Category - Opinions

Libyan Music

Music is an upheld tradition in Libya and is the centre of both personal and public celebrations.

Even in national celebrations such as the anniversary of the February 17 revolution, the traditional musical band called a noba took centre stage and beckoned ripples of spectators to surround the makeshift dance floor.

Folk music comes in different styles; some overshadow others in the modern scene. The noba can be thought of as a mobile musical band, usually comprising of three or more young men with a special skill in playing the drums, flute, or cymbals. The noba is a band called on whenever a celebration is in order.

At the sound of the traditional beat, neighbors and passerby gather to join the clapping and dancing. The happiest or bravest of the crowd assume a position in the middle, and whirl their hips the Libyan way – in harmony to the drum beats that pound harder in response to the crowd’s excitement.

The noba is a type of music that has to be witnessed. It is more about experiencing the harmonic moment, rather than hearing the melody.

Zimzamat is another form of live band. Its most obvious distinction from the noba is that it is comprised of female musicians instead.

This traditional band is a group of women, not necessarily older in age, who make appearances at events for females; singing rhyming lines that richly and often candidly convey Libyan culture.

For someone unaccustomed to the hype that comes along with the female band, it takes some focus to hear the words being sung.

The rhymes often describe the young dancers, or praise the bride and groom and their families. Like the noba, the female band livens up the party and entices guests to provide the main source of entertainment on the dance floor.

The instruments used by zimzamat bands are goblet and frame drums. The vocals are meant to be high-pitched; as if in competition with the drum reverberations that conclude each rhyming verse.

Back in the day, Libyan women catered to their own events; made their own music, entertained themselves, and served their own guests. Now special occasions are not as often hosted in the home.

Even the skill of memorizing traditional song lyrics is a talent absent in the younger generations. Women now need paid-help to do the things that family and friends used to do themselves.

Nowadays, hiring a band of zimzamat ensures that a party will be upbeat, entertaining, and up to the standards of tradition and societal expectations when it comes to music.

Interestingly, zimzamat are not only found at events hosted at home, but can also been found in Tripoli’s most decadent event halls. Often, wedding halls have a stage for the bride and groom, as well as one for the live band.

When present at the same time, it is stiff competition. The band often attracts more attention than the bride who is, traditionally, expected to remain collected and more reserved than brides in western cultures.

The contrast of having an electronic stereo system used by a live band, seated on cushions upholstered in tribal patterns is one of the ways Libyan tradition has used modern technology to its benefit.

In Libya, the expectations of tradition are not simply met, they are valued. Tradition has managed to withstand a position of esteem in the Libyan culture, and it is what makes following it as appealing as it is.

_____________
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 22 September 2012

 

Bus Culture

A public transportation vehicle in Tripoli, more commonly known as a microo or effiko, is a mini bus, often with a blasting stereo and a young, male driver whose tan line hits the cuff of his left sleeve.

The bus tail often rocks as the vehicle maneuvers wildly through traffic. However, the initial impression of the vehicle’s durability may prove deceitful.

Decorated with photography, soccer team logos, and Arabic calligraphy that read “Allahu Akbar” or “Mashallah,” the inside of each microo has its own personal flare.

Though public transportation is run by independent enterprises, prices are set to 50 dirham or half a dinar per person during the day. Starting at dusk, the price increases by 100% to 1 dinar per person.

Buses in Tripoli can ensure a ride, but not always a seat as the cap of admitted passengers often exceeds the number of available seats. Passengers who are later in joining the route may find all of the seats on the bus full.

Instead of getting off to wait for the next bus, passengers stand in the narrow aisle on the bus. It is not until the aisle is completely crowded that passengers are no longer permitted on the bus.

Without signs, or a number system under which buses operate, the efficiency of bus culture in Libya is impressing in the sense that designated routes are understood by residents. So, too is common bus etiquette.

Out of respect or, as I like to see it, chivalry, male passengers give up their seats to standing females even though it means leaning uncomfortably over seated passengers and squeezing here and there for passengers who want off.

Bus routes almost always follow a straight line up and down main streets. The end location of the designated route is what is used to identify the bus route. A specific hand gesture that symbolises the final destination is signalled to residents waiting by the side of the road.

Other than few well-known locations, the city lacks any official bus stops. That means that locals may catch a ride with the wave of a hand. On the bus, passengers simply call out, “To your right,” and the bus pulls over.

Locals standing to the side of the road, but with no intention of catching a bus, often have to wave off signalling bus drivers.

The creative appeal of Tripoli’s bus culture is a result of the culture’s evolution to modern flare, and coveys the improvisation that were made in order to compensate for public transportation’s lacking resources.

Though bus culture in Libya obviously lacks any sort of written or official protocol, it doesn’t mean the underdeveloped system doesn’t work in its own way.

The tendency of buses in Libya to stop haphazardly every half a block, not to mention the negligence for the safety of standing passengers, may seem to depict an unstable public service system. However, Libyans would admit it does the job, nonetheless.

The mentality, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will not necessarily help improve public transportation in Libya or any other public service for that matter.

However, the inclination to accept life’s small frustrations has long been seen as the only solution to maintaining a level of order in the country. That is no longer the general perspective in the changing Libya.

What fails to improve, will be left behind and forgotten. For this reason, silence is often interpreted less as a form of defeat and more as an optimistic anticipation for the improvements to come.

____________
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 30 July 2012

 

Libyan Beauty

What people constitute as beautiful differs depending on the physical preferences of the given society. Experts caution against the over-generalization of beauty in science, as Darwin believed that physical beauty, because of the variations of looks across the globe, has very few universals.

Different physical traits appeal to different human groups; from the preference of tans in Western societies to small feet in the male Chinese population, what is considered to weigh down the overall beauty scale of an individual is a shared mentality, and may or may not relate to larger, more complicated social or political issues.

