Archive for April, 2011

Face of Libya’s Revolution (orig. published in Daily Beast, 4/18/11)

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

The Face of Libya’s Revolution

by Ann Marlowe

It’s not a freedom fighter atop a tank but a young bohemian woman in Benghazi reviving a carnival banned by Gaddafi and singing songs of protest. Ann Marlowe reports on an extraordinary utopian moment in the free city.

The most interesting news here in Free Libya isn’t war but peace—and cultural vitality. Signs everywhere say, “We began it peacefully and we will end it peacefully,” and the utopian social transformation is much more interesting than the stalemated war.

The front line was here on March 19, when Gaddafi’s troops and lijan thureah, or local revolutionary committees, killed fighters defending the city. And on the 20th, they deliberately struck civilians, sometimes aiming RPGs at family cars. Dr. Hajer al Jahmi, 27, a third-year emergency medicine resident at Benghazi Medical Center, saw a huge sack of human body parts brought into the ER.

But just a few weeks later, resilient twentysomething Libyans, almost all of them working outside their professional fields, have created an embryonic civil society and culture. The shabbab cool, or cool youth, who gave the Revolution of February 17 much of its visual flavor—the witty signs like “NATO Air: Just Do It”; the homemade T-shirts and caps—have turned their energies to writing, photography, documentary filmmaking, and rock ‘n’ roll. Their inspirations and style come from global youth culture—everyone is on Facebook and Twitter—but their seriousness of purpose and maturity reflect the trauma their city recently endured.

While American TV coverage of Libya favors savage-looking freedom fighters yelling on captured tanks, the face of the revolution here in Benghazi, 200 kilometers from the stalemated front line and 700 kilometers from besieged Misrata, is young women like Shadda Hatem el Majri, a 19-year-old university student from Tripoli whose family left for Benghazi a few days after February 17 so that they could be part of the activity.

On April 17, Shadda was one of hundreds of women in Benghazi who participated in an abbreviated observance of the traditional “Flower Carnival,” which Gaddafi banned in 1986. Even as Gaddafi’s troops continued to send cluster bombs into Misrata, women paraded through Benghazi to Freedom Square holding flowers.

The shabbab cool include an architect who sings in rock bands, an architecture student who used to rap, and a civil-engineering student who works on a new weekly magazine.

The blooms the women carried were neither abundant or particularly fresh, but the meaning was clear. Shadda explained to me in perfect English, and without a trace of irony, that she and the other young women gave flowers to any men that they saw with weapons. A talented singer, she’d spent the afternoon rehearsing “Free Libya,” a folksong with English lyrics that some of her friends are planning to videotape.

The building where they practice formerly housed an official cultural council headed by a woman in the Gaddafi inner circle. Now it’s home to a number of collectives. One maintains the bilingual Web TV channel Libya Al Hurra, started by Mohammed Nabous, 28, who was shot in the head as he reported on March 19. One group makes movies; Ali Sirayes and a few other young filmmakers are making documentaries “from the first minute of the revolution” onward. Another publishes a slender Arabic-English magazine, Berenice Post, every Monday, pitched at the city’s bilingual elite.

Some of the same writers contribute to the other weekly produced here, Sourat Kul Al Shabab, or The Voice of All the Youth, Arabic-only and more populist. Mohamed Shembesh explained to me that the collective that puts it out chooses a different editor every one or two issues. Just as radically, Sourat accepts articles via a dropbox in Freedom Square. There’s no postal service in Libya, and the Internet has been disrupted because of the war, so this is the best way to get contributions.

This revolution began in the most bourgeois way possible, with a peaceful protest in front of Benghazi’s courthouse, or makama, on February 17 by a lawyers’ guild. Gaddafi’s forces used violence, and the youth joined in. By the 19th, the goal was regime change. Because Gaddafi dug in, the revolutionaries defended themselves. But the astounding fact of bringing down the government here pales beside the utopian moment.

The courthouse area is now known as Freedom Square, and it’s a revolutionary fair of nonstop activity, with booths offering literature on a dozen causes, songs playing from loudspeakers, and dozens, often hundreds of Libyans walking about, reveling in their new public space. There’s a civility rare in the Arab street, and I’ve walked alone as late as 11 at night without harassment.

