Libya As I Know It
If you had told me seven months ago that I’d see an uprising bring down the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, I wouldn’t have believed you.
As I watched Libya’s revolutionaries storm Gaddafi’s compound of Bab Azaziya, ransacking his home and beheading the gold statue made in his likeness, I was still in a state of disbelief.
Where Gaddafi stood just a few months ago calling them “rats” drugged by their hallucinogen-laced Nescafe threatening to cleanse them of their homes “zenga zenga,” the revolutionaries now stood, waving Libya’s independence flag. Triumphant, they chanted and yelled and took Gaddafi’s golden head under their feet.
Their faces seem permanently stuck in smiles.
This was a moment we’d all talk about, my family and me. It was a scene that played itself in our dreams for a thousand and one nights. And now that it was manifest in reality, we were almost too afraid to be happy.
For the past few months, I’ve watched the country of my forefathers -- the peaceful, provincial lands that bore the sweetest fruit of my summers spent there -- made into a war zone. I’ve watched my brothers pick up arms to defend themselves against a steely rain of bombs and bullets and be vilified for doing so, labelled “rats” and “rebels”. I’ve watched tanks drive across the familiar dusty landscape of my homeland, past palm trees swaying in a gentle Mediterranean breeze.
I watched Libya become a different place from the one where I spent hot July days lazing on my grandfather’s porch, gelato melting in my hands. Libya’s picturesque ocean shores were replaced by trenches and front lines. Libya gave up dusty knolls for battlegrounds peppered with unexploded ordnance.
These were the images that flooded TV screens, newspapers and websites around the world: bearded Libyan men wielding guns and straddling tanks, cigarettes hanging lackadaisically from their lips. These were the images by which the world would judge the country I call home: bloody hospital rooms where bright futures were unjustifiably snatched away from the young; a war-torn country marked with thousands of freshly dug graves.
For 42 years, the defiant image of Muammar “Mad Dog” Gaddafi has been invariably linked to any discussion on Libya. Rarely did such discussion center around the crimes of his regime, but rather his many eccentricities -- one day, a voluptuous Bulgarian nurse and his botox sessions; the next day, a rambling U.N. speech and a tent in Central Park.
In a country that managed to avoid the kind of international attention that other Middle Eastern countries like Iran or Iraq captured, it was easy for Gaddafi to hijack the narrative of the Libyan people. To introduce myself as a Libyan meant I had to suffer the inevitable associations. “Oh, Gaddafi!” strangers would reply in recognition.
Despite Libya’s rich Greco-Roman history, the fine contributions of Libyan authors and artists like Ibrahim El Koni and Fathi El Areibi and Mediterranean beaches that would put Malta’s to shame, it seemed we would never escape the legacy of our unhinged dictator.
But as the Libyan people rose up against him, they found themselves plunged into a war with their own government, and it seemed we’d have to suffer a different reputation.
War-torn. Battle-ravaged. Rebels. So-called Middle Eastern analysts were given free reign to pontificate on Libya’s “tribal divisions” and there were the inevitable musings about the “rebels’ Islamist factions.” This is the vocabulary that controlled the dialogue about my country and my people.
Victory has come and we’ve paid a heavy cost -- thousands of lives, homes destroyed and buildings fallen. But the spirit of the revolutionaries, after more than six months of battling, is not broken. Reclaiming Tripoli as their own, as the land of the people and not of Gaddafi, they received vindication of a struggle that took life and limb of the people they loved.
In the same streets Gaddafi once dragged the mangled bodies of dissidents to his regimes, the youth of Libya now danced, their faces sparkling with hope and opportunity. You couldn’t find a young person in those crowds who didn’t look like he’d just peered in on heaven. Victory was theirs. The streets belonged to them.
How do you define a people? For too long, in a vicious narrative of oppression and victimization, the Libyan people were defined by Gaddafi by others who were outside looking in. But Feb. 15, the Libyan people stood up and they said, "No more."
They poured out of their homes to show the world, here we are. We have shed blood and sweat for God and country. We are proud, courageous and possess a strength and resolve that has toppled one of the longest-running dictatorships in history.
We are Libyans. And Libya belongs to us.