What is beauty when Libyans are holding the gavel?

Libyans’ preference to fair skin is not always confessed but can be concluded from common sayings said in passing. Statements such as, She is cute but too bad she is tan, do imply a preference to fair skin and also suggest a negative general perception of darker complexions.

The term indeefa which is used by older generations in Libya to describe a fair girl can literally be translated as the adjective, “clean”.

There are those who will argue that such a preference does not exist in Libya, as it connotes a deeper racial issue; and that beauty is subjective to the preference of each individual. However, it has been my experience that statements that praise fair skin are not seen as unusual as they would if said in another country.

Being relatively new to Libyan culture and similar statements, my initial reaction to the term was that of confusion, coupled with a certain degree of denial. I assumed my interpretation of the term was faulty, knowing well that cleanliness is a trait required of every Muslim and is not considered a cause for praise.

The famous saying by physicist Niels Bohr, “The opposite of a great truth is also true” came to mind. Does that mean that dark people are considered the opposite of indeefa?. I did not like what my altered interpretation suggested.

To clarify the situation I asked what was meant by the term. Of course, those in my company were offended with what my question suggested; that their perception of fair skin as beautiful also means they are in a way, racist. I realized that I unknowingly put them in a defensive position.

The appeal of fair skin not only is apparent on the social level but on the main market as well. Whitening creams are sold in most shops that carry beauty and hygienic products, and most women buy facial foundations that are shades lighter than their actual skin tone. If the foundation does not succeed in making the skin lighter, than the foundation is seen as useless.

Beauty, like all loaded terms, is hard to put in words. Its subjective and altering nature makes its meaning instinctive but hard to explain or describe.

If I stopped ten Libyans on the street and asked what their idea of beauty is, each would likely have a different answer. However, if I asked if he or she would ever sit out in the sun for a healthy intake of Vitamin D, the majority would likely find the suggestion odd.

The sun, like sand in Libya, is apparent in copious amounts and is avoided at any cost; a drastic contrast from the Western obsession with tanning. What extent societies are willing to reach to maintain or achieve specific physical traits is a result of society’s overall judgement of beauty, and the general pressure of meeting those expectations.

There is no doubt that Libyans believe beauty is deeper than a person’s skin, and this is precisely why the suggestion that the existence of racism in Libyan society is seen as offensive. However, the preference to fair skin cannot be denied either.

For whatever symbol fair skin held in the past – perhaps an implication of a comfortable work-free life, one enjoyed shaded from the harsh desert sun; I believe aspects of this inherited mentality are beginning to alter, or at least be rightfully questioned.
____________

Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 23 July 2012

A Country of Poets

2012 historical Election Day was the first since before the rise and fall of the former regime’s four-decade dictatorship. The prediction on the street was that the long-awaited day would be like Libya’s wedding; and like the romantic notion, the celebrations across the country proved to be a nationwide festivity of Libya’s first real union with democracy.

Schools across the country opened shortly after dawn. A total of 1,453 polling stations opened and welcomed voters. Early risers waited anxiously for the 8:00 o’clock bell to announce the launch of Libya first Election day. Most of all, what seemed apparent were people’s contentment with their position in line, and for having claimed their part in the historical event which older generations had long been deprived of.

The elderly were skipped to the front of lines, and it was with their spoken prayers and feminine ululations that Election Day launched. Elder women wearing the traditional farashiya, a traditional white cloth, showed off their dyed fingers. Throughout the day, people referred to the electoral stain as “patriotic henna” because it symbolised the change that has already happened and that cannot easily be washed away.

After participating in the official part of Election Day Libyans took to the streets in celebration. The festivities were a reenactment of the previous October’s liberation day, and the revolution’s first anniversary in February; only it seemed the celebration this time around was magnified by a renewed optimism.

Martyrs Square was the centre of Tripoli’s celebrations. Children played on bouncing moonwalks, ate cotton candy and danced to live music of musical bands known as a noba. A small group of teenage boys pounded on different types of drums including the goblet, creating the music that attracted passersby. The youngest of the band led in song, proving skilled vulgarly and lyrically.

The far ripples of crowd sung along to his original rhymes that highlighted the moment. Occasionally the chants were initiated from within the crowd and then followed along by the band. The language of the rhyming lines was colloquial – and interesting mesh with the classical Libyan drum beat.

Together, the joint effort of the people’s clapping and the band’s drum pounding resulted in the creation of beautiful music. Songs were being made on the spot, helping mark the moment in history.

The performance made for a fascinating correlation of the tradition’s past and present influences of the Libyan culture. For outsiders, aspects of musical culture in Libya’s celebrated moment helped characterise the society.

Like the inspiring survival of poetry in Libyan culture, patriotism has also found itself a pedestal in the new Libya. Libyans of all ages seemed to connect instinctually to their own sense of nationalism that was not felt under the previous torturous regime.

It was this strong sense of patriotism that came as a surprise to many across the world and even to older generations in Libya. No doubt, this is what the rest of the world saw on Libya’s Election Day.

Back in Martyrs Square, the youth led the celebrations. Barriers of societal distinctions in the crowd like gender or age group were broken by the beckoning sound of Libya’s youth, singing and dancing to the beat of their country.

Parents stood at the furthest ripples of the celebrating crowd, enjoying the sight of Libya’s potential in their children’s smiling eyes. It was a day that celebrated country, culture and community.

________________________

Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 16 July 2012

Libyan Pastime

After the passing of afternoon, also known as the bored hours of the day, Libya’s main streets are crowded by shoppers, men sitting in outside cafes drinking tea and smoking hookah, and children in dirt alleys playing soccer, using their own creativity to create goal posts.

