Over one year has passed since I first crossed the frontier into Libya, and what a long, strange trip it’s been. As I stared beyond the final border checkpoint into that empty landscape, before my eyes stretched the great unknown, a boundless abyss of uncertainty. What would become of me in this, the first war-ravaged country I had ever set foot in? Yet to my surprise, that dull sense of dread, such an ever-present specter since I first decided to go, suddenly disappeared, replaced instead with a growing feeling excitement. And so after many years of dull apathy, I felt a renewed sense of purpose.
Long before that border crossing, I fell deep into those dreary, dark doldrums that many filmmakers call home. Progress in the industry was inordinately, soul-sappingly slow. Time, however, wasn’t. And with each year gone, success seemed more and more distant, and less and less likely. Yet all this would change in just four days, those fateful four days in February of 2011. A passion long forgotten would suddenly be rekindled, ushering me across the Atlantic and to this sand-choked border hugging the heights above the Egyptian town of Salloum.
Not an hour from Egypt, we entered into Tobruk, site of the great World War II battle, and the first sizable city in the East of Libya. As we drove on those broken roads, we were greeted with a scene of quiet jubilation. The sense of citizenship coursing through the veins of the residents, newly freed from 42 years of Gaddafi, was like nothing I had ever witnessed. And as we worked our way toward Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising, that same scene played before us…over and over and over. For the whole of the East was polarized, working as one to rid hapless Libya of the systematic oppression that had plagued it for two generations.
As we arrived in Benghazi, midnight had come and gone, but people were out in full force clearing the wreckage from the streets. The following day, we saw 12-year old boys don police hats and direct traffic at the light-less intersections. Downtown, we raptly watched as musicians and artists converged on the once foreboding internal security headquarters, now the media center and the cultural Ground Zero of the revolution. In the blink of an eye, a music and art scene burst forth from under the surface, and enveloped free Libya. Heavy metal, country, blues, jazz and traditional all converged on the media center, and brought its burned out shell to life. And all amidst a backdrop of utter devastation. 42 years of neglect had left Benghazi a living ruin, a bleak setting for a post-apocalyptic film. Yet despite the decay, the city was full of such life, of renewal, of spring come again. I took all this in with amazement, and for the first time in I don’t remember when, I felt a faith in humanity, dormant somewhere deep inside me, reignited. And I felt that same renewal course through my veins.
The idea for a music festival first came to me while I was exploring the ruins of the ancient Greek city Cyrene. While I wandered through the decaying Necropolis that winds down the hill toward Soussa, the youth were out in full force and exercising their creativity out in the open, letting their voices be heard for the first time in their lives. I thought to myself that the world needed to see this, the true face of the revolution. Not al Qaeda. Not Western governments, but the thousands of forgotten, a lost generation rediscovering itself in the music…in the requiem for youth. The more I pondered, the greater the need, it seemed to me, to show to the rest of the world this true face of Libya that I was seeing. And in those quick moments, I transformed from a down-on-his luck filmmaker into a music festival producer.
After leaving Libya for a few months, I returned only to find a large number of people had already heard about the idea. As a friend later explained to me, news travels near the speed of light in the metropolitan village that is Benghazi, and one person stumbling across a Youtube video of some unknown American talking about some Libyan music festival soon turned into 50 ad hoc festival organizers. Before I even arrived, I had a crew. And when I once again planted my feet on Libyan soil, we were off to the races. Soon followed coffee with businessmen, meetings with ministers, and appointments with NGO’s. Interest grew and grew, just as opposing forces violently clashed in the last loyalist stronghold of Sirte. A month passed, and when Sirte finally fell on October 20th, we used the occasion as a platform to advertise about the festival. And, oh, how splendid things looked.
