“These be the Libyan tribes whereof I am able to give the names; and most of these cared little then, and indeed care little now, for the king of the Medes.” Herodotus from The Histories, c. 430 BCE
In dreams, I felt the city of my birth and the country of my people calling. During sleep, I recognised their faces, heard their voices and walked into their homes again. And upon awaking, I had the taste of their almond baklava and red mint tea on my tongue and lips. But above all else, I knew the awesome Moon and stars that only in Libya loom as large; dazzling like bright crystals in the silence of its midnight skies.
For over two decades, I had been deprived of my Nana’s bosom and the warmth of her body. She was the one who taught me my Arabic language and filled my imagination with fantastic tales of her world now gone and lost. For her, I would have crossed back more oceans to put my weary head on her generous lap and have her stroke my hair and braid it for one last time. But I would now only be visiting her resting place and that of my father’s. No more tales and no more braids.
Many a time she had said to me: “History cannot ever stand still for long. This precious land has seen many days of conflict, confusion and foreign occupation. But in a world where the young blood of martyrs has been shed on fine white sand and where justice has been held hostage – it will be the prayers of their bones and dead bodies that will bring it to an end.”
Despite the political turmoil in the background that very few people would openly speak about, the country of my departure was a wonderful place etched on my childish heart and young mind forever. Mostly, I remember the feel of the burning sun and salt on my skin and back, during those Summer days when my father would take us to the virgin beaches of Tripoli. With pain at times, I imagine the exact place where we swam and where my siblings and I fought over the Mediterranean waves and collected the prettiest of shells along the front that stretched for miles on end.
I can also hear the noise of cousins on the swings and in the tree house at my Uncle Mustafa’s villa - how we used to climb the olive groves, pick and get heady on the yellow berries, drink in the sweetest of the reddest watermelons and get messy with the juicy oranges. My Nana’s grapes also never failed to seduce us into walking over the wooden planks to have her shout and scream at us, every time, to get down. Then there was always the scent of jasmine and orange blossom in her bedroom and on the veranda where she would welcome her guests for tea and biscuits just before sunset.
It was on Halloween’s Day in Houston, Texas 1984 that we got off the aeroplane. After settling in at a hotel and still very excited, my father wanted to take us downtown to the Galleria for what he said would be an extraordinary surprise. Immediately and everywhere we looked, there were boys, girls, men and women wearing freakish outfits and strange masks. They then came towards us with large plastic pumpkins asking for something that I didn’t understand which terrified me and I hid behind my mother and started to cry.
My father then laughed out loud and tried to explain that we were now in the country of the free; where dreams are possibilities to realise without any limits except that of respecting peoples’ rights. He promised that soon we would eat doughnuts with rich fillings, have pancakes with maple syrup, try out the banana-splits at Baskin Robbins and order quick burgers with hidden toys. His personal favourite pastime was to also attend American football games with fast quarterbacks, acrobatic cheerleaders and funny mascots; and to watch a film in our car at the open-air cinema whilst munching on the buttery popcorn. In fact, I had never seen my father in such great spirits before.
We had then traded our home for another thousands of miles away in the space of a few days. We left our people – the relatives, friends and neighbours - and in the West we invested our future. As he was the scientist, we trusted his decision. We just had to quickly find a house to live in, for him to start a job to pay our bills and for us, the children, to learn the language and join a new school.
As a girl of nine years, I had to deal with the first shock of seeing young American girls having boyfriends, wearing make-up, shaving their legs and washing naked in the common bathroom. I was shy, very embarrassed and felt that I had to dress in my swimming costume to shower. They looked at me funny as if I were an alien from a far away planet. They just couldn’t understand my modesty back then and why I had to cover and hide my adolescent body.
But then the years passed and I came to accept and enjoy our new way of life. As a family, we also kept on travelling to various places in America and Europe; until in the end, we found ourselves in London. I now truly cherished the liberal stance of the West and came to learn and admire the wonderful English language.
I also made new friends wherever we were; and as a teenager, I played on the volleyball team and acted in the high-school drama. I even celebrated my eighteenth birthday in a big way and attended the all-American graduation and prom; for which I had painstakingly chosen an outfit that would flatter my cleavage and show off my smooth legs.
Then came the years of my full-blown rebellion that challenged my parents’ patience, wit and understanding no end. I gave them a hard time. And, after reading the works of Jean Paul Sartre, Freud, C J Jung and Dostoevsky, I would speak to them in an existential philosophical manner they didn't quite comprehend.
During all this time, Libya and I had been separated a while. I guess that it had become a distant memory closeted in the archives of the past and in my childhood. I knew somewhere deep inside that the gulf between us had loomed large but I wasn’t ready for what was to come.
Arriving at the airport in Tripoli, July 2003 it was in the same state it had been over twenty years ago; just more obviously worn out and with added debris, chaos and mess. Police officers looked threatening and were scrutinising everyone - making the atmosphere very uncomfortable and nerve wrecking. Once the long ordeal of going through passport control and collecting our luggage, we were greeted by a nominated cousin who would drive us out across the highway towards my Uncle’s house.
