By Maimuna Aghliw
I am often asked what it’s like living in Libya. I mean, people are curious about a country where all that happens is kidnappings and killings, seasoned with everyday chaos – at least that’s what the media says.
My mornings are really no surprise, I hit snooze on my phone twice, three times, before I can drag myself out of bed and go to my window, where I throw up the blinds and take a second to adjust to the glorious blue sky and bright sunshine.
This is my favourite thing about living in Libya, the weather. Predictably gorgeous, always.
I arrive at work in that quiet lull before the day gets busy, so I take my time setting up the classroom, arranging the chairs, putting out pencils, erasers, and markers for me. I turn to the board to write the date, putting smileys into the O’s and turn to welcome the (mostly) smiling faces streaming in as my herd of kids arrive for school.
We take some time this morning to talk about what the children did over the weekend, and they trip over themselves to tell tales of visiting grandparents, playing with cousins or fun outings with their parents to the mall.
Then it’s the turn of an eight-year-old little girl, a petite animated child. Her hazel eyes beam as she tucks her shoulder length hair behind her ears. She raises her hand, politely but firmly, she wants to talk.
She begins talking animatedly about her weekend. She had been at her uncle’s house because one of his sons had died on the frontlines of the war and there had been a wake. Her little face continued calmly, as she told us that her cousin had been critically injured when a qafeeda (mortar) fell near him, and that he had died a glorious shaheed (martyr).
The children in class chimed in, telling her that she meant to say qadeefa, not qafeeda, and that the proper term for her cousin was shaheed not sasheed. They knew those words well, like all kids who have suffered through war and spent it listening to the grown-ups around them, hoping for reassurances that everything would be OK.
Another little girl shared that her uncle was also on the frontline; she smiles proudly, but tells us that he is her favourite uncle and that she misses him, a lot.
That’s that, the conversation ends quickly, and the pupils go back to their day, as must I, because no matter how much I would love to tell them that there is a whole world out there where war is not a reality for children like them, I can’t. I can’t because this is all they have ever known; this is their normal.
Driving home, I was thinking fondly of dinner when I turned on the radio and rolled down the window. There was no music to be had, only the Quranic verses that I knew preceded the announcement of the names of the dead for today.
A solemn voice reads out the names of young men killed on the frontline, their ages, and where the funerals will be held.
When he has finished I let out a slightly guilty sigh of relief, I didn’t recognise any of the names, but each one is a devastating loss for a family.
Looking out my window, I see everyday life continuing, with its busy shops, heavy traffic and my plans to visit a friend that afternoon. Just as I was wrapping my hijab on to go out, home-baked brownies ready by the door, my mobile started vibrating. It was my friend. I answered in a hurry, “I’m just putting my hijab on, will be out the door in a minute …”
“Maimuna, I’m sorry, we’re going to have to reschedule.” “OK, insha ‘Allah kheir, what happened?” Her voice made it pretty clear that something had happened, at this point I was hoping for the best of the worst.
“My cousin has been injured and we’re all going to my uncle’s house now.” She didn’t need to say any more, I knew the situation very well and all I could offer her was my sympathy over the phone and prayers for her cousin’s recovery.
Like a dream, I heard the Quranic death knell, it was another announcement of the dead coming from the next room, where my mother is listening to the local radio. She turned up the volume as I rushed into the room and sat by her, listening to every name, hoping selfishly that I did not know any of them.
It’s a long list this afternoon, there must have been a major offensive somewhere, or explosions that took even more lives than usual today.
I needed to get out so I decided to join my father who was heading out to do his daily gardening on our plot of land. My brother lived near there, so I could pass by and visit him, and maybe even my cousins, too, they lived near there, too.
The 20-minute car ride is a lot longer today because traffic has had to be diverted to make room for the ambulances returning with injured fighters from the frontline. On the detour, my window showed nothing but a bright sun nestled in a bright blue sky sprinkled with cotton ball clouds.
We arrive at my brother’s house and sit outside because the power is out and it’s nicer to be in the garden. The power cuts happen every day, a few hours at a time usually. We silently sipped our tea and nibbled at our cookies, which my sister in law had served us.
Because we couldn’t turn on the TV yet, we still didn’t know what developments had happened in the war that day. A short relief from the tension comes when we decide to take the bored children for a walk through my father’s garden.
As we turned back into the front gate after the walk, I heard a “Whup, whup, whup” from above and my five-year-old nephew pointed up and the sky excitedly, “Look! Look! Auntie, that’s the emergency helicopter they use to transport all the really injured soldiers from the frontlines! They bring them here to the hospital!”
I smile weakly, nod, and hold his hand, as if he had just shown me an amazing rock he found or a creepy bug that he wants to take home as a pet. This was his reality.
We hear the TV from the family room, and the radio booming in the kitchen. All the kids shout, “The power’s back on!” and race inside. We spent the rest of the evening doing what all modern families do, on our devices, scrolling, reading things out loud to each other, discussing this and that, and laughing a little.
Then, my father and I get up and say goodnight; we have to head home now, for the night is not really that young any more.
There were no more incidents, and no more news to mull over. I walk around my room preparing for bed in a familiar ritual. I need to be up early the next day, it is going to be a busy one.
I pause and close my eyes, sending up a quick prayer that now, finally, the worst of the war is behind us, that we are moving towards something more stable, more peaceful.
But I know that whatever tomorrow brings, Libya won’t stop. Tragedies that should rip families asunder will only make them stronger somehow as they continue to exist. Daily death knells will always make me hold my breath in terror, lest I recognise one of the names.
The shops will keep teeming, traffic will keep getting congested, and the power will keep going out. We will go on, and that is the answer, the answer to the question, “What’s it like living in Libya these days?”
Maimuna Aghliw, a Libyan activist, who has been living in Misrata since 2009, reflects on life there during wartime. Aghliw, 26, spent some time working at an NGO, focusing on psychosocial support, visiting different elementary and secondary schools. She also spent time teaching and tutoring children of various ages.