As time wore on, however, it became painfully clear that nothing was actually getting done, and nobody knew what they were doing. The honeymoon was over, and my once robust crew attenuated down to three: me and two others. The enthusiastic voices of support in the National Transitional Council (NTC) had long grown silent, and the various NGO’s never bothered to follow up, let alone return our calls. To make matters worse, the idea was hijacked by at least four different groups, and what once seemed to be a concerted effort of the citizens of Benghazi became a desperate race between rival factions to hold the first festival. The NTC invited Yousif Islam for a festival at our original location. A local television channel began poaching from our lineup for theirs. And whispers of various other music events kept on surfacing throughout the month of January. It seemed the very spirit of the festival, the very spirit of the music, had been tainted. All the enthusiasm, all that newfound hope welling inside of me, was gone, slowly eaten away by the months of collective apathy after the fall of Sirte. Yet somehow, through all of these pitfalls, we remaining, we few persevered. And it appeared our perseverance would be rewarded. One day before the festival, we found ourselves the last ones standing, with a fantastic location secured, and 25 local bands ready to shake the very foundations of Benghazi. As we held the final briefing of the bands, I looked on in sheer amazement. We did it. After all this…we, we really pulled it off.
Sadly, however, the legs that supported us, and seemed to hold up while others fell, were nothing but an illusion, a cruel mirage in the heat of the desert sun. For at the 11th hour, the burgeoning politics of Benghazi laid to waste all our plans…and just like that, we were forced to cancel the festival. The music, the voices, went silent once again.
The aftermath was a particularly difficult time, for the shades of failures past continually haunted me. The hope I had so happily embraced turned to dust in my hands. I hated Benghazi, hated it with a passion, and it appeared that Benghazi began to hate herself. Disappointment and resentment ruled the day as Libya became mired in post-revolutionary stagnation. Once again, corruption was blatantly out in the open, and people felt that nothing had really changed, save for their ability to complain and criticize. Somehow the city reflected how I felt inside, and I wanted nothing more than to go home, to leave this dirty living ruin, lost within the echoes of the 20th century. Yet something inside refused to let me leave. Something I had yet to discover. Some burning question left unanswered.
One beautiful spring day, as I was walking by the lighthouse, the sun peaked through the clouds, and hit the ruined buildings in a peculiar way. And for the first time since I arrived, I saw it. I saw Benghazi. Not the ruined city of trash and rubble that I had come to know, but a hidden gem amidst the dust, a gem with many facets. To truly see Benghazi, to truly understand this unique city of contradictions, one must take them all in at once. All facets. This was a city with virtually no infrastructure. Crumbling hospitals. Decaying roads. And no law and order. Yet despite these civilization-smashing problems, Benghazi not only functioned, but functioned peacefully. In the midst of it all, here I was, a blonde sore thumb with a pony-tail, moaning about the festival and generally feeling sorry for myself. Yet I never felt any real danger, even in a city where most of the population possess small arms, with the police being nothing more than paper tigers. In spite of this, however, I walked virtually everywhere without being bothered (apart from crazy drivers and roving packs of vicious dogs). No, no. This was not Mogadishu. In fact, this was not even San Francisco.
As the rays of the sun illuminated this ancient city on the Bay of Misrata, I at last saw through the veil of my own darkness and gazed upon the true face, the true character, of Benghazi. Unconditional love for this city, my city welled up within, for she embraced me and took me as one of her own. And for the first time, I felt peace.
This story, my story, is not about a festival, nor is it about a nation burning in the flames of revolution. No, this is a story about how the city of Benghazi and I came to love each other, despite our many disagreements, and despite the great cultural chasm that lies between us. In the beginning, I came to her engulfed within the darkness of my soul, among the shadows of failures past. Yet in the end, she would come to love me as I love her, and lead me out of the darkness. As I left her behind in the sands of the Great Desert, I finally heard her song. And what a beautiful song it was.
“After traveling through the East, I now see Libya with different eyes. It’s as if a volcano of artistic expression erupted in front of me. And I’ll tell you, it’s ripe for the most rockin’ music festival on the Mediterranean.”