Money almost isn’t necessary. There are limits on bank withdrawals, as most people worked for the state and were paid from Tripoli by direct deposit. So shopkeepers often charge only their cost for food items, young people give out free sandwiches and espresso, and local mobile phone calls are free since the phone network, once owned by the Gaddafi family, was hacked a few weeks ago.
A former legal office building around the corner from the makama has been renamed the Media Center, and it’s filled with excited young men and women artists and activists. Some work on a charity, Ani Ensahn, or I Am Human, which provides social services to 200 families displaced by the war. Behind a graffiti-covered door marked “GUG Guys Underground,” young men practice rock guitar or play the traditional stringed instrument of Libya, the oud. They include 15-year-old Tawfik Ben Saud, a 6-foot-tall self-taught video maker and photographer, and a 15-year-old rock guitarist, Ziad, whose mother is English. One of their friends, Rami el Kalih, was murdered by the lijan thureah on March 20.

Three stories of the Media Center’s hallways are covered with huge black-and-white political cartoons, lots of punk-inflected signs expressing love of country and the revolution, and a few urging the revolutionaries not to smoke. In a country where chain-smoking is epidemic and people routinely light up in cars and restaurants, perhaps the most unusual aspect of the shabbab cool is how many don’t smoke.

Most are from well-off families, like many young bohemians in the U.S. That’s why they have up-to-date laptops, iPhones, good cameras, and access to cars to get around this sprawling city. Many have studied overseas—the University of Manchester is a favorite—and some have one foreign parent or have lived abroad. The young men of the Media Center and Libya Al Hurra look like hipster youth anywhere in the U.S. or Europe, their style influenced by skateboard culture, though I’ve yet to see a skateboard here. The young women are more modestly dressed, wearing jeans with tunics or trench coats, many but not all in headscarves.

Their clothes are a bit drab. Benghazi, a crumbling harbor town of 800,000 situated on a beautiful bay, is no shopping paradise and Libyans—influenced, some say, by Bedouin culture—are as unmaterialistic a lot as I’ve seen. But they jazz up their look with a red, black, and green wristband, button, cap, or T-shirt—the original 1951 independence flag of Libya. Even the most arty kids, like Shadda, talk spontaneously about how much they now love their country and its flag, after years of being ashamed of being Libyan.

Before the revolution of February 17, there wasn’t much to do in Benghazi. There are sad, Spartan stores, endless rundown espresso cafes, and just a handful of attractive restaurants. There are no bars (or alcohol), nightclubs, concert halls, theaters, or art galleries, just an outdoor restaurant complex called Sendibad that offered live music occasionally. One could drink coffee—and Libyans drink it all day—or walk along the spectacular corniche. Or one could stay at home and watch satellite TV, where Libyans learned of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that inspired them, or go online.

Gaddafi wanted it that way; as Dirk Vanderwalle notes in one of his two seminal works on modern Libya, Gaddafi’s early rule featured “the burning of Western books and musical instruments, the closing of nightclubs, the promotion of traditional Libyan dress… and the renaming of the Gregorian calendar.”

Grimmer yet, many Libyans live at home well into their twenties, single. A young writer at the Media Center, Mohamed Al Burk, explains, “People wait to marry because they have no money. It costs 10,000 dinars for a wedding and 25,000 to 30,000 for a flat. Multiply by .70 to get the dollar amount.” It’s hard to save with a 350-dinar-a-month salary. And there’s no dating or mixed-gender parties.

Under Gaddafi, there was no such thing as an independent artist or filmmaker or musician or novelist. The kinds of people who would become artists or writers in other countries became academics here, but not necessarily in fields related to their real passion. The shabbab cool include an architect who sings in rock bands (Husain Kablan), an architecture student who used to rap (Lou’I Hatem El Magri, Shadda’s older brother), and a civil-engineering student who works on a new weekly magazine (Mohamed Shembesh).

Shadda, who also takes photos and had a solo show of her paintings in Cairo at age 15, is crossing a big boundary with her gentle folk music. A woman singer appearing on a video is a big deal in this country, where even some male musicians—like one of the members of Guys Underground—worry that appearing in a music video might be haram.

