The Libyan Mentality, Revolution Hangover and my Return to the United States

Right now I’m sitting outside the men’s room at the Frankfurt Airport. I managed for a while at one of the bars. They asked that only paying customers made use of the area and its resources, but I didn’t mind providing my business. The bathroom was the only place where I could find an outlet for my power cord after the restaurants had closed, where I imagine the plug was mostly intended for use with electric razors. With the power draining from my computer it would have been a long night if I hadn’t found it.

The entire airport is virtually empty. There are only a handful of other early flight passengers such as myself trying to make the best beds out of uncomfortable chairs. Occasionally some janitorial or maintenance staff walk by. I’ve gotten some weird looks but otherwise I’m largely undisturbed. Every couple hours or so I’ve made a lap around the terminal. After the close proximity of the city, it’s relaxing to be alone. The airport is daunting. There are about five hours between flight activity in the night so I haven’t even had any planes to watch outside the window. Most of the shops were already closed when I landed at 7 p.m. so I couldn’t find or buy the second Game of Thrones book like I had wanted. Instead I picked up a couple of international editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and have been making due with those between bouts of writing. There is a lot of time to think and readjust.

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Yesterday while running errands with my cousin, frantic to finish any necessary business before my flight out of Tripoli left, I noticed a piece of English graffiti I hadn’t seen before.

“Be the change you want to see”

The sentiment is a common one, usually used as an inspiring facebook status or a graduation card from Hallmark. Cliched as it might be, it was all too appropriate a message for the audience. 

Out of all the people I’ve spoken with, family and friends alike, nobody is satisfied with the actions, or more accurately, the complete lack of action, taken by the General National Congress, the government elected to construct a permanent constitution for the country, including the rules for electing a more functioning legislative body and an acting president. In the year since their election, very little has actually been accomplished. The country is plagued by consistent power outages, an abundance of garbage, and grave security concerns. While most of the more serious attacks take place near Benghazi on the other side of the country including political assassinations and terrorist attacks, The highways around Tripoli operate in the same vein as the American Wild West. Renegade militia members robbed my uncle of his car at gunpoint last week on the same road I drove this morning to the airport. He was lucky to get away with his life. Kidnappings are not so rare as one would imagine or hope, with bumbling idiot criminals demanding meager ransoms for the return of loved ones. While I can’t verify the truth of such a story, this apparently happened to one of my distant family members. When the parents wouldn’t pay the progressively shrinking fee asked for a son’s safe return, he was eventually released anyway without a scratch.

The point is, the government lacks any teeth to maintain order in the country. Most of the more visible army members are stationed around the congress building itself, which has already been broken into on four occasions by disgruntled groups looking to voice their concerns. Many of the elected were educated in western institutions, and had returned to do their part in the rebuilding of the war torn country. There are rampant allegations of corruption after many of those particular officials disappeared. It was revealed that something like a billion US Libyan dinards, or something like 800 million dollars, was allocated to buy furniture for government facilities, all of which vanished.

In this way the elected leaders do themselves no favors. To most Libyans, they live lavishly with an abundance of security and free travel, where others live in fear of pirate-like groups roaming the highways, neighborhoods and countryside and have to wait weeks or months for a visa to Europe or nearly anywhere else. One person I talked to about international travel from Libya said that it was easier to get to the moon than it was to go anywhere in Europe. This difficulty coupled with an almost universal desire to get away from the current instability of the nation can make many of the people feel trapped or cut off from the rest of the world, an inconvenience that was hoped to have died with the suffocating foreign policies of the former regime.

The politicians have done next to nothing but squabble. In two years not much has passed. A resolution on barring former government officials from the political process and elected positions was passed. On the face of it it seems reasonable, except that the state was the country’s biggest employment provider and not everyone that received a pay check was in a position to make any real decisions. There is also an overall lack of experience in all levels of the government. The Interior minister has not had any positions previously that were remotely similar, and much of the blame for power outages can be and is put on him. In this way, the resolution prevents anybody that actually had any knowledge of how the government worked from being a part of it. On the face of it, the whole thing seemed to be a ploy to prevent particular rivals from making electoral challenges in the future.

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After an initial 5 hour flight, 14 hours of layover in a closed airport and another 9 hours of crossing the Atlantic and watching some newly released movies, I finally made it back to the United States. As usual the customs wait was long and frustrating. New passport scanning devices that passengers can use themselves have been installed at O’Hare. The TVs hanging over the lines promoted their use in between long displays of a variety of happy people living all over the United States. The propaganda promised smiling faces everywhere one looked and the ads for the scanners promised less waiting time. The automatic process was unusually painless for me, but others seemed to have some trouble operating the same machines. It didn’t seem to do anything anyway, as we still had to get in a line to present a printed receipt to a customs official. I guess he didn’t have to print it himself, which made it easier in a way. In any case he is where my problems began.