However, Fridays are like no other day in Tripoli in the sense that the streets lack the normal rhythm of life that the city is known to beat to. Rows of beeping cars do not crowd lanes 2 to 1, nor do the frequent construction sites sound their systematic hammering. Fridays are quiet days often spent at home in the company of family.

Streets sleep in on Fridays in the way inanimate objects can, stirring only at the appearance of an occasional car and finally by the call of Friday prayers. After the men complete their mandatory attendance at the mosque, they return home where family and extensions of it, spend time with one another.

What Libyans do for fun, and more importantly when they are bored are interesting displays of what society constitutes as appropriate and desirable forms of pastime.

Different to how more individualistic societies entertain themselves – delving in independent activities like surfing the internet when bored – most activities in Libya considered fun and entertaining seem to depend on the number of people in attendance.The more people, the better.

A zarda, or the famous word for picnic, drives Libya’s central entertainment system. When there is reason to celebrate a small success or a change in climate is in order, multiple family entities and friends get together in a distant lot of land and spend the quiet day in each other’s company, eating homemade macaroni, watermelon, and more junk food than normal.

Tasks are split by gender or age group; the men assigned to barbecuing busy themselves with talk of soccer and politics, the women slice the watermelons and pour tea, and the children try to stay out of everyone’s way. The overall picture of the get-together is an effusive display of Libyan culture and its value system.

Cultural values such as community and family are highlighted by these small, simplistic performances of Libyan pastime. Members seemed to enjoy the idea of temporarily leaving aspects of modern society behind in order to cook a meal over ad hoc burners with those they find deserving of the time.

Outsiders might find it surprising that Libyans should prefer the outdoors on summer days considering its desert climate, but Libyans are accustomed to the weather and have learned small tricks from older generations of how to control it; like watering the surrounding sand in order to cool the earth and prevent the sand from lifting to air dust.

On picnics like these, the length of Libya’s days seem to extend passed their infamous durability. Libyans enjoy feeling the passing of time, if only to spend the length of it with family. Not doing anything at all is considered relaxing. Unfortunately, that often means that luxurious chunks of time pass without effect. Many families fail to come up with activities that will be both entertaining and beneficial.

The great thing about Libyan pastime is that it plays as the perfect window for tradition to preserve it’s role in a modernizing society. This, however, does not mean that adopting modern trends would, in any way threaten that tradition.

Forming an activity such as story time can be beneficial to children, and no doubt, would bring family members together. It can also preserve Libya’s diminishing oral tradition. After time, this could be an example of a new tradition that younger family members will follow.

What Libyans do while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, while riding a public bus, or on Fridays are the clearest display of Libya’s tradition of pastime. It is important to value tradition, and respect the value of family and community, however that should not be seen as a task on its own. Many families complain that there are not enough recreational sites geared towards families, and this is a change they’d like to see in the developing country.

School is Out

Libyans are neat freaks – this is a fair generalization. Households, as well as shops, undergo thorough cleaning routines every morning in the battle against the country’s sandy terrain. The susceptibility to floating dust keeps Libyans on their feet, literally. Though most households hold a large number of family members, the inside appearance does not often give off that impression.

However, one has to question why the Libyan’s general obsession with cleanliness falters one step away from the threshold, where trash litters sidewalks and street verges like cigarette butts. Unfortunately, this lack of concern for the appearance of public places is highlighted in schools in Tripoli.

I debated on whether or not to write this article because it tells a hard truth about the physical state of many schools in Libya, none of which I personally attended. However, The Bifocal is not about pointing out society’s mistakes but is meant to open dialogue from as many varying perspectives as possible in order to find the small ways we might each help make improvements.

We can only share our personal experiences, and it is my hope that more of the wonderful readers of the Bifocal share their opinions and views as many have taken the liberty already. As the school year comes to a close, I thought it is fitting to share my perception on trash in Libyan schools.

What I saw not too long ago when visiting a high school as well as two university campuses in Tripoli was this:

Deteriorated buildings, deserted stairways buried in waste mounds, restrooms with stenches that drove away all visitors except those with no other choice, and an overall sense of disregard for the upkeep of campuses.

At the university campus students did not seem to allow the appearance of their campus to stand in the way of their education. Hundreds of students walked the hallways, manoeuvring around puddles that seemed to originate from the bathroom.

I could not help but interpret their evading nature as a form of disdain or neglect of their share of responsibility in maintaining their campus.

It was hard to tell if they noticed the stench at all, but I realised, after staying long enough, that I too began to grow accustomed to the smell and the overall appearance of the campus. I realised that this place of oblivion was a desired state of mind; a place that students wanted to reach in order not to be bothered by what they felt hopeless in changing.

Suggesting a clean-up day in this article would hardly be effective, as the real problem is not the trash on the floor but the learned habit of littering. Unfortunately, this is displayed in the appearance of high schools as well where I witnessed the problem be put to practice.

Trash sat on classroom window sills at the high school, on exposed desk drawers, and in empty class corners. The door was kept open by a leaning broomstick, kept by the door just for that reason. And, wobbly desks vandalized by bored doodles threatened to collapse.

Despite all these distractions, I noticed the students’ undeniable eagerness to learn, their enthusiasm to participate, and an admiring display of their respect for teachers.

One must consider what effect that the physical appearance of school campuses has on attending students. By keeping the appearance of academia looking the way it does, we may unintentionally be teaching students to devalue their own education.

Students see the wrong, often participate in perpetuating the bad habit, and are not properly taught better. The one cleanliness rule pertaining to school cleanliness that was followed under the late regime only seemed to enable the habit further.

The rule: the student cleans his own school, put both responsibility and fault on students; often taking away students from their studies in order to scrub classroom floors. A junior high school student described to me what the weekly task of cleaning her classroom entailed: missing lunch break and often the following class period, small groups of students took their alternating turn in cleaning behind fellow students.

