Residents and Dissidents: Reflections on Libya from an Outsider

I have never wanted to write publicly on Libya. Part of this has to do with the fact that, as you might pick up from my name, I’m not Libyan.  I have a deep ethical distaste for the rise of Westerners (I highlight Westerners here because I have yet to see others doing the same) cropping up out of the woodwork to claim a stake in the Revolution, to laud their “personal participation” in February 17, or “America’s help.” In addition to being incredibly narcissistic, self-serving and welcome fodder for the “America-NATO-Israeli-Al-Jazeera” conspiracy theorists, these arm-chair experts divert attention from the fact that this victory belongs to the Libyan people—and absolutely no one else.

So why, then, is this gawriyya writing? It’s a fair question.  Is it my place? Probably not.  Maybe so.  This article was prompted by a question a dear Libyan friend asked me the other day on Twitter—and to which I feel ethically obligated to respond.  As a photojournalist, translator, activist and academic based between Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, the United States and France, my friend wanted to know: have I ever seen a Diaspora and resident population in North Africa so at odds with one another in a transitional situation—as we witness in Twitter discourse on electoral legislation, and spats about “who did more” for February 17th? Here’s the short answer:  No. I absolutely have not seen anything like this enmity.  I think it merits analysis, in the hope that Libyans abroad and at home can reflect on the depth of shared suffering and sacrifice – no matter how different its forms – as a powerful force for closer unity.

As an outsider, I’m writing this as an academic, as a translator, as a journalist with linguistic and regional “expertise,” if I may even be so arrogant as to use the term.  However, it’s more important (and infinitely more difficult) for me to write from a deeply personal experience that first involved my heart in the struggle against Gaddafi many years ago.  No, I had no “white” family members on the Lockerbie flight;  I had no family members in the Rome airport; and no, I lost no one in the Berlin night-club bombings.  My introduction and commitment to February 17 was a result of a friendship that first opened my eyes to this particular struggle, and in turn reoriented my priorities, spiritually, morally, and intellectually. In 2005, I met a Libyan abroad who became one of the closest friends I have ever had; as I learned the more in-depth details about my friend’s personal and political history, I became absolutely obsessed –the only appropriate term– with Libya under Gaddafi, and the roots of struggle against the regime.  It was this friend who first showed me the film of Sadiq Shewhdi’s televised execution. That image has never left my nightmares.

Years later, I watched Mubarak defiantly refuse to leave Egypt from Tangier, and my heart burst with hope for Libya.  I cried with a friend and her husband, a foreign correspondent, praying that Libya would get the chance to rise up.  He accessed the news wire for me, and we huddled in a Moroccan café, planning what we could do from there for the Libyan revolution to come. And so, throughout the last days of January, I signed up for Twitter, ready to do anything and everything, reaching out to unknown Tweeps, offering translation, medical aid, and so on and so forth.  Honestly, I struggled deeply with getting involved—ethically, was it the right choice?  Was it my “place”? I found myself in North Africa with a profuse knowledge of Libyan history, fluency in Arabic, French, and English, with a broad network of academics, humanitarian workers, activists, and journalist contacts spread across the region.  I had decided; the unethical choice would be to do nothing.  However, I never wanted my name attached: hence the Twitter handle “MsEntropy.”

I will not discuss the full details of my participation– that isn’t the point.  The crucial thing about recounting this at all is this: things got done. Connections mobilized. Differences were made. And this never, ever would have happened had I not encountered a Libyan exile, and been introduced to the importance of the anti-Gaddafi struggle through a profoundly human connection.  That friendship touched my live, but more importantly—opened my heart to the meaning behind a Qur’anic ayah that truly structures my life: We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another (and not despise each other). The most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous. (49:13). To me, this verse means not only recognizing common humanity in the sight of God, but moreover, to recognize in one another the spark of Divine creation.  And with that comes mutual responsibility: whether it be Libyan exiles and Libyans within the country. Whether it be the struggles within one’s own blood family, or the family placed in our lives, by God, by happenstance, by luck. Struggle, sacrifice and suffering need not be identical to mutually heal. We are far too connected.

The friction between Libyan residents and Libyans abroad that I’ve seen recently on Twitter is deeply rooted in the long history of Gaddafi “divide and conquer” politics—be it inciting Libyan nationals to kill one another abroad—even in Mecca during Hajj—attempting to exploit tribal ties, or defame devout Muslims as “extremists.” The list is simply too long to recount. Though I don’t want to singularly treat all Diaspora North Africans, I believe we can make certain generalizations across the table. Throughout the “French Maghrib,” where ties to the colonial power are still deeply entrenched economically, migration to the colonizing power from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria is an ever-present reality.  Several residents of these countries express sadness, sometimes envy, at compatriots abroad. Some lament the “brain drain” facing their societies as young talent flees instead to build Europe.  However, I ask: how many Libyans do you know  left Libya merely for “economic opportunities?” For the Libyan Diaspora, the case is—largely—radically different.  So many Libyans abroad face the xenophobia and outright demands to  “go home,” the racism of their “host” countries, the rhetoric of “this country took you in—be grateful”— but what is the response?  I want to go home. I don’t want to be here.  I want to go home.  Whether it’s the few who left Libya for educational opportunities, or the much greater numbers that fled for political reasons, Gaddafi’s spy committees abroad ensured a constant shadow of threat, making time away even more painful.  Where is solace when “home” is not only a physical impossibility but an ever present dream for which you’ve dedicated your life, your entire existence?

