Libya: Former Exiles Chafe Over Surge of Salafism
Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster last year triggered the return of thousands of Libyan exiles and their children. But for the women, life in the North African state is often unfamiliar.
Before last year, Naziha Arebi hardly knew her Libyan family. The 28-year-old filmmaker was born in the genteel English seaside town of Hastings to a Libyan father and British mother. “When I first arrived, I covered my hair,” she says pointing to her shock of brown curls. “But now I wear it uncovered. I decided that if I am going to live and work here, I have to be more me.”
Arebi is not alone in trying to make sense of her new life and navigate between the conformity demanded by her Libyan family and her sense of self, developed while she lived in the U.K. The ouster of Muammar Gaddafi last year triggered the return of thousands of Libyan exiles. Many had been raised in Libya and fled as adults, resigned to never return. With them have come children and spouses, some born in Libya, most born abroad.
But as they’ve returned, many of these exiles—especially the women—have become alarmed by a surge of Salafism across the country. The recent wave of sectarian violence involving bombings and the destruction of historic mosques and shrines revered by Sufi Muslims was disturbing enough, but the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens has prompted some to consider leaving.
Living and working in the new Libya has been difficult for many former exiles. The new country is both familiar and foreign. Much makes sense to them—from hand gestures to the smell of thickly spiced soup—yet other things leave them increasingly bewildered. You can spot the grown-up children of Libyan exiles quickly enough—especially the girls. They laugh a little louder than their peers do in public. They dress more sharply, with tighter-fitting clothes and often without a headscarf; they also seem more self-assured. But that confidence often masks doubt as they try to adapt, to reconcile present with past.
Dating is especially difficult to navigate. As in much of the rest of the Muslim world, it often involves clandestine meetings and underground raves—all the while risking raids by police. Officially there are no nightclubs in Libya; there is no legal alcohol. Meeting someone of the opposite sex is complicated; it often consists of trawling a friend’s Facebook page, then asking for a phone number. Cellphone conversation and texting can lead to a choreographed “accidental” meeting at the souk or fast-food restaurant with other friends. Some of the more daring among Tripoli’s middle class may even get an hour or so alone with the object of their desire in a borrowed apartment. But this entails extraordinary risks and often months of planning.
For the boys it is easier; Libya is a man’s world. They face fewer restrictions such as evening curfews or household chores. For the girls life is harder; it often involves conflict with families, who find their foreign-raised relatives at best strange—they want to work—and at worst bordering on scandalous when they decline to wear the hijab or are determined to go out with girlfriends for coffee in the evenings.
For Arebi there is an added difficulty. She has only recently started to learn Arabic. Her father fled Libya four years after Col. Gaddafi came to power, divining where the country was heading. “My dad never thought he’d return and never spoke Arabic at home,” she says. “His relatives would come to England rarely, but sometimes my father would meet them in Italy.”
Last autumn she came to Libya for the first time, and she lives with her grandmother, along with aunts, uncles, and cousins. “I thought I might be able to help here with my skills in photography and film. But I wanted also to connect with my heritage to find a sense of belonging.”
Connecting isn’t easy, however. Arebi wrote an article for a local English-language newspaper, The Tripoli Post, about the case of a neurosurgeon who was abducted in April and tortured by a rebel militia because they suspected he’d withheld treatment from one of their wounded fighters. “I was told that I should be more careful what I write about and to be cautious because I’m new here. But if we want to shed the Gaddafi era, we have to look at the good and bad now in the new Libya. We can’t just cover up things,” she says.
Not covering up now extends to her hair. Still, she is conscious not to push too hard. “I’m respectful of my family. They are ordinary people and have neighbors who gossip, and I don’t want to embarrass them.”
Change is a two-way street. “I catch myself sometimes thinking about how nice an arranged marriage would be,” she says. “And then [I] stop myself and say, Naziha, what are you saying? I am also rethinking about whether I should go out alone. And I have been warned that I laugh too loud in public. I do have a cackling laugh. But how can I hold back? It wouldn’t be a laugh if I did.”
The non-Libyan wives of exiles have found it difficult to adapt to their new country as well. As Salafism has risen, some have tried to become content with staying at home with their husbands, with the changes they’ve seen come over the men whom they fell in love with in places like London, Paris, and Berlin. “He’s not the man I married,” says the European wife of a former exile, who asked only to be identified by the name Helene, for safety reasons. “I want the man I loved back with me. He says ‘I’m here,’ but he isn’t.”
Helene’s troubles began almost immediately they moved in with his well-respected, upper-class family in Tripoli. “I can’t go out alone,” she says. “I can’t visit friends if their husbands are present, and the other day I went out for dinner with a group of female friends alone. After a row he agreed I could, but he said it sickened him to think of women eating publicly together.”
She is now struggling to maintain the marriage. “I feel violated. He’s angry that I work and don’t get home until about 5 p.m. He wants me to take a secretary’s job so that I’m back home earlier. But I’m an educated and professional woman, and he is making it harder for me to do my job because of the social restrictions.”
Helene feels caught in a terrible dilemma: to choose between the man she loves and preserving herself. “In all our arguments he cites religion. I tell him, don’t impose your religion on me. This isn’t his religion telling him to do this, but his culture.”
For 33-year-old Rihab Elhaj, who was raised in Virginia, life in Libya has been less culturally shocking. She has been living in Tripoli since February, but her family regularly spent summers in the country. “I had exposure to the culture and had time to adjust my expectations for living here.” She seems more relaxed than Arebi with the restrictions she observes while living at her uncle’s home in the upscale Tripoli district of Hay Alandalus—restrictions that include not staying out late to refraining from socializing with men. She avoids tight-fitting clothes, although she doesn’t wear the hijab, something she knows has probably damaged her marriage prospects.
These restrictions often get in the way of her job—running a small NGO—and Elhaj says that traditional attitudes about gender in carry over into her office, where men aren’t used to women being in charge. Yet Elhaj isn’t giving up. She has tried to behave as professionally as possible in hopes that the men around her will look past her gender. “Libya is about family and community. That’s the culture,” she says. “If you push out, you damage the family and yourself and become isolated. Men won’t marry you; people won’t do business with your family.”
Arebi, the filmmaker, has less patience. Last month, as she tried to film the bulldozing of a Sufi mosque, a Salafi grabbed her camera. She tried to argue, but to little avail. As a woman, he said, she should lower her gaze.