By Atharva Pandit

Edited by Shambhavi Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

The start of the year 2011 saw protests and revolutions, violence and the genuine demands for proper, accepted human rights in nations where they had been, for the most part, rejected and ignored for decades. It wasn’t easy to bring in the rights of free expression and speech, the right to live and lead a life as and how one wanted- it wasn’t easy to bring to fore all these rights in a land where they were, at best, alien. But the efforts of a few, but dedicated activists, writers, artists and intellectuals, and an internet connection that let one explore the world, could make it possible for an entire generation to rise up in anger.

And rise up in anger they did, although the subsided anger the citizens had been suppressing within them for decades found different forms- some picked up weapons to others’ picking up pens and brushes to protest in their own unique way. To the former, the change they sought was to be grabbed, but for the latter, the change they desired was to be attained. Though, they worked in unison, both of these revolutionaries. The writers began writing manifestos proclaiming expressive freedom and the armed revolutionaries began distributing them while the artists took to streets, or to walls, rather, as they painted revolutionary graffiti exalting the need for a change in the regime.

They called it the Arab Spring, all these revolutionaries, a period of change, a period of hope and new awakening and a period wherein the human rights, all these while denied and ignored, would begin to be practiced, and they believed in it passionately. One such nation where writers and artists came together for the revolt, and helped usher in the revolution in their land was Libya.

Libya has always been a nation where art cultivated, but was rarely encouraged. It had been a place which was victim to a series of invasions, and the invaders ranged from the ancient Romans, which held Libya from 146 BC till 670 AD, Greeks, from whom the Libyans derived their name (Libye) and the Ottomans, who controlled Libya from 1551 to as long as 1911, in two instalments, so to speak, consisting of two different Ottoman empires. Then came the contemporary colonial period, when the Italians began to rule over Libya, and the colony was christened as ‘Italy’s fourth shore.’ It doesn’t need telling that for the Libyans, suppression and dominance has been almost regular in their history, but a revolt against the dominator rarely so. Even so, the Italians found Libya to be a hard country to control. They built bridges, railways and roads to places where there was not even a pathway; they upgraded the streets, and tried to invest in infrastructure so as to cultivate the large swath of the Libyan Desert, spreading over 1,700,000 kilometres in length, unmanned and, well, deserted. The Italians sought to build city centres and towns over them, and they thought they had the backing of a huge population. This was not so as Libya was an ethnically divided region where tribes had been fighting among themselves for years together and where rivalries were sworn in blood. Adding to the Italians’ problems was the Libyan uprising against the colonial rule, which was initially spearheaded by the Turks, but was later led by Omar Mukhtar, a teacher of Quran turned revolutionary. He organized guerrilla warfare against the Italian colonizers in his signature tactic, which was to lead a small group into adjoining towns or villages, attack the Italian posts, and fade back into the desert. The Italians captured him in 1931 and put him to death by hanging.

The Italian control over Libya ended after World War Two, and King Idris, with blessings from the British and the UN General Assembly was declared as the King of Libya, which now stood divided into three different territorial factions: Fezzan, the south; Tripolitania, the north-west and Cyrenaica, the East. The divisions were not actually based upon any ethnic geopolitics as such, even though Libya, as mentioned, was divided on tribal and ethnic lines, and had been throughout history- the Arabs, Berbers, Tuareg and Toubou, all lived and fought together in the North African nation. What this ended up doing was creating a cross-cultural atmosphere of sorts where every other culture mixed with another thus leading to an extraordinary cocktail. Not unusually for a North African country, Libyan culture was also shaped by the various geopolitical aspects its natural order boasted of- mountains, deserts, bushes et al. This, coupled with the fact that the Libyan population had already been exposed to a lot of foreign cultural practice- thanks to the many invasions it suffered-, helped shape Libyan cultural discourse and identity, thus automatically influencing Libyan arts and literature. All throughout this period, the Libyan identity began to be composed within the words of writers such as Kamel al-Maghour, Mohammed Shaltami, Khalifa Tekbali and others.

