My Libya Experience: Some Reflections

* Updated on 24/11/2013. Original post: March 7, 2013.

NOVEMBER – DECEMBER 2012.

Libya. A country still struggling to come to grasps with its recent and evolving revolutionary history.

If you visit Libya, there is a fair chance that you will experience those cliches that are thrown about when speaking about Arab states. It is also likely that you will not see a the fighting that is brought up in the news, you won’t see life as it is lived on the fringes of Libyan society, and instead you will be shown the things that Libyans are typically proud of.

My portrait above was photographed towards the end of my 3 month stay in Libya and was when I had began to venture out more freely. Upon arriving the image that I had of Tripoli was not positive and still I would be lying if I left Libya with a merry impression of the national situation. However as I began to spend more time exploring the city my initial impression of life in Libya changed dramatically. I want to share with you the simple things that comprised my life here.

The Sky over Tripoli in October
The Sky over Tripoli in October
The Litter along Tripoli's Coast
The Litter along Tripoli’s Coast

Keeping an open mind is good though it is often immediately blinding. It can mean assuming the best whilst not really understanding the problems right in front of you.

It was late in October when we went for a picnic at sunset along Triq Shott, the coastal road. This was interesting because on the one side was the sea, a strip of coast and litter, then on the other lay two three lane roads of traffic that was being monitored by rebel officers at the traffic lights. We were a group of five, having a picnic on the lane of grass between coast and road. Apart from one, we were all Europeans and the conversation kept returning to the various experiences that one or another of the Europeans had been through towards the end of the revolution. There was some talk of friends being mugged on the public buses. I had just arrived so I didn’t have a story to share. It was the first and last time we did something like this.

Routine Car search: Rebels in Uniform
Routine Car search: Rebels in Uniform

This image appears in another post but I am reusing it because previously I neglected to mention our car contained myself and three other Libyans. When we drove past these men they were extremely excited to find out who these troops were. They were particularly curious to discover whether they were American troops. To their disappointment it turned out that they were rebels in uniform and they were performing one of the many routine road checks that are made in an attempt to find war criminals who might be trying to travel around or escape the city.

Rapidly Changing Face of Suburban Tripoli
Rapidly Changing Face of Suburban Tripoli

Whilst not the best photo, I wanted to make an observation on  the rapidly changing face of the suburban areas that I visited. Housing projects and extensions, one, two, or three, floors rising from the tops of old and established shop buildings. Either the government was easing laws on building development or businesses were were taking advantage of the fact that there would no-one enforcing development laws.

Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch
Cave Homes in the Gharyan Mountains that have been converted into a Shed and Chicken Hutch

The Gharyan mountains are home to a number of interesting things including a number of underground cave homes. There are a number of renovated and modernised homes that can be found in the mountains though there are also many that have been neglected or used in a less interesting fashion. I was shown this example of a home early in November. Many of these examples of Libyan troglodyte architecture remain the property of neighbourhood families but, as in this case, the family elders don’t want to develop the space. In some cases these spaces are used as rubbish tips. This one hosts chickens.

An Abandoned Italian Church in the Gharyan Mountains
An Abandoned Italian Church in the Gharyan Mountains
An Abandoned Italian Church in the Gharyan Mountains
An Abandoned Italian Church in the Gharyan Mountains
An Abandoned Italian Church in the Gharyan Mountains
An Abandoned Italian Church in the Gharyan Mountains

This abandoned Italian church occupied a beautiful location though it had been ransacked over time. There was a little graffiti and a lot of bird poo. A few exquisitely tiled bathrooms were still in recognisable shape. This is the central church hall.

Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya: Section of Italian railway
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya: Section of Italian railway
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya: One of the few remaining sculpture pieces
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya: One of the few remaining sculpture pieces
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya: Portion of Mosaic
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya: Portion of Mosaic
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya
Sabratha: Roman Ruins in Libya

The trip to Sabratha proved the city ruins themselves to be more interesting than those of Leptis Magna which is the larger ruin near Tripoli. The reason for this was that Sabratha proved to have more little quirks than its larger sibling, including the fragment of a sculpture and the train tracks that were neglected by the Libyans and left by the Italians. Curiously, my Libyan companions assuredly told me that the tracks were Roman. Though this was questionable information, I trusted them when they told me that many of the sculptures had been stolen and that the mosaics were being continually reduced in number as tourists pick at them and take pieces as keepsakes.

We almost didn’t get to see these ruins because I didn’t have a copy of my passport with me. The security guard told us that he couldn’t let us in, however, the country being in the state that it is/was in he was persuaded that it is better to let the western foreigner in. The logic is still kind of lost on me although I understand that there is a sense racial prejudice at play.

View from the Back of the house: Fallah
View from the Back of the house: Fallah
View from the front of the house: Fallah
View from the front of the house: Fallah

My apartment was above a garage and was sandwiched between two slummy patches of ground. Both the front and the back of the house had been cleared in preparation for a building project that had been due to take place prior to the revolution. Since then, all international building contractors had left the country and government projects need to be reviewed by the new government before being resumed. Behind the strip of garages and houses that I lived on grew another strip of illegal quick build garages. Almost all of these were homes for the people working in the garages. They couldn’t have been there long but they had fairly continuous business.

