The Haze of Illiteracy in 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.