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?
By: Don Smith (smithpolitical)
It has been a hectic past few days. We are attempting to arrange the largest music festival in Libya’s history, Rebirth: 17th February Music Festival, in only a few months. We are also showing the film “We Win or We Die” all across Benghazi. I’d like to say many thanks to Tawfik and the International School that he runs for allowing us to show the film there. The overall response to the film, “We Win or We Die”, and the festival, Rebirth: 17th February Music Festival, has been positive. Most people have commented that he film reminds them of the revolutionary spirit that that had just a few months ago and the festival is an excellent way to celebrate Benghazi’s independence.
This brings me to Thursday October 20th. The air is electric with the news of the fall of Sirte and Gaddafi’s demise. The end of 42 years of tyranny has released a tidal wave of emotion. With crowds of people bombarding the streets yesterday, firing off pistols and assault rifles, it was like New Years Eve and the 4thof July rolled into one. With shouts of “Long live Libya” and “Long live America” filled the air as I was continually approached and thanked for the role the US had in the liberating of this country. I have yet to come across any anti-American sentiment since I came here and many Libyan want Americans to feel that Libya is their second home.
The people are ecstatic and the air is filled with hope as Libyans once again own their country and can control its future. However, there is also a deep awareness of the long road ahead of them. Libya as a nation is quite wealthy, but Gaddafi squandered that wealth leaving most of the nation in ruins. Construction has been in frozen for the past ten years leaving half-built buildings sitting in a state of suspended animation and many of the nation’s historical landmarks in complete disrepair. There is trash everywhere because waste management was cancelled once the war began and the water system needs to be revamped so the people can once again have clean drinking water. Very few police are on the streets and government offices have yet to reopen, but the streets are peaceful and these services should resume shortly.
The sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq has made many Libyans resolute to not let their country slide into a civil war. And while there is always some risk of conflict based on ideology, this is fortunately unlikely in Libya for a variety of reasons. Tribalism, while still present in the country, does not contribute to any longstanding conflict within Libyan society, having held much of the country together in the absence of government, and is no more significant than any other form of regionalism in any other country. Religious extremism exits only within a minority of the population and secularism is favored by the majority of Libyans over the establishment of a religious caliphate. This is not to say that Libyans wish to abandon Sharia law, in fact many would argue that it should be the basis of the legal system, but that the laws should be flexible and open to interpretation to allow the government to expand with the people. Another fear is that political opportunism will lead to fracturing of Libyan society because conflict can always be manufactured by those who wish to exploit it for their advantage. Issues can be created and then used to divide a once unified electorate. Already there are those in the West that question the validity of a government created in the East. Nor should any favoritism be used in the division of the country’s assets. Regionalism is important and Libya can easily exist within a federated system that complements this regionalism. One can only hope that the Libyan leadership will put partisanship aside and do what is best for the country.
Many dramatic events will enfold over the next few months as the nation shifts towards democracy and factions form into political parties. Libya’s first free elections will usher in a new era for the country. That and the drafting of a new Libyan constitution are sure to ensure years of peace and prosperity to come. Now is a time for excitement, and rebirth, for while many years of hard work are ahead the Libyan people know that Libya’s future is its own once again, the era of tyranny is over, and a new Libya sees the dawn.
Yesterday started like any other day in Benghazi. The rumor mill was turning at pace. Sirte was on the verge of falling. The NTC was about to declare an end to hostilities. For days and days, however, we had heard the same, so most of us didn’t expect October 20th to unfold the way it did.
The morning was spent trying to arrange screenings of my film to various English-speaking schools in town. While at the European School, my friend Dado received a call from another friend. Halas. Sirte, the last bastion of Gaddafi, had fallen. Once again, I was a bit skeptical, because I had heard the same before. I went to speak to the Headmaster and didn’t think any more of it.
After the interview, Dado and I headed to the Libya Alhurra tv station to collect footage for the music festival. Something definitely was amiss. Horns honking and Kalashnikov fire at a greater frequency. And even the distant boom of gelatina. Hmm. Perhaps.
We pulled into the station, and joined a crowd gathered by a tv. Sirte has fallen, and some big names have been captured. Yet what of Gaddafi? We waited. Nothing. An interminable period of time passed…and then the cheers erupted. Local news claimed Gaddafi was captured, but once again I was skeptical. After all, Motassim was “captured” 10 days ago. And Saif was “detained” after the fall of Tripoli.
