Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Libya - A Libyan American Perspective

Gadaffi Billboard - Destroyed  

I just got back from Libya a few months ago and I must reflect for a moment on how quickly things can change. 
I remember when I first landed at the Tripoli airport, I was astounded by the exorbitant amount of Gadafi billboards. I’m talking about hundreds of billboards everywhere.  His face was on almost every single advertisement and billboard in Tripoli and he wore the most unusual outfits. 

 In another he would be wearing a safari inspired outfit complete with matching hat and his little green book. The posters of him were so ridiculous that I remember finding them funny and bizarre. I thought to myself who could be afraid of a guy that puts up these super cheesy billboards of THEMSELF. I mean I heard all the stories growing up about what a monster he was, yet I remember thinking “Really. This is who everyone is afraid of.” But I soon learned firsthand there was a reason to be afraid.
Growing up, my family in Libya and America always had a strong dislike towards Gadafi. My dad came to the United States as a political refugee and filed for political asylum in the 80’s. And It was hard growing up because me and my brother’s could never visit Libya due to the sanctions and for fear that Gadafi would imprison my father. I yearned to see and meet my father’s side of the family. But I could only connect with my Grandma, cousins, Aunts and Uncles via telephone and when technology improved through Skype. 

King Idris (center)
 Out of the hundreds of Libyan people I know, I have never known one that liked Gadafi so I was always confused why he was still in power. My Dad would tell us stories about the things Gadafi did, his infamous "hit squad" and how he came into power. Thinking back it blows my mind because I am sure my Dad never thought he would see the day when Gadafi would be gone. Even recently when I was there, the sentiment was passive and fearful. It was as if the people just tolerated it because they had no choice.  
To give you an example about how strict Gadafi’s regime is My dad brought some of Libya’s old currency that he had for over 40 years. It was the currency that was used when King Idris was in charge; before Gadafi overthrew the Kingdom by staging a military coup, when he was 25 years old. My mom and Uncle yelled at my Dad when they saw it; because if a Libyan police officer found the money on him, my dad would have been  taken to jail or worse. I thought they were joking but they were very serious.

Another example is one night I was filming a documentary about the cuisine and history of Libya. My uncle was driving when we came to a road block. The police were stopping everyone and immediately my Uncle starts shouting to me “Put your Camera down. Put your camera down.” I immediately dropped my camera and just in time because the police started tapping on the glass and looking in the car. I was very scared because I had no idea what was going on.

The police were clearing the streets because Gadafi and his entourage were about to drive past. The streets were completely clear when all of the sudden about 20 little kids started to cross the street. The police immediately pulled out their guns and were about to shoot the little kids. The kids threw their hands up in the air in surrendering. They thought the roads were clear for them  to cross. They had no idea what was going on. Then my Uncle told me that a few days ago a group of children were shot dead for the same thing. I remember thinking how awful that was. He further explained “That’s the law. No one gets close to Gadafi or they will be killed. Even if it is an accident. The government does not need to explain.”

Gadafi passed by and about 10 minutes later we were allowed to continue on our way. We drove into the main downtown area of Tripoli and were passing by Gadafi’s compound. I picked up my camera and started shooting again. About 20 seconds later, my Uncle almost rears the car off the road and starts screaming again: “What are you doing?!? Put your camera down! Are you trying to get us put in jail?!?.” I was completely confused. “Why would we go to jail?” To which my Uncle said “We would go to jail, if we’re lucky?”

People Protesting
That’s when I understood why everyone was so afraid. To Gadafi life is cheap. I think that’s what make the entire situation going on now so admirable. Finally, Libyans are taking a stand. They are tired of what Gadafi has done to their country, their families and they want to have their voices heard now.

I implore anyone reading this please take a moment and send out positive thoughts to the people in Libya, to my family, my friends, and to anyone who stands up in the face of adversity when it could cost them their life. I feel like a lot of Americans are taking a very blasé attitude towards this. And I can understand why. We have it really good here in America. It’s easy to take our freedoms for granted.

I have all these emotions going on now that I feel like only my family can understand. To some degree I feel like most people I know don’t really care what’s going on. They ask to be polite but in the end don’t really want to hear about it. But I feel worried, anxious, sad and angry and I have been thinking what can I do? How can I help? In talking to some people here in New York I realize how little people actually know about Libya. So I am going to share some of the things I know. The food. The Culture. The History. If there are questions you have or things you’ve always wanted to know please ask.

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