The Haze of Illiteracy in Libya

TRIPOLI, Libya — Many Americans will find it unsurprising that most aspects of Libyan life under Muammar Qaddafi were marked by corruption and cronyism. We may not know first-hand what living in a thoroughly corrupt police state is like, but we can guess that most aspects of life require payoffs and special connections, that the law counts for nothing, and that the honest can choose between leaving, withering on the vine, or going to prison.

What’s harder to understand is the mental disorganization that remains even after the tyrant has gone, the sense that Libya and Libyans exist in a miasma of unknowns and rumors, in which almost no hard information is transmitted in any conversation, but everyone incessantly gossips about everyone else.

As a visitor who speaks Arabic hardly at all and understands with difficulty, I initially attributed what I thought of as Libyan haziness to linguistic problems. Either I wasn’t getting a good translation or the concepts didn’t translate. It has taken me a half dozen trips and experience writing about a broad range of topics to understand that it’s not the language barrier, it’s the mental barrier.

“Our life was chaos,” Loui Hatem el-Magri said the other day in Benghazi. The young architect continued, referring to Qaddafi, “He ruled us by chaos.” No one knew from one day to the next how any aspect of life would work.

Libya’s new government has struggled to break free of the old way. Dr. Iman Bugaighis, a Benghazi activist and academic, points out that Libyans didn’t know whether the first Saturday after the Eid holiday would be a government holiday or not until the day before. No one knew whether to plan to return to work the next day until 6 p.m. on Friday.

In Qaddafi’s Libya, there were laws, but no rule of law; anything might change at the dictator’s caprice. It was hardly worth making plans for the future, much less putting off present gratification for future rewards. And changing this mentality will be just as hard as instituting the rule of law.

Part of the problem is in deep cultural factors that go beyond the years of dictatorship to Libya’s earlier history. Any foreigner can tell you that Libyans have trouble concentrating and organizing themselves. Part of the problem is widespread illiteracy. This is true across most of the Muslim world, and means more than, say, not seeing anyone reading for pleasure. It means no “to do” lists—and thus little getting done. You are almost sure to find that, after a six-months interval, your friends’ well-intentioned plans to fix their house or improve their English have come to naught. Few people can even organize themselves to change a burned-out light bulb or maintain their cars (until something breaks). It means people can’t find important documents because they’ve never filed them properly.

On a wider level, it means that there is little sense of linear time and history, or any firm grasp on fact versus rumor and fantasy. An “old” mosque might be five hundred years old, or fifty. No one at the sole college in Zwara could tell me immediately how many students are enrolled, though the number is certainly less than 450. In three weeks of asking the question in Tripoli, Benghazi, Derna, Sabratha, and Zwara, I didn’t meet anyone who could tell me of a Libyan writer who was working on a history of the 2011 revolution. The standard answer in any city to the question of who is making sure the story is told accurately is that some individual has “many videos and photographs” from the town. The idea of sifting such evidence and coming up with a master narrative for one city seems unknown, as does telling the story of what happened all across Libya. It’s scary to contemplate how many of the facts will vanish before they can be collected.

Then there’s the phenomenon of gossip. In the Qaddafi decades, “We worked a half day,” says Air Defense General Senussi Mahrez, of Zwara, “from seven till two. And then doing nothing. Just talking about each other.” If the endless talk is wearying to men, it is severely restrictive to women. Any small deviation from the norm occasions talk, even if it has nothing to do with the already oppressive rules on female modesty. Even the few women who begin with the spirit to express themselves are ultimately worn down, and most end by doing nothing. The approved life for a Libyan woman is a routine of endless food preparation and eating. She almost never leaves the house, except to go to work—if she even works outside the home. By the time they are in their fifties, Libyan women tend to be obese and suffer from poor health.

Now that the revolutionary euphoria has evaporated here, more and more Libyans see the harsh reality: If they are to do anything valuable with their freedom, they will have to construct not only a new society but new selves. To their great credit, many are able to admit the magnitude of the task, and to take some steps forward, even in a land without a government or security. It is going to be a tough struggle, far tougher than the revolution itself.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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