I can’t tell you the name of the small city where this tale unfolds, because it would be too easy to figure out the family involved, whom I like a great deal. But all the dialogue is real—if anything, the attitudes are typical. And this story suggests that Libya’s road to a free society will be a rocky one.
“Libya people no good, everyone thief, stealing things. I want to die in Syria!” Standing in the mejlis, or reception room, of his aunt’s modest house, Mo’ad, twenty-seven, looked the picture of a jihadi fighter. With a palm-length black beard and a shorter-than-usual djellabiya—the robe-like long-sleeve shirt that covers but also allows freedom of movement—Mo’ad had come back from combat in Syria to spend Eid, the end of Ramadan, with his family. Yet now, after only a few days home, he couldn’t wait to rejoin his comrades. (While going to fight in Syria is uncommon enough to earn notice in Libya, many people know someone who is there. When I visited Derna, Randa el-Goudary, a Libyan-American from Virginia I met there, said she knows three young Derna men fighting in Syria.)
“Syria has three times or four times the population of Libya,” I objected to Mo’ad. “The Syrian people have to free themselves. How did they help your revolution? You need to help build your own country.” His mother crouched in a corner during the conversation, probably not more than sixty years old but looking seventy-five, very overweight, like nearly all older Libyan women, suffering from knee pains, listless, knowing enough English to shake her head slowly at Mo’ad’s fervor. Her oldest child, Aisha, had been killed in a car accident four months ago. If Mo’ad were to die in Syria, she would have lost two of her five children in just a few months.
Mo’ad’s remaining sister Fairouz, twenty, also sat listening as Mo’ad answered my question with a now-familiar litany: how he would get seventy-two virgins for wives, how he was doing his duty as a Muslim. Pretty, slim Fairouz has almost finished her university studies and speaks the best English in the family, though Mo’ad has a diploma from Tripoli University’s English department. But it wasn’t clear what kind of job Fairouz would be able to find. Social rules prevented her from living away from home until she married—something she was in no hurry to do—and her city was too small to offer many sophisticated jobs. Even commuting an hour to the next, bigger city was out of the question here. “Men can do everything, women can do nothing,” she’d muttered when we were alone before Mo’ad walked in. “It is unfair.”
I’d met Mo’ad and his cousins Shawki and Fathi when I was covering the war in Libya last August and they were all revolutionary fighters for their town. We stayed in touch as Libya moved from chaos to relative order, and I saw them again in October 2011.
At that second meeting, Mo’ad had been smoking pot on the beach of his hometown. He’d asked if I could help him get a visa to America and spoke about finding an American wife. Jihad in Syria hardly seemed in the cards. It was his cousin Shawki, not Mo’ad himself, who seemed a natural for the military life. Just nineteen, he’d attracted the attention of his commanders for his cool, his athleticism, and his way with weapons. He needed to finish high school—he’d dropped out before the revolution after a fight with a pro-Qaddafi teacher—and one of his commanders promised to help him enter officer training. Though he was known to dislike school, and didn’t even have enough familiarity with the Internet to be on Facebook, it looked as though Shawki might have a bright future in the military.
But Shawki was driving when Aisha was killed. She was only thirty-one and left four young children. Shawki was in a coma for three days after the accident and his left leg was broken in four places. Once so graceful, he now walks awkwardly on crutches. Even his “good” leg seems unstable and he almost falls twice while we are together. He needs help even to sit down in a chair.
After our recent lunch the third musketeer, Fathi, arrived and we all drove to another relative’s country house for coffee. Fathi was much tamer than his cousins, a good boy who’d finished his degree and was now doing graduate work in Cairo. He kept the other two young men from doing anything really stupid, I thought.
But neither Shawki—driving despite his injured leg—nor Fathi, in the death seat, were wearing seat belts. No one in Libya does. On a road trip, it’s always a question whether it’s better to be in the death seat, where the seat belt will work, or in the back, where the belts are certain to be trapped under the seat and useless. In 2008, the last year that statistics were available, there were eight thousand accident deaths in a country of no more than six million, as compared with about four times that many in the US, a country fifty times bigger.