The wasteland was occupied by a large number of stray cats and dogs and a considerable number of rats. On my first night I went shopping and purchased tomatoes. I decided to keep my vegetables outside and came to learn my first lesson about rats. They love tomatoes. I woke up late at night to see 8 or so grey blobs moving in the dark on the balcony. I was utterly confused as I went outside to investigate, the roundish blobs scattered across the balcony made no sense to my sleepy head. Picking one up I realised that they were my tomatoes that were on the floor and they had all been nibbled! I had to discard all my vegetables and I made note not to do the same thing again.

A few weeks later I had convinced myself that the rats would not be able to get onto the balcony. I had blocked the drain with a heavy sheet of glass. My belief was shattered when I saw one of the big black creatures scale the wall next to the balcony. No relief.

***

I’m an artist and Libya is not an obvious destination for people of my profession. However I had lived in Malta and had heard a lot about the country, I was curious to visit. The recent revolution in Libya also interested me, what did people think about Libya’s past and potential future? These questions burned in me and I wanted find answers that could also liberate Libya’s community. Incredibly I met a man on Couchsurfing who offered me an opportunity to work with him on developing his new business. This opportunity would not offer financial gain but could present me with a way into the community. I devised a project that would consist of a series of video workshops and would result in locally created short films that would reflect the state of the nation and give voice to a society that was struggling to be understood by Europeans at that time. After some consideration I contacted the British Council in Malta who in turn encouraged me to contact the BC in Libya to establish a connection so I could have support and so that the project could be realised. I also made preparations to leave Malta for Libya.

I arrived in Libya and my project was unable to be realised, the Libyan British Council didn’t once return my mail. My appreciable host in Libya covered my rent in Libya, though we had agreed to build his businesses image together since he was unable to pay me he chose to act more as an employer than a friend. Working for him under the Attomouh Company (Facebook) he paid me £150 a month for 8+ hours of office time a day 6 days a week. I had agreed to help develop his company so I took work home when I could and developed his website amongst other things. Unfortunately our relationship turned sour, in retrospect this was probably because business didn’t receive the expected boom from having a Westerner involved, and he began to inform me that I was useless every now and again.

Whilst conveying himself as exploitative, my “employer” had a curious side to him. He was actively involved what I perceived to be a genuinely valuable form of social development, creating proposals to help draw attention to problem areas in contemporary Libyan society, such as the elevated sense of community division that had resulted from the revolution. He also worked with members of a Libyan women’s rights group and appeared consequently in international news and also had connections with a number of other proactive and important groups working with the community. Whilst we didn’t exactly see eye to eye, and neither did our business end well, I would have to applaud his human rights projects and I hope that he can lead some to fruition.

***

Another interesting experience acquired whilst driving in Libya followed a minor collision between our car and a small truck. The vehicles came too close as they drove side by side, the damage sounded bad but was minor, only our wing mirror was lost.

A long and heated argument ensued wherein the drivers of both vehicles argued and accused each other of dangerous and negligent driving. After a while the tone changed. Since we had the only vehicle with damage the driver from the other vehicle was making sure that we had his details in case we wanted money to have it fixed. Then the conversation flipped, both drivers were mildly accepting that they could have been to blame, the truck driver can cover it, he is sorry, we are denying the offer, life has to go on, everyone shakes hands and we go on our way. I often saw incidents like this where dangerous driving, or EXTREMELY dangerous driving, leads to an argument and then an amicable hand shake. It’s how things roll in Tripoli.

Red Fortress Gates (Tripoli, Medina)
Red Fortress Gates (Tripoli, Medina)
The Ottoman Clocktower (Tripoli, Medina)
The Ottoman Clocktower (Tripoli, Medina)
Shop fronts with a garage feel (Medina, Tripoli)
Shop fronts with a garage feel (Medina, Tripoli)
Medina Alleyway
Medina Alleyway
Oldest Mosque Al-Nakah (1000+)
Oldest Mosque Al-Nakah (1000+)
Medina side street
Medina side street
Naked Lady in Tripoli City Centre
Naked Lady in Tripoli City Centre
Smokers Lungs! This is a messed up table.
Smokers Lungs! This is a messed up table.
"Bombaclat" British Libyan Graffiti!!
“Bombaclat” British Libyan Graffiti!!
Bullet holes running down the side of a Flat
Bullet holes running down the side of a Flat
An Old Man pulling a plug off an abandoned electrical appliance
An Old Man pulling a plug off an abandoned electrical appliance
A shed in the City Centre (with rug)
A shed in the City Centre (with rug)
Post Office (Motorbike travelling the wrong direction and van parked on roundabout)
Post Office (Motorbike travelling the wrong direction and van parked on roundabout)
Converted Italian Cathedral: Obviously a Mosque and also the Arabic school
Converted Italian Cathedral: Obviously a Mosque and also the Arabic school
Mysterious axe torch-holder
Mysterious axe torch-holder
Italian Style Building
Italian Style Building
Park between Triq Shott and Martyr Square
Park between Triq Shott and Martyr Square
A Horse!
A Horse!
Martyr Square (Rollerblading is a New Phenomenon)
Martyr Square (Rollerblading is a New Phenomenon)
Posing Men next to Medina
Posing Men next to Medina
Triq Shott (Coastal Road)
Triq Shott (Coastal Road)
The Fountain Next to Martyr Square and Medina
The Fountain Next to Martyr Square and Medina
A Tripolitan Bench
A Tripolitan Bench

Tripoli is peculiar. It is a capital city yet it is very quiet. There is a central square where protests happen (Martyr Square), where children rollerblade and skate (often holding onto cars and trailing behind them), where adults perform on motorbikes, swirling donuts, pulling wheelies, drifting and sustaining endo’s. I kept this picture of the bench in case someone asked whether Libyans have public seating. I quite liked the orange rope.

