Benghazi The Apple Orchard

Benghazi The Apple Orchard

Many questions remained with us as we traveled all around Libya. The passion for uniqueness prevailed, even if singing took a spacious part in it. A strong fervor for Arab nationalism, and a stronger anger, which on some occasions went to the extent of appealing to the yearning for Africanism. A unique regime of the masses, and different names, for which there are no similarities, for details of life, architectural treasures and abandoned riches. An enormous creative impetus which does not try to present itself to others: is it a passion for amazement, even if the other birds do not take part in the song? This is Libya then, which is known only to those who visited it, and whoever can remove all those veils which have accumulated in the memory. Hence the journey had a feeling of virginity. The astonishment of diving in places which satisfy one s desire to distance oneself from clamor.

The name of Libya made up of six words remained difficult for the memory. I tried a lot to memorize it in order, but the matter continued to be beyond my control. I would see Libyans repeat the name, the Great Socialist People s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya , but for a newcomer, who found just the name Libya easy, it was different. When I confided this to one of those with whom we met, he showed me a way to memorize the initials of the six words of the Arabic name and divide them into two words, ja l sha , which are easy to remember. And this is what happened with me until I left Libya, to return whence I came.

The Virginity of the Sands

Since I read the novel The Magi in its two parts, I have had a desire to visit the region of the Akakus Mountains in Libya, which are part of Jat ??? province on the Algerian border. There was a little scattered information about rock carvings in the mountains dating back 5,000 years that still survive to this day, resisting erosion and the harshness of the ages. The entrancing, miraculous atmosphere conveyed by that wonderful story encouraged me from time to time to undertake that captivating adventure. But when I arrived in Libya with my colleague, things were completely different, since it was difficult to complete a journey like that in such a short time as the limited days of the trip allowed us. So we had to wait for several days in order to be able to find an aircraft of Libya s internal airline to take us to Ghadames province. Then we had to go from there by car on an arduous sandy road for a distance of more than 400 kilometres to reach that region, whose mountains are divided into black and white. But the problem was not in the length of the road or its ruggedness, but in the aircraft whose flight times were not regular. So if we went there, we would have to wait at least a week for the aircraft to come to take us back. On many occasions, because of the irregularity of the flights, one might have to wait as long as two weeks, or maybe even three, in this place.

This was what impelled me regretfully to disregard my passion to see those places about which the Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Kouni distinguished himself in writing with ardent love. But what was indeed surprising was the discovery that most of the Libyans whom we met, in cultural seminars and the information media, and the ordinary people who greeted us in a friendly way in the streets, cafes and markets of Libyan cities, had only extremely scanty, in most instances almost non-existent, information about the entrancing Akakus Mountains region. This was despite the fact that the history of this region and its wonderful designs carved on the rocks go back to prehistoric ages. It is the greatest natural museum known to humanity. If Libya were able to organize its tourist infrastructure, it could make this place, so attractive in its mysteriousness and mighty in its age in the face of the factors of erosion, a resort that would attract lovers of desert journeys and researchers in civilization and the greatness of history.

This was stated specifically by the Secretary-General of the Public Authority for Tourism in the Jamahiriya, the engineer Al-Bukhari Salem Jawda, when he spoke to us a great deal about the tourist planning process which began only in 1995, and Libya s promising potentials, particularly in Akakus, where the areas of the first human beings are full of pictures, colored and otherwise, of elephants, gazelles and animals which have since become extinct. In addition there are implements which human beings used in ancient times. It is a region that has become a nature reserve, and UNESCO has described it as the largest of the open reserves in the African continent. But the matter does not end there. The Libyan desert is the largest desert of the Mediterranean region. The sandy hills in it have made it possible to invent the idea of desert tourism . In the middle of areas of sandy hills one can find lakes of water surrounded by forests of palm trees, as in the areas of Qabr Awn and Dawada, as well as very old oases which have been recorded in the Register of the World Heritage, like Ghadames and Ghat.