But then the pictures filtered through. Images of what appeared to be a lifeless Gaddafi. And soon Al Jazeera confirmed that it was indeed true. After 42 years of iron fisted rule, the self-styled god king was dead. A man who hovered over his people ominously, even within their dreams, reduced to pleading for his life in a sewage pipe. From whence he came, as some would argue.
We rushed out of the station and headed straight for the courthouse, Dado blasting Dire Straits the whole way. The road was packed. Horns honking. People chanting. Guns firing. There was a palpable energy in the air, one that I had not felt since I was here in April and May. The courthouse area was beginning to fill with people…and the noise was deafening. Walking through the crowd, it was easy to be swept away in the euphoria. For even though the war had been winding down over the last couple of months, the death toll in Sirte was rising steadily, and the specter of Gaddafi still hovered over their lives. Yet now it was over. The head separated from the shaven body.
We spent rest of the afternoon at the courthouse interviewing people, and enjoying the jubilant scenes before taking a siesta. When we returned in the evening, the downtown was absolutely packed. Gridlock everywhere, but nobody cared. We walked by a car accident, but those involved were too excited to pay much notice. Benghazinos and Benghazinas were out in full force, and enjoying a night that they will remember for the rest of their lives. VL Day.
As I walked through the downtown area, I wondered what it would be like in six months. Would the vacuum left by Gaddafi lead to a mass scramble for power? Would one tyrant be replaced by another? Or would Libya become a beacon of light to the rest of the world? Many questions are left unanswered. Yet I can still hear the faint voices of the wives and mothers of the Abu Salim victims on that fateful night in February. “Wake up, Benghazi. Wake up, Benghazi.” On this day, the 20th of October, 2011, I can assure you that Benghazi, and the whole of Libya, has its eyes wide open.
At the dawn of the millenium, there was only one store in the whole of Libya where one could buy heavy metal music. It was considered very dangerous to listen to such corrupting noise. Now, only 10 years later, there is a burgeoning metal community, led by Dawn of Odessa, a band born straight out of the now anachronistic British New Wave of Heavy Metal.
Last night, I was taken to an ad hoc rehearsal room in an ad hoc music studio, bordering an ad hoc center for Libya al-hurra channel. As a young lady with a beautiful voice laid down tracks in an ad hoc sound proof room, the face of Benghazi metal began rehearsing their song ‘United Warriors’ upstairs. Their equipment was old, battered, and barely workable…yet good enough for these enthusiastic metal heads.
And then they started playing. Within seconds, I found myself back in 1986, whirled away in a hot tub time machine of sorts. Yet in front of me wasn’t the odious glam rockers Poison, but the true spirit of metal. The lyrical content may have been aimed at Gaddafi and his fallen regime, but the spirit of metal was universal.
When the Rebirth Music Festival kicks off in the ruins of the Katiba on February 21st, 2012, I fully expect these guys to be one of the major acts to play in front of the expected crowd of 150,000. And in those moments, they will launch the New Wave of Libyan Metal
Horrific to Ironic tales were delivered by LA filmmaker Matthew Millan at the UNCHR rally, (6/20/2011) Santa Monica. Millan’s recent six week stay in Benghazi revealed the horrific violence Mummar Gadaffi unleashed against his own people. Millan spoke of the systematic terror campaigns (e.g. car bombings, rape, and even disease spread) Gadaffi used to reassert control.
The ironic twist to his report was of the civility of the Libyan people towards each other. In a country with no internal infrastructure present and no social services provided, what is holding the people together?
The citizens of Benghazi have taken matters into their own hands. Local children are found sweeping the streets at 3:00 am to maintain the city. Banks have been untouched, stores have not been looted, and homes have not been broken into, as Millan stated, “it appears that Islam is acting as a temporary constitution.”
As Millan passed the stories of Libyan people to the ears of the crowd, one thing became clear- war is hell. This is why, on several occasions Millan was handed footage from many Libyan citizens and the message was always the same: tell the people of the world what is going on in their country.
Millan plans his next trip to Libya to complete his hypothesis on his feature film project West of Tobruk.