Libyan Alchohol
Libyan Alchohol
Bazin
Bazin

Libyan’s often joke that if a Westerner comes to Libya, and if he wants to survive, he should avoid Bazin. The joke refers to Christopher Stevens, the American Ambassador, whose last meal was Bazin before his murder following an attack on the American Embassy, September 2012. Bazin is tasty although very messy because it is eaten with ones hands. Libyans have a breakfast that is made by mixing the same flour used in Bazin with water and olive oil. My housemates had this breakfast with figs and olive oil. I enjoyed both, though it does take some getting used to.

Alcohol in Libya is either homemade or bought on Tripoli’s black market.

The alcohol in this image is quite typical, it is kept in a water bottle for the reason that water bottles are inconspicuous and can be sold, brought, and carried practically everywhere. The only problem is that no-one can tell you that much about what you are actually drinking, where it came from, or how it was made. It tastes like a harsh vodka or whisky.

Traditional Libyan Biscuits
Traditional Libyan Biscuits

Before visiting Libya, I had believed that the British had contributed shortcrust biscuits to Maltese cuisine and had caused thick pastries to exist there. The long and influential relationship that Libya has had with Malta became self-evident after living in Libya for two months. I note that identical slang is used in both countries.

The Brides Chair
The Brides Chair

Libyan brides have their own chair and their own party, all girls, no guys at all. Whilst the girls party hard, and flirt around with, well with each other. The guys have their own party somewhere else. Bizarrely, the rule determining that women and men do not met strangers of the opposite sex with the household is extended to include procedures throughout the wedding ceremony. There can be no congratulating both the bride and groom, one may only make a predetermined and engendered decision on who you do.

True the world over, the Libyan’s wedding day can be intensely emotional. Family members and even friends might be saying congratulations and goodbye to a bride for an unknown period of time. Especially if her groom lives outside of the city or if she marries to a particularly protective husband. During one personal experience of a Libyan wedding, I heard one of the brides brothers cry as he declared of the groom, “he is stealing her”. The bride was driven a few hours out into Tripoli’s surrounding countryside to the house where guests took a tea and a biscuit and the groom fires a few rounds off his M16 into the sky. “Its stupid and dangerous” the grooms father mutters rolling his eyes at the sound of the gun. The grooms father used to work for a British oil company but retired from the oil business 8 years ago. “We couldn’t celebrate like this under Gaddafi”, he adds, “now people are letting themselves go a bit.”

Leptis Magna: A little bedroom?
Leptis Magna: A little bedroom?
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna: Miniatures of men fighting and posing
Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna: Chapel
Leptis Magna: Chapel
Leptis Magna: Chapel
Leptis Magna: Chapel
Leptis Magna: Main Gate
Leptis Magna: Main Gate
Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna

Leptis Magna is the biggest of the two roman sites outside of Tripoli. Unfortunately many of the sculptures have been stolen. However the site is still spectacular, the main gate is perhaps the highlight though with its ornate decoration.

The home in Fallh: Bedroom
The home in Fallh: Bedroom
Housemates in Fallh
Housemates in Fallh
Housemates in Fallh
Housemates in Fallh
The home in Fallh: Kitchen Oven
The home in Fallh: Kitchen Oven
The home in Fallh: Kitchen Stuff
The home in Fallh: Kitchen Stuff
The home in Fallh: Kitchen fridge
The home in Fallh: Kitchen fridge
The home in Fallh: Kitchen fridge
The home in Fallh: Kitchen fridge
The home in Fallh: Kitchen table
The home in Fallh: Kitchen table
The home in Fallh: Kitchen
The home in Fallh: Kitchen
The home in Fallh: Outside Area
The home in Fallh: Outside Area
The home in Fallh: Bathroom
The home in Fallh: Bathroom
The home in Fallh: Corridor to Housemates
The home in Fallh: Corridor to Housemates

These last photographs were my shared home for two months. The bedroom was good except the electricity was faulty, the lighting strobed, the plugs stopped working reliably, and the fridge turned out to be a freezer and wasn’t really good for fruit, vegetables, cheese and milk.

Sitting toilets were prevalent although toilet sets were rarely attached if present at all. Curiously some of my housemates appeared to use washing detergent, the kind for clothes, as soap.

Lastly my housemates were lovely. All guys, they only ate one dish, Macaroona. The oven was used for pasta storage and the fridge contained the other three ingredients; oil, tomato paste, and chilli.

As a friend once said when he visited me in my room, “You are living the simple but good life.”

