Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bidding Farewell to Libya

I haven't had time to write much here because the last week was just incredibly hectic. I also did not have access to the internet for a few days, and when it finally came back, I couldn't even load up this page. It was super slow.

So much has happened since I last wrote, so I'm not sure where to begin. The country partied for 4-5 days straight after the death of Gidafi. Every night there was traffic, music, people handing out sweets, or spraying people with rose water or perfume as they passed through their neighbourhoods (a custom often reserved for weddings). Many neighbourhoods pitched in to buy baby camels and fire up the BBQ. They handed out bbq meat to people on the street. I didn't get any unfortunately. I like camel meat, but have never tried it bbq'ed. I find it's the perfect meat - tender and soft like lamb, but lean like beef.

There seemed to be quite the controversy over the way in which Gidafi was killed outside of Libya - but it created little waves in the country. There were Libyans who wanted to see Gidafi tried in a court; but the vast majority seemed relieved he was dead and could not return to haunt them. They wanted to forget him and the horror they saw under his rule. I watched local Libyan TV frequently during this time, and they had a camera out on the street interviewing people as they drove by. One family was just sobbing profusely, and I sensed that there was more behind their tears than just relief that Gidafi was dead. Then the camera turned to a picture of their son which they had taped on their car's window. His mother wailed and kept repeating "hasbuna Allah wa ni3ma al wakeel fil gidafi" (a prayer said when someone has wronged you very terribly). Despite the happy moment of getting rid of Gidafi, this family and many others still lived with the pain of losing loved ones.

And so many families have lost loved ones. Driving through Tripoli you see the names of martyrs spray painted on the houses they used to live in. It was shocking to me to see how many have died.  I stumbled across a wall with the names of 19 martyrs written on it - I was surprised because it was a small neighbourhood who's majority were gidafi supporters. I can only imagine how much worse these numbers were in Ajdabiya, Misrata, and other small towns. We also often forget to count those Libyans who fought for Gidafi - many of them were young too and very brainwashed. Many of them honestly thought they were fighting Al Qaeda.  They weren't all innately evil - I spoke to some pple who had their homes raided, and they said that it could have been a lot worse had some of them not stood up to their colleagues and superiors and asked them not to steal and rape.

I heard some disturbing stories about rape in Libya. We will never know the numbers because of how taboo it is. I heard that in Mistrata, no one wants to acknowledge rapes even occurred and they deleted many of the video evidence that they found on the phones of prisoners of war. I asked why they would do that and that it was important for establishing war crimes, and I was told it would dishonour their daughters and their honour. It's frustrating and angering that many women will suffer in silence because their male family members and Libyan society in general think their honour will be tainted.

This aspect of Libyan society - honour of our women - is one of my most detested cultural practices. It has been twisted and deformed into something that has hurt women. It is not limited to situations of rape only - but men have come to stifle their women more than before for the sake of 'honour'. They are given less mobility and can't go out on their own as frequently as they did in our parent's generation.

There was a confrontation in our neighbourhood between our family and some fake freedom fighters (they weren't freedom fighters they were looters). My mother and aunts tried to speak to them, and my young male cousins pulled them away and told them to stay silent and stop embarrassing us. My dad was there and he was puzzled why our cousins were silencing his wife and sister in law. He mentioned it to us later and I explained to him the erosion of respect for women that began sometime around the mid 90's. When you ask young guys they say - we don't want the men of the neighbourhood thinking anything bad about our women. Rather than blame the men, they exhert control over the women. I don't think I could ever live under such a retarded system of blaming the victim instead of reforming the loser men. A woman has a right to speak, whenever and wherever, just as her male counterparts. There is nothing to be disrespected about that.

I hope the younger generation will change, but this is the generation that grew up under Gidafi, and their ideas about women are very troublesome. As a final point, it was also distrubing to see how many young men donned freedom fighter clothes and have gone on a looting rampage in Tripoli. Many of them are fakes who never fought, but are exploiting the current situation to rob and steal. We've been fending off a group of them from our land (they were looting the house across the street which belonged to a member of Gidafi's regime). They thought that our cars belonged to this regime member and tried to take them by force. It was pretty scary, shots were fired and we worried someone from our family would get hurt. After three days of fighting with these guys, we called our friends in the TNC to ask them to put a stop to this. Hopefully something will be done.

Moving onwards, we were finally able to visit Bab Al Aziziya, Gidafi's home. Honestly, there wasn't much to see - everything was either bombed out and charred or stolen. They even took the toilets. I had to use my imagination to try and reconstruct what it may have once looked like. There were a lot of journalists roaming about, and we got targetted right away because it was obvious we were coming from outside of Libya and probably spoke english. My dad had a pretty lengthy interview with a Dutch news outlet - I still have to email the lady for the newsclip.

What was surprising was that Bab Al Aziziya had its own hospital for the Gidafi family. This wasn't a clinic - it was a full on hospital just for him and his family members. There was also an office building that was super creepy - it looked like something out of a cartoon - like the evil cartoon characters dark evil headquarters. It was dome shaped and had green carpetting on the floor and walls. The windows were super tiny, so little light came in. It was massive - it was like a creepy evil king's court. I could imagine Gidafi sitting in the middle fanning himself with his golden fan, while his minions cowered about and sucked up to him.

There are mosques almost everywhere in Libya - and there normally would be one in a compound as large as Bab Al Aziziya - but there was none. There was nothing but evil in this place. Gidafi used a lot of black magic and that was said to be the reason behind the fact there was no mosque in Bab Al Aziziya.