No one cared about cleaning unless it was their day,” the student explained. “We bought cleaning supplies with our money because the school did not provide any.” The only lesson the student seemed to learn was not to argue with authority. She had only to look forward to the day that she would be old enough to ignore civil responsibilities without rebuke.

The million dollar question is who is responsible? More importantly, who should be held responsible? The curious thing is that the answers to both have not always been the same in Libya – a contradiction we are teaching our children. What do we have to say about that?

_____________

Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 30 June 2012

“Rami”

Previously in the Bifocal column, we discussed the responsibility of members of Libyan society to attend special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

But, what are the traditions that members are obliged to perform while at those occasions; that, if not followed would be considered an inappropriate disregard of custom?

Much of the way Libyan society runs is centered on satisfying societal expectations and maintaining relationships – a clear display of the role that regionalism plays in the country today.

Some of the traditions that are considered unavoidable are those of offerings, as they convey the care for the other person, and symbolise the desire to continue sharing societal ties.

In occasions such as weddings or the celebration of a new child, all the food, and servings of nut-based sweets are displays of hospitality. In return, the acceptance of an invitation and the attendance of a guest solidify the mutual desire for that relationship to continue.

This is important to understand about Libyan culture, as one could unintentionally send the wrong message.

Not showing up to a special occasion can be interpreted as a lack of concern for the host of the party, and may result is the host virtually erasing the no-show guest off her list for future occasions.

A reasonable explanation, of course, would excuse the no-show and would prevent tension from building. (It’s not like you need a doctor’s note, but you could say attendance is almost taken as seriously as school attendance.)

As for the guests who do attend, among the expectations they face include the offering of what is known as rami – a small fortune of money that is given to the host of the party. The amount of the rami differs depending on the guests’ financial capabilities.

For the middle-class Libyan female, the average range amounts to about 5 – 10 LD. For men, or for occasions in the family, the amount increases depending on the person’s generosity.

In short, the normal gift to present in celebratory events is cash. And, interestingly, the money is often offered to the families of the marrying couple, not the couple themselves.

During parties that celebrate the birth of a new child, the rami may be offered at the baby’s grand entrance – when the mother, holding her baby in a white silk outfit, enters the venue and offers a peek to family and friends of her new-born.

While awing over the baby’s cuteness, bills are stashed between wrinkles of white cloth by guests. The mother smiles but pays close attention to what amount was given by whom because the rami is a gift expected to be offered back when the roles reverse, and the guests host their own events.

No doubt, the most fascinating aspect of the custom is when the host of a wedding, often the mother of the bride, performs the exchange.

The mother of the bride – an elder woman wearing a traditionally wrapped striped, silk dress – can be found near the exit of the wedding hall.

While bidding guests farewell and thanking them for attending, the mother of the bride is slipped bills while shaking hands with guests.

The mother resists at first, looking sincerely embarrassed. Her polite refusals are overwhelmed by the guests’ insistence. Meanwhile, their hands remain locked, as they refuse and insist some more.

Under the blare of music that keeps the party alive behind them, the guest and mother of the bride look as if they are playing a small game of tug-a-war.

Finally, the mother submits to the inevitable and thanks the person before moving on to the next exiting guest. The mother never noticeably looks down at her hand, but forming a system of stashing the bills in separate pockets, or looking when no one is paying attention, helps the mother remember which bills were given by whom.

Memories prove quite remarkable in Libya, as hosts often recall how much they were gifted years after the occasion takes place.

The elder women help their younger and growing generations with this tradition, often reminding daughters how much they were given in order for an equal or greater amount to be offered in return.

Tradition can carry on long enough to make it hard to remember how or why it began. But the answers to those questions hold less meaning than what the tradition signifies.

Most Libyans will tell you that with rami, the money is not what matters, but it is the thought that counts.

Every culture has its own version of how to convey feelings for another member of society. I’d say Libya’s version is quite affordable.

____________
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 23 June 2012

Talking Change

Nothing has changed in Libya aside from the flag and national anthem.

I’ve heard this statement a number of times in frustrated debates, or quoted by international journalists interviewing Libyan residents. Though, the statement conveys a personal opinion and the person’s right to express it, I can’t help but think that, that’s just it.

This column is not going to convince those in doubt that Libya has, in fact changed. Stating the obvious would be redundant. Instead it is to change the way we have come to perceive the term ‘change’, at least for the reading-length of this article.

Last year’s uprising was the birth of the only form of change the country has seen in 42 years. In many ways, the revolution has had a lasting-impression on Libyans’ understanding of the term.

Change now connotes national transformations, whereas there are various degrees of the term to be appreciated.

I recently found myself in a tense, heated discussion over the current state of the country in its shaky transition phase, not all of the issues discussed were political. I agreed with as much of what was being said as I disagreed.

However, it was hard to express anything at all since one too many people were competing for the floor – a clear display of Libyans practicing a right that has been long refused to them.

While holding sweating teacups, the group openly and simultaneously voiced all of the things that needed to be changed in Libya. However, very few solutions were suggested except that the government should take responsibility.

I watched animated hands, and heard decibels grow higher until finally the sound in the room dwindled. It seemed that the group managed to make each other feel even less hopeful than they had been at the start of the discussion.

It’s good that you know where change should happen,” I said. “What are you doing to help that?”

I expected the type of responses before I spoke. There’d be a display of shock and no response at all; or, denial and the argument that I’m still stuck in the “American dream” and should stop comparing Libya and America in my head.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by one girl’s honest response, “We didn’t think of it that way.”