Out of the Ashes: Identity & Creativity in Post-revolution Tripoli

Revolution as creative expression, facing up to an identity crisis & the shortfalls of Western cultural initiatives. The purpose of this text is to describe the social conditions prevalent in Libya today that might affect the development of indigenous creative enterprises and affect the effectiveness of Western initiatives. These reflections and conclusions focus on what is happening in Tripoli and are written following empirical research made whilst living in Tripoli towards the end of 2012.(2873 words)

A walk through the streets of Tripoli reveals large quantities of graffiti, not just tags, but real artworks. Satirical depictions of the deceased Muammar Gaddafi and large scale murals, visual testaments to the creative energy that was channeled into the Libyan revolution. On the one hand destructive, the revolution has manifested itself as an important expression of creativity. However now, whilst the revolution has shaken loose some of the rules that once screwed people down, it is one year on and Libya is still a country with an uncertain future.

Tags and Statements (from British Libyans?)
Tags and Statements (from British Libyans?)
Murals in Tripoli
Murals in Tripoli

In Libya’s intense environment, cars pack four abreast along two lane roads taking red and green lights with a delayed sense of distinction and regularly playing host to speeding, drifting, male drivers. The roads incite a particular sense of disorganised order that reappears in different forms elsewhere in the community. In addition to this apparently chaotic order, persist other older and more established orders. Specifically, social codes of conduct and of respectable appearances that live on in the way that the people interact and present themselves.

Libyans often state that prior to the revolution people had simply wanted to survive and Libyan culture had few other imperatives. I spoke to a number of medical students from the University of Tripoli who had been involved in the conflict, they voiced their opinions to me. One young man stated, “most people, working people, want to be able to have a job so they can look after their family and have enough money to spend time with them.” Another told me that people have always wanted security and that now “they want to go back to how it should be [without the corruption or coercion], the government has to provide this.” Due to Gaddafi’s reputation for harsh punishment and the notoriety of the regime’s corruption, Libyan civilians were obliged to sacrifice their freedoms of expression in exchange for social security and safety. Things such as cultural heritage, music and the arts, were not preserved, were often specifically targeted for repression, and were not considered valuable. The cultural identity of the nation was consequently downtrodden.

In support of the revolution came not only the military support of American, French, Italian and British nations, but also their cultural initiatives. Each Western nation has projects that encourage western values in Libya. On the one hand these nations wish to be pioneers of cultural ideas whilst on the other hand needing to be held highly for the purposes of making business deals. Western nations need to enter the country to work there, to be able to work effectively, and especially to take the best gains possible from Libya as an oil rich country.

Concurring with a notion of cultural virginity being imposed on the country, Libya is being introduced to cultural initiatives by foreign nations that intend to shape it’s developing cultural identity. Such initiatives include radio sponsorship to play American popular music where previously stations played arabic music, consistent with indigenous interests and identity. In many regards this cultural change is neither subtle nor considerate, and, whilst many people want to work with and be able to access Western culture, the sudden change in radio transmissions is counter-posed to public interest. The average Libyan is unsure of how to react, though curiously many of the young people whom I spoke to are offended, stating that the conflict did not take place so that western nations could subvert it to their own agendas. Adding that they speak Arabic, why is the music on the radio in English?

Medina Shops and Alleyways
Medina Shops and Alleyways
Medina Shops and Alleyways
Medina Shops and Alleyways

In another instance, an esoteric public video art exhibition was put on by the British Council in November, 2012, and it was received in a similar way and with a curious negative repercussion. To be precise, Western video art and American Pop songs are just two protagonists evincing local beliefs that Libyans live in a cultural void with neither culture nor identity to call one’s own. In response to a realised identity crisis alongside the fractured state of the community, the National Ministry of Culture is consciously encouraging a raised awareness of cultural heritage, the social divisions in society, and a freedom of press. Their hope is that the people of Libya can nurture a nationalist sentiment and identity that will incite a sense of unity, will solve existing social problems, and will restore faith in the media industry. A faith in the media would allow Libyans to identify with the news that is in it. However these ideals exist only as words and intentions. The priority for the government at this moment in time is to restore the country’s well mediated lack of social-security.

The Libyans I lived with often expressed a sense of missing national identity, asking “what do we have?” Listing such things that the “world outside has,” as national music, theatre, dance, and even technology, photography or media representation. The feeling of being characterless or indistinct is unforgiving and adds to a dangerous lack of faith in government that has accrued following it’s slow progress in restoring social order. Perhaps importantly, these feelings also seemed to be confused with being culture-less. At any rate many civilians have carried forward a pessimism that is perhaps not unjustified but may be improvident.

The minister of media spoke on the issue of culture in regards to both research and creation. He proposed that the country should seek to establish its identity as a part of the process of stabilisation. However, “our priority is in restoring social-security,” he said, “until then our future is too uncertain. It is too early for working in this [cultural] area.” In the meantime, the only audience an artist can work for is outside of Libyan borders. Even then there are a number of considerations that need to be made.