Many of the bombed out portions of his home smelled terrible. I hope I didn't expose myself to NATO bomb chemicals that cause cancer. I probably did. I didn't really think about that until I smelled the chemical burning smells. Oh well. His house was ugly and not as big as I expected, but I had to rush out of there due to the smell.

The remaining days in Libya were spent visiting family and a little bit of shopping. I had a lot of fun in the Medina buying some Libyan crafts. When I went with my brother, it was a bit of an uncomfortable experience because he didn't like the fact that the men were staring. But with my female cousin, it was just fun. Once you start talking to the shop owners, they stop staring and become more respectful. No one said anything that bothered us, and we actually struck up conversation with a few of them. It was interesting to hear their take on the last few months. One of them had actually luckily escaped alive from Abo Sleem prison.

The trip home was straight out of a movie. Because the airport was closed, we had to drive to Tunisia. When we got to the border, again, it was a parking lot. It was barely moving. I didn't understand why it would take half an hour to move one car up. It's just a matter of stamping passports. So we literally had to take our suitcases (5 of them! and 3 carry ons! - my parents brought way too much stuff) and carry them across the border (this was no short distance). Even walking across took us a good hour. My morning shower with water not from a bucket had gone to waste (the water came back on the last day we were there!!).

My dad entered Libya with his Canadian passport since he didn't have a valid Libyan passport - it only took him 10 minutes to go through. But whoever decided it was a good idea for my mother and I to enter with our Libyan passports screwed us - as it took us a lot longer to get them stamped. The Tunisian border went alot more quickly as we entered Tunisia with our Canadian passports. Then we haggled with some cab drivers until we found a good one. He actually ended up being related to someone we knew in Tunisia.

After that harrowing border experience, the rest of the trip went somewhat smoothly. We flew to Tunis the capital from Djerba. We went back to visit Nabil at the hospital. We were happy to learn that he was finally going to be getting his treatment. He is scheduled to leave for Spain today. I am going to call to confirm that he in fact was able to go - nothing is a sure thing in that part of the world.

I am glad to be back in Canada. No more ducking at the sounds of gunfire! I know where I'm going and how to handle my own stuff. I have my independence back. I pray that Libya will be able to rebuild itself into a great nation. If they manage to become like Tunisia, Qatar, or Dubai, it would be a great feat. Of course, it is my hope that they surpass them, but for now, I'll keep my goals realistic (:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

And the day finally came.

I am writing this and still in disbelief. Gadafi is finally dead. We all witnessed the video footage of his death. I wish I could also witness his meeting with the Angels of Death and God. The best of us are watching that unfold - the shuhada who lost their lives are on the other side waiting for him. The 35-50,000 victims of this revolutionary war, the almost 1300 victims of Abo Sleem, the 9000 victims of the Chad War, the victims of the 1983/1986 hangings, the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombings, and countless others he ordered murdered in cold blood - today they got their justice. Gidafi exchanged 42 years of power for an eternity of punishment.

Words can't capture the joy I am seeing on the faces of Libyans. Everyone is congratulating each other - strangers on the street are smiling and saying Allahu Akbar to each other. The guys are still hollering at girls but this time they're saying things like "Allahu Akbar! Ithablee".

I started praying before I left Toronto that Gadaffi would be captured while I was in Libya. They say the prayers of a traveler are answered. I never thought I would ever witness this moment in Libya!! Alhamdulilah for being granted such an amazing opportunity to share this moment with my fellow Libyans.

My mother and I were at home alone when we heard the news. My father went to a small village called Dawun today to visit his uncle, and my brother was out minding his business. There was a lot of celebratory gunfire and my mother and I weren't sure whether we should brave the madness and go out to celebrate. Neither my brother or dad would be home in time to take us.

We eventually decided to head out on our own - and I'm glad we did. I am also glad we got an apartment that's downtown and within a short walking distance to the Maydan al Shuhada. Within a few minutes of going outside we found ourselves walking with a group of 10 other women on our way to Maydan al Shuhada. The whole way there, people were congratulating each other. People stopped so I could take pictures of them (my connection is really slow so I'll have to wait until I come back or have a REALLY boring day to upload everything). The sidewalks were littered with bullets, so we tried as much as possible to walk under buildings. I saw all kinds of crazy things on our way there - one guy was dressed in a Farashia (a traditional Libyan dress for women) imitating one of Gidafi's lectures. He was zooming around on a motorcycle - it was pretty funny. I saw cars with people sitting on top, on the side, behind (one guy was rolling behind a car on roller blades), and everywhere. Some idiots had their kids sitting on the roof (with nothing to hold onto!). They got yelled at by a few people but they just ignored them (there's still a lot of takhalif in this sha3b).

We stopped by a few booths to buy some revolutionary paraphernalia. The guy was going to give us 2 dinars in change but my mom told him she didn't want them back because they have Bu Shafshoofa's picture on it - so he gave us some stickers and a wristband. So much better.

As we neared the Maydan, the thuwar set up blockades to prevent cars from going in. There was also heavy surveillance of anyone partaking in celebratory gunfire. For the most part, the Maydan was free of celebratory gunfire - for once, I felt somewhat secure. The women even had their own section which was tightly guarded by revolutionary fighters. The women cheered and chanted. I caught a lot of it on tape - some of their chants were pretty funny. They started to chant "Ma3lishi Shafshoofa" and then my mom turned around to them and said "Shafshoofa is gone!! say Ma3lishi Safia (Gidafi's wife)". The girls laughed and started chanting "ma3lishi Safia". They also started chanting "Zeed it7ada, Safia 7*ashit lil 3idda".  Some guys brought a fake coffin of Gidafi and everyone started hitting it with sticks. There were speeches from the stage by men and women.