But then came the period of Muammar Gaddafi, who led a ‘popular revolution’ (no doubt inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for later Gaddafi also introduced a ‘Green Book’ for everyone to read and follow) four years after he had vested Libya’s power in a coup d’état. He began with publishing the aforementioned book, through which he wanted himself to be cast as some sort of a guru, taking over Libya and plunging it on a path of spiritual progress. This spiritual progress of Gaddafi’s apparently started with hanging students in university quadrangles and stadiums ruing the following student revolution. Opposition to Gaddafi meant being slaughtered. The decades which followed were some of the darkest years for Libya, even by the nation’s historical standards. Not unlike today’s Saudi Arabia or North Korea, random objects were banned because they hurt the principles of Gaddafi’s ideology. This affected, among other things, the art education in Libya, where a student’s art class typically comprised of drawing triangles and stick human figures, and the classes were usually condensed between two other, more important ones. This policy left no scope for genuinely interested and talented students to extend their imagination and largely sought to discourage experimentation. Plus, for the matured artists and writers, there was no source to gather around and share their work, for Gaddafi’s regime did not allow any sort of gathering. That’s not to mention the cinema halls and libraries, which bore a deserted look, all those reels of cinema and classics abounded and pushed into oblivion. Those students wanting to learn arts were forced to leave Libya for Europe or the US, and even once they had completed their studies, there was no return to Libya, for Libya did not have any institutes having art faculties. To put it simply, even while the inspiration within Libya for artistic development was plenty, the toxic political environment of the nation did not allow it grow.

During revolution, however, things started changing. During the revolution, the Palace of Justice in Benghazi was the hotbed for young writers, poets, artists, musicians, painters and activists to gather around and work however they could to topple the dictatorship. Many were captured by Gaddafi’s goons for their involvement in demonstrations and protests, some were killed. Journalists and intellectuals began facing the wrath of Gaddafi’s power once he got the whiff of a revolution brimming. But fearless and enchanted by new possibilities as they were, Libyan artists took to the social media and started reporting and writing for international newspapers and websites, thus bridging gap between the outer world and the embattled and enclosed Libya. By this time the revolution was out on streets- and, as mentioned earlier, the walls. The revolutionary street art and graffiti drew a picture (literally) of terror and the torture of Libya’s residents. Some depicted freedom through birds flying over a Libyan flag, to others’ anger where Gaddafi is shown to be being stoned to death. Censorship done away with, the revolutionary and post-revolutionary Libya witnessed hundreds of new publications springing up, distributing pamphlets, newsletters and magazines depicting art and writings from emerging, possibly post-revolutionary intellectuals of Libyan cultural scene. International viewers eagerly lapped these works up, because they wanted to be a part of a revolution-filled, rapidly changing and extraordinarily developing cultural scene of a country that was, for most part, an enigma.

But things started changing again. The time was different, so was the History, but the present and the future looked the same. The Palace of Justice was soon abounded, and it became a place for opposite rebel factions’ activities and assassinations. This, and the fact that the Ministry of Culture, newly-minted, is not really interested in a artistic and intellectual revival, in part because they don’t have time for that- other pressing issues, such as national security, economic transactions et al top their priorities.

It should be understood that Libya is freshly out of a violent revolution which has, among other things, shaped its identity and revived its traditions and so, for it to suddenly emerge onto the World’s literary and artistic scene will take time. The efforts should come from Libyan writers and other artists who had settled outside Libya during Gaddafi’s regime. Literature and art should be included within Libya’s school curriculum and students should be encouraged to a wide-scale reading of both the Libyan as well as the world literature. The independent artists and poets of Libya seem to be interested in creating a creative atmosphere- they recently organized several book fairs and poetry reading sessions, along with exhibitions and a music festival.

Libya is undergoing a reform, a peaceful revolution that comes after every violent revolution. Amid the bloodshed and teeming trouble that still threatens the nation, modern Libya seems to be progressing slowly but steadily- and it is the responsibility of its young and highly capable intelligentsia to catapult their historically and culturally rich country to a world stage.


Atharva Pandit is an FYBA student at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai, and intends to major in Politics. He is a close observer of international politics and is an advocate of free speech, all the while following social evils plaguing the Indian society. Apart from his journalistic ventures, Pandit also reserves an interest in foreign languages, and has cleared two advance-level Spanish exams. He is interested in reading, and recently presented a paper titled “The Role of Literature in Latin American Resistance.” 

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind