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

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