Archive for September, 2011

Libya: Hopeful Signs (orig. pub. New York Post, 9/6/11)

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

New York Post
Updated: Tue., Sep. 6, 2011, 12:23 AM home
Libya: hopeful signs


Last Updated: 12:23 AM, September 6, 2011

Posted: 10:20 PM, September 5, 2011

Zwara, Libya — In nearly a month spent in western Libya, much of it with freedom fighters, I’ve seen good augurs for the country’s future — as I did in earlier weeks spent in and around the rebel capital of Benghazi.

Here in Zwara, just a week after Libya’s “Berber capital” was being shelled by Moammar Khadafy’s forces from three sides, the local 13-man Crisis Management Group is already planning to transfer power to a civilian council that has been operating for several months from Djerba. Last Friday, the CMG organized a citywide cleanup day, member Hafid ben Sesi said. Zwara’s 50,000 citizens removed war debris and ordinary trash and repaired houses and shops damaged in the war.

Although many of Zwara’s schools now house revolutionary fighters or Khadafy prisoners, they will be cleared so that school can reopen Sept. 17. Perhaps most important for future security, the CMG is moving to disarm its own rebel forces and prohibit the carrying of the rebels’ ubiquitous assault rifles within the city.

Libyans are a resilient lot, not given to complaint or malingering. The contrast to post-invasion Iraq is dramatic. In May 2003, Iraqi shopkeepers asked me why America didn’t pick up the trash accumulated outside their shops. But in Libya, the do-it-yourself ethic prevails. “I cleaned outside my shop,” explained computer-repair-store owner Khellid ElFathily in Sabratha. A burnt-out Khadafy militia car opposite his Attar Street shop was being removed by a bulldozer that day, just a week after the fierce battle that liberated Sabratha.

All agree that the country faces huge tasks. The Libya that Khadafy left is a strange mixture of Third World and First World infrastructure — and culture. In Zwara and Sabratha, the hospitals are antiquated — and unfinished replacements have stood as shells for 20 years. Yet Libyan doctors working there include sophisticated specialists trained in Britain.

In Sabratha, a music teacher told me that “50 to 70 percent” of the population views music as contrary to Islamic law. But she insists she is comfortable living there as a single woman. She even goes to a woman-only gym.

Libya’s culture includes toxic elements, especially visible in the smaller cities. About 15 men in Sabratha had fought in Afghanistan in the ’80s against the Soviets; two brought home Afghan wives. And two well-educated young Sabratha men insisted to me that Masons control America; one thought they were a Jewish organization.

Finally, as the lack of women on Zwara’s governing body — and the presence of just two on the national transition council — suggests, powerful taboos restrain their participation in Libyan civic life. Many work outside the home, with equal pay for equal work, but Libya has a ways to go before it benefits fully from the talents of its whole population. In six days in and around Zinttan, in the Nafusa mountains, I saw just four women in public, three with their faces fully covered. That phenomenon is all too common in Sabratha, as well.

It is also true that some Western towns held much support for Khadafy. But in small cities, where families are tightly linked and the population is homogenous, fellowship is likely to prevail over political rancor. Tripoli may be another story — only time will tell.

Standing against these Arab malignancies is a powerful yearning on the part of both young and older Libyans for freedoms denied them for 42 years. I didn’t hear a single Libyan express a desire for a strongman or for sharia law. Libyans are, for the most part, practical and moderate — and as complex and resistant to stereotype as Americans. The Afghan wife of Youssef, a Sabratha man who lived in Afghanistan for 10 years, drives the family car. Youssef, who spent 11 years in Abu Saleem prison for his activities in Afghanistan, now plans to finish his BA in public health, interrupted 20 years ago.

In Zwara on Aug. 30 at sunset, young men in pickup trucks along the corniche were still firing off the occasional celebratory round. But a lone windsurfer had also appeared in the crystalline waters.

“Our people love life,” said Gen. Senussi Mahrez, a 35-year Libyan army veteran who defected to the rebels and led Zwara’s fighters.

Then he took off his fatigues and, for the first time since last summer, ran into the water of his hometown.

Libya’s Hidden Minority (orig. pub. Daily Beast, 9/2/11)

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Libya’s Hidden Minority

Long stifled under Gaddafi, an ancient Libyan group called the Amazigh is beginning to quietly reclaim its voice, culture—and freedom.

by Ann Marlowe | September 2, 2011 7:59 PM EDT

From the U.S., Libya may seem like a homogenous place, the setting for a distant war. But Libya’s scant six million people are surprisingly culturally diverse, and Libya’s indigenous inhabitants, Berbers known in Libya as Amazigh, are part of an ethnic group that spans parts of Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso. They have a written language whose oldest inscriptions date from 200 B.C.—but it fell victim to Muammar Gaddafi’s idiosyncratic Arab nationalism and was harshly suppressed to the point where most Amazigh adults cannot read or write it.