As soon as I mentioned “Libya,” I was escorted to another room with about 30 chairs, most of which were occupied. I was told my American passport had to be verified. I offered to show an officer my Libyan one was well but was told to hang on to it. I shouldn’t have really been surprised. Ever since the ambassador was killed, Libya can conjure up some vivid images in the American psyche, not totally without merit. The vast majority of people in the room seemed to be either Asian or of Middle Eastern descent. Names were called slowly, painfully so. Lots of officers seemed to just walk back and forth, either bringing new people in or just leaving. At one point, four uniformed officers walked into the back area joking with each other, and promptly left it from another door before leaving the room altogether. The man next to me, Canadian but looked Arab could have been both, whispered under his breath, “What a joke.” I couldn’t help but agree with him. Everybody looked clearly flustered. Some had transfers to make and still had to recheck baggage. Others, like myself, had family or friends waiting for them and no way to contact them. Cell phones were strictly prohibited as we were reminded by barking officers and restrictive signs. Not everyone spoke English very well, and officers made no attempt to disguise their annoyance, snapping at passengers and carrying condescending tones, contributing to the overall anxiety felt by everyone in the room.

After about an hour, which I had no way to tell as there was no clock in the room and I had no other way to tell time on my person, I was finally called into an interview room. The officer was overall quite respectful, and I want to give him credit for that, but it didn’t prevent the interrogation from being an unpleasant experience. That’s what it was, an interrogation. I had no cuffs and the room wasn’t like anything you’d see on an episode of Law and Order, but I was made to feel like a criminal. Questions were asked that demanded detailed answers, questions about my family, their names, where they lived, what I was doing there, what kinds of things I did on a daily basis, where I stayed, who I talked to, what I studied, where I was living now, why I was living there, what my girlfriend studied. In my nervousness I often over-answered, going on tangents and providing more detail than was asked for in an attempt to make what I was saying sound more plausible. He just asked for more details about my details. He asked to see my Libyan passport and questioned me about what I did for a week in Egypt in 2010. It felt a lot like a job interview, like I was obligated to prove something about myself to this stranger. And just like that I was handed my passport and told I could leave. I can understand the necessity of the process, I really can, there are some bad people out there. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Maybe it was the 34 hours without any good or consistent sleep but a little courtesy and an attempt at efficiency would have made the process much easier for everyone. I’ve never had a problem with customs in the past, so maybe some would say I was overdue, and I certainly don’t want to have any more in the future. In any case I was now happily back on United States soil, welcomed by blistering and heavy heat that had not been present in Libya.

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It has become apparent that Democracy as a concept is not only earned, but learned as well. Taking it by the barrel of the gun and paying with blood does no good if the commitment and values necessary to practice the art aren’t present. Many have become disillusioned, Democracy has broken too many promises, what’s the point of voting in the future if you can only get what you need by violent retaliation? The process appears to have been largely dismissed altogether. It doesn’t help that everyone seems to have their own idea of what freedom is. To many freedom is simply seen as the power to do whatever one wants to do. The freedom to take by force, the freedom to do nothing, to smoke hashish, to drift cars through traffic, to litter or to overcompensate for a clearly insecure sense of masculinity. It should go without saying that not everyone is like this, not even a majority, but there are certainly enough to wonder what anyone ever expected the fighting to amount to.

People all over love to talk about politics, but participation is seen as just being ineffectual. When asked what the biggest problem is, everyone gives the same response: The Libyan Mentality. The fighting is done, freedom is won, the bad guys are dead, achievement unlocked. Nobody else wants to put in the work, I’m told. They just want to blame all their problems on someone else. The irony is almost palpable. 40 years of totalitarian brainwashing leaves a stain on people.

For decades there was always someone to do the work, all of the thinking, all of the hassle. It only cost them constant fear embarrassment and death. 99% of Democracy is personal responsibility. Everyone takes credit for the success stories, and helps to shoulder the blame for the mistakes. For so long the easy and only thing to do has been to pass it all on to someone else. It’s still the easy thing, but no longer the only thing. Many people just can’t see that yet, too blinded by institutionalized cognitive dissonance to see the solutions standing right in front of their eyes. I try to tell people to remember the sleazy politicians and vote against them, vote for someone that promises to do better, volunteer time and work to get someone else elected. “Why vote for another fraud,” I’m asked. I couldn’t really give them a good answer.

In truth the work has only just begun. Governments are not made overnight, or over years, or even over decades. Most want the change immediately, only a precious few recognize the road ahead for what it is. Libyans are by and large good people. They can be generous, many want to look out for others, many more want this future they’ve earned to work. There are problems but people just want to live their lives in peace, like they do anywhere else. They watch what has been happening in Egypt, in Syria, and lately in Tunisia and count themselves relatively lucky. They still have a chance. They just need the patience to take it.

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It’s good to be back, really good. I love my country, I love both of my countries, but I am happy to be here. My jet lag has been persistent but overcomable, I had a real hamburger last night and it was delicious, the heat wave seems to have largely broken and I can stand in the sun without feeling cooked. There aren’t fireworks to keep me up at night anymore, now all I have to worry about is the unspeakably high crime rate in Chicago. I already miss a lot of things though. I miss my family, their generosity, their unconditional love, their poor attempts at English. I miss the salty smell of the sea, even if it was occasionally mixed with sewage. I miss the call of the Athan summoning Muslims to prayer, heard in almost all corners of the country wherever a mosque is in earshot. I didn’t always respond but it was comforting somehow, maybe the same way church bells can be for others or the morning calls of the birds in the warm months. I miss Libya, for all its current misgivings, it’s my country. So is the United States, and for now, it’s good to be home.

‘Reclaiming Arabic As a Language of Sex’

Very interesting piece on language and sexuality in Arabic culture. Some good questions are brought up like how certain forms of expression were tolerated and encouraged in medieval Islamic culture but have since become taboo.

