A Libyan-American returns to make sense of the country after Gadhafi’s fall.
Photo courtesy Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The second anniversary of Libya’s revolution, in February of 2013, brought a festival to Tripoli’s streets. Local pride drove fierce competition in celebrations, but many will happily concede that the neighborhood of Fashloum won beautifully. Local kids handed out mints and chocolates to cars in transit. At heavily armed checkpoints, young men dressed in new military uniforms and government badges sprayed orange blossom perfume into open car windows in jest, in revelry. They—we—danced in the streets, in the cafes, on the roofs of moving cars, singing songs about the land. Flags dressed cars, buildings, walls, heads and necks and chests and backs. Wildly crisscrossing networks of red, yellow, and green illuminated wires, shadowed alleys glowed like hearths. Fireworks launched the colors of the flag into the sky as we danced below.
In my lap was a Beretta. “Yes,” said the stoned revolutionary, “it’s loaded.” This kid was supposedly a cop, and he drove a bullet-proof, custom-made, black BMW that he took from the ex-regime’s interior ministry during the revolution.
In my lap was a Beretta. I’d heard the ominous name before. Its black metal, its grooves, its markings looked too real. “Yes,” said the stoned revolutionary in front of me, leading us at 80 miles-an-hour down narrow city streets, inches away from other moving cars, “it’s loaded.” This kid was supposedly a cop, and he drove a bullet-proof, custom-made, black BMW that he took as booty from the ex-regime’s interior ministry during the revolution. The thing really flew. He asked me to take off my seat belt: it made me look like a foreigner at checkpoints.
When the action lulled, we ignited and tossed “fire toys,” little sticks of dynamite. From our car, and others too, speakers roared with songs thanking the revolutionaries, celebrating victory, praising God. Some songs had traditional Arabic instruments and beats. Others were influenced by American hip-hop.
“Libyans really love their country!” I shouted over the music as we passed a barbershop. The owners and customers had stopped business, carried their trashcans out to the streets, and begun to beat on them in manic rhythms.
The revolutionaries smirked at my enthusiasm and nodded.
“We hope there’s no violence tonight,” one said.
At one checkpoint, I was surprised to see my uncle, his beard’s gray stubble partly hidden by a traditional scarf. The rifle in his hands clashed with his mirthful grin and twinkling eyes. We parked off the main road, where truck headlights illuminated clouds of smoke rising from a grill. I stepped out of the car and greeted the people assembled around the coals, using more religious phrases when shaking hands with those wearing long beards and short pants, the Salafi uniform. (Was I overcompensating as a drinker who doesn’t pray? As an American?) These were neighbors, and I recognized many from earlier in the day. The butcher, whose shop was adorned with the severed heads of cows and camels, spinal cords still attached, pulled on his cigarette. He talked with the older, mustachioed gentleman who had changed the BMW’s oil earlier. There was the half-Bosnian kid, a few years younger than I, who translated a bit for me. He spoke perfect English, and I spoke only broken Arabic.
My cousin motioned for me to join him at the back of the truck. There was three lambs’ worth of raw meat in a giant pan, the community’s nighttime feast. When the first batch was ready, the revolutionaries unloaded it and sprinkled lemon on top. They insisted I, the guest, go first, and no one approached the food until I closed my fist around a perfectly cooked piece of muscle.
Martyrs are everywhere—on billboards, on street signs, in poetry. They are pictured with empty, glassy stares. We passed one of these countless faces at a roundabout.
Yet the joy of community and the fever of celebration masked a real fear, evidenced by the checkpoints themselves. Two nights before, very late, a suspicious car had been parked outside my uncle’s farm in one of Tripoli’s suburbs. Without hesitation, my uncle pulled a coat over his red plaid pajamas and grabbed his rifle. His brother-in-law grabbed a revolver, which none of us knew he owned, and loaded it. My older cousin grabbed a kitchen knife. They ran out the door, jumped in their car, and sped toward the potential threat.
As they sped away, my aunt informed me this had happened before. No shots were fired, but words were exchanged, and words carry more weight when you’re holding a gun. She seemed worried. She told me once how her youngest son scared my uncle by playing with a live grenade in the house. They made him give the grenade away. She and my uncle heard it was later thrown into a nearby street battle between drunken youths. The grenade shrapnel didn’t hit anybody, but a car was caught in the crossfire of rifles and one boy was killed. That was five weeks ago.
