Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tripoli Bookshop

Tripoli bookworm thrilled by Libya’s exciting new chapter

Saturday, 03 September 2011

Mohammed Ali Al-Bahbahy stands in his bookshop near Tripoli’s newly-named Martyr’s Square, formerly Green Square. (Photo by AFP)


A tiny bookshop is among the first businesses to open in Tripoli one week after the Libyan capital fell to rebels determined to uproot the regime of

Muammar Qaddafi.

“I opened this used bookstore to fight ignorance under Muammar Qaddafi,” said Mohammad Ali al-Bahbahy, a spritely septuagenarian sporting a checked shirt and loafers.

The quaint store round the corner from Tripoli’s Green Square, which was renamed Martyrs Square after rebels took the capital last week, was founded in 1995. Bahbahy drew on 200 works of literature in his personal collection to get started.

“Now I have 12,000 books,” he said, gesturing to rows of volumes on subjects including geography, philosophy, politics, science and religion.

His stock also boasts stacks of American thrillers and a banned biography of former U.S. First Lady Nancy Reagan – whose husband Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of “terrorist-related” targets in Tripoli as US president in 1986 after Libyan secret forces were blamed for bombing a night club in West Berlin. The attack killed two U.S. servicemen and injured scores more, along with other clients.

The shop, he said, became a safe haven for those with an appetite for culture and a desire to discuss politics freely but “behind closed doors.”
Bahbahy said he was never directly threatened by the Qaddafi regime.

Thanks to his military past and connections – coupled with a prudent dose of caution and self-censorship – intelligence services thought him a supporter of the regime and left him largely alone.

Qaddafi killed the culture of reading, Bahbahy said, so it was easy to build up his collection as friends and strangers short on education and cash eagerly sold off the books once read by their grandparents when Libya was a monarchy.

Born in the western mountain town of Yefren and educated in military academies in England and the United States, Bahbahy was an army officer when Qaddafi seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969.

“We were happy to have the revolution then,” he said, “but he stole it.”

Slowly but surely Qaddafi purged the army of educated officers. Bahbahy’s turn came in 1979. After years of dabbling in various business ventures he decided to make a profit out of his childhood passion, too proud to seek help from regime cronies.

“I learned to read the Quran from my grandfather who raised me when I was three,” he said in fluid English. “As a teenager, my hobby was to read history books.”

The regime essentials are readily available on his shelf. There are copies of Qaddafi’s infamous “Green Book” in Arabic, English, French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, and even Hebrew.

“‘The Green Book’ was translated into 45 languages – more than the Quran,” Bahbahy said. “Qaddafi had thought himself emperor of the whole world so he wanted his theories to reach everyone.”

Most of his customers, he said, were tourists passing through Tripoli.
Tomes as thick as the “Encyclopedia Britannica” are piled up on the bookshop’s second floor under the watchful gaze of a framed Mona Lisa.

They are annual compilations of every oral or written statement made by Qaddafi.

“Now that I am free, I am hungry to read history books that cover all sides,” said Bahbahy, a harsh critic of education under Qaddafi, which placed the strongman at the start of history and mapped Libya as the heart of the Arab world and Africa in turn.

“You couldn’t say a single word. We would discuss politics in our trusted circle of friends behind closed doors. But never in public and we would never publish.

“Now,” he said joyfully, “you can.”

Libyans reclaim their streets

Freed from the 'old frizzyhead' dictatorship of Gaddafi, an infectious sense of goodwill is giving birth to a vibrant new civil society

Ian Black in Tripoli


Omar al-Mukhtar street does not quite live up to its promise as the most elegant boulevard in Tripoli. Tall, Italianate colonial-era arcades and a few spindly palm trees provide shade, but the buildings are rundown and the pavements dirty and neglected.

Still, Khawla, Asma, Aya and friends are sprucing things up. With a few dozen other teenagers – looking purposeful in 17 February revolutionary T-shirts – they are sweeping and cleaning, and even painting the kerbstones in precise yellow and black segments.

"Now we must help look after our city," said Khawla, a beaming 18-year-old with her hair covered in a scarf topped by a baseball cap bearing the crescent and star emblem of Libya's revolution. "We want to do something for our country," Aya chimes in.