It all felt rather surreal and forlorn to me. There were no road markings, no signs for directions and no light signals on the road. My cousin explained that it was because of the American attack that the government had put down all the placards for security reasons. So all that remained was red desert sand on either side with rubbish and odd objects thrown about. Needless to say, the weather was very humid with the heat of 40+ degrees unbearable.
After an hour of driving in the car and all wet from the journey, we finally arrived at my Uncle’s villa for the welcome surprise. At the entrance, there may have been over thirty people and children waiting; all curious to know who the special guests were and why they had come back. Some of the neighbours and street vendors also gathered outside to find out what the big commotion was all about.
To be honest, I didn’t recognise most of their faces. I could just about make out my uncles and aunts and the few cousins that I had been close to as a child. But before we could even speak, everyone came rushing towards us kissing our cheeks; with sweaty handshakes, large bear hugs and pats on the back. This was all so jolly and fun until I realised that, in fact, many of them were not just excited to see me, but had hurt accusations in their eyes. Words would not have sufficed because in silent but very angry stares I heard them ask:
“Where were you when we had to bake our own bread? When we didn’t have even water to feed our soil and grow our plants? Where were you when we were bombarded and our country was taken off the maps? Where were you when our voices were silenced for fear of reprisal and getting caught? And where were you when we were robbed of our possessions? And when family members were turned against each other to spy and tell?”
To this of course, I didn’t know how to respond and whether or not I had to defend myself. It felt embarrassing. Did I even have the right to be here and expect their affections after all the years that had gone by? Perhaps naively, I had expected everything to be the same as I had left it and that this trip would be about celebrating the best of my past. But everything was visibly and profoundly different - though the hospitality was fully laid out.
Everyone soon gathered in the spacious lounge for lunch. The children were set to eat together, the elders were grouped according to age and status and the women had their own lowered table. The couscous came and the meat, the salads and the drinks. We ate in communal fashion and as is custom, the hostess cut the meat with her bare hands and offered it to us. Then when our bellies were full, everybody began to talk about the day’s events, the politics of the Middle East and gossip about who got married and who had just died.
But on all the minds and lips were the enquiries about my life in the West that after the couscous was finished and the last grain cleaned, they couldn’t hold any longer. All at once, I was fired at with questions. About England they wondered:
“Have you ever shook hands with the Queen - we hear she goes out in public? Is it true that Princess Diana was killed by the MI5 because she was going to convert to Islam? How do the women dress in London and what is the latest fashion? Isn’t it amazing that when the British Prime Minister has to leave office he returns to a normal life without further ado? Is it true that the English are tidy and organised and put their kids to sleep early?”
And about America: “Is it true that Clinton slept with a Jewish girl? You know in our country we would never be able to put the President on trial. Is it true that couples live together and have children without marriage? How bizarre, we also hear that homosexuals can have children and commit to civil partnerships! How about test-tube babies and donor sperm? And, is America really as big as they say? Why do they bother with us? No matter what they say, we know they just envy our oil and want to control the Middle East. God, what a sorry state the Arabs are in.”
And on and on, they kept talking, asking questions and answering themselves in jovial fashion; gesticulating to express emotions and faces showing surprise. The outrageous jokes then followed and the laughter became infectious. The boys were winking at me and the girls were stroking my face and hands.
It occurred to me then, that I was more of an oddity and a novelty to them now rather than anything else. It was clear that they had decided I was no longer one of them. Instead, I had become a part of “the other”, “the foreigner” in my own homeland. Although my original plan was to stay for a month, I realised that there wasn’t much point in outstaying my welcome. So I changed my ticket to return in a week’s time.
But before leaving, I needed to book a date with memory lane and see for myself the changes made to the old parts of Tripoli. Alone, I visited the souk where my grandfather used to work as a tailor for over forty years; until he was forced to shut down when the government didn’t believe in private enterprise back in the 1980s. Fortunately, the stores were now reopened and the national arts and crafts were on sale. I was glad to see the beautiful woollen carpets traditionally woven in brown and cream, the yellow gold jewellery made for brides and the colourful ceramics from Gharyan.
Then I took a stroll and found myself in the Islamic courtyards of the old medina. Although they had been cleaned, their fountains were not yet flowing as originally intended. The mosques however were a treasure and for the very first time in years, I covered my head, knocked on the door, entered, did my ablutions and prayed.
Then I went to the great Red Castle not far from the Green Square and a few minutes to the harbour. I wanted to watch the fishermen come in at sunrise and selling their catch of the day. This was the Tripoli I remembered best and although renovations had become the order of the day, for me it lay with the touch of ghosts and shadows everywhere.
All of this forced me to ask myself the questions that I have been avoiding for years: If the place of my birth, parents and fore-relatives no longer feels like home and in fact doesn’t exist anymore except in my mind, then where do I belong? What shapes my identity? Who are my new neighbours, relatives and friends? On which soil will I die and who will bless me then? Am I scared of being on this quicksand? Or do I even have a choice in claiming a new territory?
After delving deep within, I am still not fully certain. But at least in the meantime, I can celebrate being this strange cocktail of East and West; and hopefully, becoming a perfect bridge between them. My residence and address are now based in my heart and my borders are the limits of my skills and knowledge. My roots will always be in my darling Libya but my branches, leaves and flower can only grow with the water and temperament of the European climate. I have arrived at last in a place I can call my own.