Martyrs were everywhere—on billboards, on street signs, in poetry. They were pictured with empty, glassy stares. We passed one of these countless faces at a roundabout. My cousin reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a laminated card. The same bearded boy stared at me, the date of his death printed on the back.
“Was he a friend?”
“A close friend?”
“He was strong, but he did a lot of drugs.”
“What do you mean?”
“He had a tough life. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried. His name was Ali.”
Banners proclaimed: “Our revolution was for freedom.” It sounds like a cliché, but in Libya its truth is overpowering. Libyans have no illusions about the chaos of life and the whims of nature. But they have also discovered a deep well of happiness. Unlike the neighboring Egyptians and Tunisians, many Libyans were well fed when they removed their shackles. Intangible to those born with excess, freedom is the most precious thing they have won.
Some people have hinted that things were better before the revolution.
They’re called tahloub, or “amoeba” in Libyan dialect. Supposedly they supported the regime until the tide turned. Now they are taking on old forms once again. Sometimes tahloub is meant as a joke, but just in case, former strongholds adorn themselves with a conspicuous number of revolutionary flags. The old tricolor banner is back for good, we hope.
These days Tripoli stays open late, even in the winter months. And there’s commerce. If I had a Libyan wife, I could buy her a sweater from a downtown boutique at midnight. But she likely wouldn’t buy it for herself. Women are rarely out after sunset, and they mostly dress modestly.
Come daylight, girls navigate around that with sexy struts and form-fitting dresses. I feel secure. There wasn’t violence on the evening of the revolution’s anniversary, despite the guns, regionalism, and shadowy threats from ex-regime figures in exile. The next day, old men in the yellow dust of the morning were shocked into mumbled praises of the divine.
I followed my uncle back into the tedium of daily chores. He fixed the generator. He installed lights on the veranda. He showed me how to splice the buds of cultivated tangerine trees onto the bark of wild ones. At sunset, I took a walk with him on his farm. A darkening blue sky pressed a red sliver of light into the horizon. The warmth of what had been a blinding sun escaped the earth. The din of insects from the green patches surrounding the path kept us company.
“I was born on this land. I lived all my life on this land. A lot of things have changed,” my uncle told me, speaking in English to be sure I understood him. “I don’t feel I own this land—I feel this land owns me.”
I think I understand. This is the land of my grandfather. At the beginning of the century, he fought the Italians. After the Second World War, when the Arab world was smoldering, he left to work as a diplomat. But he returned to retire with his children, his olive trees, and his horses. God, the merciful, took my grandfather’s life in 1971, just before the devil, Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, began taking his land. When the desert storms roared, my other kin fled.
Private property, like all civic privacy from the state, might be a newly recovered right. But nothing is sure yet. My uncle’s regular trips to the courthouse and to the property rights committee are deeply personal.
My uncle’s steady gait offered no hints at the suffering he endured to keep some of the earth beneath his feet. I struggled to imagine roots sprouting beneath me. This land could now again be tied to ink and paper, not the whims of a madman. Private property, like all civic privacy from the state, might be a newly recovered right. But nothing sure yet. My uncle’s regular trips to the courthouse and to the property rights committee were deeply personal.
Returning from our walk, we passed four horses grazing on early spring grass. Pine trees, 80 feet high, rustled in the wind. Closer to the house, my aunt picked wild plants for tomorrow’s couscous. Fluffy brown seeds, melting into the bowl.
Out of my aunt’s earshot and sight, my uncle stopped me for one last moment of stillness.
“I travel away—to beautiful places, to famous places, to Europe—and I miss this farm. Maybe it is not beautiful to others, but I see a tree, an olive tree—I remember from when I was a child.”
“This,” he pointed, “this is my paradise.”
I heard my uncle and I saw my grandfather walking quietly behind us, counting his prayer beads—white beard, white robe. A tiny piece of him had returned.
Fadil Aliriza is a freelance journalist, formerly based in Tunisia, who has recently moved to Libya. Follow him on Twitter.