“In the time of the resistance to the Italians, Libyans had a saying: ‘You break a piece of bread and you find someone from Zintan in it,’ “ Ibrahim said. He was translating for two men who were talking proudly of their hometown’s role in this year’s Libyan revolution.
Today, Zintan has become a refuge for families fleeing the Gadhafi-controlled coastal cities 60 miles or so to the north, like Tripoli and Sabratha, and a staging ground for freedom fighters hoping to drive Gadhafi’s forces from them. But it does not look like the kind of place most Americans would like to see as a symbol of a new, free Libya.
This insular town of around 40,000 is one of the larger settlements in Libya’s so-called Western Mountains, which are more like the mesas of the American Southwest.
Zintan is so religiously conservative that before the Feb. 17 revolt against Gadhafi, no cigarettes were sold here. (Now there are at least two thriving shops, open until midnight.) Most of the men wear traditional dress, and there are many Salafis, or Islamic fundamentalists, distinguished by their severe long white gowns, thick but neatly shaped beards and refusal to shake hands with women. A local commander referred to himself as a “peaceful Salafi” who kicks aspiring jihadi fighters out of his brigade; he also told of having fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets and later in Algeria.
More worrisome is the lack of women’s participation in civil society here. While the revolutionaries’ capital of Benghazi is no New York, there, women walk around, even late at night, and have been active in the revolutionary demonstrations and volunteer work. Most drive and work outside the home out of necessity. It’s a point in favor of Zintan that the handful of Ukrainian women working as doctors and nurses at the hospital wear short-sleeved shirts and mid-calf-length dresses in public. But in five days in Zintan, I saw four local women on the street, three with their faces covered. Nabila, Ibrahim’s wife, used to living in Tripoli, explained, “Women don’t go out here and they cover their faces. I know how to drive but I don’t drive here.” In the cluster of houses she lives in outside of town, even the pre-pubescent girls are veiled.
To be sure, life here is traditionally rural. Many families still bake delicious round flat bread in ancient ovens by throwing dough against the side. Figs come from trees specially adapted to dry conditions; drinking water is collected from rainwater cisterns. Some families living in the hillsides still use centuries-old cave rooms – cooler in summer than the ferociously hot houses. The streets are eerily deserted at midday. It’s a far cry from Benghazi’s apartment blocks and vibrant public spaces.
The people of Zintan are brave. They defied Gadhafi before the Feb. 17 revolution officially began, on the 15th, when his minions came to ask for 2,000 young people to participate in counter-demonstrations against the protests anticipated in Benghazi. The townsfolk refused, and on the 16th, they burned the police and internal security buildings. On the 17th, Gadhafi cut the power to the city and arrested some young people. Then he offered each family 250,000 dinars ($170,000) to back down. People said, first give us back our kids and our power. As recently as a few weeks ago, he renewed the offer. But the town is solidly behind the revolution.
In Benghazi, people are passionate about constructing a new and democratic Libya. It’s hard to tell what the people of Zintan want, other than to be left alone. It is possible that the freedom that might matter most to the men is freedom to practice a fundamentalist form of Islam and keep their women off the street. Indeed, daily life here is uncomfortably reminiscent of Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt.
More sophisticated, secular Libyans argue that the type of fundamentalism visible in Zintan was one of the few avenues of resistance to Gadhafi, and that it is more a symptom of the dictatorship than of Libyans’ traditional inclinations. Libyan Islam, they point out with some justification, is more associated with moderate, tolerant Sufism than with the Salafi brand popular in Zintan. And with 2 million Libyans in Tripoli, 800,000 in Benghazi and perhaps another million in other coastal cities, Zintan does not represent the center of gravity in Libya. But it’s a sobering reminder that not all of post-Gadhafi Libya is likely to be a beacon of progressive Arab culture.