Bayda: Out of the Ashes

Driving through the hinterland east of Benghazi, I feel as if I am viewing the remnants of a long-abandoned civilization, as if I was staring from a distance in time of 1,000 years.  Yet as we stop along the road that meanders through the Green Mountains, I notice clear signs of habitation.  A clothesline.  A satellite dish.  A few sheep here and there.  Half-erected buildings, projects abandoned for 40 years, and yet the well-spring of life still flows.

As we approach the provincial town of Bayda, I now see Libya with different eyes.  Not an abandoned civilization, but one left neglected by a self-styled god-king for 40 years.  From the purposely forgotten Greek ruins of Shahat to the crumbling waste of Benghazi, the east of Libya is in a state of ruin that stands utterly misplaced in the 21st century.  In fact, put the pictures side by side with Cologne or Dresden during the Second World War, and one would struggle to tell the difference.

Yet in the dust and amidst ashes, a fiery Phoenix is emerging, and its flame burns ever brighter.  42 years of oppression, of fear, and of imprisonment – not just of the body but of the mind – and Gaddafi could still not completely destroy the human spirit.  Throughout the east, in forgotten towns just like Bayda, a torrent of expression is gushing forth.  Once a wasteland of the soul, but now a highly advanced artistic community emerges.  And not over the span of years, but within a few short months.  Young and old alike are now itching to exercise their new freedoms.  Through art, poetry and music, the people are speaking, and filling the 42 years of void…and all within the blink of an eye.

I walk through the media center amazed at the subtlety in the paintings.  And later, though I don’t speak Arabic, I am swayed by the rhythm of the poems, and the chanting of the excited crowd.  And what a crowd it is! When they see the camera and the blond man behind it, they want nothing more than to express their frustration, their fears and their hopes for a better future, for a Libya that they all deserve.

They give me a jacket because I am cold.  They cook pastries for me because I am hungry.  And they make me a wreath to thank me for telling their story.  One man innocently pleads with me to tell NATO that Gaddafi is violating the No-Fly Zone.  And another tells me about his love of bodybuilding.

And though these memories will be stored with great fondness, the enduring picture etched in my brain is an impressionistic painting of a figure molding plastic faces.  Once we in the West only knew the plastic face of Libya, etched in the lines of a maniacal tyrant.  But within each stroke of that painting, we see its real face, in the emerging culture…one that was dimmed for 42 years, but will now burn brighter than ever.

-Matthew Millan

Reporting from Bayda, Libya

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