As a foreigner and an artist, photography and film is prohibited unless government permissions and a journalist visa has been sought and given. But with granted permission, a journalists freedom to work is still limited. There is a constant risk of being arrested and deported for spying. Spying itself is a prevalent fear, even contacts such as the students that I met at the University of Tripoli were prone to confess, “we thought for a while that you were a spy.” The sincerity was not lost on me.

Some reservations exist between Tripolitans towards traditional music. The desert and mountain people are generally more prone to maintain music and dance traditions.

Of the percussive, string, and wind instruments native to Libya there are a number that are still being hand made. The zukra is a Libyan bagpipe made with goatskin, a plastic or bamboo blowpipe, and twin flutes. There is also the darbuka drum and a range of drums besides the darbuka. Two aging men with neighbouring stores in the city market of Medina are well known in Tripoli for their handmade instruments. A man behind me tells me, “this guy is the last man to make his drums by hand.” We were looking at a frail figure hobbling around between two towers of large tambourines. He has only one drum for sale and he wants 15 Libyan Dinar for it. I ask him how long it takes to make one of these drums, he thinks for a moment, “I can make three drums in a day,” he says. I decide to buy the drum and he takes the price down to 12 Dinars. I feel as though I am robbing him but he won’t accept an increase in pay. I ask for drumsticks, he makes a gift presentation that acts to make the idea of further payment ever more offensive. I thank him and move on.

The neighbouring craftsman takes us in amongst his instruments to show us his handmade horned zukra’s. I’m interested to learn how he made it and he takes it apart. The treated skin of a goat sown up just before the back legs, the front two legs stoppered by wooden pegs. A blowpipe enters the side of the bag. A larger stopper occupies the neck space. It is a wooden disk with an indent running along its side, this acts as a notch so it can be tied into the neck hole securely. The disk has two flutes poking out from it’s centre that are then adorned with goat horns on the end. He shows us how beeswax keeps the zukra’s flutes in place and what to do if the pipes become loose. I ask how much I can have one for. He says, “150 dinar.” Then laughing he tells me not to buy one, “it takes months to learn to play single notes let alone piece them together.” He is a big man and appears to have a lung infection of some kind. I brought the instrument. Sometimes it is not the things practical use that we want but the idea of it.

Wedding area for the Females (there will be a DJ but no live musicians at this wedding)
Wedding area for the Females (there will be a DJ but no live musicians at this wedding)

Both men, old and harbouring ails, appear to defy death perched on stools and at work making their instruments. For the Libyan public though these instruments are often perceived as having a one purpose value, Marriage ceremonies. Even then there is something of a novelty about the instruments and few people seem to want to know how to play them. These instruments are scorned, it seems, in favour of modern electronic music, and a connected concern here is that the craftsmanship that these two men have will likely disappear shortly after they themselves disappear.

Ingredients for Macaroona Bil-Busla
Ingredients for Macaroona Bil-Busla
Ingredients for Macaroona Bil-Busla
Ingredients for Macaroona Bil-Busla
Ingredients for Macaroona Bil-Busla
Ingredients for Macaroona Bil-Busla

My residence in Tripoli was a shared flat above several car mechanic garages in the suburbs of Felah, West Tripoli. A dozen men from the cities, towns, and villages, surrounding Tripoli lived in this apartment with me, car mechanics, taxi drivers, and self-employed teachers. Aside to insights into their lives including the daily routine of preparing Macaroona Bil-Busla; a pasta dish that they’d eat for dinner every day and typical of Libyan bachelors who lived away from home. I was able to speak with typical Libyans about their feelings about life in Libya as well as sharing other cultural experiences.

Fozie and the Darbuka
Fozie and the Darbuka

On a few occasions, we sat together playing the darbuka. One man among us stood out with his unabashed confidence. This man was Fozie, a car mechanic. As he drummed tambuka I asked him where he learnt to play. He told me “everyone plays darbuka, everyone in Libya.” When I pointed out that I had not heard anyone else play this drum he became pensive. Gaddafi had enforced prohibitive laws that had made cultural activities difficult. Regrettably this had stunted both the cultural knowledge of the people and put the culture in a state of reverse. Fozie deeply sighed, looked resigned and disappointed, shook his head, and exasperated stated, “Gaddafi.”

Increasingly the world media is highlighting cultural activities in Libya and often these document the re-emergence of creative pursuits, such as playing rock music, or access to recreational activities, such as having ice cream. Suggestions that Libya is culture-less are misleading and of course incorrect. An exceptional example and an environment that harbours its own novel identity is the public bus service. It is private, the bus drivers own their buses, and actually the buses are not really buses at all. Locally they are referred to as “Iveco” after the brand name and they are Italian vans. A peculiar characteristic is the Iveco drivers economical approach to space that goes to the extreme of sharing their own seat with passengers. Imaginably, the Iveco represent a part of Libyan society that verges on being culturally divergent.

The Iveco is known for its connection to drug addicts and dealers, however this reputation doesn’t put people off using the Iveco as a means of transport. Iveco keep patrons from a wide demographic of society and maintain a comparably vibrant environment.