Arabic Literature (in English)

Editor’s update, August 23: El Feki’s ‘Sex and the Citadel’ Makes Guardian First Book Award Longlist

Sarah Irving is attending the Edinburgh fest-a-thon. She reports:

By Sarah Irving

Sex and the Citadel calligraphy from websiteThe cover of the Canadian edition of Shereen el-Feki’s Sex and the Citadel is a stunning piece by Iraqi calligrapher Wissam Shawkat. Arabic script twines in and out, forming the shape of a female torso. The words are all long-forgotten Arabic terms for sex.

The beautiful, complex symbolism behind the image suits Shereen El-Feki’s book admirably. As she told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Arabic language has – or used to have – over a thousand verbs just for the act of having sex. Classical Arabic manuscripts in collections of rare books are filled with joyous and highly explicit descriptions of sex – not macho, male-focused sex, but sex which speaks of equality, female pleasure and…

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Jealousy for the Brave and the Dead

A few weeks ago one of my cousins came to the house where I was staying for Iftar. Generally he is a cheerful guy. He has duel Swiss/Libyan citizenship and speaks very good English, so we get along pretty well. We also share the same name, which is something I’m generally not used to. I don’t usually turn when someone says “Tarek” and find that they are talking to someone else. He has lived a long time in Switzerland, still has a daughter there, but came back to Tripoli sometime before the Revolution. My dad happened to Skype us while we were enjoying coffee. A Skype call to me tends to turn into a Skype call with everyone, where anyone in earshot becomes part of the conversation and I carry around the laptop. Seeing anyone from my immediate family is rare so chances are taken when they can be. My dad likes to walk around the house with his phone to give anyone who is watching a tour of our house in the United States. Similarly I’m herded about the house with the computer to show off my aunt’s own home.

We eventually settle in the kitchen holding my computer over the stove to show my dad the mmbubka cooking in the pot for Iftar (breakfast, this was still during Ramadan). He and Tarek (the other Tarek) got to talking as they don’t speak as often as my dad does with his brothers and sisters, exchanging familial updates and quick anecdotes, bringing me in occasionally to hear about my impressions of the country. Tarek is very friendly and experienced, so he and my dad get along well. His wife has recently earned a scholarship to study in the United States so he hopes to be able to move there relatively soon, and my dad is always happy at the prospect of potentially hosting a Libyan family member in his home, as it happens so rarely. After the call my dad sent me a link from NPR (National Public Radio, American state sponsored media) and asked me to bring it up to Tarek later to hear his story.

Tarek had been a fighter in the Revolution. He had snuck away from the city to the mountains to train. He had followed the fighting down the mountains back to the city. He’d spoken with NATO officers and done interviews with the BBC. Much of the war was documented on his Iphone in some 30 hours of video before it was unfortunately stolen. He had seen our cousin Ahmed die in the foothills. He’d seen a lot of people die. If anything from the past had bothered him, it didn’t seem to any longer. He was the same cheerful guy I remembered seeing on past visits, if we happened to be in the country at the same time. You’d hardly known he’d seen the horrors of war just talking to him now.

Photo by Ayman Oghanna for NPR

The story my dad had sent me was about a father and son from Pittsburgh. It took some working up to, but after the meal I brought my computer over to Tarek to show him the article. He glanced over the headline and narrowed his eyes at a picture of two men posing in army camouflage with a rifle. “I knew those guys,” he said after his examination. “I watched them die, right in front of me.”

Between the article and my cousin, I got most of the story. He told it very bluntly and straight, as if he had done so already a million times, but not so that he sounded tired of telling it. His voice had a heavy quality that could have been just as attributable to his smoking or my imagination, otherwise there was no trace of burden; just another story of loss among many. The two men were father and son, American expats fighting in the Revolution. The father had grown up in Zawiya, a town near the bottom of the Nafusa mountains. He had moved to the United States at a young age, got married and raised a family. His history is similar in that respect to my own father’s. When his nephew had been killed by Gaddaffi forces, he and his middle son had flown to Tunisia and crossed the border into Libya. The NPR article stops its report here. Its last thoughts are a quote from the son:

“If I can help participate and fight and free Zawiya, I’d be very happy to do that,” Malik says. “It would be a dream come true.”

The rest of the tale is left to my cousin. After arriving in the mountains, the pair spent two to three weeks in training, along with Tarek and many other Libyan Revolutionaries. Tarek recounted having many talks with them in that time. The son, Malik, spoke very little Arabic so having a fluent English speaker around was probably a relief given the circumstances. Tarek  heard many stories about their family, where they lived, where Malik grew up. He remembered the city, Pittsburgh, but had a little trouble recalling which state until I reminded him. “It sounded like a good place,” he told me.

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After all too short a time, the training was finished, and it was time to fight. At the bottom of the mountain, loyalist forces had set up a barricade on the road to Zawiya and Tripoli, blockading any travel between the cities and the rebel infested mountains. In the dirt, behind hills, there was nowhere to go but forward. The father went first and was immediately gunned down. His son followed helplessly to save him, and met the same fate. He was shot in the head. Just like that. Thousands of miles and weeks of preparation and it was over. “A dream come true,” he’d told NPR.