The tension between fundamentalist and moderate ideas is real here, though so far it is being negotiated with words, not violence. And there are questions about the re-integration into a new order of Gaddafi loyalists. Twenty-five-year-old Amal El Gahani, a tall, gregarious electrical-engineering professor turned activist, estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the population even in Benghazi was involved with the lijan thureah. But so far, young women like Amal and Shadda suggest that the Revolution of February 17 has the power to create a new culture in Libya.

The Libya-rators (orig. published in New York Post, 4/17/11)

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

The Libya-rators

In Benghazi, heart of the revolution against Moammar Khadafy, there are heroes now


Last Updated: 12:31 AM, April 17, 2011

Posted: 11:03 PM, April 16, 2011
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BENGHAZI, LIBYA — Ask the women here whom they most admire, and you get mostly shrugs. One teacher said, “No woman is famous in Libya. Only Aisha.” That’s Aisha Khadafy, hated daughter of the dear leader, who has the manufactured public image of a superwoman and, in an Orwellian twist, runs a “human rights” organization.

Dr. Iman Bugaighis, a dental professor and prominent activist, later explained how the state trampled identity. “We were not allowed to say the names of cabinet ministers, just their positions,” she said. “We were not allowed to say the names of the football players, just their numbers. We had very well-known women in the ’60s and in the first few years after the coup. But then they were not mentioned.”

Moammar Khadafy, a dictator as bizarre as he is oppressive, wanted to make sure that his was the only name everyone knew. The rest were erased. Libya is a nation that had no heroes.

Here, in this decrepit coastal city of less than 1 million, 120 miles from the stalemated front lines, the “February 17th Revolution” is about more than freedom — it’s about people’s very identity. There are heroes now: Photos of slain freedom fighters are everywhere, along with the portrait of Omar Mukhtar, who led the resistance against the Italians before World War II.

Bugaighis said she saw some high school students sitting together revising their history textbooks.

“We have to rewrite our history,” she said. “The kids are doing it already.”

They have to put the names back in.

In Benghazi, headquarters of the revolution, the trauma of Khadafy’s violent response to demonstrations lingers even amid a general euphoria. The current issue of Berenice Post, a weekly young women’s magazine in English and Arabic that is one of many publications that have sprung up in recent weeks, has an article by “Bint Barga” describing the night of Feb. 17: “I saw dismembered bodies; organs out of their bodies. The sight of these young men screaming of pain in agony as the hospitals in town got filled. Bullets were being pulled out of these men with no anesthesia.”

But aside from the occasional war-damaged building and the omnipresent young men with assault rifles, Benghazi is marked more by revolution than war. The area in front of Benghazi’s Transitional Council headquarters — the courthouse, or makama — has become a fairground, rather like a rock festival, with booths offering pamphlets, selling hats, bracelets, buttons, espresso cups, and bumper stickers with the independence flag of Libya the uprising has adopted. The flag — a red, black and green triband with a white crescent — was the official symbol of Libya after it gained independence after World War II. Khadafy, who overthrew Libya’s king in a 1969 coup, replaced it with a flag of his own design — all green, like his “Green Book,” modeled after Mao’s “Little Red Book” which taught his people to reject capitalism and representative democracy.

A food cart offers free snacks and espresso drinks (Libyans are coffee-addicted) and revolutionary songs boom from a powerful outdoor system. Adding to the festive air, the local government has continued to pay employees’ salaries — almost all Libyans work for the state, directly or indirectly — even while most people stayed home from work. And mobile phone calls are free within the regional Lybiana network, which had been hacked to remove it from Khadafy’s control.

There’s a sense of a new beginning here, even new possibilities for behavior. As I placed an order for a lemon juice at a juice bar, an elderly man insisted on picking up the tab (about $1). When I bought a revolutionary T-shirt as a gift for my brother, the vendor pressed one in my size on me. The US is popular here, second only to France. When asked where I’m from (“min New York”), the response is inevitably positive, a thumbs-up or “America good.” This although the US shelled Benghazi on April 15, 1986, in retaliation for the Libyan bombing of a Berlin nightclub that killed an American soldier. More than 30 people were killed in the bombing.

This generosity is not only Arab hospitality to foreigners mixed with gratitude toward journalists assumed to be supporting the revolution. There’s a solidarity among Libyans, and a sense of responsibility for each other, that’s easing the tensions of regime change. Food stores are often reducing prices to cost only and giving free groceries to families that have been rendered destitute by the war.

