“The Libyan revolution is the most successful of the failed and the most failed of the successful revolutions,” says Ghady Kafala and writes about trying to position oneself in a thoroughly ambivalent situation.
My family sat on the couch with mouths agape, the floor between them and the television set littered with fast-food packaging. On the screen, images of victory at the scene of a crime: a blood-slicked stage; an eruption of cries and oaths and cheers. After eight months of continuous revolution, this sight, which we would come to know as the revolution’s “victory,” came as sheer relief.
Blood puddled on the ground like a sea of cherries or pomegranates picked ripe. And with the image, the terse headline: Muammar Gaddafi, ruler of Libya, is dead! Tears flowed; the air filled with ululations. Some people even pissed themselves with joy. In our very wildest imaginings, we had never conjured the possibility of this sight: that man, in this state.
But the delight that swept us all in the first instant was soon clouded by doubts and anxiety over what lay ahead. Before that moment I had never seen myself as a defender of individual freedoms, of a woman’s right to freely express her personal desires and hopes (for her body, her private life, and employment opportunities free from by gender stereotypes). I was raised in a family that saw itself as simultaneously modern and conservative, a structural complexity that was never openly articulated in our society, especially not at a moment in which everything became new and unfamiliar.
The revolution itself had been like holding an uncomfortable yoga pose for a sustained period of time. I passed those months searching for something to jolt me awake, for a thread that would connect my sleeping thoughts. I believed this could help me realize my continuing quest to identify beauty and ugliness in this world, whether through journalism, literature, or theater. Something like putting on an exhibition: a display of imprisoned bodies, maybe, denied the light of day for four dark decades; for four centuries. For so long, Libyans had been unable to test their ideas in a space that was intellectually equitable and safe. Televisions were almost unknown, the radio was just something that spoiled the peace of a long journey, while the newspaper was a makeshift tablecloth and a useful tool for cleaning glass.
I felt no extremes of joy or sadness during the revolution, because the revolution wasn’t clear cut: it was neither entirely happy, nor entirely sad. Even the ecstasy we felt at the democracy and freedom it ushered in was a fleeting sensation, and one that was not to be renewed. The difficulty with which it was won, its fragility even at the moment of its apprehension and the impossibility of holding on to it, resembled nothing so much as a woman’s climax.
All those terms like “civil society,” “elections,” “feminism,” and “cultural pluralism” were new arrivals after the revolution: guests we’d never hosted before; guests we didn’t know how to receive or look after. These terms were rarely spoken of positively. “Civil society” was seen as a synonym for deviancy and vice—an attempt to graft an array of organizations and issues onto local society—while the ballot box was a Western invention that sought to supplant the consultative councils and bodies that were the proper traditions of Islamic states and their Muslim populations. Feminism, whether describing a social movement or a more generalized intellectual position, and the concept of helping women secure the right to choose, to determine their own future, and to resist violence, marital rape, and domestic abuse of all kinds, was regarded by many as the spark that could trigger an entirely negative form of liberation and an unacceptable permissiveness—something that “conservative society” refused to countenance.
The demands were loud and boisterous: Libya For Change! At the time, I had no idea how serious it was, the seriousness of what we were living through. Our school curriculum made no mention of human rights; it had nothing to say about the variety of human natures and backgrounds and orientations. Our history lessons, for example, were long lists of battles and alleged glories, biology taught us the disparities between genes and their expression, while music and art were treated as free periods.
I had no idea that old frustrations and failures could be recycled and made new. The 2011 civil war was the wake-up call I had long been looking for: it awoke principles in me, a belief in the value of civil activism. Writing was the way I honed my instinctive desire to defend these principles. What I found difficult to articulate in speech, I could express on the page.
I remember the first time I encountered those frustrations. It was after I had made a courageous defense of the rights of the Libyan Jewish community in exile to return to the country and participate in civil and political life. They were no different from other Libyans—they had done just as much to develop the country. The various parties competing on the ground wasted no time threatening those of us who spoke out. The fact that we were using our voices to defend the equality and diversity that the revolution had given us disturbed them; they refused to accept that the revolution had won us the right to exist.