I could have been him. At times, I really wanted to be him, to be there. After hearing the story, all of my excuses for not going felt hollow: I didn’t speak Arabic, I was going to school, I was young, I was inexperienced. It’s not often that something comes along that’s really worth dying for. Lives are precious, and losing them for a cause, even a just and noble one, is no trivial thing. I had my chance and let it pass because I told myself the logistics were inconvenient. Instead of the war I went to the bar. Instead of bleeding in the dirt I got drunk and cried. I streamed Al Jazeera live for hours, frequented internet forums, made posts on facebook that probably did more harm than good and had my friend make a beautiful flag that I could show off and feel better about. That was the extent of my service, of my patriotism.

As a further supplement to my guilt, Malik and I might have been more alike than I will ever know. Like me, he’d spent summers in Libya with his family and through American eyes built perceptions of its people.

“I thought they were like bums. They stay in the streets; they smoke; they put gel in their hair. And that’s all they care about,” he says. “I didn’t know they had it in their hearts to stand up and be brave and risk their lives … for a just cause like this.”

It is hard to tell if things have really changed at all. In the aftermath of war, more people than not seem to have reverted to the former category, but what right do I have to judge? In the end I was no different than the bums, except when the time came I couldn’t be counted among them. Any criticism I may have of Libya in the years after its revolution carries this weight and even those who didn’t fight but merely lived through the ordeal have more right than I to take responsibility for what is left.

Ultimately I may have been right not to go. Because Malik and I seemed to have shared many of the same qualifications to fight with the exception of the glaring discrepancy in bravery to his advantage, it would be reasonable to believe I would have met the same fate. I have a great life, with a wonderful family and fantastic friends, Malik certainly had nothing less to lose but still saw fit to pay the price. For that I will always carry some regret that I couldn’t do or give more, when he and many others could and did give everything.

A cemetery for martyrs

My father, in his bid to convince me from going, told me that the hardest work will come after the fighting is done. Acknowledging that having done nothing myself and in lacking all credibility on the matter, I’m inclined to agree. This summer has painted a clear picture for me of some of the structural problems plaguing the young government. Although I will feel the fool, I will address the issue as objectively as possible, because now that the fighting is done, I’m not sure what else there is that I can do to help my country, but to be as honest as I can whenever I point out its problems, and tell its stories.

My cousin Tarek is planning on travelling to Boston in the future, along with wherever his wife ends up going to for school. While in the U.S. he hopes to have the chance to visit the family of the fallen father and son in Pennsylvania. Maybe I can work up the courage to go with him, and apologize for not finding the bravery to fight when the time came, opting instead to be critical of the pieces when the breaking was finished.

Eid Mubarak! Libyan Culture and the Dilemmas of Trying to Learn the Arabic Language

First and foremost: Eid Mubarak! This past week saw the end of the holy month of Ramadan heralded by a three day holiday full of family, food and festivities of various kinds. I’ve been periodically posting pictures of the delicious looking and tasting food through updates to THIS post, be sure to check it out if you haven’t already or even if you have. The holiday is celebrated here by visiting as many people as possible and escaping the traffic of Tripoli in the mountains. The morning prayer at the mosque was crowded. Despite having seemingly massive mosques every two blocks, minarets cutting the sky visible from virtually anywhere in the city, It was full of people all squeezed together shoulder to shoulder for the prayer. The body heat alone would have been suffocating if it hadn’t been for the AC running on full blast. While prostrated the cool air felt like the refreshing breath of God.

The morning was a relatively short affair compared to some of the services I’ve attended in the United States. Directly after my uncle and I walked to see my grandfather. I’ve mentioned this before, but he is old. Very old. His skin is thin and fragile, covered with bruises from the merest touch. His hearing is largely deteriorated but he prides himself on the health of his eyesight. His conversation topics are few, varying between his age and how many different governments he’s lived to see (five). He is also incredibly devoted, a standing pillar of faith. In his age he takes comfort in reading and re-reading the Qur’an. Over Ramadan alone he must have read it a dozen times. Despite his age and occasional illness he fasted as well. He had to be reminded that Ramadan had ended and it was all right to eat again. Because of his age he commands the respect of many, both inside and outside of our family. As the day progressed, more and more people filled the house to celebrate and wish him and others well and a happy Eid.

There are a lot of people coming and going at the house. Some I recognize, others I certainly should. Even in my new souria (some traditional garb)

Common traditional clothes in Libya

I am pretty distinguishable in the crowd, a fact I am reminded of when I’m told I take after my mother. Besides my difference in appearance and despite (or more actually exacerbated by) my raggedy beard I’ve been too lazy to shave, there are a multitude of other mannerisms that clearly set me apart, not least obvious of which is language.

The Arabic language is as homogeneous as the entire Islamic and Middle Eastern world are, which is to say not at all. While all Arab speaking countries, from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen, all technically speak Arabic, each dialect is widely divergent from the next and is nearly impossible to speak with someone the next country over, despite technically speaking the same language. Some exceptions exist, notably the Egyptian dialect is more recognized because of the wide circulation of Egyptian films over the years. While a classic Arabic exists, known as Fus-ha, it is largely only used in literature and media. While it is widely understood and taught in school (most of the time) it is spoken rarely and if heard in person takes some time to process. While classic Arabic is immortalized by the Qur’an in elongated enunciation and rhythmic verses, Libyan Arabic can seem almost unrecognizable by comparison having been co-opted by Italian colonizers. Considering my experience understanding Arabic is largely limited to a few classes of Classic Arabic, this can make basic conversation and comprehension difficult. What little I do know is often met with vacant stares for a few moments before understanding creeps in and occasionally a small compliment for “knowing” the language of the Qur’an.