The tourism official emphasized to us that, according to impartial international studies, Libya is a very promising tourist country. Its long Mediterranean coastline has still not been exploited, while it has many places suitable for diving and areas of bays, and the seabed is covered with antiquities, which are still hidden in its depths. He mentioned that in the Susa region, for example, French divers at the present time are searching for a ship which sank 80 years ago.

He also emphasized other kinds of tourism, including desert tourism and religious tourism. The Phoenician, Greek, Roman and other civilizations have passed through Libya, and Sabrata and Shahat are proof of this. He believes that "cultural tourism" or what is called elite tourism requires mutual integration with Tunisia and Egypt.

What a university professor who specializes in antiquities, Dr. Abdulsalam Shallouf, told us may refer to that. Libya s Wadi Derna contains a cave which is called Haqfat Al-Hajj Karim , in which there are still the first human implements. In a place called Karsa, near Susa, a British scientist called Mack Bernie proved that the first human beings existed there 95,000 years before Jesus was born. This scientist wrote a book about that. In the Shahat region, about which Al Arabi magazine wrote in its issue No. 520 of March 2002, prehistoric stone implements were found in the Muqranat Cave. Such implements were also found in the Haqfat Al-Tira Cave located near Benghazi and Bir Dufan in Tripoli.

A Rich Diversity

Libya is not only a country with a huge wealth of ancient remains, it is also extremely rich in that diversity of evidence of successive civilizations which its territory contains, among them the Phoenician, Greek and Roman as well as the Arab Islamic civilization. It also contains some of the most beautiful ancient cities in the world, like Leptis Major, which is also called Ancient Tadmur . It is about one hour away from the capital, Tripoli. These cities include Sabrata, which contains a famous ancient amphitheater, and is about half an hour by car from Tripoli. In addition, there is the city of Talmitha near Benghazi, which dates back to the age of the Ptolemys. Tobruk and Shahat are two cities which lie north of Benghazi and contain huge numbers of ancient ruins. Close to them is the city of Susa on the Mediterranean coast. In the oasis of Ghadames in Fezzan, there are patterns and drawings carved on the rocks, dating back 3,000 years. Mosques are widespread through the length and breadth of the Jamahiriya. A number of them date back to the Islamic conquest, which was brought to it by Amr Ibn Al-Aas in 642 AD and completed by Uqba Ibn Nafi when he entered a number of regions which had not been brought under the control of Islam.

Salt Marsh Lands

Although the broad majority of antiquities which Libya contains date back to those ages when the first human beings lived, as well as the years before the birth of Jesus Christ and the subsequent centuries. The evidence of the greatness of Islamic civilization is still prominent, and we found it distributed among many Libyan cities. But the strange thing is that in Benghazi, where we spent several days, wandered in its streets and lanes, and explored its markets and fine modern buildings overlooking the beauty of the Mediterranean with its wonderful blueness, we did not find any Islamic antiquities, although it is closer to the east from which the Islamic conquest came to the countries of North Africa. When we asked the reason, we stopped being surprised as we learnt that large parts of the land of Benghazi were salt marsh, and this type of soil normally does not preserve antiquities . We felt very upset at the time that wonderful evidence of a brilliant civilization had disappeared into that soil and had been effaced.

The history books say that Benghazi, which we saw in its modern image, with broad avenues surrounded and intersected by a fine network of roads, was built up when it was founded in the first quarter of the sixth century BC as an ancient Greek city, on an elevated part of land known at the present time as Sabkhat Al-Sulaimani. It contains the Sidi Ubaid Cemetery. This salt marsh in ancient times used to be a deep lake. When it was dried out, its inhabitants left it and settled in a place near the Mediterranean coast. This is the place that is now called Sidi Khuraybish, where there is a cemetery called by this name. Its land has managed to preserve some archaeological remains. But in any case these are not of the size of the antiquities one might have expected to find in a city like Benghazi, which has witnessed many important events in history, through which dozens of invaders, gamblers and conquerors have passed and which has been chosen as a seat of government and an important center of activity in most ages.

