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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.