A writer at the Economist sums up the issue nicely:

For those who revel in linguistic diversity, this is all good fun. For those who want languages in general to “behave”, and for those in particular who want Arabic to be a single, graspable thing, this is a mess. For the language learner, it’s a daunting task. To be competent in “Arabic” means to learn one language to read and write, and a related but rather different language (like Latin and then Italian) to be able to speak. On top of that, the poor foreigner will be limited to understanding only a fraction of the Arab world.

For those interested in reading the article in its entirety (very informative for the language types, I would recommend it) they can find it HERE.

Besides making communication frustrating and at times, hilarious, it provides other cultural barriers as well. Not being able to reasonably understand members of my family lead me to often refrain from participating in conversations that are dominated by Arabic. I can’t force my language on them after all, and it is my responsibility to learn the language for myself. I do this mostly by listening, picking up on key words and asking what they mean or putting it into context.

That doesn’t always mesh well with my family.

Libyans are incredibly social people. Living alone is virtually unheard of and spending any time alone or avoiding social contact is a reason for others to be concerned. Me sitting in the corner surrounded by people I should know (at least they know me) on a holiday keeping mostly to myself is enough to prompt many to repeatedly ask me “how are you?” and “how is your family?” (usually the only English they might know) in an effort to keep me in the conversation. If I don’t willingly jump in on my own, if only to at least ask someone for water or something, then accusations of shyness are inevitable. Shyness can seem almost rude, or at least unappreciative on the part of the guest. Shyness extends to other things as well. To refuse anything, food, drink, an invitation to go out, for any reason, politely or otherwise, is usually met with stiff resistance. During Ramadan, for example, if I said I was finished eating after Iftar, I was almost guaranteed to be met with at least two or three insistent offers of more food. This was especially interesting because I would notice that most of my family members would eat less than I do before excusing themselves. This is doubly funny because one of the few things I can proficiently say in Arabic are refusals, so in these instances there is no language barrier. As far as going out is concerned, I refuse as little as possible, but occasionally liked to have a night in as constant struggles with jumping between languages and meeting strangers can be exhausting over time, and was met with more than just token resistance if I did. I find this a little ironic because going out usually involves going to the same coffee shop to hear the same people complain about how little there is to do in Tripoli.

So went Eid. Fortunately my Arabic (Libyan) has made leaps and bounds since coming at the beginning of the summer (at least I like to think so, its hard to tell just when my family is being nice). At the bequest of many I have taken to speaking Arabic when I can, which serves as good practice. I get less accusations of being shy, either because I speak marginally more or because much of my family has caught on I don’t speak as much as they do. More likely it’s a combination of the two. Language has never been my forte, so I still struggle with mixing classic and Libyan Arabic, and occasionally Spanish gets tossed up for some reason, so any progress is good progress. One of the things I regret in my life is not knowing more Arabic, so I hope that this trip serves as a proper kick in the ass, much like I wanted the last trip to and the one before that.

All in all a good Eid. For the second and third day I had the pleasure of returning to the mountains to spend time with a couple of my cousins rather than my uncle. There was camping on some of my family’s land at the foot of the mountain, where we had a barbecue and lounged for a while beside the fire. I couldn’t really take a picture of it, but the stars are beautiful even at the bottom of the mountain. One of my cousins did most of the cooking himself, sans any utensils but was somehow surprised each of the six times he was burned picking up the chicken from the grill. In a related event and on topic with my culture theme, I heard old stories about my dad from how brave he could be in his childhood. Unfortunately the Libyan “brave” can often be synonymous with the English stupid, like fighting a revolution with no shoes and a toy gun or grilling over an open fire with bare hands. I had heard the stories and brought up the lack of a distinction, and of course Libyans are also just as aware of this crazy factor, not that it makes much of a difference but in the end it’s all just part of the game. Libyans aren’t stupid by any means, not anymore than anyone else, but there certainly is a clear cultural difference around Libyan bravado than there would be in other countries. I’ll likely address this more in depth in the future.

Our camping spot

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Back at the house with my cousins

Due to a miscommunication, another cousin and I returned to the Amazigh house that I talked about HERE. Turned out to be worth it however as we got a more extensive tour and the presence of another English speaker was immensely helpful. Besides my cousin, each of the four women caring for the house this time spoke English as well and had spent some time living in the United States and Europe. Among English and Arabic, they also understood Spanish and Italian, making my own language concerns seem trivial. They even knew a bit of Amazigh, but had some trouble coming to a consensus of how to spell my name in the language. They were just as hospitable as anyone in my own family and insisted we stay for coffee and homemade shawarma (like a kebab).

While I make many complaints about language or understanding, even with my English speaking cousins, it only comes from the frustration of my own difficulty to grasp it. Despite this, I really seemed to have made leaps and bounds. Where before I would give up and admit my lack of understanding or just explain in English and hand gestures, I now manage small explanations in Arabic, enough to convey my meaning and even make jokes. The progress that comes from just a couple months in language comprehension is astounding when heavily involved in the environment. I was skeptical before of family members informing me that one year would be enough to speak like a native, but I dismissed these inferences as efforts to keep me in the country. Now I’m almost convinced it wouldn’t take nearly so much time as long as I put the work into it, but such work will have to be done Stateside.

