Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tripoli Expressions

I’ve been out and about a lot this week, and I’ve been focusing on the bits of Tripoli I see speeding past my window as we drive our compound to one ministry or another.  Fascinatingly and heartbreakingly, graffiti serves as a public memory and shared memorial to those who died in the revolution.  Every side street turning off the main road has been renamed in spray paint after a martyr – Zintan Martyrs Street, Martyrs of the Hawamid Family Street, Liberation Day Martyrs Street.  Some families have put up banners or posters to memorialize their loved ones: yesterday I saw a poster for a family that had lost four brothers on the day that Tripoli was liberated, on 21 August.  There was an image of each brother on the poster, looking for all the world like a high school yearbook photo. 

Almost every trip passes by one side or another of the former Gadhafi compound, located in the center of the city.  Apparently after Gadhafi fled Tripoli in August, the walls of the compound were still intact around the buildings destroyed by the NATO bombing campaign.  I’ve seen the photos of people celebrating as they picked through the rubble, amazed that they could go inside the barracks with impunity.  The concrete walls around the site have all been knocked over, though most are still intact – it looks like they were just pushed over because people needed to demonstrate to themselves and to the world that Gadhafi was gone.  You can still read the graffiti sprayed on these walls, which are tipped at odd angles and only now starting to be papered over with advertisements for baby formula, Tripoli University, or a new political party.  “We will never forget the martyrs of Misrata.”  “God is great.”  “Free Libya, united Libya.”  “The revolutionaries of Benghazi.”  “17 February.”  “17 February.”  “17 February.”  Over the walls, in some places you can still see the remnants of hangars, all bearing large holes in the centers. 

Libyans still seem to need to prove to themselves that Gadhafi is gone.  Some license plates bear a sticker of the new flag, a small map of Libya, or even an ugly dot of spray paint in the upper right corner.  It took me a few days to figure it out: new license plates have the name ليبيا  or “Libya” in Arabic, indicating the country in which the car is registered.  Older plates, on the other hand, say الجماهيرية or “al Jamahiriyyah,” which is the Gadhafi-era made-up word that loosely translates to “republic of the masses.”  It’s meaningless, except in the context of Gadhafi’s insane political theories, so people are physically obstructing the word until they get new plates without this relic.  The Central Bank has not yet designed new currency, so paper bills still carry pictures of Gadhafi, some denominations more prominent than others.  Apparently, in many shops the cashiers will methodically take a Sharpie to Gadhafi’s face on every single bill before handing back a customer’s change.

Public catharsis, or the hangover of a four-decade dictatorship?  It’s hard to say, and I’m not sure it’s not a little of both.