally published January 14 2014 in Tablet Magazine:

The other day, my friend John said he was getting rid of almost all his books. By the time I visited his apartment, he’d already pruned his library by a quarter, dumping most of it in the garbage. “I read everything on Kindle now,” he explained, a trifle defensively. The immediate cause of his decision was his impending move to a starkly minimalist apartment with spectacular river views—and room for bookshelves, had he wanted them.

What led to John’s decision was a disgust at the accumulation of things that I partly understood. I had even recently told a non-Kindle-owning friend that I didn’t understand why one-fifth of my house was taken up by a library I rarely entered. And I find myself very impatient with people who say they refuse to get a Kindle because they love the physicality of books. These are people who don’t produce culture, I thought. It’s just a consumer preference. They’re the same people who go compulsively to the theater and see rubbish because it’s “theater.”

Of course, minimalism dates at least to Le Corbusier, and it was possible to purge one’s library before Kindle, but then it meant relying on public libraries. Now, if you have the money to re-purchase on Kindle everything you want to own, you can have those bare white walls and still read. My editor has suggested to me that book-purging is an essentially Protestant impulse, which solves a particularly Protestant problem, in which personal reading of the Bible must be reconciled with a ban on the worship of objects. There’s something to this, particularly when you think of the interiority of the Kindle, which is a personal space much as one’s Bible was for, say, a Puritan in Boston circa 1640. Jews and Muslims, meanwhile, both venerate the physical version of their holy books: We all know what an outcry Quran-burning causes, while Jews actually bury [1] Torahs that are deemed to be too damaged to use.

It is also true that the Kindle’s marketing emphasizes that your content isn’t attached to your Kindle, that it resides in the Cloud and that if you lose or break your Kindle, everything you’ve bought can be downloaded to your (new) Kindle or your PC or smartphone. Everything is designed to discourage the purchaser’s attachment to the Kindle itself (which is just as well as they can be fairly fragile [2]).

Still, it’s odd that the trend toward getting rid of one’s books co-exists with a valorization of collecting in almost every other sphere. Even in minimalist houses there are collections—small and carefully staged, perhaps, but still collections. And the art world! People who can afford to live in huge white modernist houses seem inevitably to fill them with costly art whether they are Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. This places them in an honorific category of “collectors,” and no one seems to advise them to get rid of their paintings. Being an art collector is the dream of many aspirational rich people while being a book collector is dusty and uncool. Perhaps this is because books aren’t very expensive unless one goes in for first editions and incunabula [3]. For the $20,000 or so it costs to buy into an “emerging” artist, you can have a first edition of an iconic hundred-year-old novel.

The truth is that books just aren’t something we covet very much anymore. We’ve come a long way from the days when Walter Benjamin could blithely write in his essay [4] “Unpacking My Library,” “You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire books become criminals.” That was 1931, nearly at the birth of minimalism in décor. I would venture to say that no one reading this article has heard of anyone like this; I haven’t.

Of course, part of the reason people coveted books in 1931 was their symbolic value as signs of cultivation, social prestige, and good character. And when I look within myself, I have to admit that’s part of why I was so shocked by John’s decision. How could a highly educated and cultured man, who’s been known to go to three Shakespeare plays in one week, get rid of his books? I had grown up assuming that book ownership was one of the signatures of an educated and cultivated person, a thoughtful person, a man or woman with concerns beyond getting and spending. When I go to someone’s home for the first time I still look at their bookcases as part of an assessment of their character. If there aren’t any bookcases, I wonder.

But with Kindle, the judgments I grew up with go out the window. And there isn’t any way to bring them back. Maybe it’s the apartment of someone with 300 books on physics on his Kindle. Asking to see someone’s Kindle is invasive. It’s also likely to be an inaccurate reflection of what one has read, unless one has replaced all of one’s books on Kindle. I have 59 books on my Kindle and perhaps 2,000 in my house. Apparently Kindles can hold up to 3,500 books, but the Kindle website comparing [5] models only gives memory size, not an estimate of how many each model holds. This suggests that most purchasers are using their Kindles as a convenient reading device rather than a replacement for a physical library.
Unread books force us to ask how we are spending our time and whether we are becoming the people we want to become

There’s at least one set of people who are unlikely to derive any benefit from replacing their books with a Kindle, and they are children. Horace Mann wrote, “No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.” While the advantages of public libraries are obvious—larger selection of books, and one which better reflects the range of published works than anyone’s personal collection is likely to—among the virtues of a private library is the ability to make chance discoveries—including books that you’re too young for at the time, but which come within your awareness and which you remember later.

But for those of us without children, does not having a physical library matter? I’d say so. A library is a room or a portion of a room set aside for purposes higher than the everyday matter of life, just as a church or synagogue or museum or concert hall is. And having it out where everyone can see it imposes what may be a desirable self-consciousness, not only in terms of what you put into it but in terms of the physical reproach it offers if you do not use it. While Walter Benjamin joked about not having read many of his books (including those he borrowed from friends), his casualness is of a piece with his assumption that books are an arena for emotional engagement. Unread books force us to ask how we are spending our time and whether we are becoming the people we want to become.