The trip back was quiet and the country roads were mostly empty (compared to what it is usually anyway). My cousin and I headed back late and didn’t make it to Tripoli until after dark. The day, and whole weekend, had been long and exhausting, almost as much as the fasting itself. Getting back to my grandfather’s house, I was met with even more visitors trickling in despite the late hour, demonstrating how respected my grandfather is, that even after three days there are still people coming to see him (much to his own discomfort I’m sure, greeting so many people can be exhausting even for a younger man). I went to bed relatively early and have been nursing an annoying cold ever since.

There’s Blood in the Mountain: Part Two

Later we picked up another friend of my uncle named Fuad. He knows much more English and it was refreshing to speak somewhat freely and unbroken. We took another long drive through the mountain towns. Again I didn’t know where we were going. Fuad talked a lot about the Revolution. He’d claimed to have spoken with western representatives, asking what sort of help the region could use in the post-Gaddaffi era. “We need help to help ourselves, to be independent,” he told them and me. Occasionally he’d stop to point out old Gaddaffi family houses or battle sites, how this road and that post were important during the war. He told a grim story about 30 some Amazigh people from the nearby villages were massacred to spite their rebel fighter kin. The cold blood of the killers and the dead had only boiled the blood of the living, and the fight went unfettered. There was a memorial ground where the dead were buried, and that’s where we were headed.

The graves

List of the buried

The cemetery was guarded by three men, not with guns but strange looks. We exchanged casual hellos and let them let themselves go back to lounging. A young boy runs back and forth between the TV inside and the men outside. He looks confused and curious. The graves were behind metal bars and commemorated with a billboard like the ones found along the roads in town and in the city, every martyr immortalized like an advertisement for a Big Mac along the Interstate for the time being. They sat below a short rise, on which stood an old roman tower, crumbling with age but a seemingly appropriate sentry. The graves themselves were neat and orderly, slabs of clean marble to mark each of the dead. They looked eerie, untouchable beyond the fence but it was for the best. There was no garbage or graffiti to sully the grounds here.
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The path above the graves was marked with empty casings in neat rows like a lead line in the sand, the way a kid might arrange them if he were bored. Countless spent bullets guided us up to the space beneath the ancient Roman tower. Another hulk of an empty military grade vehicle sat covered with more painted messages proclaiming victory and celebrating a free Libya.

What awaited us was a collection of used weapons from the war, like relics in an interactive museum. Various RPG launchers were arranged upright in preordained patterns, painted in the likeness of the revolutionary flags. Beneath them sat boxes still full of mortar shells. For all I knew they could still be live. Discarded machine guns, anti-aircraft weaponry and a multitude of other war paraphernalia all decorated with more incarnations of the revolutionary flag and various curses and slogans, stood on exhibit for us as the only current patrons. Further along, shell casings were arranged to spell names and more slogans over the ground. It seemed absurd; not in any sense of disrespect or disdain but as an environment that was just completely unexpected. Among the graves below was a distinct attitude of reverence, and not thirty feet away was a glorification of the means of their massacre. While the two are not wholly contradictory, I couldn’t help but feel like it was walking through the playground outside an abortion clinic. It wasn’t uncomfortable; just surreal.

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In a way, it put things into perspective. Years after Gaddaffi’s death and the end of his regime, I get the feeling many of the people can’t let go. Besides the nightly fireworks like poor substitutes for NATO bombs and the mafia meets the wild west attitude of militia members, jihadists and actual bank robbers, the most popular sold Ramadan toy for young boys are toy guns, available at every market street corner along with wind up teddy bears that ride tricycles in circles. I like to think I get it, like I do most things, that the revolution was hard fought, that the heroes available, in lieu of accomplished politicians and honest public figures, are the smiling faces of the dead draped with imported arms staring back while everyone’s stuck in traffic for three hours of every day. Looking at this 17 year old who now only exists in this plane of existence on plastered paper ends up serving as a constant reminder of what was fought, rather than what was died for, which is of course, beside the point. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We took a lap around the ruins the war memorabilia surrounded. Caves scratched in beneath the decaying tower, maybe hundreds of years old where Roman soldiers once had barbecues and talked shit had much more recent smoke stains on their ceilings from the Libyans that do the same. Fuad sighed and tsked. These caves were a part of history; not a place to discard empty bottles and scratch names in the walls. Parts of the path were overgrown with grass. I was told to be careful of scorpions and snakes that liked to hid in the dry bushes.

122The whole site itself was the nearly incomprehensibly complementary forces of the old, the present, the dead and the earned. We’d been the only ones there. When we left we gave the caretakers a polite thank you and good bye with a quick handshake. More strange looks, more explanations, more nods of what I thought and hoped were approval. Twin Revolution flags flew high from a building across the street. Visibly tattered as they blew in the wind so one could know they were from the war.