Although most of the cities which were open arenas for the wars of newcomers and invaders in ancient times still preserve much of their evidence, Benghazi seems to be an exception to this norm. When we traversed its streets and markets both old and new no scent of that ancient fragrance which envelops many cities penetrated our nostrils. The manifestations of modernity were prevalent, except in a number of places including the ancient markets like the Dhalam (Darkness) Market, which until a few years ago used to close its gates as soon as the sunlight disappeared. Its covered roof, which is still the same up to now, was sufficient to keep out any outside light. But when we entered it at one o clock in the afternoon, passing through its long, narrow alley with its even narrower side lanes, we noticed that light from electric bulbs was widespread everywhere. Even the darkness was no longer dark. The market, which used to close its gates after the daily departure of the sun, continues to receive its customers up to a later time.

We saw three modern public markets in Benghazi contained in building complexes, each 25,000 square metres in area and five air-conditioned floors high with electric elevators. Nevertheless, the Dhalam Market, which preserves its name to this day although it is no longer accurate, still has its regular customers who are attracted by its wares, which are notable for their reasonable prices. One thing noticeable in Libya is that important advantage. There are no excessive prices for either goods or services. And the inhabitants of Benghazi were not content with one Dhalam Market, but established another more modern one.

Golden Apples

Benghazi, which used to be known in mythology as the Orchard of Golden Apples after the earth gave it to the goddess Hera on the occasion of her marriage to the chief of the gods Zeus, has been known through its history by various names. These include Iosperides, as one of the first ancient Greek cities before its name was changed in the age of Ptolemy to Bernice, after Ptolemy s third marriage, to a princess of the country at that time, Bernice the daughter of Majas and heiress to his throne. Her son later murdered her. The city became Berniq in the Islamic period, until it was named Benghazi from the fifteenth century AD onwards, after the tomb of a Sheikh who was buried there.

The history of Benghazi with Islam began in 642 AD, when Amr Ibn Al-Aas led the armies of the Islamic conquest to Libya. He adopted the city of Barki as his capital, after changing its name to Barqa. He gave this name to the province, which had previously been known as Cyrenaica after the city of Cyrene. The history of that city was intermittent and many of its events disappear through long unknown years, until about 400 years after the Islamic conquest the city witnessed the migrations of Bani Hilal and Bani Sulaym, and it is described as having faded away. Then another 400 years of historical events for the city were lost, and after that it was recorded that the name of Ibn Ghazi first was used in 1450 AD. According to some accounts he was a man who led a number of merchants who came from the towns of Misrata, Tajura, Zulaiten and Mislata, and went to Benghazi which was called Ibn Ghazi and then Bani Ghazi which it is called now.

As soon as the Turks occupied Cairo and then Tripoli in 1517 AD, they brought Benghazi under their control. But the submission of the province known as Barqa to Turkish rule was only completed a century later when the asha of Tripoli Muhammad Al-Safizli sent his deputy Othman Bey in 1638 to occupy that province and build a Turkish castle in the city of Benghazi, which later became the headquarters of a Turkish garrisn. Following that the Turks built three other castles in the same style as Benghazi Castle in Derna, Qaiqab and Al-Marj. These castles have become ruins except Qaiqab, which at the present time has been converted into a museum. The Turks later chose the city of Benghazi as an administrative capital for the Barqa region.

A strange event similar to the massacre of the Citadel in Egypt was related by the Genoan traveler Paolo Dellacelli, who visited Benghazi accompanying the army of the Pasha of Tripoli in his campaign against Barqa. He described the massacre of the Jawazi tribe which was committed by the Bey of Benghazi in retaliation for a rebellion which broke out against the rule of the Karamanli, after he claimed to have made a truce with that tribe. He invited 45 of its notables and Sheikhs to Benghazi Castle to honor them by giving them red cloaks. The whole tribe had positioned itself outside the city, while their notables entered and tables were laid out for them. But as soon as they were seated at them, the Bey's personal guard attacked them and slaughtered all of them without exception, while the members of the tribe were attacked and large numbers of their women and children were slaughtered.