One has to question why there have been such conflicting views of how the country is transitioning from a brutal dictatorship. There are the people who have great analytic skills, and know where to point the finger. Then, there are many optimistic individuals who expected the transition phase to be shaky, and have adopted small responsibilities that make them a part of the change they’d like to see.

Under democratic terms, both people have equal right to express their opinions. And, together they represent Libya’s respect for the individual’s freedom of speech.

Change in its most impactful form is change in self.

To embody all the values and morals that you believe every person should possess is one step toward the world reaching that goal. To assume an active stance not only allows you to make your mark in the historical phase that Libya is now undergoing, but it also changes your own outlook on how Libya is changing.

Change always begins as an individual choice. Those choices in large numbers can lead to national transformations like the one we saw last year in Libya’s revolution. Hence, what we express in regards to Libya’s current state says something about ourselves, too.

So, what are you saying about yourself without realizing? Do you believe in change, or do you really believe in change? There is a small difference, and that is a big difference.

_____________

Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 18 June 2012

 

Wedding vs Funerals

If you want to take a snapshot of Tripoli culture, learn the elaborate and often complex customs, and discover the role that tradition continues to play on society, then attend a traditional wedding. But, if you want to see the raw social truths that often go overlooked in the hype of celebration, witness a funeral.

Though it seems odd to compare these two very different, yet equally important occasions, both weddings and funerals are ubiquitous and a part of Libyans’ daily lives. When new to Libya, the prevalence of both occasions may come as a shock.

Making an appearance to each is considered a societal responsibility, so it is not unheard of for people to attend one funeral and one wedding on the same day.

It is important to note early in this column that wedding and funeral customs differ depending on the region in Libya. This article focuses on Tripoli.

Weddings are embellished displays of a society’s past and musical culture. The traditional customs that take place in weddings in Tripoli such as the application of bridal henna, the dressing in traditional striped silk, the men’s musical tadreeja, and women’s female singing band known as zimzamat, are confirmations of society’s preservation of tradition.

All the wedding details from the bride’s pink, striped silk dress worn for the pre-wedding party to the groom’s twine of jasmine petals around his neck on the wedding day are displays of Tripoli’s valued culture.

There are also clear influences of modern culture, such as the dresses imported from Europe and America that brides, as well as guests wear. Or, the use of wedding halls, as opposed to ad hoc tents set up near or on the family’s property.

Traditional weddings have a little something for every age group, which make them exciting for all members of the family. Funerals, however tend to be more exclusive.

Children tend not to be seen in funerals that last three days, if not more. Tradition also restricts unmarried females, despite their age, from attending. One interpretation of this that I received was: Girls should experience their own happiness before witnessing sadness.

Of course, when the deceased is a family relative or a very close friend, that rule is no longer applicable.

Just until recently, what happened in the privacy of a funeral tent was a mystery to me.

The heart-wrenching tears were hard to see, but it was the moaning, gasping and wailing that were hard to bear. It was exactly what I had been warned to expect.

But after the initial shock of losing a loved one faded with the hours of the morning, family and friends seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

I had heard the saying: Weddings do not come without tears, and funerals without laughter. I understood how tears of joy could be shed in a wedding, but laughter in funerals?

Conversations in the funeral did not always mention the deceased, and at some points it seemed guests were trying to avoid the topic all together. Initially, I was extremely offended to be a relative of the deceased and have guests speak to me about their latest purchase. However, I realised that I may be experiencing a culture clash at perhaps, the worst timing.

My friends and relatives had good intentions. I knew that. This was their way of helping me move on; to be reminded of the little things in life that might make me smile. For them, this was their way of showing their love. It didn’t cross their minds that I might misunderstand their behaviour as a lack of consideration.

Having hosted both a wedding in the family and a funeral, I understand how less societal pressure is placed on funerals in Tripoli.

Looking closely at the customs expected of a Libyan funeral, it is less work all around. Rules for serving guests are apparent – the family of the deceased are expected to cook three meals a day and serve dates and butter cream to guests – however, these expectations are simplified significantly in comparison to what is customary in weddings.

Society’s obsession with fashion also refrains from playing its normal role. Most women wear casual clothing, and refrain from removing their hijab, religious headscarf. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t talk about fashion while at the funeral.

Funerals, despite the mournful cause, are less complicated, and less-costly occasions where family and friends sit without societal pressure to look good and present well because in the situation, it is actually expected.

What does this say about society? Perhaps it is hard to conclude anything at all since weddings and funerals are so different. Many people may find my observation relatable, or at least interesting, but in the end it remains mine. What’s yours?

___________
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 9 June 2012

The Libyan Diet

Shinu ghdakum? I was asked this question once just after arriving at a gathering in Libya. As I leaned in to greet a woman the traditional way – four kisses, twice on either cheek; I was confused to be asked about what I ate for lunch that day.

The timing of the question took the place of a, How are you? So, I assumed my interpretation of the phrase was flawed. However, the woman did in fact want to know what I had for lunch. A question I found oddly considerate, and well, a bit nosy.

It was this first experience with the question that I began to realize the importance of food in Libyan culture, and the emphasis that is placed on the preparation and serving methods in even the most ordinary events in Libyan society.

One can be introduced to Libya’s food system at just about any gathering. Libyan women rarely give up the chance of displaying their cooking skills in order to fulfill the value shared by most Arab cultures, hospitality.

The average Libyan diet is a short-listed menu of main dishes with few modifications made between the cities and suburban areas in Libya. It comprises of a number of savory dishes, all of them red and made from what are considered essential ingredients: onions, tomato paste, potatoes, oil, salt, red pepper and turmeric.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that almost every Libyan dish is dependable on the availability of these key ingredients. These ingredients contribute to the creation of the marga, or main sauce.

Dishes are thereafter distinguished by the starch base, either rice, couscous, macaroni and even barley.

