The Hotel Juliana in Benghazi is a modern, clean place with western toilets (always check this before-hand) and enough hot water if you don’t linger. The Wi-Fi is good, which explains the nightly crowd in the lobby smoking, drinking fruit juice, checking smart phones and speaking in the time-honored Arab manner of all at once. Get a room in the back of the hotel, away from the crowd, where you can open your window at night and listen to the sea lapping against the beach. My room was so close to the water that if I pitched an empty orange soda bottle, an odd shoe, or spare ammo clip out the window, I could almost hit the surf. To look at the shoreline plenty of guests had already tried it.
Behind the hotel, a pool was being installed which the manager, I’ll call him Omar, assured me would be finished by spring. I asked the obvious question: How do women swim in a jilbāb?
“Oh, no,” he said, almost in a panic, “women will be discouraged from being at poolside.” Which, I thought may be the single most effective way to discourage men form being at poolside as well.
Behind us was the dodgy side of the Mediterranean Sea, oily and slick from the tankers coming in and out of port. “What about the ocean?” I asked.
Omar sighed, “The beaches were mined in the 1990’s when Gaddafi thought the US would invade.” The garbage strewn beach had attracted, as it does, packs of feral dogs and – this was new – and foursome of feral horses. The wild animals and explosives tend to put bathers off.
In truth, the whole city is covered in garbage. The Arabs are, for all their passion, incredibly polite people. And very polite people tend to be easily offended. Language barriers never help these things, but I was desperate to know if all this garbage was from the revolution or has Benghazi always been a slagheap.
I asked a surgical resident from Tripoli, a rival city. “Oh yes,” he said, “it’s been like this for many years. Gaddafi ordered the garbage not picked up so Benghazi would be a dirty city.”
“So, Tripoli would be clean.” All things are relative.
Not that there is very much beach to trash. The Libyans have forgotten these places are supposed to be fun, as opposed to God’s way of telling you where your country stops. An American developer would stack beachfront condos three quarters the way back to Chad, but they’ve got 50 feet of sand being used as a dump.
THE WEEK BEFORE MY ARRIVAL in the Benghazi with a team of medics and surgeons from the International Children’s Heart Foundation, Israel and Gaza had taken to lobbing rockets at each other. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi started some regional strongman saber-rattling about it until he pissed in his own constitutional whiskey with an Orwellian power grab that made him indistinguishable from the old Pharaoh he’d replaced.
The protests in Egypt were thestory that kept the Libyans glued to the television. With good reason, these were two opposing case studies for the Arab Spring. Egypt had peacefully and surgically removed the head of the government, leaving the rest of the body politic largely intact. The Libyans have gone further, cleaving off the head, heart, lungs and, given the fate of Gaddafi’s sons, the balls of the old power structure.
They were building a society from scratch and they weren’t doing a half-bad job of it until the politicos came along. No one is in charge but at the moment, the sense of sticking together is strong here. Middle class homes are largish buildings filled with extended families occupying private apartments inside. Inside these walled compounds are delightful and immaculate gardens, the same could be said for every respectable restaurant, hospital or mosque. The roads and public places, however, are as filthy as the beaches. If you believe that a culture’s architecture reflects the people who live there, then the message is clear: “Once inside the walls you are one of us and you will be taken care of. Outside the walls, you are on your own.”
Still, the souks are full of people milling through miles of cheap American and European goods. The power is on and people go about their business. The city’s fragile peace is being held together by a sub-structure of community, the threat of well-armed clan retribution, and the mellowing effects of hashish. But an arrangement like that can’t last forever.
By the summer of 2012, most Libyans would have said that the war was over, and said it with a hint of nostalgia. Dr. Madia El Fakhery – an anesthesiologist at the Benghazi Medical Center – remembered the revolution as “the best time of my life.” She is not a militant, not particularly traditional, and not terribly religious. She lived in Tampa, Florida until she was eight, where she identified closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. – “I was from North Africa, I was an American. I thought that made me an African-American.” Her three career goals were part-time super-model, archeologist, and a delegate at the UN. While treasure hunting isn’t particularly practical, she certainly has the face of a super-model, and the UN is as good a place as any to retire and do nothing.
“The solidarity, the sense of hope and purpose, the community. Benghazi during the revolution was a beautiful place to be.” Then she said something that sounded pretty in Arabic, and translates softly, “Benghazi arise, arise for the day you’ve awaited is here.” Madia got a shiver. “When the bodies started coming in – and I had cousins who died in the war – people started bringing in spare mattresses for the wounded, bringing bread and dates and other foods, pharmacists brought in medicine, anything to help. We didn’t know where to put it. There was hugging. Men don’t shake hands with a woman who is not a direct relative, and strangers were hugging me. And it was okay! It was a beautiful place to be.”