The Duck Bridge

The Jarid Market was no more than two metres wide, although a long street cuts across it, so that it looks as if it were endless. The traditional wares which were crammed together on each side of it would make its width even more cramped. Clothes, popular fabrics, foodstuffs and shops with handlooms inside them to manufacture textiles for brides, Arab and African vendors displaying their wares and calling out to passers-by, Everything for a dinar .

This market gained its name from its roof made of jarid (palm branches), before it was removed and replaced with iron sheets.

We emerged from that overcrowding, but it led us to a small market where leatherwork was sold and manufactured, but the rain at the end of summer was lying in wait for us. But our annoyance at those showers, which prevented us from photographing the place for some time, vanished with the happy expressions of the Libyans and their congratulations on the blessing of rainfall.

We discovered the benefits of the rain after that when we went out from the cramped space of the ancient places to the streets of the city, which the rain falling from the clouds had washed. With the reflection of the rays of the sun, the rain gave its roads a beautiful glitter. We then went along Gamal Abdul Nasser Street, the longest street in the city which extends from north to south. In it we noticed a building of striking appearance, the Studies and Research Center for the Green Book. On one of its walls was a massive, tall picture of Abdul Nasser delivering his famous speech in the sports stadium in which he bestowed the title of the Guardian of Arab Nationalism on Colonel Qadhafi.

The car turned to go up over the African Bridge, which the inhabitants of Benghazi call "the Duck Bridge , because fat women have a habit of walking on it in an attempt to reduce their weight. From there we went into a restaurant to eat bazin, which is rather similar to porridge, and couscous, the most famous local dish in North Africa. There are also other kinds of food. There are also other porridge-like foods, like osban, which is made of sheep s intestines stuffed with rice and liver, and masir, which spiced foods to accompany the main dish. We listen to the regular customers of the restaurant exchanging the words bahi, which means fine , and yasir, which means plenty , the equivalent of barsha in Tunisia.

The Enchanting Sunset

Nothing in Benghazi is more beautiful than the view of the sunset there, when the golden threads of the late afternoon are reflected on the waters of its clear sea. One can find no more wonderful sight.

Thus we took advantage of marvelous moments and went near to that golden canvas when we were returning with our companions from Bou Dazira resort to the Tibatsi Hotel where we were staying. The car turned to go over the Martyr Muhammad Jamal Al-Durra Bridge, so that we could see that sight from afar reflected on the water, while on the other side of it rose hotels of shapes and kinds which also looked as if they had been drawn with precision and their location chosen carefully next to the water, so that together they are parts of a picture of an enchanting city.

Before arriving at our destination we passed by the Aouzou Hotel and then an obelisk to commemorate the battle of Jilyana. The road took us near to the fine building of the Islamic Propagation Center, with its gradated open spaces.

Women Judges and Pilots

We were in fact astonished to learn that there are Libyan women judges, indeed women pilots too. Ruqaya Al-Ubaidi, for example, was the first woman judge in Libya. Since that lady opened the door, which had been closed to those like her, her country has come to have several women judges.

The women pilots include Aisha Qamou from the city of Zulaiten. She piloted the aircraft which took Libyan pilgrims to the Holy Land in 2000.

In addition, Libya has hundreds of women lawyers, doctors, engineers and media employees. It also has dozens of young women who carry out the most arduous military tasks, including parachute jumps. There are also some who have reached high rank in the army and the internal security forces, and who have become combat officers in missile and artillery units.

When we were in Libya, there was a new experiment that women were carrying out, that of the Assistant Directors. Every Secretary-General (Director-General) in any government service department had a woman deputy. In the system of people s government which Libya has adopted, the Secretary of a General Popular Committee in the Jamahiriya is a lady. This was the case with the Secretary of the General Committee for (Minister) Culture and Information. This portfolio was occupied until recently by Mrs. Fawzia Al-Shalabi. There is also the position of Secretary of the Popular Committee for Education of the General People s Congress, Fatima Abdulhafiz. In addition, there is also a lady, Salmin Al-Uraibi, who has occupied the position of Assistant Secretary-General of the General People s Congress (the equivalent of Deputy Speaker of Parliament). And there is another lady, Dr. Salma Abduljabbar, whose job at present is Assistant Secretary of the General People s Congress for Social Affairs.