Secretly, I savored these threats: the constant bumps of adrenaline put me in a state that was not only new to me, but unknown to the majority of my fellow revolutionaries. Unlike them, I didn’t feel the revolution had made me any promises for which I could hold it to account. In building a future for the country (or the city, or even a village) I preferred the reality of the revolution over the theorizing that smeared our dreams with scowls. I spared no effort in standing with marginalized communities in Libya, and made sure that their voices had a place in my writing. As a consequence, the enemies of life and love and committed activism never stopped their threats, and my life became increasingly difficult.
A perfect example of this was the second civil war, which broke out in 2014. This time, we were not divided into purely political and intellectual groupings—liberal or Muslim Brother or secularist, say—but were increasingly defined according to our geographical origin. Cities were destroyed and their populations displaced. Doomed boats were launched into the Mediterranean and their passengers drowned. Of the country and its treasures, nothing was left but rubble.
As for the revolution, well—it was unable to prevent the death of one man on television from turning into the deaths of thousands more in the wars that followed. And yet, despite it all, I sometimes thought that these conflicts had done something positive for Libya. We were better acquainted with each other now; our relationships and connections were more clear-sighted than before. And when I thought these things, I remembered Lebanon. How civil war there went hand in hand with the growth of the arts and culture. It made me eager to see what the end of our war would bring. I imagined myself as a person like any other, able to voice my thoughts and hopes out loud, without fear of censure or regret.
The threats quickly escalated. Now they involved my friends, my closest circles: murder, abduction, rape. Suddenly wary, I kept my hopes and thoughts under lock and key, where no one could see them. O revolution! If you’re not going to give us any guarantees then we must fear you. Even considering taking part in the demonstrations against the abductions and forced disappearances was impossible for me, but I still got the joy of seeing the activists protest: the sight was enough to encourage the silent and fearful to shout and rage and keep the issue alive. In the end, though, I didn’t pay enough attention to the threat posed by members of the so-called “revolutionary” committees, the absurd panels who imposed their authority on us while claiming to “dream” of freedom and equality and equal opportunities. I failed to learn from the mistakes of friends who’d previously dismissed the risk they posed. As the committees exercised their powers in a way that came to resemble the authoritarianism of the dark times we thought were past, those dreams turned into nightmares.
Thwarted, we felt that silence in the face of violence was courage, and that to fight back in such circumstances was foolishness: there was no explaining your innocence in freezing cells where people were crammed naked, hungry, and broken. No matter the situation, whatever it took, we knew that the authorities were capable of taking us all.
Nevertheless, in September 2017 I submitted my writing for inclusion in an anthology titled Sun on Closed Windows. It was an attempt to stir up ideas that had lain stagnant, and to give voice to the suffering of religious minorities in Libya who had no means of expressing the new identities emerging inside them because of the persecution and harassment they faced from the general public. The anthology was published with a bright yellow cover that was widely criticized, bringing more trouble for the authors. Just a handful of shameful texts, they said: a provocation to the authorities, the public, and public opinion.
As I was to learn, when faced with the politics of this world and its systems, obedience is the only option. Freedom of expression and justice are only available within the limits of tradition: what is considered acceptable and conceivable. In the moment, I had no time to choose, to think or ponder. Was there any point in going abroad? Was exile a means to an end, or an end in itself? Was protesting a right, or was it a favor? Was revolution a duty, or just the right thing to do? All these questions, and I couldn’t tell if I was right. I was always second-guessing myself. Were the causes I fought for rightful causes? Was pluralism and diversity really healthy for society? Was feminism a virtuous movement or a well-dressed vice? As usual, I had no faith in my answers, but my curiosity about the revolution remained undimmed. It fascinated me.
The anthology resulted in widespread fear and anxiety. Twenty-five young men and women were subjected to mockery and incitement, victims of nothing more than being born at this point in history in a country that gave them no assurance of their right to speak freely, or to criticize the ideas and traditions of their society. Some of us began to leave, though none went very far. For some, Tunisia was the warm embrace they sought. The revolution there had been watched closely by everyone. Freedom of expression was the major (and perhaps only) gain of the Tunisian revolution, because the country had yet to shake off the forces that controlled and corrupted its resources and potential.
