A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to visit Tripoli during Libya’s first democratic National Congress elections in 40 years since the downfall of the Gadafi regime.
I’d heard and read so much about Tripoli and was excited to see the street art there -several visiting journalists had previously commented that the graffiti in Libya is primitive/amateur when compared to the scenes in Tunisia, Beirut and Egypt. I beg to differ; you can’t compare when the political circumstances and social fabrics are so completely different.
Although ten months have passed since the capture and killing of Gadafi, the streets of Tripoli are still rife with memory. Everywhere you look, walls carry the faces and names of martyrs – there’s one martyr for each street corner, it seems. Their pictures remain today – and unlike Egypt- their faces have not been covered up by electoral campaign posters and forgotten.
Many locals in Tripoli regard the street murals as ‘shakhbata’ or scribbling, just like many do here in Egypt, but I found the art powerful and profound despite the often elementary styles. If it’s not heartbreaking messages commemorating the fallen brothers, sons and friends who died fighting for their country, then it’s sarcastic, witty and almost offensive depictions of Gadafi, the former dictator.
After decades of unimaginable oppression, torture and intimidation of his own people, Gadafi is depicted as a rat, a female singer, a scared man in a sinking boat, being kicked out of Libya, a little being held at the scruff of his neck by Omar Al Mokhtar, the spiritual ‘grandfather’ of the Libyan revolutionaries.
Through art, Gadafi is belittled and ridiculed; the artists took their revenge against his once-glorified image by stripping him down from a much-feared tyrant to a small, comical man. I know that other Libyans may disagree with this description; some locals that I spoke to said they would rather not remember him or keep his image alive, and simply wipe him from the walls and their country’s existence. Others, described by some as ‘fulool’, quietly miss the days he ruled and prefer to remember him in a positive light (coughstockholmsyndromecough).
In Egypt, you wouldn’t see such murals of Mubarak – at least not as frequently and not as delightfully cruel as these murals in Tripoli. But then again, you can’t compare one tyrant to another.
Of all the graffiti I saw, it was the murals on the walls of Abo Selim prison that were the most powerful, emotional and traumatic. This, to me, was real street art stripped down to its core: brutal, basic and made of real fury and memory.
The murals depicted the massacre of Abo Selim of 1996, where 1200 prisoners were shot dead by prison guards after they protested the prison’s unfair conditions. I walked through the prison, went into the tiny cells and down into the stifling and claustrophobic underground torture room, a memory that stayed with me for several weeks and nightmares later.The visit alone helped me almost understand the extent of the trauma and human suffering depicted in the murals.
It’s difficult to imagine the extent of trauma that the Libyan people have gone through over the past forty years and during the Feb17 uprising, but the street art around Tripoli is just scratching the surface. Messages of deep patriotism and hope combine with the memory of thousands of fallen heroes and fury against the dead tyrant.
Honestly, the little graffiti that I saw left me with deep respect for the Libyans and sincere hope that their path will learn from ours and lead to a better future.