What of the appeal of minimalism, of the room without books? I am wary of it. At bottom, the allure of big white rooms is the conspicuous advertisement of underconsumption, combined with the replacement of engagement with reality with engagement with fantasy. Few of us, at least few Westerners of my acquaintance, are capable of gazing at a solitary vase or plant for hours in a spiritually uplifting way. If we are not thinking about books, we are not likely to be thinking about something better. Or so it is with me. While writing this essay, I took down a few books from my own shelves for the first time in years and in the process discovered a few that I’d forgotten. My library happens to be in a room that doesn’t get sun at the times I want it and is often too cold. But I’ve resolved to spend at least a half hour there every day from now on.

Hope Yet For Libya (orig. pub. in Wall St Journal Europe)

October 1st, 2012

The Wall Street Journal

September 18, 2012, 3:40 p.m. ET

Hope Yet for Libya
In local politics as in fashion, Libyans’ stubborn individualism will confound outsiders’ expectations.

Derna, Libya

The deadly Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi should not lead Americans to think of Libyans as anti-American or intolerant. Rather, they are an indication of the catastrophic failure of the country’s security forces, and of Benghazi’s failure to pull itself together as many smaller Libyan cities have.

But my impression, after three weeks traveling from the country’s far west coast to the far east, is that while Libya may be on the verge of being a failed state, many if not most of its cities are working. The eastern port city of Derna, population somewhere between 85,000 and 120,000, is a case in point.

Just about every English-language news article on Derna refers to it as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. It’s true that more foreign suicide bombers in Iraq over the last decade came from Derna than from any other city—perhaps because the city has been economically moribund for generations. It’s true that everyone knows a local boy or two fighting in Syria. And during Ramadan in August, Wahhabists blew up an ancient shrine in the center of the town’s main mosque.

But scarcely a month later, the shrine had already been rudely reconstructed using the same stones. A foreigner walking through the mosque and around the old town center—skillfully renovated under the auspices of Unesco just before the revolution—gets friendly greetings and endless questions: “What do you think of Derna?”

Libya’s elections in July tell some of the story. Derna is represented by two women and three men in the newly seated National Assembly. Derna’s local council doesn’t include any women, but two women were among the 90 candidates who vied for the 23 neighborhood representative positions.

Randa el Goudary, a Libyan-American from Ashburn, Virginia, readily admits that there is a fashion among some of Derna’s youth for the garb of Islamic extremists. “But I am going everywhere like this”—she points to her diaphanous headscarf and contemporary slacks and shirt. “I am driving myself, and no one says anything. Do you think if Qaeda is here that I will be here?”

Ms. el Goudary was one of a group of women gathered for coffee on the terrace of the Derna Pearl Hotel, the nightly resort of the local elite. Her table overlooks the swimming pool, where men and women swim together (though in T-shirts and long tights). Nearby is Jamila Ruta Al Henad, an Arabic teacher who heads a 180-person non-profit called “Citadel of the Free.” She wears the typical Libyan female dress of a long coat and a tightly pinned headscarf. Next to her is Fatima Ramadan Boudirah, all in black, her face nearly covered, wearing the black gloves affected by very conservative women.

Samaya Edris Elagi, 25, one of the two women who ran for local council this year, wears a hot pink headscarf and long shirt over pastel jeans and Paul Smith sneakers. A lawyer who speaks only Arabic, Ms. Elagi was inspired to run for office by the men and women who gave their lives in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, and by a feeling of frustration among young people here. “We have absolutely nothing to do,” she says. She shows off her campaign flyer, which bears her photograph. Although women’s campaign posters have been defaced even in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, Ms. Elagi says hers are still up. She adds that she has not been threatened by any Wahhabists.

The extremists have been driven out of the town center, Mohamed Suweisy tells me, “because no one likes them here.” But about 300 or so are holed up in the nearby mountains, according to local estimates. Before the revolution, Derna had 3,000 policemen, or roughly one for every 12 residents. But they were mainly from other towns, and have not returned to work in a place where they were unpopular. New York City currently has about 36,000 police officers. If it had as many cops proportionally as prerevolutionary Derna, there would be 700,000.

So the town lives in some fear. Derna’s top need, says town council head Fathalla Ibriham Alawamy, is security. Walking through the recently renovated old town market, Mr. Suweisy explains that one particularly attractive courtyard is closed because there were no police to protect it from vandalism. In his shop nearby, Asea Ben Ali, a money changer, insists that “Libya needs police and strong government.” Yet just try to find someone in Derna who wears a seat belt, as mandated by law.

“The problem,” said Abdul Juwied Bubeida, “is that everyone here is working for the government. He estimates that 30,000 of Derna’s citizens are state employees—himself included. Yet along with state socialism in Gadhafi’s Libya, there was also neglect of basic services. Mr. Bubeida, for instance, has a developmentally disabled child. But there has never been special-needs education in Libya. Now Mr. Bubeida, together with other parents of special-needs children, has created a private school staffed by volunteers.