The results: steaming bowls of the familiar tastes of childhood. The smell of ground cinnamon sprinkled over the finished product balances the spicy marga, and beckons Libyan families to gather round to share another meal with another.

Food, in every culture brings family and friends together. To understand the food of a culture is to better understand the people themselves and their taste.

The older generations in Libya share a common fondness to the meals they have grown old eating, and they often reject the idea of diversifying their meals when the younger generation introduces new dishes.

Unfortunately, many of the newer dishes that Libyans have come to enjoy are fried finger-foods and with as little health benefits as Libya’s red dishes.

According to an FAO analysis, the Libyan diet’s staple ingredient is wheat. The source of 62-67% of daily energy supply is carbohydrates, 22-27% is fat, and 10-11% protein. In comparison to other Maghreb countries, Libya has the highest fat and meat intake.

These numbers, along with a report written by Dr. Yousef M. Elshrek that averages the energy consumption rates in 1999 at a little over 3,700 kcal daily (a rate that exceeds the standard needs for any age), the risk of obesity developing as a future national concern is apparent.

Not only will this be detrimental to Libya’s already weak health system, but it will also be an economic blow, which is why it is so important to take the necessary actions of preventing it from developing.

In 2000, the total cost of obesity in the United States for children and adults was estimated at 117 billion USD. Libya could spend a mere fraction of that in preventive and educational services, and it would be saving the country health problems and money in the long-run.

There is no doubt that Libyan food tastes good. It is part of the problem, and it is why Libyans tend to eat so much of it. Although ignorance of calorie intake sounds like bliss, the hard truth is that a lack of nutritional concern has cost other nations billions of dollars in reversal measures.

Libyans all over the country and abroad share a love for Libyan food. The recipes that have been passed down for generations aren’t going anywhere, and we don’t want them to.

The Libyan diet may lack a sense of diversity that other cultures have; however, that also means diverse Libyans have something to relate to. If we don’t modify our eating habits by adding greens, or perhaps by eating less bread with that macaroni, at least we can all be fat and happy together!

____________________

Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on May 31st 2012

On Libyan Time

To introduce every new day in Libya, even before the coming of light, is the call to prayer. From mosques in separate directions and varying distances come the simultaneous recitations of the Athan, making pre-dawns sound like rhythmic rounds of overlapping melody.

The voices, distinguishing in depth, recite God’s name. Their elongated notes collide, leaving only the name to resonate in the silent streets. Sandals shuffle sleepily to the nearest mosque because the day in Tripoli has begun.

This is something I missed living in a non-Muslim country – this natural role that religion assumes in daily life. But, after moving to Libya, I was surprised to discover the extent to which prayer seems to shape life; how it influences the pace at which people live.

Aside from starting the day, prayer schedules the day in Libya where 100% of the country’s population is affiliated to Islam. It organizes daily life, and has a great influence on the people’s general perception of time.

Time, more often than not, is based on the sections of day, or the gaps between the five mandatory Islamic prayers. Instead of referring to time based on the clock, Libyans often base time on the most recent prayer.

I’ve found that this structure is luxuriously laid-back, and is structured around a loose system that takes getting used to.

Activities are deemed culturally appropriate in specific prayer slots, and plans are made based on the same standards. For example, most wedding invitations I’ve seen do not write an arrival time for guests since the time is considered to be a given.

Social visits are ordinarily planned in the evening, between Asr and Maghrib prayers – a thee-hour time gap. Showing up anytime within that time frame is considered appropriate.

This perhaps is the hardest thing for outsiders to grow accustomed to, simply because it distinguishes drastically from the hurried and meticulously scheduled days in other parts of the world. Leisurely activities there are planned at specified times, and punctuality is always expected. Not following the clock in Western countries is interpreted as a lack of respect for the other party’s time.

When I first discovered Libya’s system, it seemed that Libyans didn’t care to be punctual. Either that or I was missing what everyone else found obvious. I had a lot of questions for female relatives who seemed to be experts on the structure of Libyan social life. How did they know when guests would arrive? Why didn’t they just agree on a time to meet? Wouldn’t it be easier?

Their answers were simple. It would be rude to designate a specific time when inviting guests since it would risk make them feel unwanted before then.

Instead, women seem to possess an internal sense of the rhythm of life in Libya, almost a sixth sense. They can prepare and expect guests without ever letting time complicate the occasion.

There is a degree of convenience in the structure, I have found. In the afternoon (the hottest time of day), more commonly known as the Thuhria, the bustle of the streets dwindle down to workers going home, and to people who are out only because it is absolutely necessary.

This is a luxury I have learned to enjoy since convenience is expensive abroad. Praying in fitting rooms at shopping malls, in parking lots at work, or in an empty classroom are examples of convenience where Muslims are a minority.

Though, this nonchalant take on time in Libya does negatively affect the swiftness of jobs getting done, for the most part I find myself envious of this mentality. It seems Libyans enjoy a more natural lifestyle, where family and social responsibilities are prioritized over work or an individual’s career-obsessed goals.

Libyans are able to structure their days around their religious duties and what they find convenient considering their North African climate.

So, to respond to the many curious Libyans who ask me, “Ama kheir?” – Which is better? I’d say that living in Libya definitely has its advantages.

____________

Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post‘ on May 27, 2012

How You Speak

You’re sitting in a traditional Libyan gathering, sipping red tea and served an array of date-filled and sugar-powdered sweets.

The conversations in the room overlap and though it is hard to focus on one in specific, the overall sound has a unique order to it. When you are asked a question, silence falls over the room.

This moment you spend thinking of what to say can feel like a full minute to someone new to Libya, and halting in Arabic or, specifically the Libyan dialect. Whether you are a foreigner or a Libyan from abroad whose tongue feels and sounds heavy when pronouncing the elegant Arabic “R”, your speech will stand out, and so will you.

