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.