Libya has a long way to go, but the independent Libyan character allows for hope. If there’s anything Libya will not do, it is to conform to expectations. There is a streak of stubborn individualism here, worn with charm and Mediterranean allegria, that calls to mind American individualism. Now it remains to be seen if Libyans will also show some American responsibility and take ownership of their streets before a tiny minority hijacks their revolution.

The Fading of Libya’s Post-Revolutionary Glow (orig. pub. in Wall Street Journal)

October 1st, 2012

The Wall Street Journal

September 9, 2012, 6:56 p.m. ET

The Fading of Libya’s Post-Revolutionary Glow
At a site once venerated as a landmark of the rebellion now sit inflatable Batman and Spiderman children’s slides.



Nearly a year after the fall of the hated Gadhafi regime, this city and much of Libya seems caught in a post-revolutionary malaise. Indeed, the situation here evokes the dreaded words “failed state.” Security is weak at best, and nonexistent in places. The economy is hardly better than it was during the war. There are burnt-out cars in the central business district, and trash everywhere.

Two months since the election of a new government—notable for its rejection of Islamic extremists—sectarian clashes are on the rise. Two of Libya’s oldest and most revered Sufi shrines were destroyed last month in broad daylight—one on Aug. 25, just outside my hotel room in Tripoli; the other, a 500-year-old shrine and library housing thousands of early Islamic texts, the day before in Zilten, a town 90 miles east of the capital. The extremists believe it’s sinful to locate a Sufi saint’s tomb inside a mosque.

After the attacks, a special session of the newly elected National Assembly resulted in the minister of the interior, Fawzi Abdelal, admitting in a statement that the new government is weaker than the fanatics. He later resigned.

Little would seem to stand in the way of the Salafis moving on to destroy Libya’s classical antiquities, if they target them. Already some Roman statues in Sabratha’s great archeological site had to be removed from public display to protect them from attack.

Sadly, the issues bedeviling Libyans as they go about trying, largely with great goodwill, to set up a functioning country run deeper and broader than religious extremism. Four decades of dictatorship have resulted in widespread indolence and a lack of a sense of ownership of the public sphere. It’s a toxic mix common in the Islamic world. Often Libya seems able to rise above it, as in its largely free and fair July 7 national elections. But it is glaringly obvious in Libya’s treatment of the history of its recent revolution.

Here in Benghazi, opposite the makama or courthouse where a lawyers’ guild’s quiet protest on Feb. 15, 2011 led to the fall of a 42-year dictatorship, sit a pair of Batman and Spiderman inflatable children’s slides. Until the spring of this year, this was hallowed ground, and the wall of the courthouse was covered with homemade posters of the martyrs of the revolution. Parents brought their children to show them those who had died for Libya’s freedom. Booths from dozens of NGOs handed out literature. Souvenir vendors sold t-shirts, key chains, coffee mugs and just about everything imaginable with the revolutionary flag. Families brought their children to celebrate their newfound freedom. Back in April 2011, there was a utopian aspect to the scene, with free espresso, touchingly incompetent crafts, and Libyans still thrilled to be able to speak their minds to foreigners.

All of this is changed. The photographs and literature are gone. Vendors sell toilet seats and glassware, not flags. Though there’s some scaffolding around the makama, nothing is going on inside the courthouse. In regard to the wall of martyrs coming down, Abdulla Doma, the Libyan photographer for Agence France Presse, says, “If the justice system is working then it is worth it. But it is four months now that it was destroyed and the makama is not working.”

Mr. Doma was the source of the first videos of the revolution. His brother drove them 500 kilometers south to a Siemens office in the desert where they could be emailed to Al Jazeera. As one of those who informed the outside world of the revolution through the Benghazi Media Center, Mr. Doma feels as keenly as anyone that with the passage of time the raw material of history will be lost. “We were hoping the makama would become a museum.”

Elsewhere, in Libya’s smaller cities, citizens are showing more public spirit, more interest in preserving their revolutionary past. In Derna, 200 kilometers to the east of Benghazi, locals rebuilt a shrine that Salafis blew up in July, and a room in the central mosque is devoted to photographs of those killed by Gadhafi while he was in power. Sumaya Edris Elagi, 25 years old and a candidate for Derna’s local council elections, was inspired to run by “how our martyrs gave away their lives” in the revolution. This is the sort of consciousness of the past that gives hope for the future.

In Sabratha, west of Tripoli, citizens have cleaned up their city, planted trees at their own expense, and dedicated a roundabout to the revolution. A group in the port city of Zwara led by Senussi Mahrez, a major general in the Libyan army who led a rebel brigade in the revolution, is trying to establish a museum in a 100-year-old building.

Clearly, Libya’s new government has more pressing needs than new museums. Security and a well-functioning civil service are higher priorities, and the West can better assist with both. But Libya’s new leaders should understand—perhaps even better than most—that a people who do not respect their past and fail to write their own history will find it written for them by others.