Today, as Libyans awaken from their 42-year-long bad dream, the country’s estimated 165,000 Berbers are proudly reclaiming their culture. Berber revolutionaries painted the “Z” symbol of their people on their pickup trucks, and wore T-shirts with the Amazigh flag on one side, the Libyan on the other. And the Amazigh women of Jadu in the Nafusa Mountains—free since the end of February—are flexing their muscles in their own way.

The moment you step inside the headquarters of the Sun of Freedom women’s association of Jadu and see the sketch of the Amazigh flag on the wall, it’s apparent that this charitable organization is as much about reviving traditional Berber culture as it is about aiding the roughly 5,000 internally displaced people, many Amazigh, who have fled from Tripoli, Zwara, and other coastal cities to take refuge here.

The Amazigh people have long struggled against Gaddafi, and during the fighting against him—now in its sixth month—as many as 150,000 people have been displaced. For the Amazigh, the struggle is not just a struggle to unseat a despot; it’s a struggle to reclaim their ancient language and traditions.
Berber women celebrate

Women celebrate the Tripoli intifada in the street on the night of Aug. 19, 2011., Ann Marlowe

In Jadu, a town of about 10,000 Amazigh set on a mesa high above the plain that runs north to Libya’s west coast, a group of women, mainly teachers, have been preparing meals for the internally displaced people, and teaching Amazigh children. With Ramadan turning schedules nocturnal, the women are preparing daily breakfast meals, called iftar.

Before the Feb. 17 revolution here, women weren’t allowed to be active outside the home, says Amal Kahber, one of the 15 or so women active in the Sun of Freedom organization. Thought they were permitted to be school teachers, they did not spend time in public or interact with strangers. But now, she says, times are changing. In addition to cooking for the refugees, the women have tutored children in Arabic, English, and Amazigh. Schools here, as elsewhere in “free Libya,” closed in late February and have yet to reopen, although there are plans for some to do so next month, according to the Transitional National Council Education Minister Suliman el Sahli. The women also ran a charity fashion show featuring young girls in traditional Amazigh dress.

A Libyan girl from the Amazigh (Berber) community wears a headband sporting the traditional symbol of peace, the Azoul, as she attends a class in her ancient language at the Ezefran center in Jadu in eastern Libya on July 17, 2011., Marco Longari / AFP Photo

But beyond more conventional charitable works, the Sun of Freedom organization is devoted to the Amazigh culture, long ignored by Libyan Arabs and actively suppressed by Gaddafi. Until Jadu freed itself of Gaddafi’s control in February, even speaking Amazigh in public was forbidden. The language wasn’t taught in schools, and today, only the older generation and a few younger people know how to write the 32-character, 2,200-year-old phonetic language. “I’m the only one in my family who can write Amazigh,” says 16-year-old Amani Giadwi, a Tripoli banker’s daughter, in perfect English.

Amani and her sister Nada interrupt each other excitedly as they explain the history of their culture. They assert that the Amazigh are the original inhabitants of Libya, and gave the country its name. “Gaddafi said that all Amazigh are Arabs—but we are not!” Amani exclaims vehemently. The Berber culture encompasses many of the indigenous people in North Africa including those in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia, although their dialects vary.

Despite their devotion to the Amazigh cause, the women’s knowledge of Berber culture is fragmentary and local, just as Gaddafi wanted. They have never heard of the magnificent rock carvings at Slonta, Berber art near al Bayda on the east coast that predates the Greek colonization. In turn, the urban population on Libya’s east coast has little knowledge of the Amazigh—several Arab freedom fighters told me they had known nothing of the Nafusa Mountains until their brigades from other parts of Libya came to fight and train here.

Amazighs look like other Libyans, but the feel of their culture is more free and open. Compared to the Arab town of Zintan just 15 or so miles away, Jadu seems more liberal. Women walk in small groups to the “supermarket” downtown here, and are dressed less conservatively than in Zintan. And the Giadwi sisters drive around without a male escort—something that would make news in Zintan.

What the future holds for these Berber women will depend on the outcome of the still-intense fighting going on for control of Libya.

Still, this is no feminist paradise. An iftar I attended last week at a Jadu mosque was otherwise attended only by men, and women are never seen out at Jadu’s only coffee shop. Within the Nafusa Mountains, culture differs from town-to-town and among the Berber towns as well. I was able to verify for myself the claim of Senussi Mahrez of Zwara, who commanded 200 fighters at a camp in Jadu, that Zwara is more liberal than Jadu. He also called the Berber town of Nalut, which I did not visit, “the Amazigh Zintan,” for its conservatism.

What the future holds for these Berber women will depend on the outcome of the still-intense fighting going on for control of Libya. But it seems likely that their ancient culture and its fascinating language will enjoy an unexpected revival. Encouragingly, on the night of the Tripoli uprising that sent Libyans into the streets in joyous sympathy all over free Libya, the women of Jadu came out spontaneously and for the first time in history celebrated in public with the men.

The Fight for Zwara (orig. pub. Weekly Standard blog, 9/2/11

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The Fight for Zwara—and Liberty
Ann Marlowe
August 25, 2011 7:44 PM

Zwara, Libya—We’ve arrived in Zwara, which is about 70 miles from Tripoli and 35 miles from the Tunisian border. It’s impossible to get out in any direction, though one could get out to sea, if one fancied a long boat trip.