Very few people had video cameras and were taping the going-ons. In fact, I was stopped and asked how much I bought my camera for and whether I was actually from Libya. It goes to show how poor the average Libyan is - something as ordinary as a camcorder can set you apart from everyone else. 

There was drumming. There was dancing. There were fireworks. There was music. There was takbeer. I saw the media - including Al Jazeera. It was funny because I was watching the same reporter on TV before I went to the Maydan and saw him there live. There were lots of people holding pictures of their loved ones who lost their lives in this war. There were revolutionary fighters parading on top of cars while the crowds cheered and thanked them.

It is truly a remarkable day here in Libya. I am back home now and as I type this, all you can hear in the background is honking, music, fireworks, gunfire, takbeer, and people cheering. It's Thursday night here so everyone has the day off tomorrow. The partying will probably go late into the night - I'm glad I slept in today.

To all my Libyan friends- it's been a long eight months, but ALHAMDULILAH, Shafshoofa is dead and this 42 year nightmare is finally OVER.

3ugbal Bashar!!!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A: Where you from? B: Thuwar Canada...?

We haven't had water for the past couple of days here in Tripoli. We're staying in an apartment building so we managed to have 2 extra days of water compared to the rest of the city - but it officially ran out a few days ago. I can't imagine how people were surviving during the fighting when both electricity and water was cut off for days on end - and in some regions, weeks, if not months. We've gone old school - people are filling up water buckets from water trucks that are going around to neighbourhoods. Despite that, Libyans seem to just be rolling with the punches and moving on like nothing is wrong. The streets are busy, people are still hosting dinners, weddings are still going ahead, etc etc.

The past few days haven't been overly eventful, so I will resort to writing about the mundane. I went to a fair a couple of days ago - it was pretty neat. There were various booths selling arts and crafts, revolution paraphernalia, food, desserts, magazines, etc. There were also booths advertising NGO's. They even had an outdoor stage and a rock concert. I had never seen anything like this in Libya. The Libyans are truly relishing in their newfound freedom. What really stood out to me at this fair was the artistic displays of talent. My uncle is a filmmaker so I knew there was an arts scene in Tripoli before the revolution - but it was never really allowed to fully flourish. I think we'll start seeing more Libyan talent emerging after this revolution.

At the same time, it was really disconcerting to see how many young people were walking around with guns at this fair. I am pretty sure some of them were not older than 14 or 15. Many of them are not holding their guns pointing downwards. Heck, I am not sure why they're even bringing their guns to a family fair. At one point I was standing and taking a picture of the concert, and I looked down and saw a rifle pointed straight up at me. The guy next to me just had his rifle casually leaning on the ground in front of him. What is worse is that if a fight breaks out between these hotheaded young guys, who are now armed, there's a real potential for someone to get killed. And from what I hear, it is indeed the case.

Every night I hear shooting. It's not celebratory gunfire these days - a few nights ago there were isolated gun fights across the city. I really hope they start disarming regular civilians. My brother got into a scuffle with a guy a few nights ago. He was armed and was pro-gidafi. Thankfully, nothing happened to my brother, but a shootout happened the next day between revolutionary fighters and these same guys; one pro-G person died.

Two days ago I went out for lunch with a friend. There are still food shortages in Tripoli. Many restaurants have not opened due to both the high cost of food and the shortage of workers. Libya is highly dependent on a foreign workforce, which at the moment is non-existent. Many businesses are still shuttered closed. So all I could order for lunch was a croque monsieur or an egg sandwich on a whole wheat hot dog bun with a yellow cheese slice. The restaurant we had initially planned to go to was closed due to a shortage of workers. On the bright side though, many young Libyan men who initially viewed many of these jobs as 'below' them, are now working.

Although in comparison to Misrata, Zawiya, and other cities in Libya that have seen heavy fighting, Tripoli is relatively unscathed, the remnants of the war are still rather visible. Many buildings are shot up, I saw a lot of bombed out military barracks, and there's still burnt out cars and remnants of barricades set up by civilians to protect their neighbourhoods.They're already starting to take down the walls of Bab Al Aziziya. Rumour has it that they want to destroy the whole thing. I think no one should be rushing to destroy anything just yet. It seems that no one is really in control here; people are just doing what they want to do.

They say that harassment has reduced since the revolution. I say it's still very much the same. You can't really walk down a street without someone saying something. Luckily, I am skilled at tuning them out (developed through years of studying in a home with 3 rowdy boys). But there are some you just can't ignore. I have been trying to grab some shots of revolutionary graffiti art. I saw one that I liked but couldn't get a good shot from the car. So I got out to take a picture. As I positioned my camera, one guy stopped his car in the middle of the road,  right in front of the graffiti art and started smacking his lips super loudly making kissy faces at me: Muaaaaaahhh muah muaaaah muaaaaah (this continued for a good 20 seconds or so). You just can't stone-face ignore that. I shook my head and laughed. I wish I took the picture anyways and caught the ridiculousness.

Other than that, I am just getting fat off Libyan food. We visit on average two relatives homes per day. I've started bailing on a few because I just can't keep eating. Last time I visited Libya I put on some 12-13 pounds. For most women, there isn't much of a life out of the home here (so you don't have much of a chance to work anything off). It's still very much a man's world. 