An Attempt to Understand

The so far unique experiment of the Jamahiriya deserves study in depth in an attempt to understand it, after that remained extremely difficult. The many terms whose meaning we did not understand was an obstacle to any attempt to get to know it. But our visit to Libya, and then our travels around its many cities, going for uncountable numbers of kilometres in its expansive territories in all directions, motivated us to try to absorb what is going on. This is particularly so since everyone speaks the same language. Most of them are officials, and they repeat statements that are extremely enthusiastic about the experiment. But whatever the opinions of others about it, it is an experiment that has continued to rule a country from 1977 to the present time. And whatever its results, its achievements or its failures, it must be understood (and I do not mean evaluated).

Since we arrived at Tripoli International Airport, slogans written on green-colored notice boards indicated that "Power, Wealth and Weapons Are in the Hands of the People and "No Democracy without People s Congresses . When the simple measures at the airport were completed, which proceeded with a noticeable flexibility, we left, and all along the road which extended until it brought us to the Grand Hotel in the capital, fixed notice boards carried expressions which we noticed were repeated in most places which we visited after that: The Fatih (the first of September, anniversary of the Libyan revolution) Forever", The Committees in Every Place", "Borders Are a Colonialist Lie", and then: The Law of Society: Religion or Custom .

I was eager to write down whatever I could from some of these slogans in a small notebook which is usually my travel companion. But press interviews and meetings we had with officials, writers, artists and media people, in which some of these slogans continued to be repeated, were also long conversations about this experiment which Libya is implementing on its own, and is still as enthusiastic about implementing it. Although more than a quarter of a century of it has passed, the Libyan song is still a solo in the wide open space.

Our journey continued, and the notice boards stretched out in front of us, so that there was hardly a major road running through that expansive country without new modifications to expressions taken from the Green Book or sayings of Colonel Qadhafi. Every expression is always written on a green background. Ignorance Ends when the Truth Appears , is from Chapter Three of the Green Book. Also from it: Alcohol and Drugs are Weapons of Mass Destruction, Hashish Is one of the Bacteriological and Chemical Weapons and the Atomic Bomb. Whoever takes them is like someone who takes a weapon from the enemy and explodes it in his country. Then the Land is not Anyone s Property and Wage Earners Are a Kind of Slave , and not last, Democracy is Popular Rule, not Popular Expression . Thus the slogans are numerous and widespread in every place. This reminds one of Arab experiments that continued to adopt this method for many years, but at the same time it also poses a question about the extent to which these slogans can survive in a changing time like the one in which the world is living at present. I did not have to wait long. When I asked about the purpose of the slogan the house belongs to the person who lives in it , the reply was that a short while ago people were allowed to own premises for the first time. Ownership had been forbidden, as the state had been the owner of all buildings.

Without going into details, what is called the Jamahiri System in Libya consists of basic people s congresses which have the power to promulgate laws and decisions in all internal and external political fields. Membership of them is open to everyone, male and female, who has reached the age of 18. They hold two sessions a year. However, their decisions and laws only come into force after they have been drafted in a standardized way and read out before the General People s Congress, namely the parliament. In this congress the secretaries of the basic people s congresses, the popular committees, the trade unions, professional associations and leagues meet. It has wide powers, including the drafting of laws and questioning secretaries and members of secretariats and dismissing them from their jobs. The Jamahiri System also includes the popular committees which manage the various sectors and public organizations, establishments and companies.

The philosophy of this Jamahiri System is based on regarding the people as the sole source of legitimacy and the instrument to rule themselves by themselves without an intermediary, proxy or representation. This authority is the sole instrument of rule, which it exercises through its basic congresses, popular committees and professional organizations, so that all the Libyan people, according to their place of residence, become members of the basic people's congresses, and every people s congress chooses its leadership committee.