The fighting was brutal. Benghazi was liberated, saved from massacre by US and NATO air power, and on the ground, they know it. US, French and Qatari flags are intermingled with the revolutionary graffiti, about half of which is in English. I asked a young pilot trainee on the road to Cyrene why the slogans weren’t in Arabic. “We want to tell our message to the world, not just Arabia.”
“I thought Gaddafi struck English from the curriculum.”
He smiled proudly, “We learned.”
Then Tripoli was liberated, Gaddafi was flushed out of a drainage ditch and disposed of withextreme prejudice. The solidarity of facing down a tyrant was replaced with the much more splintered task of rebuilding a society that had been reduced to one overbearing and unhinged personality. Madia said something else in Arabic. “I hear it every day if I don’t say it myself,” she translated, ‘My oh my, the days of the revolution…weren’t they great?’”
The Libyans, having decided that the war was over, forbid American boots on the ground in any useful number. So, by the fall of 2012, the CIA had a twelve-man team in Benghazi training local intelligence officers. The US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, had a security detail which he ducked regularly.
Then came September 11, again. The attack on the US Consulate had the flavor of a sweeping geo-political statement rather than a targeted hit. It would have been much easier to kill the ambassador out and unguarded than attempt to get him within a walled compound. “Chris walked around without body guards all the time. He was our guest.” Said Dr. Laila Bugaighis, deputy director of the BMC.
The State Department blamed the attack on some nut-job movie trailer with a junior high AV club production value, then a terrorist attack by al Qaeda. Almost to a man, eyewitnesses pinned the attack on Ansar al-Sharia. With its snazzy logo of crossed AK-47s, a fist and a Koran, it is a recognizable brand.
When the body of an “Anglo-Saxon” was brought in to the BMC while Madia was on call, it was confusing enough. Then rumors started spreading. The staff finally identified him by calling the numbers on his cell phone. “We did what we could, but it was CO2 poisoning, from the smoke.”
A US helicopter took up his remains. “We thought it was an Apache.” Madia said, “We thought the US air strikes would begin.” But they didn’t. In the aftermath of his death, Benghazi was left with was a profound sense of fateha. It means scandal or shame to a degree that English translations don’t touch. “He was a guest in our country, after America helped us oust Gaddafi. And we did this.” Then, sounding like a Florida girl said, “C’mon people. We’re better than this!”
The fact of the matter is that people get indignant about things they don’t care about all the time. Most Americans are indignant about human rights violations in China, but have a home filled with products of Chinese sweatshops. People don’t get embarrassed about things that don’t matter. Chris Stevens, to the vast majority of Benghazians, mattered.
“WE HAVEN’T TOTALLY got our head around this freedom thing.” Said Dr. Madia, watching some nursing students engrossed in their smartphones. “Now if you even ask someone to do their job you get a loud, ‘Who died and made you Muammar?’”
The Libyans didn’t want our boots, but did what our scrubs. Gaddafi had hollowed out the medical profession with a universal minimum income where no one starves, but skilled professionals are hard to come by. Due to oil revenues, the country has cash, the BMC is a beautiful, modern hospital. The lack of supplies has more to do with the war than poverty. What is scarce are qualified personnel. Most for the nurses are on contract from India or the Philippines.
The peace cannot last without structure, but for the moment, the surgical residents, like Omar and his pool, are hopeful. They are eager to learn. Despite the carping of Islamist politicos, to have trained “under the Americans” is a great feather in the professional cap in the Arab world. Inside the hospital, the work continued despite the growing chaos that was affecting the lower ranks of hospital personnel, the orderlies and nurses. They were coming in late, not following simple protocol and seemed to think that getting a text was a perfectly reasonable excuse to leave in the middle of feeding an infant patient. What plans they couldn’t bear to miss in a country without alcohol, is baffling to me.
The whole thing was driving the ICHF volunteers nuts, they were in country to train medical staff who, after a generation of under a Bedouin Sun King, were drunk with freedom. That chaotic freedom of college freshmen on spring break. A nurse trainee, an army conscript pressed into the medical profession, left his patients to fiddle on his phone. I think he had a date. An ICHF nurse called after him in that nasal boom of the Great White North, “You know, in Canada you’d be fired for that!”
I don’t know if the reedy kid understood her or not. But a nearby orderly, pulled out his ear-buds long enough to join the debate – an honored pastime in the Arab world – “You can’t say that to him. We are living in a democratic society now!” he said with a smirk.
And so they are.
(Originally Appeared in Front Street March, 2013)