Even before Gidafi's demise, Libya was moving towards a very superficial Islam focused on appearances. Women who never wore hejab (and still don't want to wear it) feel socially pressured to wear it otherwise they are viewed negatively. Some women resist and continue not to wear it, but the pressure is pervasive and their reputations suffer. I have most definitely been told to wear hejab on more than one occasion by my own family members - the younger generation mostly. The men feel embarrassed in front of other men that 'their' women are 'uncovered'. That's pretty much what it stems from for most Libyan men - pride and ego (I am pretty sure saving me from hellfire is an afterthought - if even that).

My first visit to a conservative neighbourhood, I obliged. But then I decided that if Libya was truly going to be free, women should be respected whether or not they wore hejab. As recently as 1994, the majority of women in Libya did not wear it and they were still treated respectfully. I stopped wearing it to even the most conservative homes and neighbourhoods. No one has said anything so far, but I'm definitely getting disapproving looks and more harassment than my hejabed peers.

I worry about this revolution. The 'old regime' is still very much ingrained in the mindsets. The first little while after Tripoli was freed, many young people took to the streets to clean, paint, and fix up their neighbourhoods. Recently that has started to stop, and the old mentality is re-emerging. My aunt was telling me that the young people in her neighbourhood stopped sweeping after other young people started making fun of them and calling them janitors.

There's also lots of "where are you from/I'm a proud XYZ". The people of Misrata and Zintan are starting to get a bad rap here in Tripoli for what everyone is perceiving as overly emphasizing their victories and acting like no one else fought for freedom.  I have heard discontented voices both from Benghazi and Tripoli with regard to this issue. People are putting stickers on their car identifying themselves as "Thuwar [revolutionaries] of X region". There have also been allegations of looting by freedom fighters, and a religious decree was issued asking the revolutionary fighters to stop. There's also increased harassment to those from regions whose majorities did not come out against Gidafi such as Tarhuna, Ejmayl, etc. I hope this isn't the start of the fragmentation of Libyan society into regionalism.

Anyhow, that's enough rambling for tonight. (:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Warzone tourism

Today was a bit of an unnerving day. I had one too many guns carelessly pointed in my direction, including an RPG. Tripoli has been chaotic since last night. I feel for those living in Iraq, Palestine, and other warzones. You live with a certain level of stress - it's no wonder people in this part of the world age so much faster.

I have had very little sleep lately - there's been a lot of gunfire. Around 3am last night, I knew something was going on because I could hear a lot of shouting, shooting, and I watched freedom fighters zooming through our neighbourhood. They looked like they were on their way to battle. Sure enough, there were gun battles all day today in the Boosleem neighbourhood. Boosleem is one of the poorest ghettos in Tripoli. It's not too far from where my dad's family lives, which also had gun fights today. As luck would have it - we decided to go there today. All through lunch we could hear fighting outside. My aunts family locked themselves in at home because there were gun battles on their roof. 

The people of Boosleem decided to protest in support of Gadaffi today. It's incomprehensible to me why anyone would want him to stay in power. But there's a common thread between the majority of his supporters - they are the poorest and least educated members of society. Many of them rely on pensions from the government which are their only source of income. These pensions aren't even anything to write home about - I don't know the exact amounts, but judging by the state of these neighbourhoods, it's gotta be very little. The homes are rundown and small. There are 2-3 families living in each home. Many of the roads aren't even paved - they're dirt roads from the time of donkey-drawn carriages. They have no backyards, and homes are side by side. Everything in these neighbourhoods just screams poverty. Many of the inhabitants drop out of school early to support their families. The most striking feature is that they're just ignorant and have completely bought into Gadafi's propaganda machine.

My father started to get nervous and didn't want us going home after dark. We decided to call it a day early (6pm) and head home in case the fighting worsened. Good call. But we were met with one checkpoint after another - the roads were insanity. I sat in the car and to my left was a truck load of macho freedom fighters. I pulled out my camera to take a picture, and they totally posed! Unfortunately, the picture came out blurry. Sorry ladies, no pictures today sadly ;-)

My father had to serve in the army when he was younger, so he knows a thing or two about handling guns. He kept pointing out fighters who were totally holding their guns improperly. But even my gun-ignorant self knew many of these fighters were not handling their guns properly - especially the dude who pointed his RPG at us today!!! You just don't walk around with those things pointing straight ahead. 

The trip home involved 98239482039820 checkpoints. Every dude with a gun stopped us, checked my brother's car registration, and popped our trunk. My mom got so annoyed at one point she got out of the car and got into an argument with them (for those who are wondering where I get it from). The punks actually argued back! Thankfully, we eventually made it home safely and in decent time. I have other friends that are still stuck in traffic as we speak who left around the same time we did.

I had plans to see my cousins and their friends tomorrow. Unfortunately they were called off because one of the friends lost her cousin the night before to celebratory gunfire. This madness is tragic.

I have not been able to get out much to take pictures. My family has been busy seeing their relatives, and I don't think it would be wise of me to wander out on my own. It kinda sucks, but I guess that's what vacations in warzones are like. But I can describe what I've been seeing on my car rides to various relatives homes. Tripoli was already in bad shape under gadaffi. The roads are awful, full of potholes (Montrealers will never complain if they spent a day with Libyan potholes). Some roads are just one gigantic continuous pothole that extend for several blocks. Buildings are worn, and have not been painted in ages. Overall, given how rich Libya is - it looks like one of the poorest countries in Africa.  And now, with all the fighting, there are bombed out buildings, remnants of gunfire on homes, gates, and walls.