There are signs urging people to keep Benghazi clean, and the trash cans are actually being used, though they are overwhelmed. Most of the foreign workers who did the dirty work here fled when the war began, and trash pick-up is done by young volunteers, theoretically twice a week.

With a corniche on the coast, and a large lake just inland, Benghazi could be a lovely place. It is even now in parts, if you squint. But the lake water is visibly filthy and pedestrian access to it difficult. The city streets are lined with topiary trees, but the sidewalks are in bad shape. The buildings facing the sea are crumbling. I visited friends of a friend in a seven-story apartment building in the best downtown neighborhood, but the elevator was long since broken.

Bugaighis explained the disrepair by saying, “He always hated us.” But even in Tripoli, which she said is better-maintained, Khadafy “did not care about showing off his country to foreigners. He thought he was better than us, that he was too good for us.”

This echoed the remarks of a female teacher I spoke with one night near the makama. Her husband, an engineer, was working at the lower pay of a teacher. “Khadafy brought engineers from outside. He said Libyans are no good.” Some of the hatred of the dictator comes from the sense that he was not proud of being Libyan, or of the Libyans.

And some comes from Khadafy’s propensity to jail people for nearly nothing. One night in the makama, a woman around 40 with a worn look saw me interviewing some young women and said she wanted to speak with me.

“All Libyans are calling for freedom and democracy,” Ehsan Ben Ali began, and then gave her personal history: Thrown out of university in 1977 for protest activity, she couldn’t work openly but set up a private school under someone else’s name. In 1985 she was arrested and jailed for a year. Then in 1995, her son, 18, was arrested for writing critically about the regime. He spent 11 years in jail. She or her son may have been Islamists, but her story is common to scores of people with different beliefs. Political prisoners are so common that they have their own representative on the Transitional Council — Ahmed Zubair El Sunussi, who spent 31 years in Khadafy’s jails for his relationship with the former king’s circle.

In this strange time most retail businesses are closed — but even in stable times, Khadafy’s feckless management of the economy is what has left most average Libyans angry.

Khadafy had the habit of appropriating private businesses and making the workers equal partners with the owners, no matter how unqualified they were. One Libyan man I met, now in his 70s, gave up on working when the imported eyeglass shop he started was shared with his employees.

Most urban Libyan families need two earners, because state-mandated salaries are so low. Three hundred fifty dinars ($250) a month, a teacher’s wage, doesn’t go far even with nearly free gas and cheap food. You need a car in Libya, especially in sprawling Benghazi, where public transport is confined to a few buses.

Despite equal pay for equal work — one of the few good results of socialism — Libyans readily acknowledge that women’s participation in the revolution has been less than that of, say, Egypt. Even the Transitional Council has just two or three women among its 31 members. (The number isn’t clear because many of the names are kept secret to avoid reprisals on families in unliberated areas.) This suggests an obstacle to Libya’s transition to a successful democracy.
The school teacher I met told me that while she and her friends did not go out to demonstrate in February (“that was for men, not for women”), they have supported the revolution. Her companion, another teacher (they did not want their names used), said, “We went in groups and brought clothes to the refugees. We support the revolution in making food, in emotional support.”

There is a question of what kind of government would replace Khadafy is he is overthrown — particularly because Islamic groups were about the only organized resistance to the Khadafy government for years.

In Benghazi, the revolution began with a demonstration in front of the makama on Feb. 17 — a “standing protest” with placards of mostly middle-aged people. The cause was the still un-investigated deaths of 1,200 to 1,800 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison, and it was called by their families and the lawyers representing them. But no one on the council is calling for an Islamic government and their website expressly calls for equal rights for women. “We were demonstrating for a constitution and human rights,” one lawyer said.

Whatever nation the revolutionaries hope to create, right now they’re more focused on what they hope to destroy. Whenever I tried to direct interview questions toward women’s issues, women brought them back to Khadafy. One of the schoolteachers interrupted her own account of a state-sponsored visit to Jordan to burst out, “The life of women in Libya was about mutariah whemia!” “Bogus projects” — ranging from costly, never-completed public works to endless reorganizations of the government — were ubiquitious and contributed to people’s feelings of humiliation and worthlessness.

