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.

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