Libya’s Collective Sigh
The downfall of Qaddafi saw an effervescence of street art against his long dictatorship. The uncensored testimonies on the walls of Libya reveal deep frustrations and a longing desire for freedom.
Writer: Juan Garrigues
Photographer: Theodoros Stamatiadis
Tripoli is a mosaic of colors. Green, red and black flags flutter on every corner of Libya’s capital. After 42 years of Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal regime, Libyans are rejoining the public arena. Confronted with the freedom to raise their heads without fear of being detained by the infamous mukhabarat (secret services) or denounced by a neighbour, Libyans quickly took over the streets… and painted them.
Nobody can say when or who started it. The graffiti fever across Libya is shrouded in mystery, much like the Libyan revolution. Just as the incessant chant of “Allahu Akbar” from the mosque’s loud speakers were to lift the evil spell left by Qaddafi, for many Libyans the quick spread of graffiti seems to have come from other realms.
But the graffiti were made by common Libyans, mostly young adults celebrating their new liberty by filling their city walls with images and texts. Their graffiti represent a real graphic testimony, unfiltered and uncensored, of the myriad feelings that have invaded the minds of most Libyans after their bloody revolution.
The graffiti depict revulsion for Qaddafi and pride for the regime’s downfall, but also some of the challenges with which Libya is now confronted. Indeed this new chapter in Libya’s history starts full of both optimism and uncertainty. As one young Libyan woman put it, Libya is now experiencing a deep and long “collective sigh”.
Mohammed Haghegh, or ‘Mo’ as his friends call him, is 28 and studies engineering at the University of Tripoli. He participated in the first protests calling for a ceasefire for the civilians of Benghazi and for months, he travelled to Tunisia to help transport clandestine pamphlets and CDs inciting the revolution. When he is not attending class at university, he works as a fixer for some of the remaining foreign journalists in the city.
He is proud of Tripoli’s revolution graffiti. He knows where the best ones are in every neighbourhood and he keeps photos of his favourites on his mobile phone. For Mohammed, street art represents the potential that Qaddafi repressed for so long. “That tyrant always wanted to be the protagonist. TV presenters were not even allowed to name the players of our football team. But now everyone will see that we are capable of in the arts, in sports, in everything.”
Like many other Libyans, this young man does not name Qaddafi by his actual name. The fact that Qaddafi called himself the “guide of the revolution” and the “father of the nation” causes such contempt and anger that young men and women do not want to hear his name. They prefer to call him contemptuously Bushafshufa or “Afro hair”.
However, in many of the Qaddafi graffiti what stands out most is not his curls but rather he being depicted as a rat. This emanates from the televised speech on February 22, 2011, when Qaddafi vowed that he would search and kill anyone against his rule from “house to house, street to street”, adding: “I am Libya and those protesting are rats.” A musical interpretation of his speech emerged, called Zenga, Zenga (street to street), that was a big hit on social media sites. When Qaddafi was found eight months later in a sewer in the suburbs of his native town, Sirte, everybody enjoyed the irony that the ruler who called his citizens rats ended up in a sewer wounded and defenceless like a rat.
One graffiti shows a foot stepping on a rat with Qaddafi’s head trying to escape. The text reads: “Qaddafi, rat of rats of Africa”, paraphrasing another ostentatious title self-proclaimed by Qaddafi: “king of kings of Africa.” Other graffiti represent Qaddafi, or his son Saif al-Islam (now detained by the new government) hanging from the Star of David, alluding to the popular and unverified theory that Qaddafi’s mother was Jewish.
When the rebels killed Qaddafi at gunpoint, many foreigners claimed: “these guys are just as bad as Qaddafi.” Mohammed rejects this reaction by explaining that the months of suffering caused by Qaddafi and his lack of respect towards Libyans was so extreme that it is understandable that some young Libyan could not resist the temptation of vengeance.