I continued writing, sparing no effort to amplify the demands of all communities and cohorts: Muslims and Jews, the homeless and the working class, women and men and everyone else. The idea of going into exile was new to me. It would not be easy, but it had become necessary. The events of 2011–2014, then the experiences of 2017, had placed me far outside my comfort zone. It had shifted me beyond the boundaries of the work and social life I was used to, outside my familiar way of life. It was a period dominated by great fear. I had no idea how I was going to start again. Could I work elsewhere? Did I have a support network of any kind? What kind of circumstances would I be living in?
I began to seriously consider the idea of converting my writing into an audio-visual research project: filing the stories of Libyan men and women, alive and dead, juxtaposed with footage of war and blood and violence. It would seek to address issues that are rarely discussed, reminding its audience of the rights that have been stripped from them, the energy that has been squandered, and conjuring painful memories. But at the same time it would give them the opportunity to speak and shout in the face of that pain. The effects of the revolution have almost always been unpleasant, but for me it was also a blessing. The revolution gave me rights: the right to a new understanding, the right not to become accustomed to injustice, the right to change whenever the time for it was right. It placed no constraints on me, manufactured no hierarchies to comfort me. Through the worst of times, it polished and honed the best in me.
The repeated conflicts forced me to make a long-term plan for living abroad. Leaving may be the plan of the weak and cowardly and uninspired, but Libya had become too close for comfort. It was hard to see it clearly: I needed to get outside it if I was to take in the full picture. Libya deserved a true brainstorming session, rich with constructive criticism, like a mother whose children encourage her to get a makeover, criticizing the taste of the very woman who brought them into the world. But a mother doesn’t just give her children life, she gives them the skills and self-belief to know their own minds and have their own views.
On this basis, then, I exercised my right to criticize the dire rights situation that the country was passing through. Once again, my harassers did all they could to remind me of violence: of scenes of death and blood. When will we start using the same theoretical approach to analyze fundamentalism and traditionalism? When we will be able to approach subjects without a sense of sin or guilt? What is the point of this current constitution that places some humans above others?
We participated in the revolution with the goal of change. What that meant wasn’t clear, but it was vital for the dignity of all of us, young and old, conservative and open-minded, even those who threaten and harass. Change made us into a mosaic, one we could only see from countries far away. Today, Libya is a country in chaos, but it is new. And we haven’t seen so much beauty that we are tired of the ugliness we know.
When I think back to how I was ten years ago, I see what the revolution made me: a worker, a critic and a supporter, dominant and marginal, ailing and cured. I am literally unable to give you my account of the revolution. My thoughts are confused and unexamined, weak and incapable of achieving clarity or catching fire. I can’t say for certain if the revolution failed or succeeded. Was it the biggest failure among the successes, or the most successful of the failures? Libya is a strange place, containing all the illnesses of this world and all the cures. Libya cannot be defined by any revolution, old or new.
She is hormonal and moody, and I’m the same. You can’t tell whether she’ll be good or evil; you can’t curse her or ignore her. We are weak before her strength and strong when we see her ecstasy.
Author: Ghady Kafala, born in 1993, is a freelance writer and focuses on marginalized groups and intersectionality. She is programme director at elbiro.net and is responsible for the journalistic content of the platform.
Translation from Arabic: Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic poetry and prose based in Cape Town, South Africa.
Curation: Sandra Hetzl (* 1980 in Munich) translates literary texts from Arabic, among others by Rasha Abbas, Mohammad Al Attar, Kadhem Khanjar, Bushra al-Maktari, Aref Hamza, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi, and sometimes she writes too. She holds a Masters in Visual Culture Studies from the University of the Arts in Berlin, is the founder of the literary collective 10/11 for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina .
This essay is part of our series "Reminiscence of the future". To commemorate ten years of revolution in North Africa and West Asia, the authors share their hopes, dreams, questions and doubts. The essays indicate how important such personal engagement is in developing political alternatives and what has been achieved despite the violent setbacks.
In addition to the series we also address the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, for human dignity and political reforms in various multimedia projects: For example, our digital scroll story "Giving up has no future" presents three activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria who show that the revolutions are going on.