In light of the recent tragic events in Libya, I feel that it is time to speak out. For the past few days, I have been filled with profound grief about the death of the American diplomatic staff, and the Libyans who heroically defended them in my beloved Benghazi. Many of you have done your parts to assuage my grief by showing empathy and understanding in your hearts for the Libyan people. And I love you all for that.
Yet sadly, I have seen the flip side, the cynical need for some of you to characterize all Libyans, and the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, as the Other, the monsters and devils lying in wait, ready to tear down the gates of civilization. And to make matters worse, your voices, overflowing with ironclad certainty, utterly drown out the voices of reason and moderation. I spent nearly a year in Benghazi getting to know the true character of the people. And yet my experiences count for nothing to you. And so I write this, half-knowing that it will never reach your eyes. Yet still I write.
When the Libyan uprising first erupted in February of last year, I watched in amazement as an entire population attempted to liberate itself from the crushing yoke of a mercurial tyrant, a God King meant for another century. And when I read a small passage on CNN about an everyman filling his car with explosives and ramming the anti-aircraft gun outside of the great fortress that dominates Benghazi, that was it for me. I just had to be there. I needed to see this people’s revolution for myself. And no, not through the distorted media lens, but through my own eyes.
The decision made, I now had to deal with the lingering specter of terror. What the hell was I getting into? Thankfully I had a good friend already there, but as far as I was concerned, I was still leaping headlong into the void. I still recall so vividly the conversation with an expert on what to do if I was captured. And even more vividly, the discussion with my dad on the code we would use if I was indeed kidnapped. I remember finding it so unbelievably odd how we casually broke up the regions of Libya into the geographical locations of English football clubs in case I was thrust against my will in front of the camera. Driving up to the San Francisco International Airport in the false light before dawn, and blithely talking about the possibility of being imprisoned…or even worse.
Three weeks of frantic preparation passed, and I found myself looking toward the Egyptian checkpoint, patiently waiting for permission to cross the border, and into the midst of the revolution. Then suddenly…I was there. And what a strange sensation it was. So this is how it feels to be in a revolution? No anxiety. No terror. Just a feeling of ever-growing excitement.
As we toured the eastern city of Tobruk, we were greeted with scenes that would become all too familiar to me during the early days. Children sweeping the streets free of debris. Citizens policing the crumbling neighborhoods. And everyone wanting to shake my hand. Men invited me into their houses for lunch. Soldiers guarding forlorn checkpoints gave me tea. And every man, woman and child wanted to tell their story, the tragic price that they paid under the reign of “Brother Leader”.
The more time I spent in Libya, the more I found my own hope, long lost to cynicism and self-absorption, return – and return in waves. And no better reflection of this hope could I find than in the burgeoning music and art scene. After 42 years of boiling under the surface, creative expression burst forth with a ferocity that reduced the walls to rubble. People literally discovered their artistic talents overnight, and they wasted no time. The media center in downtown Benghazi was a veritable beehive of activity. Every room was filled with artists, newspaper editors, metal bands and hip hop groups, all of them determined to express themselves to the fullest. I was floored by this fast evolving Renaissance to such an extent that I decided to harness it into a rocking music festival in the heart of Benghazi.
As the war became mired in an unstable equilibrium, the enthusiasm of those early days would soon fade. But the feeling would return in spades when the God King finally fell from the sky. On that day, October 20th, a day I will likely never experience again, the celebrations were on a scale I cannot adequately describe. As one friend so eloquently put it, there was a complete and total absence of hatred in the entire city. All of our personal chains dissolved, and for that oh so brief moment, we were united in the fellowship of man.
Yet sadly, the feeling was all too fleeting, and Libya soon became mired in post-revolutionary blues. After months of planning, the festival was cancelled at the 11th hour. The music that was such a driving force during the revolution went silent, and the paint dried up. More and more problems came to the surface as stagnation set in. People became truly jaded, and the spirit of February 17th withered.
Yet to my amazement, I still felt safer within the dilapidated confines of Benghazi than in any American city. I could walk anywhere, and the people still wanted to shake my hand, to tell me thank you for documenting their struggles. No, not a trendy revolution thing, but the true untarnished character of the people. For you see it’s Benghazi, the city of the homeless, and she welcomes all with open arms. As my time in Libya came to a close, I felt a deep, profound love for her. She adopted me as one of her own, her native son returned. She fed me, housed me and graced me with the warm company of my long lost brothers and sisters: Hammuda, Dado, Bofa, Moftah, Don, Elli, John, Haitham, Abdallah, Mingo, Hussain, Marrwan, Tawfik, Hassam, Masoud, Aziz, Hakim, Saleh, Munder, Mansour, young Malek, Zakaria, several Ibrahims, several Ali’s, Rodaina, Huda, Noran, Fayrouz, Rounak, and the thousands who I have sadly failed to mention.
These, my experiences with each and every one of them, they define Benghazi. They define the spirit of Libya. Yes, I witnessed the desecration of the military cemeteries in Benghazi. Yes, I witnessed a gun battle between a militia and heavily armed thieves. Yes, I saw music festivals cancelled due to the heavy-handedness of some of the more extreme elements.
And yet I saw 100 men rush to the aid of woman who was being car-jacked. I saw 30 citizens rush to help at the scene of a car accident. I saw the utter grief etched on the faces of those gathered at the many funerals I attended. I saw the unfettered tears of Mahdi Zew’s daughters as they reflected on the loss of their beloved father.
I heard the pain in the voices of my friends when they talked about losing the best of them, their dear friend Rami El Kaleh. And I heard the beautiful song that so powerfully expressed their grief. I heard the hip hop artists echo the frustrations of the entire youth culture. I heard Masoud Buisir bring hope to the hearts of the freedom fighters through his rousing music, and his message of universal human rights.
And yet you see the black flags on Fox News. You hear the angry chants of football hooligans outside the US embassies. You see the few hundred wild-eyed extremists destroy monuments and murder the innocent. And you decide that they represent everyone in those parts. And so you call the people of the entire region backward…inhuman…savages. You call their set of beliefs cancerous, even though they share many more similarities than differences with yours. You think of yourselves as modern and enlightened, yet you use nearly the same language as the extremists, and worse, the still ringing voices of 12th century Crusaders.
But before you walk away in disgust, and tune into one of the many hate-mongers on talk radio, I ask you this. When a Libyan reads the newspaper, and sees a story about an unhinged man shooting up a movie theater, how do you think he views you? Does he decide that you’re just like him?