“Come on,” I said to Fathi, “if Aisha had been wearing a seat belt she would be alive.”
“If Shawki were a better driver Aisha would be alive,” he muttered. “I do not like these things. You know how we believe, if it is my time, it is my time.”
Later, at the country house, Fathi told me that he had studied in Germany and that he was unimpressed with the West. “Our way is better,” he said. This “way” centered on a common theme among Libyan men, the need to protect their women—primarily, in a Westerner’s eyes, from having any rights or a full life. The Libyan way is to “allow” a woman like Fairouz to get an education, but prevent her from using it. Fathi confessed that he’d missed some of his exams in Cairo, setting back his progress toward his graduate degree. I didn’t have the heart to say that a Westerner wouldn’t have done that.
Shawki has never learned English, so we communicated by bits and pieces and friends’ translation. He explained that he’d applied to the government for funds for medical treatment for residual effects of the auto accident in Europe. Meanwhile, Shawki had bought a Jet Ski for 10,000 dinars (about $8,000) with his savings. How he would ride it with an injured leg was a question he had apparently not confronted.
Later, at the local beach, Shawki said it was his first time in the water since the car crash. He swam as badly as he walked, not so much because of his leg but because of a shoulder injury also caused by the accident. I wanted to ask him why he didn’t spend his money on English courses, or on starting a business, or, for that matter, on taking care of his sister’s four kids, so that their father didn’t have to remarry when her body was hardly cold. (“Her husband got another wife two months after,” Fairouz had complained to me before Mo’ad entered the house. “It is not fair.”)
Like other cities in Libya, the seaside town where Mo’ad lives is relatively stable now, the guns largely gone from the street. People have some understanding of democracy. Perhaps more importantly, they have pulled together to get basic services running. The trash is picked up regularly, the schools have a surplus of teachers, and there is a functioning department of public health. But just as I start to become an optimist about Libya, I have an afternoon like this one and realize that the human materials in this society are broken in ways that will likely take a hundred years to fix.
I should add, however, that Libya has some factors in its favor. Most of the individuals I’ve met would be perfectly capable of functioning well in an organized society like our own. And many have done so—an astonishing percentage of Libyans have lived overseas at some point. Libyan expat communities in some US cities consist of only a handful of families, but there are said to be, for instance, more than two thousand Libyan physicians working for the National Health Service in the UK. Yet inside Libya, the social environment makes an otherwise capable citizenry less than the sum of their parts.
For example, at Tripoli Airport, waiting to check in for flights to Benghazi, the scene was pure third-world chaos, replete with pushing, shoving, and, just before I arrived, brandished guns. (How did they get past the baggage screening? “No one is looking at the monitor,” one Libyan commented.) A morning flight had gone no further than Misrata, less than halfway to its destination, before mechanical problems forced its diversion, and our plane carried passengers from the cancelled flight before us, as well as the flight after us.
“That’s how things were under Qaddafi,” a friend in Benghazi, Lou’i Hatem, commented when he picked me up at the airport. “Chaos. That was how he controlled us.” It’s not the only method used by dictators, but it’s one that works: you remove the lynchpins of society and then present yourself as the only bulwark against disorder. Now Libyans are having to construct their own order from a concatenation of half-remembered customs, half-understood Western examples, the Koran, and politicized Islam from other countries. And so far, what they have built doesn’t add up.
To a Western visitor—and perhaps this word “Western” is misleading, because I have no doubt that a Japanese or Korean or Hong Kong visitor would agree with me—Libya seems a terribly thin culture, a place where there is close to nothing to do, except play soccer—the only sport Libyans bother to play or watch.
