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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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