It wouldn’t be right to launch The Bifocal column without addressing the most important topic relating to the insider/outsider complex. A language barrier is the first thing that distinguishes a person in a given society.

How you speak has a great influence on people’s initial impressions of you, but you can also learn a lot about a person’s reception to diversity. How open-minded a listener is, can be conveyed in his or her reaction to how you speak.

Even within Libya there are distinguishable sub-dialects. Libyans who live in Tripoli but originate from the inner rural cities of Libya have expressed to me their hardships of being expected to match Tripoli jargon.

There are plenty of Tripoli residents, who will express their appreciation of your developing speech or different dialect, and I’d like to think they compose of the majority; however, almost every newcomer experiences the unfortunate situation where the “barrier” in the common term “language barrier” is built right before their eyes.

Normally, the term refers to a verbal barrier between two people who do not share a common language and which prevents them from communicating effectively. However, the “barrier” in the unfortunate situations to which I am referring has less to do with the listener’s failure in understanding your meaning. Barriers here are built voluntarily.

A Listener may impolitely point out the mistakes you make, or in extreme cases, laugh at you for making them. The Listener’s intention may be to teach you something, but the only thing succeeded with this type of reaction is that an implicit barrier between the two of you was created.

Recently, I found myself in one such unfortunate situation. While speaking fluently to an acquaintance at a wedding in Tripoli, Arabic words not belonging to the Libyan dialect found their way into my speech – a natural result of having learned Arabic by Syrian and Palestinian Arabic teachers abroad. The Acquaintance found my usage of these words funny.

Because I don’t like to take myself too seriously, I joined in the laughter. Her intentions seemed innocent at first but her tendency to focus on the actual words I was speaking, as opposed to what I was saying was inconsiderate. However, she seemed oblivious that her actions might hurt my feelings or cause me to withdraw all together from the conversation.

This language barrier is the hardest thing to overcome for newcomers. Surveys conducted in cultures around the world, including one by Statistics Canada show that immigrants reported language barriers as their biggest difficulty next to finding adequate jobs.

For someone new to a culture, what you learn from the quick interactions in a grocery shop or when meeting someone new, can prove influential on the general judgment you make of the society.

It takes time to realize that unfortunate situations like the one described, are not ill-intended as they seem. Instead, they are representative of the restrictions Libyan society was subjected to in the past.

For a long time, under the former regime’s rule, it had been one way or the highway. If you didn’t sound, act and think exactly like the people around you, you didn’t belong. Now that restrictions have been lifted in the new Libya, it is a matter of overcoming that backwards mentality.

We don’t have to sound exactly like each other to understand or connect with one another. Libya’s discomfort with the “different” is evolving. In the new Libya, we have to bridge the gaps one awkward situation at a time.

____________

Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post‘ on May 17, 2012

What is the Bifocal?

The Tripoli Tribune is happy to republish this opinion column that will explore the cultural, societal, and sometimes political aspects that make up Libyan society today. Read More

Why Words Matter: The Problem With the Term Islamist

By Dr Usaama al-Azami

The term Islamist has meant different things at different times to different people. Today, when used in English it usually conjures up terrifying images of masked gunmen on the streets of European capitals killing innocent civilians in the name of Islam. Read More

What is the future of Libya?

By Michael O’Hanlon & Federica Saint Fasanotti

While world leaders remain confused and divided and, most of all, usually indifferent over the future of Libya, its municipal leaders point the way forward. Read More

Moving Past Libya’s Failures

By Omar Auf

After years of turmoil, Libyans thirst for unity and an end to the nine-year conflict. What should the making of a settlement in a divided Libya look like? Read More

A Light in Libya’s Fog of Disinformation (1)

By Khadeja Ramali (Interviewed by The Africa Center)

Divisions within Libya’s civil war have been amplified by foreign-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Reconciliation and peacebuilding will require local actors to reclaim Libya’s digital spaces.

.

PART (I)

Nested within Libya’s ongoing civil war are a fog of falsehoods, distortions, and polarizing narratives that have engulfed Libyan social media networks and online news outlets.

Content created and fueled by foreign actors adds to the confusion. Difficulty in identifying the truth has fueled demoralization and distrust among many Libyans.

Libya’s conflict pits the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based out of Tripoli in the west, against an assortment of militias aligned with warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), controlling territory in the east.

For destabilizing actors like Haftar (supported by Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), overrunning digital spaces with disinformation has been seen as a means to achieve conquests on the ground.

Haftar’s forces have sought to gain advantage in their struggle by sowing confusion about the motives and tactics of rival groups while making it more difficult to obtain information that may cost the LNA popular support among ordinary Libyans.

He has been aided by online firms tied to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries who have pushed divisive narratives into Libya’s social media networks.

The foreign-backed efforts to undermine the formation of an informed and democratically-engaged public in Libya’s digital spaces are likely to persist beyond any ceasefires negotiated on the battlefield.

The Africa Center spoke with Khadeja Ramali, a leading expert on Libyan social media and the founder of a digital community for Libyan women, about this challenging environment and the strategies that Libyans are developing to counter disinformation online.

 *     *     *

Who is creating and spreading disinformation in Libya and what forms of disinformation are most prevalent within the country’s digital spaces?

Currently, digital spaces in Libya are highly fragmented and influenced by varying degrees of disinformation from an array of local, state, and international actors. The most sophisticated and coordinated disinformation campaigns have come from foreign states, particularly the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in direct support of the LNA and Russia’s multifaceted interference in the local media environments in ways that often benefit the LNA.

These foreign actors have been able to use Libya’s digital space as a means of advancing their interests without bearing the destabilizing consequences of their actions.

