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 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.
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.
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.
The 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. I 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.
Scanning 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.
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.