When the madness subsides a little, I hope to pay a visit to Gadafi's compound (Bab Al Aziziya) and maydan al shuhada.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The homecoming

It's been an overwhelming couple of days. I have not had internet since Monday morning, but I'm back online.

I am now in Tripoli. It was a long and very exhausting trip to get here. It took me back to the days when Libya was under sanctions and the only way you could get in was to drive or take the ferry. It took us about 12 hours to make the drive from the capital of Tunisia to Tripoli. On our way, there were warnings about clashes near Ras Jdeir but by the time we got there the fighting subsided. However, there was still chaos at the borders. We also drove past refugee camps.  Although there are no longer in Libyans there, there's still many migrant workers and other non Libyan nationals.

The drive down was full of nervous anticipation. With every kilometre, we grew more and more apprehensive about what it would feel like for my dad.  We finally reached the border around 11pm. The Tunisians, like most European countries, have an 'exit' border. We gave them our passports for stamping. Although my dad had warned my brother months earlier never to give the Tunisians his Arabic name, my brother foolishly forgot and gave them my dad's full name in Arabic. Unfortunately, intelligence services often share information between countries, and of course, Gadaffi and Zein Al Abideen did exactly that.

My father is on Tunisia's 'no entry/arrest' list.  So the border officer enters my father's name and his facial expression darkened - he looks at my brother and says "your father is wanted in Tunisia, he's not even supposed to be in the country". A few weeks earlier, we had heard about one of my dad's colleagues who was trying to go back to Libya and was arrested. He was on the same list. The Tunisians detained him and after a short while deported him back to Canada. My dad was calm but I could tell the idea of getting arrested and being turned back after a 12 hour drive was going through his head.

But God was truly on our side in this trip. An older border officer showed up and told the other one "This list is from the old regime, just let him pass, but tell him not to give his real name in Arabic when he comes through on his way back.". [FYI when Arabic names are written in English letters, it's hard to tell what it is in Arabic, especially our name, it's completely not recognizable because the letters of our last name simply don't exist in the English alphabet, don't worry, we're not using aliases :-)]. We were so relieved. Until we got to the Libyan border.

The line up was insane. It actually wasn't a line up, it was a parking lot. The cars were off, no one was moving.  Personally, after a 12 hour drive, the thought of spending the night at a border crossing was not exactly appealing. And this isn't anything like our border crossings in Canada - it's a zoo, and some of the characters roaming about look like they just busted out of Alcatraz. Or Ben Gerdan - same difference. ha.

Anyways, turns out we were able to go through without having to wait. When we approached the border, my father handed his passport to the border officials - who were actually freedom-fighters- turned customs guys (they are SO MUCH nicer - wow - right away you could see the difference between the old and new Libya). You could see the border guys' eyes widen with amazement upon looking at my father's passport. It was the old passport - issued when he was 18. It was blue instead of green, made out of leather, written in English and Arabic. It was basically the same passports used during the time of King Idris.  Under the Gidafi regime, my father's passport could not be renewed until he traveled back to Libya - of course - so they can arrest him. When he sent his passport in to the Libyan embassy in Canada when it first opened, they simply cut off the corners to void it, and told him to go back to Libya.

My dad's passport. I would upload more photos but my connections is super slow today. But at least they're not sideways.
My father's exit visa is stamped on this passport: August 29, 1981. As the border officer looked through my father's passport in awe, my father broke down sobbing. The officer came out of his booth and approached my father and said "Alhamdulilah 3al salamah ya 7ajj" (literally translated to "thank god for your safe deliverance"). They all proceeded to hug my father and cheer "Allahu Akbar". My father walked across the border, and the first thing he did was prostrate to the ground in gratitude to God.

The news spread quickly at the border crossing, and within minutes a small crowd had gathered, including some of the freedom fighters. They were all cheering and congratulating my father. One of them gave my father his AK-47 and told him to shoot. We all protested (we've heard about all the gunfire injuries), but the man insisted and would not leave until my father fired at least one shot into the air (as I write this, guns are going off in the background - it sounds like a warzone. I won't lie, it's kind of scary - they're firing anti-aircraft missiles. I think something just happened [insert 20 min time break to go on facebook to figure out what's going on] Gidafi's son just got caught!!! No wonder everyone is going crazy).

My father finally relented and fired one shot into the air. Then another fighter started shooting a barrage of bullets into the air, and everyone began to cheer. I, of course, ducked. At least my reflexes work.

My father was very emotionally overwhelmed. My mom and dad held each other and cried for a bit while we all watched on. My brother then joined them in an embrace. (I was stuck videotaping it).  The Zwari border guys all invited my father over to their homes to celebrate. We politely declined and continued on our way.

We made it into Tripoli at about 2:30am. I was exhausted. My aunt was waiting for us in the apartment my brother rented. We had another border moment at the apartment door as my aunt and father held each other and cried.

I unpacked, washed up and went to sleep.  The next day, we went to visit my father's family. This was the moment we had all been waiting for. As we pulled into my father's neighbourhood (which consists of 4-5 houses just of our relatives) we could hear the women Za3*rit (the Arab screamy thing women do). The family was gathered outside the door as we pulled in. One by one, they hugged and kissed my father and cried. Up to this point, I had been busy trying to capture everything on camera, and there's something weird about being the 'cameraman' but it's like you're emotionally removed from the events you're filming. But watching this all unfold before me,  I finally had to put down my camera. I sobbed as one of my aunts held me.