Abdul-Moneim, a 17-year old schoolboy, raises a laugh about why he is shovelling dust and cigarette ends into a wheelbarrow. "I'd had it with Abu Shafshufa" ("frizzyhead" – the universal nickname for Muammar Gaddafi), he grins, shouldering his broom like a rifle. Passers-by nod approvingly. "Well done kids!" calls out a soldier in camouflage gear. Shopkeepers keep the squad supplied with water and snacks.

Until last month youngsters like these had only ever experienced dictatorship and the apathy it bred. "Of course we wouldn't have done this before the revolution," said Asma. "Why should we sweep Gaddafi's streets? When they did clean things it was only because there was some African president visiting Gaddafi in his stupid tent. It wasn't ever for Libyans. Now we feel Tripoli is our city."

Volunteers who are cleaning or helping in hospitals, orphanages and charitable institutions are part of an explosion of civic-mindedness triggered by the fall of the old regime. New NGOs are springing up daily, emulating what happened in Benghazi when the uprising began.

"These groups have mushroomed in the last two or three weeks alone and there isn't even anywhere for them to register yet," said Khalifa Shakreen of Tripoli University. "It's only natural because people were so tightly controlled and lived under a culture of dependency for 40 years."

As Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the ruling National Transitional Council, put it proudly to the UN general assembly on Saturday: "A new Libya is coming to life."

Public service messages, lectures and advertising campaigns are proliferating in an atmosphere of infectious goodwill, though the mood is still sullen in traditionally pro-Gaddafi areas such as Abu Salim. Efforts to curb the dangerous practice of celebratory gunfire have been fairly successful. "Say Allahu Akbar instead of firing bullets," counsels one leaflet. Exhortations to respect public property and keep neighbourhoods tidy are everywhere. Text messages urge people to donate blood.

Ordinary Libyans are also being mobilised around the inadequate treatment of injured rebels (the Arabic word they use, tellingly, is Thuwar, "revolutionaries"), many of them hospitalised far from home in Tunisia and Malta. "It is a scandal," complained Nawras Omar, a volunteer nurse. "Thousands of people are affected. Many have lost limbs and there are not enough doctors and nurses. This is a nation at war and our wounded should be in military hospitals."

On Friday night hundreds of people gathered to appeal to the NTC to "put the injured before reconstruction", as one slogan demanded. "For 40 years we never participated in anything," said organiser Abir Abu-Turkiya. "Before only Gaddafi's people came to demonstrate and they were bribed. Now everyone who is here wants to be here. This is the beginning of civil society."

Crowds milling in nearby Martyrs Square enjoyed a combination of street party – with bouncy castles, popcorn and break-dancing – and a patriotic rally for free Libya. "This is the first time we have ever done anything like this," exulted Lubna Arousi, a dentistry student raising cash for friends who are still fighting the "dictator's forces" in Sirte and Bani Walid. "In the Gaddafi years we would have been shouted down and chased away."

Longer-term social, educational and economic issues are being tackled by new groups such as Doctors for Free Libya, Youth Future Makers, Libyans Against Corruption and the religious-sounding United Youth Charity Organisation. Activists of the Amazigh (Berber) minority, who played a big role in the war, are launching an unprecedented campaign for recognition.

Not all these fledgling organisations will survive, but some are likely to become part of new movements and parties as a pluralist democratic political system develops.

Unfinished wrangling over the relationship between the rebel brigades and the national army will shape the way Libya works, as will the way power is shared between Islamists and liberals. The ownership of the revolution is already hotly disputed. Regional rivalries will be important too. Misrata, proud of its wartime sacrifices, has already produced a party that reflects a strong sense of entitlement. Tripoli worries that it will be marginalised by Benghazi.

The coming months are supposed to spawn the formation of a transitional government, elections and a new constitution. It is a lot of change in a short time but, for the moment at least, there is a powerful sense of public engagement and enthusiasm behind it – from the kids sweeping Omar al-Mukhtar street to the revellers in Martyrs Square. "People want to join something to make an impact," said an NTC official. "That's good. But the danger is that they'll follow the wrong person. It's not easy to move from the mentality of the cult of one person to the notion of civil society."

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