Qaddafi forces are converging slightly south of here in the towns of Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan. There are estimates of already 1,000 troops—and wild rumors that a Qaddafi family member might be protected by these troops abound. Tomorrow might be the biggest battle yet when the revolutionaries are expected to clash with the Qaddafi loyalists.

I helped call in my first NATO strike yesterday. We were being shelled. A commander I was driving with asked me whether I had NATO’s number—NATO, here, is always being referred to in the third person masculine.

I tried to explain that NATO isn’t usually very keen on journalists calling in these sorts of things, but that I could connect the commander here with the interior minister of the TNC, the deputy commander of the 17th of February brigade.

Located 750 miles away in Benghazi, the interior minister was rather shocked to find out that there was heavy fighting going on here. And he promised to call NATO and get them to do something, which they did yesterday evening at 7 o’clock, with two or three planes, in what appears to have been a quick, pinpoint strike right before iftar (Ramadan break-fast), presumably meant only to destroy weapons and not Qaddafi loyalists themselves.

Zwara has a kind of attractive, Italian-like 1930s-style city center and an 1980s-90s-style outlying district that has the usual mixture of ambition and neglect, including a huge hotel owned by Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi.

And the distinctive feature is it is nearly 100 percent Berber. You might call it the Berber capital. The Amazigh language spoken by the Berbers was forbidden by Qaddafi, which led to the town becoming, over time, a bastion of anti-Qaddafi sentiment. It was, therefore, quite neglected.

The former Libyan general I’ve been traveling with tells me that his house was on a sand street until four years ago. If this were southern Italy, it would be a $2 million home. But here, it only recently got electric lights. In fact, the only reason for paved roads and electricity, I’m told, is that one of Qaddafi’s sons lived here for a short while, and Sofia Qaddafi, Muammar’s second wife and mother of several of his children, came to visit. She was horrified.

Zwara illustrates the highly personalized nature of Qaddafi’s rule. The Qaddafis treated the country like a personal fiefdom. Very often, development of cities had only to do with whether the family had a personal stake in the city. This resulted in huge vanity projects placed only where a Qaddafi family member decided to put them.

Many Zwara notables believe the reason they are being attacked now from Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan is because of ethnic hatred. There are long standing tensions between those Arab towns and this Berber one.

The Qaddafi forces include a substantial number of professional soldiers, but they also include what are called volunteers, who are locals, usually unemployed youth, that Qaddafi began recruiting after the 17th of February as shock troops. These volunteers, who are not subject to any professional army discipline, are known for attacking civilians. They are behaving more like insurgents than the “rebels.” The rebels, at least, are mostly wearing some sort of uniform and marking their vehicles.

Two days ago in Melitta, I was accompanying Zwara fighters when they cleared the highway between Zabratha and Zwara. A gray passenger sedan came toward us in an area known to have many Qaddafi fighters. The force I was with, which included several hundred men with heavy weapons, forced the sedanto stop. They searched it and found Qaddafi’s “rebels” with at least twenty brand new assault rifles, still in their wrapping.

The Zwara troops entered their hometown around 6 p.m. two days ago to public rejoicing and many cries of “Allahu Akbar!” Yet less than nine hours later, a civilian was killed on his roof by shelling from Qaddafi’s forces. And yesterday, the town was mobilized for war. Commanders from the Zwara, Sabratha, and Zintan brigades made the local scouts’ building their impromptu headquarters. The local equivalent of boy scouts (called something else, but with the same logo) prepared meals for the fighters throughout the day. The mosques broadcast prayers and continuous shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” for most of the morning and afternoon.

Two local men, from a population of about 50,000, were killed in the fighting. The revolutionary forces were, as usual, poorly organized. Some who had accompanied the general were used to fighting together and had trained for two months in the mountains. But others were literally picking up their weapons for the first time yesterday.

There is no chain of command among the revolutionaries. Every man feels he has the right to speak directly to his commander. This means that each brigade commander must speak with about 100 men to give orders, often receiving unwarranted—and unwanted—feed back from the fighters. It’s a miracle that more of the revolutionaries have not been killed.

The city was quiet all day today, after the NATO airstrike. Meanwhile, civilian representatives from the towns of Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan met with leaders from Zwara to discuss peace terms. The Zwara men feel that the others are negotiating sincerely, and believe them when they say they have little or no control over many of the Qaddafi fighters based in their area.

Most of the population of Jumayl, Rigdalin, and Zultan historically supported Qaddafi and disliked the people of Zwara. However, even they seem to recognize that the game is nearing an end. The problem, they say, is that the Qaddafi brigades and volunteers are not in their control and want to keep fighting, with some thinking that Qaddafi will make a comeback (as unlikely as that might sound).

And dozens of Zwara men complain that their enemy is fighting for nothing, bitterly resenting the lives that are being lost here while the rest of Libya considers itself free.