Rebirth: 17 of February Music Festival is an exciting new initiative: the first annual music festival in a liberated Libya, and soon to be the most epic music event in North Africa and the Middle East. It will be held on the one year anniversary of the uprising, and will run for three days (Feb.17th, 18th, 19th, 2012). It is the brainchild of filmmaker and music lover Matthew Millan, who traveled to the East of the Libya in April and May of this year to Libya to document the uprising. Within hours of entering into the country from Egypt, he became horrified at the level of devastation and neglect wrought upon the East of Libya by the Gaddafi regime. From the forgotten ruins near Shahhat to the half-erected buildings of Bayda, the East appeared to be remnants of an abandoned civilization. Yet amidst the dust of war, he soon discovered something extraordinary being born out of the spirit of Libyan people. From the sophisticated art of Bayda to the thriving music scene in Benghazi, a nuclear explosion of the arts had occurred, covering its plume throughout the East of the North African country. And while exploring the ruins of the Katiba the sprawling fortress that dominates the center of Benghazi, it occurred to him that a music and arts festival would be the perfect foil to highlight this blast of creativity, and in one of the most beautiful regions he has ever seen.
The idea was borne not only out of a strong desire to highlight to the rest of the world the rebirthing of the Libyan cultural identity amidst the chaos, but to raise money to help rebuild the decaying infrastructures that plague Libya. In September of 2011, Matthew Millan returned to Libya to secure the location for the festival, and to take care of the local logistics. The difficult process of bringing the festival to life in a war ravaged country will then be made into a feature length documentary, a singular event that encapsulates the Libyan Phoenix rising out of the ashes of the old regime.
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
After four long months, I have returned. And getting here was a hell of an experience. 3 hours to Dallas, 9 to London, 5 to Cairo, and 23 to Benghazi…and all in a span of two days. Not surprisingly, it has taken me half a week to recover; my internal clock is still just shy of five minutes to midnight. But now my system feels a sense of balance, and I can now process the events of the last few days.
On the day I returned, we received some very somber news. My friend Hammuda’s nephew was killed on the 23rd, but not in the fighting. While driving to Sirte to battle Gaddafi loyalists, a tire blew, and his car rolled. He was killed instantly in the accident, leaving behind a wife and two teenage sons.
Yet the tragedy doesn’t stop there. Back in 2005, he was arrested for smuggling weapons into Libya, and thrown into notorious Abu Salim prison. Having dedicated his life to fighting Gaddafi, he instead found himself languishing in hell for over six years…that is until the fall of Tripoli. Upon release, he found a Kalshnikov and rushed toward Bab al-Azizia compound to find Gaddafi, and achieve his life’s mission. When he arrived, he was greeted with cameras and CNN reporters, but no sign of the man responsible for the 42 years of hell wrought upon the Libyan people. Crestfallen, he returned home to Benghazi to see his estranged family.
For one month, he became reacquainted with his sons and his relatives. Yet despite the joyful reunion, he was clearly struggling with his newfound freedom. Just days before his death, Hammuda joked to him that it must have been a lot easier in Abu Salim, because he didn’t have to buy groceries for the family. His mouth laughed, but Hammuda clearly see sadness and apprehension in his eyes.
And so it was no surprise when, less than a week ago, he decided to join the fight against the remnants of Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte, beaten but not defeated. Yet fate waved its cruel hand, and he didn’t even see the battle.
I never saw the man alive, but I did see his death mask at the funeral. And I saw the pain etched in faces of his two sons. Following the funeral procession to the brand new cemetery (the revolution filled the last one) a wave swept over me, a tidal force of darkness. I found myself staring into the abyss at the shear senselessness of it all. For him to finally taste the air of freedom, but to have it cruelly taken away, and by an arbitrary hand. It reminds me how fragile our lives are, how the armor of our skin cannot protect us from the hostile environments that comprise our world.
And yet the pain of loss will pass with time. Although his sons wish that he was still locked up in Abu Salim, this horrible event will not end their lives, nor those of future generations. For the one solace we have is that life will move on…even in our absence.