Whether it was televised executions of “Student’s Day,” turning family members into regime spies against one another, calling for citizens to hunt down “Stray Dogs,” we all know how the Gaddafi regime thrived on pitting Libyan against Libyan. And without the Libyan exile community, how would news of Abu Salim have reached the world? With virtually no access granted to human rights organizations prior to 2006 (and the farce of Saif Gaddafi’s “reforms”), the Gaddafi regime had so tightly sealed off the country, that its isolation can only be compared to that of North Korea.  Yesterday was a landmark day for Libya—the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, formed more than three decades ago, officially launched its political party in the city of Benghazi.  We have all witnessed history the past year, and yesterday a dream came true for so many.  Vindication. The National Front is a spectacular example of Libyan patriotism abroad—and the high price members of the opposition have paid.  Founders “disappeared,” members executed abroad, their children living in fear but always keeping the struggle alive, publicly demonstrating against Gaddafi’s 2009 “speech” at the United Nations.  So many acts of courage.  So much risk. Showing their faces—knowing full well the potential implications. Not only the founders of the organization, but their children—and in turn, their children’s children—are every much the children of Omar al-Mukhtar as those living in proximity to his tomb (before Gaddafi razed it to the ground, that is).

Reflect on the Libyan exile community’s experience.  Reflect on that anguish. Imagine never going home.  Imagine leaving behind baby pictures, overnight, because death-squads operate with impunity, hunting you down in your foreign, “host” country.  Knowing that in “your” country, you are considered “a stray dog,” and meant to be eliminated. Imagine trusting only immediate family, living with the justified worry of a Diaspora community infiltrated with spies.  And perhaps the worst—imagine never feeling free to tell your story. Never having the cathartic release of revealing your real name, your address, your history.  Every moment wondering if your life abroad meant the potential end for relatives “at home,” many of whom you’ve never met, and can never talk to—if you want to keep them alive. Imagine spending generations fighting for change from abroad—finally achieving the end of the dictator, and being told, “You can’t vote.” “Your sacrifices aren’t the same as ours.” “You’re not Libyan enough.”

Libyans abroad don’t need me to defend them. And it isn’t my job to try. As I write this, I’m bracing myself for emails critical of me adding my voice to this discussion. But I feel ethically obligated to do so. Suffering need not be identical for mutual healing to occur.  Compassion and empathy blossom, on the deepest possible level, from recognition of shared trauma—no matter how different in external aspects.  What I mean to convey here is that the sacrifices of Libyans abroad meant a triple loss, in fact—the initial loss of “home.” A constant fight to return “home.” And most insidiously, once the years of suffering away have paid off, and your seemingly unachievable dream is realized—you can return, but to what?  To find that your sacrifices are somehow, surreally, suspect.  On a fundamentally personal level, I owe my own life, as well as the work we did throughout February 17, to a Libyan exile, suffering and fighting every day for the freedom of those “at home.” This interconnectedness should be recognized for what it really is—revealing of the incredible will to survive, and hunger for change, of the Libyan people—“at home,” or abroad.

11 Responses to “Residents and Dissidents: Reflections on Libya from an Outsider”
  1. sharon says:

    “In addition to being incredibly narcissistic, self-serving and welcome fodder for the “America-NATO-Israeli-Al-Jazeera” conspiracy theorists, these arm-chair experts divert attention from the fact that this victory belongs to the Libyan people—and absolutely no one else.” – so well said. thank you.

    and the rest was pretty damn good too.

    thank you from another westerner in awe of libyans, their fierce passion, pride, and determination.

  2. David Fox says:

    Well argued Amanda. I would just like to say that I think the profuse apologies for stating an opinion as an “outsider” are unnecessary. I think that advocating for freedom and justice, whether it is in the West Bank or inner-city America, should not limited to “insiders” of a specific ethnic/religious background. If you care about a cause, if you are informed about it, if you don’t have any negative underlying agenda, then you should be able to fight for what you believe in without apologizing for being an “outsider.”

    Also, when it comes to the fall of Gadaffi, why must instrumental outsiders be denied credit for this success? Many Libyans themselves are thankful for the NATO intervention that essentially prevented a massacre of Benghazi. In perhaps a Middle East first, I’ve seen a video in which Jordanians attempting to burn an American flag outside the Libyan embassy in Amman where forcefully stopped by Libyans who were present.

    You obviously expended time and energy to the cause, but are only Libyans themselves allowed to acknowledge your efforts (as opposed to an outsider like myself)?

    I guess what I’m saying is . . . it’s time to move beyond the fear being an “orientalist”. Neither my father nor my father’s father, nor any in my family ever participated in the crimes of colonialism (as is the case with most who work/study in the MENA region). When we limit advocacy based on skin color, it is a form of racism itself. The end of apartheid in South Africa was assisted by the work of outsiders pushing for BDS. A solution in Palestine may one day be reached with the help of outsiders who have tirelessly pushed for BDS of the Israeli state.