Patrons of the Iveco expect to enter an environment that has been decorated with the driver’s selected images wherein they will travel to the accompaniment of excessively overdriven bass frequencies resounding from a DIY installed sound system. Often the Iveco are decorated with Italian or English League football flags and pictures of generic blond haired, blue-eyed, infants, proposing religious statements about religious commitment. Other popular images include family photos of the drivers children or photos of the Iveco that we are travelling in. The most fascinating aspect of these decorations, that an outside observer should be aware of, is the emergent sense of an open family or what could be described as a public celebration of family life. Family life in Libya is traditionally closed from the community that surrounds it and privacy is defended ferociously. These drivers who present their family to their customers, simultaneously make a bold and challenging statement about their humanity, identity, and family pride.

The Iveco van is a small space that simplifies social relationships, bundling everyone together, and bonding through the mutual intention to reach an en-route terminus. Because of the impracticalities of recognising sexual differences and even racial, political, and professional differences in such a small space, these prejudices are often sidelined. The compression of so many people together also means that small habits and behaviours are easily noticed.

On one occasion I stood in the aisle aside a seated young woman in her mid-20’s. We were taking the Iveco out of central Tripoli and she had taken out a dollar in advance of her coming stop. Libyan dollars, or one dinar notes, feature a portrait of Gaddafi on one side. The Iveco usually costs one dinar in the late afternoon and half a dinar in the morning. Unsuspecting, I watched as she deliberately folded the dinar, running the crease through Gaddafi’s printed body. Then with her nails she pinched Gaddafi’s face from the paper. Resting the note on her lap, she proceeded to shred Muammar Gaddafi’s face until the extract became too small for her to tear anymore and the pieces had fallen and scattered beneath her seat. The event had been interesting as a manifest expression of hatred, but it had occurred without any commotion or interest from anyone else on the bus.

Libya’s keyword is “change”. A word that is revolutionary in definition. However despite Libya’s post-revolution national “rebirth”, as it is called, the “new country” has struck up against the reality that life must resume from where it previously was. This was accompanied by a realisation that the Libyan people have a hole where a strong unifying identity should be. Without knowledge of its heritage, or a background of expression, the country is without choice but to look outside for support and recognition. The Iveco might have a fringe culture but even here they tilt towards western idols.

For this reason, Western nations continue to invest in setting precedents in terms of arts activities, video art exhibitions, and other cultural interventions. At least during this initial period of stabilisation, the initial response is to interpret such actions as displays of western supremacy. This could be due to the obvious lack of inclusion of some of these initiatives. Without a connection to Libya, without celebrating the Libyan as an equal in creativity, Libyans are prone to interpret such initiatives negatively. Creative initiatives in Libya would benefit greatly from a greater sense of inclusion, as is realised already by community arts initiatives all over the world.

Education is going to be the key that will open Libya up. This is regardless of whether that education comes through the media, the institutions that teach them, or the social activities that are available. It is clear that all of these will play a role. It also seems self-evident that the most accessible and valuable cultural activities are those that open up and promote the expression of working class people. These people are the Libyan community and are also the demographic most struggling to recognise their identity and future. It should be important therefore that initiatives being funded present the arts as contributions to the living society and the fabric of life. Possibly enriching daily routines with meaning, whilst reflecting the indigenous, cultural and social, interests and values. By developing avenues for expression, community work can not only allow for critical observations into social life but can open up an otherwise closed community.

As a field to which nearly all members of Libyan society are ignorant or naïve, the arts must to look to reflect local interests over and above those of international audiences. The current situation remains that art is made in Libya by outsiders for the outside world. This not only represents the historical low value and interest in the arts within Libya, but it also reflects a tendency of artists to take away from Libya rather than to give to it.

Gaddafi in a Bin

Libya: A Society in Transit

An empirical review of the social and political concerns that characterise Libyan society. Observations of a society in transit, remnants of the fascist regime, between revolution and stability.(2377 words)

It is December in Tripoli and I am taking the public bus out from the city centre. I’m standing above a seated woman in her mid-20’s who has taken out a one dinar note that will be handed to the driver when she disembarks. I look on past her scarfed head as she deliberately folds the paper note in her hand, running a crease through Gaddafi’s printed body. Then with long painted fingernails she pinches Gaddafi’s face from the paper. Resting the note on her lap, she proceeds to shred Muammar Gaddafi’s face until the extract becomes too small for her to tear anymore and the pieces fall and scatter beneath her seat.

courtesy of http://the-war-diaries.com
courtesy of http://the-war-diaries.com

The one dinar note that boasts Muammar Gaddafi’s portrait is widely vandalized, an act that in many ways epitomizes Libya’s sustained hatred. A hatred for the previous leadership and a sign that the country is still living with the memories, reminders and traumas of that period. Despite being routinely defaced, the Dinar’s has not collapsed although purchases including bus fares are often twice the price they were during Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime collapsed over a year ago but, as world media attests, Libya remains troubled by internal conflicts.

Routine Car search: Rebels in Uniform
Routine Car search: Rebels in Uniform

On Tripoli’s streets, concerns are voiced by regular office workers and students alike over extreme religious groups seizing influence amongst the desert people in the south. Rebel police perform routine car searches at road blocks in a hunt for wanted Gaddafi loyalists. As I was frequently warned by the Libyans whom I lived with, elsewhere in Libya rebels have turned vigilante, exploiting the lack of government organisation and absent social security. Even inside the capital city of Tripoli where I was based for two months in 2012, fears of gun crime remain high. A concern exacerbated by speculative knowledge of the number of weapons currently in circulation. Peculiarly, strangers will often boast of their weapon stash, I can recall the second day that I spent in Libya when I met a car mechanic who unexpectedly took me for coffee so he could practise his English. I never met him again but he bragged about his anti-tank weapon, his RPG, that “could be put together in seconds”, and yes he had used it.