I never dreamed I'd ever see my father re-united with his family. To watch what I had never even pictured in a daydream was truly incredible.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Day one - A lesson from Nabil

I'm not sure how many hours have elapsed since we've left Toronto, but I have only slept a maximum of two fretful hours. I am typing using English letters, but from right to left. Hopefully when this post publishes, it won't look as messed up as it does to me right now. I have no idea how to fix it.

The day started early. I won't bore you with the details of my last minute laundry and shopping. I started to feel the trip was underway when we boarded the cab. I could feel butterflies in my stomach and was a little nauseous with excitement. Prior to driving to the airport, I had wanted to do a little intro filming to our trip, and I had an idea of how I wanted to film it, but we ran out of time. I have two photos of my parents hanging in the living room. Some of you have already seen it - they're black and white photographs taken on my parents' honeymoon. It was the last time my father left Libya. I wanted to contrast those photos with my parents today and hear from them about how they felt looking back at these pictures and now being finally able to return together.

But that didn't happen. But the cab driver actually did a decent job of interviewing my father and I just filmed the exchange. My dad spoke about how it felt to be going back and how much he was looking forward to it. He mentioned a few interesting facts that even I did not know about his life. For example, I always thought he got accepted to UBC before he arrived in Canada. The truth of the matter was that he went to the admissions office and would not leave until he met with the Dean of admissions. He told her his story, and insisted that he wanted to start his Masters program without taking all the pre-requisites they normally demanded. After listening to his story, she said "Sir, you will start your classes in January". My dad was so relieved and within 3 weeks he was in classes.

I'm not sure why the punctuation is backwards too...haha I guess it's good mental prep for what's to come!
Ok, not much I can do about it folks.

The flight to Paris was an uneventful 6 hours. Air France serves baguettes with their dinners, so that was the highlight for me. Of course, the French are unapologetic about their racial profiling. The only people subject to a pat-down when we got off the plane were women who wore hejab. I know this because I actually watched every single hejabi that went through the metal detectors (and no they did not set them off) get a pat down, while the rest of us went through without a problem. It was unfortunate, and I was reminded how although Canada is not innocent of its own forms of discrimination, at least it is socially unacceptable to obviously and unapologetically target a certain group. The French clearly don't like the hejab. It's ironic to me because France was one of the biggest supporters of the Libyan revolution- a Muslim country teeming with hejabies. I guess it's perfectly French (aka contradictory haha don't shoot me my beloved francophone friends).

We then boarded a flight to Tunis. Tunis was different this time round compared to my last visit in 2008. The usual harassment that Arabs are subject to at customs, or Libyans I should say, just didn't happen this time. Tunisia seems rather stable and appears to be moving on from its revolution. However, there's certainly some remnants of turmoil. The TV station had a heavy military presence today. Apparently there were protests regarding an anti-Islamic soap opera produced by an Iranian (clearly not one living in Iran). The Tunisian TV station is across from our hotel. They also said there were attacks on some liqueur stores. However, for the most part, Tunisia seems to be progressing well, and there is certainly a different attitude towards Libyans from its people. There is a mutual respect that was not there before. I am so far loving the 'new' North Africa. But I will say, there seems to be signs that the long repressed 'salafi/wahabi' types seem to be a little bolder lately and are trying to impress their views on others. Hopefully these guys will be put in check soon, both in Tunisia and Libya.

Moments after exiting customs, in the greeting area, we saw a young man in a wheelchair with an amputated leg. Even though we were in Tunisia, I knew right away this man and his friends were Libyan. My mother wasn't sure whether they were anti or pro. She went up to them and struck up conversation. Sadly, the young man lost his foot when NATO dropped bombs on Fernaj. This would be the first victim of the NATO bombing that I have come across. My aunt lives in Fernaj, and although the bombings were uncomfortably close to their homes, she said there were few injuries. I know some of you reading this blog are critical of the intervention. Although this young man was injured by NATO, he and his friends agreed: without NATO, Libya would be in much worse shape. At the end of the day, Gidafi was to blame

When we arrived at the hotel, it was clear that some of the guests at our hotel appeared to be pro-Gidafi types, while others were clearly pro-revolution. We were later told that there was a group from the transitional government at our hotel, and some pro-gidafi people waiting out the unrest in Libya. And of course, there were a lot of other average Libyans that were there too either on holiday or simply also waiting out the unrest in Libya. There was a mannequin in the hotel gift shop wearing a Free Libya Tshirt. It was curious because we're staying at a well known north american hotel chain. But I liked it.

After we rested briefly and ate some yummy Mediterranean seafood, we set out to the Taufiq Hospital in Tunis. My parents went about it pretty randomly. They asked the hotel attendant where there were hospitals with Libyans. The hotel attendants knew right away where all the injured Libyans were. We cabbed it to the nearest hospital. It was a decent sized hospital, and although slightly not up to par with Canadian hospitals, it was actually fairly well run and organized. When we arrived, we were given directions as to what floors were occupied by Libyans. The second, third, and fourth floor were all Libyans. That accounted for basically most of the hospital - I don't think it was more than five floors in total. The sad part is, there were other hospitals in the area also full of Libyans.

We proceeded to knock on bedroom doors and visit with the injured. My Canadian brain felt like we should make appointments to see them or maybe there were visitation hours. No, that's not how things work here. In fact, some of the injured were chilling in hospital rooms and cigarettes in hand (note to self - there needs to be some hard anti-smoking campaigning in the Arab world after this revolution business is over).

