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


One thought on “Out of the Ashes: Identity & Creativity in Post-revolution Tripoli

  1. Reading this entry you might begin to believe that Libya is not as dangerous as it often presented to be. The reality is that it is dangerous, locals are equally as at risk of being attacked, abducted, raped, assaulted as anyone else. When this entry was written it was clearly written with the intention of avoiding a prescribed interpretation of Libya. It provides only a cursory view of life in Libya and skips past the serious issues that undercut everyday life. There is no real discussion of the issues surrounding limited access to parts of the city or that women are subjected to humiliation almost as a matter of existing. Again, these arguments have been omitted for the purposes of providing an alternative look at Libyan culture. However it has sacrificed the more important discussion of contemporary social politics and shrugs off issues of concern that might result in a misapprehension about the attitudes that Libyans actually have with each other and foreigners.


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