Martry Square

Despite attempts to encourage weapon handovers, most households have stored weapons, from Kalashnikov’s to rocket propelled grenade launchers. Symptomatic of being a stranger in an unusual place, a wide variety of people will often come and speak with you. Sometimes the exchange is just to say something predictable as with one group of Benghazi rebels, all in their 30’s, on Martyr Square who wanted to see where I was from and state that they had fought against Gaddafi. Other interactions can result in longer relationships as with a group of four medical students, all 21, that I met on the bus. They too had guns and had fought in the revolution, though the sentiment from these young men was quite apprehensive of the sense of change the war had brought. As one put it, it is intimidating to shoot a gun “but once you have done it you are no longer scared”. Whilst it is widely trusted that the Libyan people will not carry or use these guns and as even those young students told me, “people are tired of fighting, we want to see things go back to normal,” there exist people who do use these weapons to commit crimes.

It seems thought that the worst of the revolution is over, business has resumed, entrepreneurs are taking opportunities, and people shop and participate in leisure activities. As this goes on though, government’s ministers repeatedly reassure the Libyan community that they are in a process of change; the country is restoring social security. More precisely, they mean to say there is no social security.

In December 2012 Libya democratically elected and decided upon a government. Libya’s appointed state leaders, elected ministers and political representatives, appear indisputably new. However Libya has been represented by supplementary ministers in many of its departments since before Muammar Gaddafi’s death, including those members of Libya’s transitory council. Those ministers who took occupations during the leadership of the transitory council of Libya are in most cases maintaining their positions. This is rising contest amongst some civilians who see the new government as failing to take the initiative in organising the country anew.

The immediate concerns being expressed are to do with Libya’s longterm future, its potential to function effectively as a democracy, and ultimately to do with risk of unethical practices by the country’s officials. The arguments being raised stress the importance of profiling ministers. If not by the current leadership, then internal security forces need to investigate the backgrounds of all political active figures and know where and from what background have they come. How did they acquire their role, did they experience or contribute to Gaddafi’s hierarchy of power, and how have they acted politically previously? In regards to this, members of the transitory council and the elected government are criticised for carrying out an obvious power seize. It is also contested whether the government should stringently reveal and remove ministers filtering through from the Gaddafi regime. The current government however does not appear to be interested in this question. Instead it has passed legislation protecting officials from political relegation if they’d aligned themselves oppositionally to Gaddafi before 20th March 2011. The publication of this legislation received some public disapproval though very few people rallied in protest.

Legislature exempting ex-Gaddafi ministers from ministerial relegation
Legislature exempting ex-Gaddafi ministers from ministerial relegation

The poor turnout, stated members of the protest, made them nervous and demonstrated a public lack of faith in protesting. Moreover it demonstrates how little the people want to participate in protests at a time when a concern for political transparency is questionable. Those Libyans present there on Martyr Square on the 16th of December were largely a mixture of international Libyans, working class civilians and members of society who had been criminalised by the Gaddafi regime. They insisted that Libya seeks to implement a policy of transparency as to prohibit the growth and dominance of corruption and social divides in the nation’s development. Led by a few louder members of the group, they protested that a new government should not allow Gaddafi ministers to take positions of power inside or outside of the Libyan government where it is within the power of the government to do so.

Clearly the issue of ethical practises when governing a country is a fundamental one. Gaddafi’s regime infamously propounded poor ethics that determinedly led to the revolution and Gaddafi’s demise. Character traits including moral corruption, money laundering, and exploitation of power, prominent during Gaddafi’s leadership, will not dissipate immediately. They will remain in the system as long as there is insufficient protection against them and whilst those who already have power and money are still able to use it for personal ends. As few government office positions are necessarily revealed or affected by elections, the government needs to act to apprehend and deter individuals who might be willing to corrupt the country’s development. This is not to suggest that government ministers should be paranoid of their colleagues, the government above all else must seek to maintain its internal effectiveness in cooperatively running the country. In other words, an important question needs to be answered: how can the public be sure that the government is acting in their interests?

Some of my housemates
Some of my housemates from Felah, Tripoli.

Due to the Libyan government’s history of corruption, as well as the repression of creative or opinionated expressions, many Libyan civilians are sceptical of their government’s honesty, are disenchanted with the merits on offer, and are generally pessimistic of their career prospects. I lived with 10 Libyan men who all worked as if they were in the lower echelons of society as taxi drivers, car mechanics, and teachers. These men occupied jobs that in Britain or many other countries they would be relatively well off. This is certainly true for the status of a teacher. However these men were atypical of this bleak view on the future. Their work appears futureless and the surrounding culture oppressive, and from the teacher’s perspective, the students and the future population of Libya too unconcerned with its future, perceiving learning was an unnecessary chore to life. In this light it is clear that Libya still has a long way to go before it’s revolution is truly over and that in many ways the fight has not ended with Gaddafi. Over the next few years the government should be asked by its people to develop the national identity of the Libyan people, to improve the education system and increasingly to address the problems caused by political, racial, and sexual divisions that currently reside within Libyan society. These are by no means small tasks and solving such problems will mean transforming the way that the Libyan population thinks.