I was struck by how welcoming most of the injured and their families were. No one acted inconvenienced or uncomfortable. They told us how they lay around in Libya or Tunisia for weeks without getting help, but in the last week they finally started receiving aid from the transitional government and some of the worst cases were starting to get sent to European countries for treatment.

It was really hard to see these young men in their injured states. Almost all of them were younger than me. They were all rather handsome, and many of them appeared to have been athletic. It hurt to see such vibrant youth relegated to hospital beds and wheelchairs. The price for Libya's freedom was etched on these young men's bodies. What was especially striking though was that there seemed to be a totally opposite correlation between the seriousness of the injury and the spirit of the injured. The worse the injury, the more spirited they were.

I was especially struck by a fellow named Nabil. Nabil is from the Western Mountains. We met him, his mother, his aunt, and his two nephews in one of the rooms. He shared the room with another older gentleman from Mistrata. His mother and aunt were in such high spirits. The mother told me about how both her sons were shot at the same time. They had just finished freeing the Western Mountains, and the freedom fighters were heading to Tripoli for the next battle. The mother told me that she asked her sons to stay behind; it was good enough that they freed their hometown. But her son replied, "mother we must rid ourselves of Gidafi. If every mother kept her sons behind, we would never be free. " She relented, and hours later she received news of her sons being shot. One recovered quickly after surgery, but Nabil was paralyzed waist down.

Seeing this man's spirit made me want to cry and hug him. It was humbling. Despite everything that happened to him, the joy and happiness emanating from his beeming face was contagious. He told us "this injury is my pride. If anyone asks me about it, it brings me honour to have fought for our freedom". The nurse would later tell us the sadder side of Nabil's injury, and how he would get so bothered when they came to clean him. I hope overtime, this injury does not bring dampen his spirits. I am sure there are hard days that he would rather not focus on.

Nabil's mother told us how difficult it has been to get treatment for her son. They hope that he is someday able to walk again. Nabil seemed confident that he will. He said "I know I'll be able to feel my toes again someday, I just know. I sometimes still feel them". I am not a doctor, I know some types of paralysis are curable, but I don't know what Nabil's situation is. I hope he will get his treatment soon. My dad said he'll try to talk to some Canadian doctors to see if there's something that can be done. If any of you reading this blog have ideas, maybe we can do something for this beautiful family.
This is Nabil, his mother, my mother and I. (I don't know why the pic won't load right side up).

After Nabil's story, it's hard to continue to write more. But I'd like to convey some of the the other messages from the other injured men. The one thing that they all seemed to stress was how Libya needs to be united more than ever -- one nation. In particular, Nabil, who is an Arab from the Western mountains (which for those of you unfamiliar with Libya, it is an area that is generally known to be inhabited pre-dominantly by Berbers( told us about how the elders of those communities met and made a pact that they were all united against Gidafi, and now that they have gone through war together, they truly do feel that they have forged a new identity, and will start a new page in their relationships with each other.

There were also fighters from the East, Benghazi who were in the Tunisian hospitals. In fact, one of them ended up being from my mother's tribe. They came all the way to Misrata and beyond to help their Libyan brothers. They were pained by how their sacrifices seemed to be overlooked by their Misrata brothers and they don't want to say anything. But their message is clear, we are Libyans, and we all paid a dear price in this war. It was not a Misratan victory, or a Zawiya victory, or a Jbal victory - it was a victory for Libya.
This young man lost his leg fighting in Benghazi.

This is Talal Al Mismari, from Benghazi.

This is a young man from Misrata. He was shot twice in the arm. His bones are completely shattered and he's been having multiple surgeries to repair his arm. Despite that, he was super sweet and welcoming.

This gentleman is also from Misrata. He was shot and badly wounded in the stomach.

For those from Vancouver and who sent funds with my parents to be given to these injured men, your generosity was greatly appreciated by them. I wish we had more to give them, because obviously, money cannot make up for their losses. It is my sincere hope that they are not spiritually crippled by their injuries, and go on to have bright futures despite everything.

I am back in my hotel room now. I am nervous about tomorrow's trip into Libya. I don't know what to expect and I'm not sure how it will play out. My past experiences visiting Libya have not always been positive, but the welcoming attitude of the young freedom fighters gives me hope that I won't be ostracized from capturing everything I want to capture because I am a woman.'

Good night all :)

hah - even the smilies are backwards

Friday, October 7, 2011

After 30 years! and my first blog post.

I don't think I can call myself a luddite anymore. In 2011, I learned how to use facebook groups and twitter. And now, I've set up a blog. Rejoice tech nerds.

Before I begin, please pardon my grammatical errors or just plain bad writing - these entries will for the most part be rushed and completed under time restraints. Also, these views are written from my own perspective, and may not reflect those of other Libyans or even my own family.

I've set up this blog to document a momentous occasion in my family - my father's return to Libya after 30 years.  We will be flying out tomorrow, Saturday Oct. 8, 2011.

To understand the blog posts that will follow this one, I'm going to summarize the events that have lead up to this moment.

Libya, a country my father left in 1981 to complete his masters and phd in Engineering. He actually had left a few years earlier, but returned to Libya to marry my mother in 1981. He had three months to go to finish his masters in the United States. During their honeymoon, tensions between the U.S. and Libya were high. He was not given a visa to return to the U.S. and finish his masters. My parents were basically stranded in Spain (not a bad place to be stranded might I add) until my father secured a student visa and acceptance to UBC in Canada.  My father had to re-start his masters from scratch.

