*If you just want to see the interview, scroll down about midway through the page.*

Libya is by and large, perhaps unsurprisingly, a masculine society. While I went out for coffee or drives often when going about Tripoli, it was almost exclusively with men. There was very little opportunity to meet women that were outside of my family. I was introduced to a few during preparations for my cousin’s wedding, some of her friends would be at the house to help her out, but this was nearly always a surprise occurrence after I was returning from a night out and I would generally feel compelled to leave them be. Upon entering the home of one of my cousin’s friends it would be customary to wait outside the door while the host would let everyone inside know that there was a guest, presumably to provide the women in the house enough time to prepare themselves for male guests from outside of the family. That’s not to say adorning the hijab was by any means obligatory, I saw many women walk the streets without them while I was in Tripoli, although they certainly were in the minority. From what I could observe it was just an common cultural practice. While I’ll admit this is far from a perfect analogy it would be like the common expectation in the United States that women wear bras when outside the home, or that everyone wears shoes when out and about.

There are many customs still practiced in Libya that may be seen as nearly inconceivable by others. Arranged marriages are still a common and encouraged practice where couples are only introduced for a short courtship before matrimony. Note the distinction between arranged and forced, where ultimately the bride makes the decision to marry or not after being approached by a suitor. One of my cousins has turned away many would-be grooms in this fashion. Women on the whole to me seemed to be doing better in Libya, another cousin of mine participated in a group that ensured women were  not disenfranchised at the polls during elections. The need for such an organization may speak volumes on its own, but is still a step in the right direction. All in all my understanding of the role of women in Libya is admittedly limited. I just didn’t have the prospect often to hear another side of the story.

Keeping in mind that I did not have any great opportunities to speak with Libyan women outside of my family, I managed to do something that I thought was pretty cool the day before I left. I had brought along my camera with me for a reason besides capturing evidence of Libyan insanity on film in all its high definition glory (which didn’t really pan out anyway as I just never seemed to have my camera handy for when such instances occurred). I had really wanted the opportunity to speak with and interview on camera a special interest group in Libya, one that could directly speak to some of the changes since the end of the revolution, that demonstrated that Libyans did care about where the country was headed and what they could do for it in a civilian role. During Ramadan I had seen a public service announcement air on one channel of Libyan television. I remember liking it because I could easily understand the animated sequence it was presented in, rather than in the language I couldn’t understand. The sequence depicted two families: one where a young boy grew up with loving parents and how he treated his own family when he was older juxtaposed with a young man that grew up in a household with domestic abuse. The message was simple and clear. I wish I had a link for the video, but much googling has brought up nothing. HERE however you can find an online article detailing the media campaign. At the end of the PSA there was an appeal to visit the group’s Facebook page. I did so, opting also to ask if a representative would like to do an interview on camera with me about their media campaign and the state of women’s rights in Libya after the revolution.

After a couple weeks I was rewarded with a yes and we made plans to meet on the day before my flight back to the United States was to leave. After having met the group’s founders and representatives, one of whom is Alaa Murabit who appears in my video (the other was a bit more camera shy) I was glad to have taken the time to meet them. The pair had been quite busy themselves, having just wrapped up a long day of presentations on civil societies for a conference hosted by the hotel, and then meeting with me for an interview. We began immediately with the tough questions that needed to be addressed like my apparent likeness to Eric Foreman in Wisconsinness and looks, and Alaa’s limited knowledge on American football. The pair shared Libyan and Canadian nationalities, so as well as speaking fluent English their familiarity with That 70’s Show and Tim Tebow were not entirely that surprising. Once we got the important stuff out of the way, we moved on into the interview.

*Please forgive me for the quality of the video (the shaking in particular). I didn’t have a tripod with me so I had to hold the camera in my hands which is not my preferred method of recording. Also the sound isn’t perfect so you might want to turn up the volume for the video.

While listening to Alaa, she didn’t just talk about women in Libya, but spoke much more about things all Libyans could do to set the country on the right path. In this way she confirmed much of what I had already thought about the Libyan mentality, where Libyans as a civil society need to take responsibility for one another if they want to enjoy these new freedoms and be respected on the global stage for long into the future. This is by no means to say that Libyans are in any way selfish. The notion is ridiculous as Libyans are some of the most generous people I’ve ever known. The responsibility for others needs to come from more than just personal charity, but from collective and established societal safety nets to protect those who have become disenfranchised, like the women abused at home and in the work place. One thing I found startling, although not all that surprising, was not only the lack of collected data on the occurrence of domestic abuse, but the lack of such researchable analytic material for anything. It’s tough to determine what to do to make a country better when one can’t even properly perceive the problems. What was surprising was the whopping 85% of participants in a survey responded to having experienced domestic violence after sitting through a seminar detailing what exactly domestic violence entails. Personally I’d be curious to see the results of a similar survey in the United States or other western country once participants have undergone the same seminar.

One thing in particular that struck me as interesting was how important the women were to the revolution despite not doing much of the fighting. While getting permission from mom to fight on the face of it might seem borderline absurd, knowing the Libyan people this would have been a crucial element to beginning the revolution, especially since the vast majority of soldiers were under 30, most of whom still lived with their parents. I was reminded of one of my aunts that hid revolutionary fighters in her home in Tripoli as they were on the run and deflected their pursuers when they came to her door asking for their whereabouts. There are plenty of stories of the men’s bravery and billboards of young male martyrs where the sacrifices and valor of Libyan women have unfortunately too often gone forgotten.

All in all it was a fantastic interview. Miss Murabit and her colleague are very intelligent and charismatic young women. We chatted for awhile after I used up my prepared questions and the two struck me as very driven and insightful individuals. Besides (or perhaps because of) the Wisconsin and football cracks, we had a good conversation and I was happy and satisfied to get a more complete picture of what Libya looks like after the revolution.

For those interested in learning more, here is a link to the Voice of Libyan Women’s Facebook Page and Official Website.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.