When I talk about tens of thousands of books published every year, of hundreds of thousands of scholarly articles, of twenty or more art openings a week in New York, I suspect that I am thought to be exaggerating, just as when I mention that there are thousands of restaurants in Boston, a city about the size of Benghazi, which seems to have fewer than a dozen sit-down eating spots outside the major hotels’ pathetic offerings. (Libyan food is another topic. It involves the laborious transformation of fresh ingredients into an unattractive, overcooked, starchy, and bland mess. Perhaps because the food is so unsatisfying, it is speedily consumed in overly large quantities and obesity is rampant.)
Apparently Benghazi used to have an active local theater scene, both official and semi-underground, before the revolution, but now, as then, there is no live music. The museum has been closed for decades. There are occasional art events. On August 31st, there was a photography opening organized by Amer Ben Ali, a Benghazi architect from a distinguished local family who helped start the Media Center that got word of the revolution out to the world in February 2011. Lou’i, my friend in Benghazi, took me to an open-air exhibit of imaginative animal figures welded together from weapons parts (it’d been up in the former royal palace for months now) but that was pretty much it.
Libyans tend to have little appetite for learning, even about their own professions. I interviewed Iman Bougaighis, a Benghazi academic, about her efforts as head of the orthodontics department at Garyounis University’s School of Dentistry. She told me that she had insisted that students read a book, though a short one, instead of photocopied handouts. This, Dr. Bougaighis admitted, had provoked a near-rebellion with some of her faculty colleagues taking the students’ side.
This intellectual laziness is partly a legacy of the endemic corruption of the Qaddafi years. It didn’t matter what you knew, just who you knew. For the same reason, it’s still hard today to get a straight answer when you ask a Libyan businessman what he does. “Business,” he is likely to answer. If you ask what industry, the vague and imprecise answer might be that he both runs a construction company and imports perfume. There’s no sense of developing a functional expertise that leads to a life’s work. “Business” just means exploiting whatever family or friendship connections you can to sell something for more than you buy it, or to get a commission on some transaction.
And the laziness is also part of the way Islamic culture plays out here, as in other countries. If you think everything is fated, then what point is there to exert yourself to be the best in your field? If the Koran tells you everything you need to know about living your life, what point is there to broaden your mind, challenge your beliefs, or become well informed? Couple this passive orientation with the pessimism bred of a long dictatorship—if Qaddafi can take everything away from you in a moment, why bother to work hard?—and you have a recipe for cultural stagnation.
This laziness, combined with a Mediterranean impatience and present-mindedness, means that Libyans are passive even about causes they claim to support.
It is hard not to thrill when you hear the Serbian-Libyan singer Dania, whose father is from Zwara, singing on the town’s radio station in the Tamazight language. She invokes “all the people of Numidia” in a song about the revolution. Speaking to an imagined lover, she says, “Don’t meet me here in Tunis, I don’t want to see you here. Go to fight and I will see you in [free] Zwara.” But though Zwara’s citizens only speak Tamazight amongst themselves, and are often passionate about designating Tamazight an official language of Libya, few are willing to do much about it. “We got only two hundred people for a demonstration in support of Tamazight as an official language,” filmmaker Essa el-Hamisi complained in Zwara.
When Iman Bougaighis offered me a ride back to my hotel, I commented that she was the first Libyan I’d seen wearing a seat belt, adding, “God helps those who help themselves.“ She quickly replied, “There is a sura in the Koran that says, ‘Do not throw your hand to destruction.’”
“We are destroyed people,” she continued. “We have to build our capacity. There is a sura in the Koran that says, ‘God will not change the people until they change what is inside their souls.’”
By coincidence, I flew out of Tripoli to London the morning of the 9/11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, one of whom I’d met. As e-mails poured in from friends wondering if I was all right, I tried to explain again and again that most Libyans are not at all anti-American, that a small group of extremists had hijacked a fragile city-state, and that most Libyans are desperately eager to rebuild their society. The counterweights, however, are formidable. I am hoping the Libyans will rise to the occasion and give God a hand.