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.

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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