Libya Revolution: The Young Bohemian Face of the Uprising in Benghazi
It’s not a freedom fighter atop a tank but a young bohemian woman in Benghazi reviving a carnival banned by Gaddafi and singing songs of protest. Ann Marlowe reports on an extraordinary utopian moment in the free city.
The most interesting news here in Free Libya isn’t war but peace—and cultural vitality. Signs everywhere say, “We began it peacefully and we will end it peacefully,” and the utopian social transformation is much more interesting than the stalemated war.
The front line was here on March 19, when Gaddafi’s troops and lijan thureah, or local revolutionary committees, killed fighters defending the city. And on the 20th, they deliberately struck civilians, sometimes aiming RPGs at family cars. Dr. Hajer al Jahmi, 27, a third-year emergency medicine resident at Benghazi Medical Center, saw a huge sack of human body parts brought into the ER.
But just a few weeks later, resilient twentysomething Libyans, almost all of them working outside their professional fields, have created an embryonic civil society and culture. The shabbab cool, or cool youth, who gave the Revolution of February 17 much of its visual flavor—the witty signs like “NATO Air: Just Do It”; the homemade T-shirts and caps—have turned their energies to writing, photography, documentary filmmaking, and rock ‘n’ roll. Their inspirations and style come from global youth culture—everyone is on Facebook and Twitter—but their seriousness of purpose and maturity reflect the trauma their city recently endured.
While American TV coverage of Libya favors savage-looking freedom fighters yelling on captured tanks, the face of the revolution here in Benghazi, 200 kilometers from the stalemated front line and 700 kilometers from besieged Misrata, is young women like Shadda Hatem el Majri, a 19-year-old university student from Tripoli whose family left for Benghazi a few days after February 17 so that they could be part of the activity.
On April 17, Shadda was one of hundreds of women in Benghazi who participated in an abbreviated observance of the traditional “Flower Carnival,” which Gaddafi banned in 1986. Even as Gaddafi’s troops continued to send cluster bombs into Misrata, women paraded through Benghazi to Freedom Square holding flowers.
The blooms the women carried were neither abundant or particularly fresh, but the meaning was clear. Shadda explained to me in perfect English, and without a trace of irony, that she and the other young women gave flowers to any men that they saw with weapons. A talented singer, she’d spent the afternoon rehearsing “Free Libya,” a folksong with English lyrics that some of her friends are planning to videotape.
The building where they practice formerly housed an official cultural council headed by a woman in the Gaddafi inner circle. Now it’s home to a number of collectives. One maintains the bilingual Web TV channel Libya Al Hurra, started by Mohammed Nabous, 28, who was shot in the head as he reported on March 19. One group makes movies; Ali Sirayes and a few other young filmmakers are making documentaries “from the first minute of the revolution” onward. Another publishes a slender Arabic-English magazine, Berenice Post, every Monday, pitched at the city’s bilingual elite.
The shabbab cool include an architect who sings in rock bands, an architecture student who used to rap, and a civil-engineering student who works on a new weekly magazine.
Some of the same writers contribute to the other weekly produced here, Sourat Kul Al Shabab, or The Voice of All the Youth, Arabic-only and more populist. Mohamed Shembesh explained to me that the collective that puts it out chooses a different editor every one or two issues. Just as radically, Sourat accepts articles via a dropbox in Freedom Square. There’s no postal service in Libya, and the Internet has been disrupted because of the war, so this is the best way to get contributions.
This revolution began in the most bourgeois way possible, with a peaceful protest in front of Benghazi’s courthouse, or makama, on February 17 by a lawyers’ guild. Gaddafi’s forces used violence, and the youth joined in. By the 19th, the goal was regime change. Because Gaddafi dug in, the revolutionaries defended themselves. But the astounding fact of bringing down the government here pales beside the utopian moment.
The courthouse area is now known as Freedom Square, and it’s a revolutionary fair of nonstop activity, with booths offering literature on a dozen causes, songs playing from loudspeakers, and dozens, often hundreds of Libyans walking about, reveling in their new public space. There’s a civility rare in the Arab street, and I’ve walked alone as late as 11 at night without harassment.
Money almost isn’t necessary. There are limits on bank withdrawals, as most people worked for the state and were paid from Tripoli by direct deposit. So shopkeepers often charge only their cost for food items, young people give out free sandwiches and espresso, and local mobile phone calls are free since the phone network, once owned by the Gaddafi family, was hacked a few weeks ago.