Later on my uncle picked up more of his friends and we took another drive. Not far from his home, his truck found its way to the end of the village and the edge of the rocky and barren wilderness. The truck followed along a makeshift path barely visible in the dwindling sunlight. The track was perilous. A single wrong move would plunge the vehicle and all its inhabitants to the bottom of the mountain. The last time I remember making this drive it was the middle of the night. We were going to a common spot for our family and the village overlooking the valley below the mountains. After parking, we set up at the edge of the cliff with a gas heater for tea and coffee. Again, my uncle and his friends mostly chatted, including me occasionally to inquire in my studies and suggested I stay to teach English in Libya, a common topic of conversation with those of limited English. Over the valley was the village my dad and his family grew up in. 138I could see the abandoned old homes my dad’s shown me on multiple occasions, homes that would resemble the one we saw earlier, without electricity, or running water and a four mile walk to the nearest school, all the “back in my day” kind of talk people make fun of in older cartoons, jokes that even now feel outdated and the source material distant to my American sensibilities. Where we sat now I know my dad would walk to almost daily from the house with his brothers and the family donkey, navigating the steep cliff paths through the valley where I could see lone palm trees standing like monoliths.

A beetle with great effort ascends the rocks and my uncle and his friends take to giving it back to the mountain too, taking sport in tossing loose stones its way and watching it dodge them narrowly. It picks up on the attack and takes refuge in the dry bush nearby and the old men laugh to themselves like satisfied teenagers. I might have been able to take the moral high ground if I didn’t throw rocks too.

140Scanning the horizon, my uncle told me about the college on the far mountain where I could get a job if I wanted it and where Loyalist artillery were stationed and fired shells over mountains onto militia soldiers and their innocent families. Similarly scanning the ground I found a used shell casing from a rifle. More likely it was from target practice than the war, but my uncle told me sometimes the soldiers would hide out from this spot. I gave it back to the mountain, tossing it down the cliff and waiting for the distant, small and satisfying sound of it hitting the rocks below. I had momentarily considered keeping as a souvenir but didn’t imagine any TSA agents scanning my luggage would feel as sentimental about a bullet casing in the bag of a Libyan national coming back to America. It might have raised some awkward questions in the least.

With the passing of the time the sun dips lower, painting the mountains a stark red and gold like a polished rust or molten copper. The blood of the mountains, eons old, reaches out from between the stones hungry to devour the dying light. Unknown generations of my own blood are buried in these rocks as well, and it reaches just as eagerly and shines just as brightly. There’s magic in the mountains, a core shaking call to arms impossible to resist. Pride is another form of magic after all, and it’s fed with the humble and martyr’s blood alike.152

The drive back seemed much less perilous, even as it was darker. Maybe it was just the side of the truck I was sitting on. The old men stayed up late smoking cigarrettes between sips of tea and watching a Tunisian talk show. It seemed a lot like Jerry Springer, with all the drama but none of the vulgarity where people would be paraded before the camera to be reunited with estranged family. My uncle tsked. “So sad,” he said, alternating the channel between that and coverage of the Egyptian coup. Before going to sleep, he showed me the newly available Amazigh channel, featuring a news ticker in multiple languages at the bottom and a logo one of my cousins designed in the upper corner.

There’s Blood in the Mountain: Part One

It was just my uncle and me. The road is long but straight from Tripoli to the Nafusa mountains, where my family comes from and a great deal of the Amazigh population of Libya. Libya is different outside of the city. There is still garbage and crazy drivers, but on a lower octave than the city itself. It isn’t the desert yet but there is empty space in every direction. Where Tripoli can feel so claustrophobic, the sky is so wide in the countryside you feel like it could swallow you up. There is an occasional town or market along the road. We stopped at one to pick up some produce. The whole market was sprawled out beneath a large tent sitting alone beside the road. My uncle seemed to know the owner, which isn’t a surprise considering he makes the trip often. He handed me a fig to sample. It felt soft and dense in my hand, like a small water balloon. I pulled away at its peel and bit its cauliflower-white insides. Sweet purple juices oozed out from between the seeds and left my lips and fingers sticky. We picked out some dates and watermelon to supplement our stock of food for the weekend and got back on the road.

“Zawiya” the name of a town where much of the fighting took place

“Al Touyra” The Revolution

My uncle speaks only a little English, so the drive was mostly a quiet one. The radio was alternated between whatever Arabic talk show was in range at the time and we occasionally asked what such and such word was in Arabic through exacerbated pointing.The aluminum carcasses of totaled cars, black with burns and rust, lined the side of the highway in piles like the bones of an elephant graveyard. The way some people drive on these roads; cutting between industrial trucks going opposite directions on a two lane highway, it wouldn’t surprise me if most of them were wrecks. Others looked like they were riddled with bullet holes. They accompanied some of the abandoned (inoperable) tanks gutted and left behind after the Gaddaffi regime.
Revolutionary slogans covered them in rebel paint much like they did everything else in the country. We stopped to take a picture, what was once a symbol of tyrannical power was now nothing more than my tourist trap. Back on the road, my uncle pointed out some of the more conspicuous scars of the war. “NATO” he’d say curtly at the crumbling ruins of blackened concrete rubble. Industrial clouds of white dust were a common sight along the road at manufacturing plants my uncle told me were for making glass. Their numerous trucks were easily identified, with the sand flying from their beds, as were the cars that had driven behind them.