Representation is Trickery

I may have been preoccupied with those expressions which I frequently saw in hotels, government establishments, markets and public squares. When we received an invitation to dinner at the marvelous beach club in Tripoli from the Secretary-General of the Libyan Musicians Association Jamal Al-Lafi and the famous musician Khadouja Sabri who works in the position (job, as the Libyans prefer) of Assistant Secretary-General of the Association, I asked about the meaning of the expression "Representation is Trickery" which is raised as a slogan. What is meant is political representation, Al-Lafi emphasized, and the meaning is that each individual must represent himself, no one else can deputize for him. I said let us keep away from politics and stay with the arts. He said that Libya has nine festivals of different kinds, local, Arab and international, every year. There is a festival of music and singing which is local and Arab, and a festival of plastic and visual arts, as well as an international festival of folk arts. Then there is a festival of African theater, and so forth.

The map of the arts in Libya, incidentally, is not of the masses in the sense that it contains no professionalism. Libyan theater is the most widespread, and then folk arts. But Libyan cinema has little production, since the Khayyala Company normally produces one film every three years. Short and long narrative Libyan films take part in all the festivals. Among the prizes they have won is one from the North Korean festival in 1996 for the film A Little Girl s Dreams, and before that a prize at the Carthage Festival in 1994 for the film The Tune of the Rain, directed by Abdullah Zard.

While there are Libyan women film directors in cinema and television like Kariman Jabr, Souaf Al-Haddad, Haniya Rahim and Souad Jihani, Khadouja Sabri, who was honored a few years ago in the Cairo Radio and Television Festival and who is called the Butterfly of Art in Libya, is a comprehensive actress who worked for 19 years in the theater before shifting to television and cinema drama. She emphasized to us that the view of art is different among the families of Libyan artists. After working in this acting used to be strictly forbidden, the prohibition has changed to encouragement.

The Pigeon s Nest

I was astonished when the well-known Libyan artist fathi Al-Uraibi invited us to his superb recreational house. Before visiting him I had occasionally visited his web site on the Internet, which he called the Pigeon s Nest . This name sprang immediately into my mind when I saw this large number of canvases that he had painted of pigeons. He had decorated the entrance of his home and his stairs going up to an entire floor which was devoted to his art and his library. These were surrounded by elevated nests made with precision and beauty for pigeons of beautiful colors which stood pecking at their grains and looking at the strangers who had come.

I asked him about the dedication of this passion for pigeons. He smiled before answering, Every artist has a specific symbol or badge, but I have a story with pigeons which began since childhood, so that pigeons have become my favorite artistic aim.

But Fathi Al-Uraibi does not content himself with painting pictures. He has a collection of hobbies based on this art, including painting and music, but he considers himself a lover of illustration, not a professional painter of pictures. Although he has won several Arab and international prizes as well as great honor in his own country, Al-Uraibi continued to repeat in front of us that he is in urgent need of another 60 years in order to learn the art of illustration. But the whole length and breadth of Libya is crammed full of artists in most fields of creativity. In terms of the art of drawing, they frequently tell their visitors about an international cartoonist called Muhammad Al-Zawawi, who hides from the spotlight because he is extremely shy and uninterested in advertising himself. And they mention the former President of the Arab Musical Academy Hasan Al-Uraibi, and the three Alis , namely Ali Al-Ababi, Ali Al-Muntasir and Ali Al-Zuwaik. The three are great plastic artists who had recently taken part when we made our tour of Libya in a famous international exhibition.

But even stranger than that, in spite of this great abundance of plastic artists in that country, whom an official from an agency specializing in the plastic arts estimated to be 800 in number, the acquisition of canvases in Libya is extremely rare. At the same time, the almost symbolic price of canvases in Libya makes it possible to reproduce many of them and sell them to the public.


Libya remains mysterious in our memory, but it is a mystery which continues to arouse questions, motivating us to look for what can penetrate these ??? and not consent to their tricks ???. And when we tried, another more magical, more beautiful Libya appeared to us, and astonishing worlds revealed themselves before us contained in that Arab country so wonderful in its mystery and astonishing in its manifestation, as if we were carried away by the joy of discovery. After this visit, maybe we are still like that.


Zakaria Abduljawad


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