Going back to 2014, large networks of UAE and Saudi fake Twitter accounts have been actively crowding out actual local voices by posting, creating hashtag traffic for, and amplifying nationalistic sentiments in Libya.

Beginning in 2019, thousands of these accounts were mobilized to glorify Haftar and his military campaign. This includes invoking imagery of Omar Mukhtar’s (early twentieth century) struggles against Italian colonialism to link the LNA with the fight against foreign invaders and terrorists.

Another tactic of these fake accounts is to Arabize the conflict and to cast Turkey, which backs the GNA, as the Ottoman Empire, evoking Libya as “the graveyard of the Turks.”

For each social media campaign, these accounts would localize their message depending on their targets and aims. Many of these campaigns were outsourced through Egyptian firms that were familiar with Libyan dialects and local issues.

Russian-backed actors connected to the Wagner Group, meanwhile, have been more active on Facebook and have developed subtler forms of disinformation by hiring Libyan consultants to create locally “franchised” groups, which can more nimbly sow disinformation that resonates with Libyans.

These groups pick up on local grievances and inflame them by bringing polarizing subjects back into the public eye in order to attract passionate online followers who are then primed to be more receptive to Russia’s narratives of the conflict.

Many of these narratives appear to have been pilots – testing out different and even conflicting messages – to see what might generate the most sensational effect. The UAE and Saudi accounts, in contrast, were highly coordinated in their attempts to amplify specific goals.

On the GNA side, the data we have so far shows that Turkey and Qatar have been much less active in producing digital disinformation and have placed more resources and emphasis on messaging through their traditional state-backed television and media channels rather than through fake or franchised social media accounts.

They don’t do the same scale of coordinated online disinformation or manipulation, in part because, unlike the LNA and Haftar’s forces which are regularly linked to human rights abuses, the GNA feels less need to vilify the other side in order to excuse their actions to citizens.

Finally, at the local level, we have non-state armed actors shaping the information environment. The largest of these is the GNA-aligned Misrata cluster.

They have a very active Facebook presence. They run a pretty smooth operation with what I call “war influencers,” who are so-called citizen journalists, or the militias themselves streaming content directly from the frontlines. They do a lot of videography, and it’s mostly done in-house.

The content of these posts is aimed toward keeping up morale, gaining public support, and vilifying the enemy through their platforms. Other smaller militias do this as well, though they are not as digitally savvy. All of the disinformation produced by these groups is basically the same kind of narrow, low-level claims that they’ve captured prisoners or enemy equipment, which may or may not be true.

These claims don’t appear to be coordinated and are nothing on the scale of what we’ve seen in terms of larger narratives produced by the UAE and Saudi networks.

How have digital landscapes in Libya changed over the past decade?

In 2011, only a tiny fraction of Libya’s 6.5 million citizens were active online or had smartphones. The digital space was heavily monitored by the Qaddafi regime and an internet connection was expensive. That started to change significantly after the revolution.

By 2013, there was a lot of activity as Libyans began joining online spaces and as digital media spaces were energized—though often still run by members of the Libyan diaspora.

There was a lot of capacity training by international organizations. As the conflict and civil war began to break out, there were numerous murders and kidnappings targeting well-known media figures in Libya.

Benghazi at one point had so many assassinations that monitors started to lose count. People became scared of being outspoken online.

Out of fear, most Libyans disengaged with online discussions of politics or current affairs and stayed away from public online spaces and preferred to engage in small closed online groups.

Even these conversations were often guarded, however, since they could be infiltrated by outsiders with malicious aims. So, online spaces became fragmented and there became an information vacuum.

International media coverage died down, and people weren’t talking about what was happening. As a result, only those affiliated and protected by armed groups, political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, or other powerful groups were left to fill the void.

Things really went downhill after 2014 with the Qatari-backed “Libyan Dawn” militias’ seizure of Tripoli and the evacuation of the international community from Libya.

There wasn’t any in-country independent media or any reliable information that wasn’t filtered through specific foreign-funded channels. It was and still remains a confusing space.

One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. More recently, we have seen fake journalistic personas created to publish propaganda in various media outlets, including policy recommendations regarding the Libyan conflict.

Furthermore, social media personalities and war influencers lead the efforts to push hate-filled narratives and political campaigns to Libyan audiences.

***

Khadeja Ramali is an independent consultant who has worked on issues involving community and digital spaces in Libya since 2014. She is a geophysicist and co-founder of Project Silphium. She has been collaborating with Libyan women’s Radio Network Project, which aims to expand the capacity of women media professionals in Libya.

__________

 

 

 

 

 

Security sector stabilisation and development in Libya (4)

One thousand and one failings

By Hamzeh al-Shadeedi, Erwin van Veen & Jalel Harchaoui

This paper looks at security initiatives in Libya between 2011and 2018 in the context of its civil war to identify security sector stabilisation and development lessons for future SSD efforts and programmes.

Read More

The Maetig-Hafter proposal to resume oil exports

By Sami Zaptia

Just when you think Libya is complicated – it gets even more complicated. Khalifa Hafter and his international allies have on the issue of the oil blockade seemingly outmanoeuvred Faiez Serraj and his allies in western Libya. Read More

“This‌ ‌War‌ ‌is‌ ‌Out‌ ‌of‌ ‌Our‌ Hands”‌ (1)

The Internationalization of Libya’s Post-2011 Conflicts From Proxies to Boots on the Ground

By Frederic Wehrey

For almost a decade, Libya has been riven by increasingly internationalized conflicts, stemming from local and regional fissures during the 2011 anti-Qadhafi revolution and the NATO-led intervention. In the wake of that conflict, foreign missteps and the failures of Libyan elites to produce political unity and workable institutions opened the field for an escalating proxy war. Read More