In regards to division, the post-revolution period has seen little change for women except that over the past few years women’s rights groups and awareness groups, such as the GBV program: International Medical Corps have been able to establish themselves. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by affairs affecting a young Libyan female acquaintance of my own who was employed on the GBV program until December 2012, even women’s rights groups are internally affected by unfair sexual politics wherein men are able to casually incite libel and usurp the authority of female workers. Not only does this inadvertently discredit the women involved, but detrimentally affects the course of women’s rights work. Significantly, the effect of the revolution altered racial and political divisions to much more noticeable effect.

With the release of a newspaper in the Tuareg language, Tifinagh, it appears that racial differences may be given space to relax. Libya’s varying indigenous ethnicities are relieved of direct repression against their identity. However, given that Malian Tuareg’s were employed by Gaddafi as mercenaries, Tuareg populations are still cast with as much mistrust and disdain as they ever were. I had a short stint in a student recruitment office called The Attomouh Company just outside of the city centre, the manager there was prone to state his mistrust for anyone Tuareg but it was not this that surprised me. Opposite the office on the other side of the road there would accumulate a great number of immigrant workers, they would place a symbol such as a hammer or brick near the road to tell drivers what skills they had to offer. Drivers could slow down and pick workers up for the best possible price, sometimes taking as many as 12 men on the back of a truck. Occasionally rebels or police would drive up and the workers would run away in fear. Later I was told by a work colleague at Attomouh that “the police were supposed to arrest them” but they would occasionally take the opportunity to “beat them up.” She told me,”sometimes they kill them, yes, its no problem, no-one cares.”

The great number of sub-saharan African immigrants to Libya add only to social prejudices. Illegal workers, South African’s, including Malian émigré, do not just hire themselves for work at a reduced rate but they also risk a number of abuses including questionable attacks by police forces during raids targeting illegal workers.

Perhaps the most complex social phenomenon is the political division that has torn apart entire communities. Whole families have been uprooted from their homes, extradited from their community, and then forced to relocate to another area. This group is distinguished by its support and loyalty to Gaddafi and its affiliations with Gaddafi sympathisers. A significant proportion of this community is composed of the wives and children of Gaddafi Loyalists. In the suburbs of Tripoli there are purportedly three such communities, or rather camps, that are host to these politically displaced Libyans. One in Felah, West Tripoli, is said to be host to a community of displaced Libyans from Tawergha.

Camp for the displaced in Fallah
Camp for the displaced in Fallah

These camps are cramped. Inhabitants of the camps live in metal buildings and each of these will host more than one family. These communities are largely segregated from, and distrusted by, the surrounding neighbourhood, are perceived as dangerous and thriving with thieves and drug dealers. The reality is that the people in these camps are often families who simply need a home and a community in which they can survive. Whilst security conditions have improved, human rights NGO’s within Tripoli, including the IMC’s GBV program, report that women and children in these camps have often been raped or abused.

In regards to trust and responsibility in the public domain, the pattern for corruption and exploitation appears to have been duplicated from the image set by the previous government. An observation that presents a new problem. How to maintain an incorruptible government when the public domain is wrought with corruption? Moreover how can we recognise this corruption and how does it manifest itself? Gaddafi’s dictatorship itself was thoroughly corrupt, money had been the key to power, and that which could not be won over by skill or aptitude could be won over by coercion or by financial means. On an important note, a polarised landscape appears to have formed wherein generosity and sincere kindness is brought into ever closer proximity with bribes, exploitation and poor employment ethics. Formal monetary transactions appear to receive a deficit of respect to the effect that some Libyans, as employees at a central Tripolitan coffee store on Istiklal Avenue informed me, demand and take payment for a days work at the end of the working day.

Libya can appear as though it’s slipping a downward spiral in a chase for money despite it’s changing face and new attitude towards itself. This observation though would not be giving Libya any credit for what it has overcome. The characteristics of Libyan society have been cut into shape by its history and only now can changes come about. Not only are there the old problems left behind by Gaddafi’s leadership but the revolution has borne its own ugly children. Some of these children are more the uglier for the fact that the government has yet to establish social security within the country. The question is whether the new leadership is able to address the country’s problems and lead it forwards, encouraging unity, national identity, and providing social security, education, and, most importantly, futures for Libyan citizens. Or will it attempt to restore an image of law and order that the population is familiar with, i.e. by reinstating a facsimile of the previous authoritarianism. These outcomes can only be seen with time. As acknowledged by many Libyans, they know there are many years of change to come. A popular piece of advice from shop owners, taxi drivers, the students I met, and my housemates, to all travellers is, “Libya is not a good place to visit. Come again, in five to ten years.” “Then,” they say, “Libya will be the new Dubai.”

No real tourism just yet: Taking photographs in Libya
No real tourism just yet: Taking photographs in Libya