The site of the battle

As we approached the foothills my uncle pointed towards them. “Ahmed, he die there.” he said very matter of factly, his voice hoarse with broken English and decades of smoking. Ahmed was a distant cousin of mine, not one I’ve ever really known. If I had met him it was only in passing in one of my other visits. He was younger than I was, even three years ago, when he was gunned down in the fight as a member of the militia that came down from the mountains when they met with loyalist forces at the bottom. Seeing where he died made the posturing by the tank seem stupid, even if my uncle had insisted on taking the picture.

The road is winding as it climbs the mountain. Looking down from the gradually elevating car it was easier to see just how open everything was beneath it. The sun was dipping into the clouds over the city from where we came. Some more garbage lies strewn across the side of the road, seemingly forgotten, and where there are no walls the graffiti is left on ancient stone along the climb. The village at the top is old, where the roads are made of dirt and sand, the walls of buildings look sick with age, and the satellite dishes jutting from the roof tops are overly conspicuous.

the towns

another view

My uncle makes frequent waves from his truck window. The community is small and every face is familiar. Even mine, distinctly American, carries my father’s name in inquisitive introductions. It’s already dark when we get to his house. The air is cool on the mountain top but he turns on the ac first thing upon coming in. The TV is turned on while he changes into traditional clothing and prepares dinner. I sift through some of the Arabic channels, not understanding most of it, before he comes back with a macaroni dish we share. After eating we navigate the darkness behind his home to reach his neighbor’s, who is also a relative of mine. Despite being older than my dad, my uncle can be pretty spry. In the dark the “back yards” which are really just hillsides can be harrowing, and the path winds over various elevations and steep steps. Over the stone wall is my uncle Said’s house. Some of his grandchildren were playing behind the house, the back door wide open so that I could hear the recognizable themes of some American cartoons. My uncle announced himself and me and asked the kids to get their grandfather. He emerges from the house followed by mats, pillows, tea and coffee and we lounge on the concrete beneath the stars in classic Libyan fashion. the tea comes with some dry sweets, not unlike baklava, that I choke down at my host’s insistence. Libyan deserts have always been a little too sweet for me. Dogs howl somewhere in the neighborhood and a fox or something like it howls back form the mountain.

The kids are still there. One little boy is climbing the water pipe/makeshift clothesline outside the house. His young sister paces around our circle with her other brother. They come back out of the darkness with a small kitten they found prowling around their hunting grounds, hardly bigger than my hand. It seemed scared but not defensive, its a stray but it might have played with these kids often. While the old men chat in Arabic I say what I can with the kids. I know enough Arabic to ask what something means in English and we act out what we can’t say, so we exchange some words. Things like: what is a rabbit? what is a dog? what is a wolf? They giggle at my bunny ears, moon-howling and my failure to pronounce basic words properly, and overall seem happy to add some foreign vocabulary to their mental dictionaries. The men laugh at our games and bring me back into the conversation. I can pick up enough to know when they are talking about the revolution. Sometimes it’s how things are better and other times its how they’ve gone to shit. Ahmed was Said’s son, the one he died at the mountain’s bottom. The pump for the well is loud and even though it was late the men could be heard trying to tame its dense and mechanical growls. My uncles listened and I heard them hope the power doesn’t go out.

A new statue near the town’s center

The next day after going to the mosque for Friday prayers, my uncle and I took a short tour of the mountain towns. There are several distinct towns and villages in close proximity, so that they might almost seem as one. In the city I’ve met a few other Libyans that hail from the same mountain and there is often an instant connection. It isn’t blood, but these people have been neighbors for centuries. The changes here are much more noticeable than the ones in the city. Amazigh flags fly more proudly than the Libyan ones, and stores have displays in the Amazigh language, things unheard of under the regime. There is even a statue at the center of a roundabout of its six-pronged spear, like a trident at both ends that decorates each flag.

The Amazigh alphabet, quite different from Arabic

In the language, “Amazigh” means “free people.” The final push for Tripoli by the rebels was made from these mountains, while the militias from Benghazi were halted at Sirte. There is great pride in it, and the people do not forget. The dead are celebrated on billboards across town with Libyan and Amazigh flags like twins adorning their images. We passed the one for my cousin, Said’s son.

I wasn’t sure where we’re going, and my uncle seemed a little unsure as well. We stopped some playing children in a narrow street to ask for some directions and a little girl bid us to follow her only a short ways more down the road. My uncle thanked her and we got out of the truck. No one seemed to be around, but my uncle led me into a house. “Welcome” the door says in English, Arabic and Amazigh. The first room is full of ornaments and knick-knacks. At the table was a jar asking for donations of 5 Libyan dinars. We walked through and my uncle explained that this is an Amazigh house, preserved like a museum. Again, such things were unheard of before the revolution, but since there has been a dramatic resurgence of the culture, even the suggestion that many more Libyans are unknowingly Amazigh than previously thought has become a popular notion, especially among the Amazigh.  Walking through, I see the house as one my dad grew up in, without electricity or running water and how far he must feel from these mountains.

The center of the Amazigh home

Each bedroom,  the lounge, the kitchen, and open space between them all with a single tree reaching out above the rooftops are all inviting and familiar. On the way out my uncle leaves two bills in the donation jar. I don’t have my wallet so unfortunately I can’t do the same, not that my uncle would let me spend any money.

Some dishes in the kitchen

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A lounge, one of several

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The Amazigh flag

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The date celebrated as the revolution’s beginning