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 ┬áheard 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.


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.

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.