In the Country of Men (2007) by the Libyan writer Hisham Matar, portrays a sad image of Qaddafi’s Libya: “a country full of men with sunken cheeks and pants with urine stains.” On route to the University of Tripoli, Mohammed Haghegh, describes how every April 7, he and his classmates had to attend an assembly where a large screen showed Qaddafi giving a speech reminding the students of their predecessors’ uprising in 1976.
Since 1976, the university became known as University al-Fateh (the Conqueror) and every April 7 students were arrested and executed on suspicion of being opposed to the regime. Just as Libyans have recovered the black-green-red flag that existed during the 20 years between independence from Italy and Qaddafi’s coup d’état in 1969, so the university has regained its original name.
While students have now returned to university, at the end of 2011, buildings were still closed. At the entrance of the university, a young guard was half asleep with an old Kalashnikov resting on his knees. Once inside, the halls were clean and the air was fresh. There was no vandalism or trash. Classrooms waited patiently with their desks and chairs perfectly aligned. There were no signs of a revolution having taken place; the students could have been on vacation.
Volunteer students maintained the campus during the revolution. Even in the faculty of medicine, built in the 1960s by British architects and now converted into an epicentre of revolution graffiti, there is a certain order to the artwork.
Overall, the graffiti reveals the inclusive nature of the revolts of February 17 – Benghazi’s “day of wrath” – within the context of the pan-Arab protests in 2011. The pillars of the courtyard illustrate farmers, students, carpenters etc. that joined the revolution. There is also a large image of a woman, which includes the flags of Tunisia and Egypt.
Many other graffiti refer to the struggle against colonialism and Libya’s national hero, Omar al-Mukhtar. Known as the “Lion of the Dessert” (the title of a film played by Anthony Quinn in 1979), al-Mukhthar was hung by the Italians after 20 years of leading the armed resistance. His famous cry: “we will not surrender: we will not or we will die” was again heard all along the Libyan coast over the past year.
Only a few months after Qaddafi’s demise, a debate has erupted over the future of Libya’s revolution graffiti. Some Libyans consider the street art to be part of the past and want to move on. Most preoccupying for them are the walls that depict the role of a specific city or a particular armed militia in the revolution.
On two murals, for example, numerous hands are stabbing Qaddafi, represented as a chicken or rat. Each hand bears the name of a Tripoli neighbourhood. Another graffiti proclaims Fashlun, a neighbourhood in western Tripoli, as the “spark of the revolution”. In another, a skull with two knives is the symbol of a militia. Other graffiti depict militias from the cities of Misrata and Zawiya.
In the last stage of the conflict, Mohammed joined the militia Gil Hurriya (Generation Liberty), a militia of his mother’s native city, Misrata, from which over 100-armed groups emanated.
The young man proudly shows his soldier identity card and once a week he travels the 130 kilometres between Tripoli and Misrata to patrol the neighbourhood his militia holds. City militias, like in Benghazi (where the revolts started), Misrata (the front line of the battles for months), or Zintan (that played a decisive role in the final fall of the regime) now demand special recognition for their part in the revolution. Although the National Transitional Council is trying to integrate the militia members into the new armed forces of Libya, most of them don’t want to give up their weapons until their security is guaranteed.
Over the last months, numerous violent incidents have occurred between militias, revealing an imminent threat to the country’s security. Despite this challenge and many others confronting the new state, Libyans are confident – just like their graffiti – that the sacrifices they have made during the revolution will bring them together and help them surpass the differences that now exist between different groups.
When asked about the dangers ahead for Libya, Mohammed looks at the foreigner in front of him in incredulity and recites another slogan from the revolution: “you are a free Libyan. Raise your head.”
Juan Garrigues is a Research Fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and a freelance journalist. His writing is currently focused on Libya and Afghanistan.
Theo Stamatiadis is a full-time lawyer and part-time photographer. A Greek based in Barcelona, he can travel great distances to take a picture.
More on the revolution in Libya: Bye Bye Brother Leader by award-winning Spanish journalist Rosa Meneses.