    Everyone can play a part advocating/fighting for freedom and justice, and credit should go where it’s due, regardless of race.

    • MsEntropy says:

      David, Thanks for your comments–but I have to respond that–as an American citizen of Indigenous and Caucasian mixed ancestry, I have to point out that the vast majority of “Americans” are occupants of stolen land, and are complicit in colonial history (not post-colonial history), whether or not it’s uncomfortable for us to admit. As a product of both colonizer and colonized, I just want to reinforce that we are all interconnected in the fight for social justice, globally, and in that–we are in complete agreement.

      But I do want to call your attention to something in the article that’s crucial for me: I do not want to be (and do not deserve to be) “acknowledged” for my efforts. If there was any way to avoid self-referencing in this article, I would have done so. However, as it was a Libyan dissident whose courage initially got me involved, on a deeply profound, personal level, there is simply no way to explain why I have these opinions without mentioning myself: believe me, I tried.

      The reason I press the Libyan sacrifices over and over again in this article is, no matter how much “outsiders” may have helped, etc–choosing to struggle against Gaddafi from afar, and from within the country itself, was a question of life or death–quite literally for Libyans. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of outsiders (beyond folks like Tim Hetherington, and those like him). The stakes simply were not the same.

      As much as those outside can empathize, help in any way possible, it’s a moral imperative to underscore that it’s a much easier choice to fight for freedom when your life is not directly on the line. I hope that history, when considering the Libyan Revolution, recognizes just how much bravery it took for those directly involved–inside and out–to rise up and struggle : in any corner of the world. Many thanks for the comments.

    • Brian. O. says:

      I think there is every reason to be on guard against the “orientalist” mind set, which retains a very powerful hold among western observers. In the wake of the liberation of Tripoli the British press was full of reports attributing the victory to British, French, Qatari, special forces – anyone but the Libyan people. Western media coverage has been dominated by classic orientalist thinking, reducing every fractious incident among the rebel forces to “tribalism” (you could almost hear the drums beating )And then we have the recent consensus among the daddy-know-best western think tanks that Libya is not ready for elections.

      • MsEntropy says:

        I could not agree more. I also find the Daddy-knows-best attitude of Westerners who bemoan the No Fly Zone as a “war against the Libyan people” as, itself, pretty paternalistic. The irony of refusing dogmatic ideology, right?

  3. Hend says:

    As a Libyan, I agree:it takes a village. It takes a world, to make the world a better place. And Libyans for one will never forget that the Feb 17 revolution was a group effort-it would have been impossible without the mind boggling bravery of Libyans defiantly facing a stronger force, nor would it have been possible without an international community that provided moral, logistical, and the make or break military support of NATO. Thanks, Amanda, for your work, for this article, and thanks to all non Libyans who saw our struggle as a fight for universal human rights. What a change for a country treated so inhumanely for so long by a mad man.

  4. Safa Shanneb says:

    From yet another Libyan exile, thank you for your article and support during the revolution and now. What you describe was truly how most of us were raised and perhaps what instilled a stuborn determination and deep love to our homeland over the years and generations abroad. And that sincere determination and attachment, i pray, is what in the end will give us the strength to keep negotating and communicating and learning and growing until we are a united people again. Have faith and keep an eye on the grandchildren of Omar Al Mukhtar.

  5. That’s what I was looking for. Adds a blog to my favorites.

  6. Yaseen aka the artist formerly known as Cyrenaican says:


  7. Yvonne says:

    I’m also not a Libyan and didn’t know Libya till a year ago. Yes, I know it existed, but now more then this.
    I must laugh by the response of Daddy. So really true and I can tell you, in every way I hope to tell the people around me, that they believe in fiction, not the true. This is not difficult with an example how Libyan people take the courage to tell and later fight for there freedom.

    One year ago I met a group of Libyan wounded people. I was impressed, about there courage and there proud, there power and yes I also see al lot of fear, but still they were fighting for thereself. Even they don’t know the language, they didn’t know what to expect for the next day, even everything wasn’t clear at that moment, they had there proud and happiness, because Libya was free. In this days I learn a lot and still I’m very happy with this experience. It was very and very difficult for all of us, but now we become very big friends and for some of them we become the best friends for life.

    Those friends tell me and teach me about the history of Libya. In mean time I search for more information and in the mean time I follow the Transformation. In this time my passion for Libya was growing, but also the thought the world can learn from the people of Libya. There positive attitude, there proud, there dialogue and many many other things. Last month I stay for one month in Libya, now I know for sure it was not only the group I met, not only the stories on internet, but is the mentality of the Libyan people. A big surprise when you know about the history of Libya. And just this makes me more curious and gives me more believe that the Libyan people will succeed in there goals. The people have a lot, really a lot of power and very strong believes. I hope I can learn more from them in the future and then I like to pass it on. So stories like this, helps me. Respons like this, helps me. Thank you Amanda and the others

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