Today, Libyans in the liberated areas burst with pride in their country. Perhaps because they won their freedom themselves, they are taking responsibility for themselves. I was in Iraq just after liberation in spring 2003, and the mood was very different, downbeat and apprehensive, with Iraqis complaining to Americans rather than doing for themselves. And after 17 trips to Afghanistan, I would never confuse Libya’s energetic, self-motivated citizens with the charmingly evasive Afghans. I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties in rooting democracy in Libya — not only the weak position of women in civil society, but the whole nation’s lack of experience with the rule of law. Yet I’ve never met people more uniformly eager to take their destiny into their own hands.

Maybe the best comment comes from Bugaighis. Last year her family returned to Libya after four abroad — she was getting her doctorate in orthodontics at Newcastle University — and her 10-year-old daughter would talk about how she didn’t like Libya and could consider herself English. She wanted to go back to Newcastle.

“But the other day she said to me, ‘Momma, I have to study hard, because I want to make Libya better than England.’ ”

Resilience and Euphoria in Free Libya (orig. pub. in WSJ 4/14/11)

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Resilience and Euphoria in Free Libya
In Benghazi, state salaries are being paid, trash collected, and the poor looked after.


April 14, 2011

Benghazi, Libya

This is an exhilarating, utopian moment in Benghazi and the smaller cities of what people here call Libya Hurra (Free Libya). It is also an encouraging bellwether for the Libya of the future. Moammar Gadhafi’s subjects are becoming citizens, and they are taking responsibility for themselves.

In the absence of much state infrastructure, voluntary committees are keeping essential services going, taking care of the poor and internally displaced, and beginning to reconstruct Libyan society. The National Transitional Council that’s assumed the reins of government is making sure state workers receive their salaries (and insisting that they return to work if they want to continue getting paid).

Many of the fears articulated by American observers are discounted here. No one believes that a civil war between east and west is likely. Libyan diplomat Ahmed Gebreel—who used to work for Libya at the United Nations in New York and now advises Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdul Jalil on foreign policy—says there is no broad ethnic divide between Tripolitanians and Cyrenaicans.

“The original inhabitants of Tripoli are only a couple of thousand people. The rest come from all over Libya. I was born in Al-Bayda (in eastern Libya) but I normally live in Tripoli.” Conversely, as Imam Bugaighis, a university lecturer and one of the handful of prominent women in the circle around the Transitional Council, told me, “Every family has relatives in both Benghazi and Tripoli.”

There are valid questions about what would happen to the social fabric if opposition forces fight their way to Tripoli, but that seems increasingly unlikely. The Transitional Council appears to expect a negotiated settlement to end the conflict, though not one that leaves in power Gadhafi, his family, or anyone associated with him.

Benghazi and Tobruk show encouraging signs of social resilience and even social transformation. Ms. Bugaighis says that there are more than 100 voluntary committees in Benghazi, a city of about 800,000. “We are doing much better without him,” she stated proudly, referring to Gadhafi. Under him, “Libya wasn’t meant to be a country—just militia and people.”

Benghazi’s citizens are stepping up to the plate to maintain essential services. Sanitation workers, largely guest workers from Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, have gone back to their own countries. But local volunteers are taking the initiative and picking up the garbage. Libyans may drive too fast, but they’re still obeying traffic laws and parking in an orderly way. Mr. Gebreel says that the incidence of traffic accidents has actually fallen since the revolution. In conservative Tobruk, I watched as volunteers for a local charity, the Mercy Foundation, measured out European Union-donated flour into bags for displaced people. Sixty volunteers serve 10,000 needy families in the area.

The mood in Benghazi is euphoric. The square in front of the courthouse where the protests began has become a revolutionary fair where families stroll and young people demonstrate. Booths offer political leaflets and display political cartoons, while food carts offer free sandwiches and espresso to the coffee-obsessed population. Souvenirs in red, green and black—the colors of the original 1951 Libyan flag of independence—are sold everywhere.

“We don’t want normal life to continue,” says Ms. Bugaighis. “Everyone is discovering that we love our country, we love our flag. It is more important that the teachers work on committees to build our society than that the children go to school. We didn’t know how to be democratic on the individual level. We don’t know how to work in an institutional structure. We have to develop that.”

There’s still much to be done here, and the war is far from over, but the people of Benghazi are on their way to becoming citizens of their new, Free Libya.