Shortly after moving to Canada, my father's student activities gained the attention of the Libyan regime. Many of his colleagues in Libya were arrested, and later brutally killed. Gidafi's reach extended far beyond Libya, and some of his colleagues were even killed on US and UK soil.  A plot to poison our family and possibly others in the Vancouver area was luckily uncovered and foiled. However, the fear remained. My father used to tell us to never speak about Gidafi or politics outside our home. He said there was a monster with super big ears that could hear us even if we whispered.  For a long time, I believed that monster lived behind this 3.5 ft door under the stairs at the Richmond Mosque (I still get a little creeped out by that door).

In reality though, the Libyan community was full of spies who were encouraged to report on fellow Libyans. They would receive handsome remuneration for their reports. The distrust this created in our community would have a lasting and devastating effect within not only the Libyan community, but even within families. For us, the reports ensured my father could not return to Libya safely. At times, even his wife and children became the targets.

Although we weren't allowed to speak about politics publicly, my father never neglected to speak to us about what was going on in Libya. When other parents, perhaps wisely, kept their children in ignorance, my father ensured we understood the brutality of the regime. In his mind, I guess, injustice could not remain a secret, and the stories of those persecuted and killed by Gidafi needed to live on. At times, his focus on Libyan politics grew tiresome.

For awhile, my parents believed that the nightmare that began in Libya would end and they could go home. However, in the late 80's and all the way through the 90's, the situation in Libya only worsened. In 1992, my parents bought their first home in North Delta, BC.  It seemed to me that they were beginning to accept that they would not be returning to Libya anytime soon.

In 1996, the Abu Sleem massacre of almost 1300 political dissidents over three hours shocked many Libyans (at least those that knew about it). It inspired resistance both within and outside Libya. The advent of the internet helped connect this community of dissidents across the world (before that it was long painful road trips to places like Ohio).  My father began writing anti-Gadafi articles online under an alias. Although he was no longer a student and had ceased his student activism, he continued to write against the regime.

Personally, I felt my father's focus on Libya was an obsession. By the time I was in university, I had preferred to block Libya out of my mind. I hated Gidafi, but I didn't want to be consumed by a conflict in a country that I felt so removed from. We barely visited Libya in the 80's and 90's.  I hardly knew my extended family. I felt robbed of something precious, and the bitterness had the potential to overwhelm me. So I turned away, and focused on my life in Canada.

In 1999, my brothers went to Libya. That could be a whole interesting story on its own (my brother tried to bring back a hawk. Yes, the bird.) I'm not sure what that trip did to them, but shortly afterward one of them set up an anti-Gidafi website. I admit, I was impressed by the amount of information he collected. It had never been compiled in the written form, never mind in English. His website became popular rather quickly. My mother and I started to worry about my brother. By the 2000's, my family (with the exception of my father) started to travel to Libya on a more regular basis. It wouldn't be that difficult for my brother to be discovered and arrested on a visit. I also was uncomfortable with the idea that my brothers, who were born and raised in Canada, were inheriting this conflict from my father.  My fears would be allayed when Gidafi hackers took down the website. My brother never bothered putting it back up.

Not long after, my other brother began to rap. He did this covertly. I found out from one of his friends. I heard a sample CD. Let's just say, there's definitely been some improvement since then. I still think he should get a real job. But I will grudgingly admit that I am now somewhat proud of him. Grugdingly.

So this brings us to 2011. I had goosebumps when I heard that the Tunisians began to protest in some of the small towns. I was thrilled. It took awhile for the international community to recognize what was happening in Tunisia. Some of my friends didn't really understand why I was excitedly posting articles about the Tunisian protests in small towns. But my family and other longtime dissidents shared my excitement. We knew what this meant: The complacency was being shed. Tunisians were awakening from their 30 year slumber. It is a beautiful thing to watch a nation awaken and demand their rights. We watched closely as the unrest spread throughout the country. And then finally, we joyously celebrated the demise of Zine Al Abideen. It was a happy occasion, not only for Tunisians, but to many in the Arab world. I always thought highly of Tunisians and respected them for their education. Finally, they were demanding what they deserved all along.

I didn't anticipate the same would happen and succeed in Egypt. The benefactors of Mubarak's regime were many, and they formed the powerful wealthy tier of Egyptian society. Thankfully, I was dead wrong. In fact, the wealthy and educated put their full support behind the revolution. Mubarak fell in a record 18 days.

Then it was Libya's turn. No one thought we would ever live to see the day that Libyans would rise up and demand their rights. My father prostrated himself to God in gratitude that he lived to see this day.

I would say that the Libyan revolution could not have happened without Tunisia and Egypt being freed first. The amount of aid, particularly from Tunisia, became a lifeline for the Libyan revolution. Had the Libyans revolted without these two countries being freed first, I think the outcome would have been very different. Everything has a funny way of happening.

Living through the Libyan revolution is a tale on its own. For me, it was a very difficult emotional experience to watch. It was at first exhilarating, then devastating, then depressing, and now both joyous and apprehensive.  It is a bitter sweet victory. The price the Libyan people have paid for freedom was a high one. An estimated 35-45,000 people have lost their lives. 60,000 are said to be missing. Thousands more are injured, permanently disabled, emotionally scarred, or all of the above.

Despite that, the nation is rejoicing. It's my hope that this trip back will be everything my father hoped it would be. I will likely have spotty internet access and slow connections, but I hope through this blog, photos, and video footage, I'll be able to capture this trip as much as possible.

Till my next post, farewell my friends.

p.s. for those wondering about the title of this Blog, brush up on your Back to the Future trivia.