* 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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 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.
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.”