A former legal office building around the corner from the makama has been renamed the Media Center, and it’s filled with excited young men and women artists and activists. Some work on a charity, Ani Ensahn, or I Am Human, which provides social services to 200 families displaced by the war. Behind a graffiti-covered door marked “GUG Guys Underground,” young men practice rock guitar or play the traditional stringed instrument of Libya, the oud. They include 15-year-old Tawfik Ben Saud, a 6-foot-tall self-taught video maker and photographer, and a 15-year-old rock guitarist, Ziad, whose mother is English. One of their friends, Rami el Kalih, was murdered by the lijan thureah on March 20.
Three stories of the Media Center’s hallways are covered with huge black-and-white political cartoons, lots of punk-inflected signs expressing love of country and the revolution, and a few urging the revolutionaries not to smoke. In a country where chain-smoking is epidemic and people routinely light up in cars and restaurants, perhaps the most unusual aspect of the shabbab cool is how many don’t smoke.
Most are from well-off families, like many young bohemians in the U.S. That’s why they have up-to-date laptops, iPhones, good cameras, and access to cars to get around this sprawling city. Many have studied overseas—the University of Manchester is a favorite—and some have one foreign parent or have lived abroad. The young men of the Media Center and Libya Al Hurra look like hipster youth anywhere in the U.S. or Europe, their style influenced by skateboard culture, though I’ve yet to see a skateboard here. The young women are more modestly dressed, wearing jeans with tunics or trench coats, many but not all in headscarves.
Their clothes are a bit drab. Benghazi, a crumbling harbor town of 800,000 situated on a beautiful bay, is no shopping paradise and Libyans—influenced, some say, by Bedouin culture—are as unmaterialistic a lot as I’ve seen. But they jazz up their look with a red, black, and green wristband, button, cap, or T-shirt—the original 1951 independence flag of Libya. Even the most arty kids, like Shadda, talk spontaneously about how much they now love their country and its flag, after years of being ashamed of being Libyan.
Before the revolution of February 17, there wasn’t much to do in Benghazi. There are sad, Spartan stores, endless rundown espresso cafes, and just a handful of attractive restaurants. There are no bars (or alcohol), nightclubs, concert halls, theaters, or art galleries, just an outdoor restaurant complex called Sendibad that offered live music occasionally. One could drink coffee—and Libyans drink it all day—or walk along the spectacular corniche. Or one could stay at home and watch satellite TV, where Libyans learned of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that inspired them, or go online.
Gaddafi wanted it that way; as Dirk Vanderwalle notes in one of his two seminal works on modern Libya, Gaddafi’s early rule featured “the burning of Western books and musical instruments, the closing of nightclubs, the promotion of traditional Libyan dress… and the renaming of the Gregorian calendar.”
Grimmer yet, many Libyans live at home well into their twenties, single. A young writer at the Media Center, Mohamed Al Burk, explains, “People wait to marry because they have no money. It costs 10,000 dinars for a wedding and 25,000 to 30,000 for a flat. Multiply by .70 to get the dollar amount.” It’s hard to save with a 350-dinar-a-month salary. And there’s no dating or mixed-gender parties.
Under Gaddafi, there was no such thing as an independent artist or filmmaker or musician or novelist. The kinds of people who would become artists or writers in other countries became academics here, but not necessarily in fields related to their real passion. The shabbab cool include an architect who sings in rock bands (Husain Kablan), an architecture student who used to rap (Lou’I Hatem El Magri, Shadda’s older brother), and a civil-engineering student who works on a new weekly magazine (Mohamed Shembesh).
Shadda, who also takes photos and had a solo show of her paintings in Cairo at age 15, is crossing a big boundary with her gentle folk music. A woman singer appearing on a video is a big deal in this country, where even some male musicians—like one of the members of Guys Underground—worry that appearing in a music video might be haram.
The tension between fundamentalist and moderate ideas is real here, though so far it is being negotiated with words, not violence. And there are questions about the re-integration into a new order of Gaddafi loyalists. Twenty-five-year-old Amal El Gahani, a tall, gregarious electrical-engineering professor turned activist, estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the population even in Benghazi was involved with the lijan thureah. But so far, young women like Amal and Shadda suggest that the Revolution of February 17 has the power to create a new culture in Libya.
Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute who blogs for World Affairs.