Posts Tagged With: Tunisia

Discovering the “Other” : an interfaith forum breaks down stereotypes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

For the second consecutive year, the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) was held in the German capital, Berlin, with a particular presence of countries such as the US, Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, Tunisia, Morocco and Germany making up the largest delegations representing young people from civil society, academia, and the arts and culture fields.

Since its inception in 2009, the non profit organization has been running thanks to the generous support of international figures such as former US president, Bill Clinton, German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr.Frank-Walter Steinmeier; Dr. Mustafa Cerić, Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, , Moroccan king advisor, Andrey Azoulay, among others who lent their support to the conference.

The leitmotiv of “promoting interfaith dialogue” in the face of the challenges of “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” was a recurrent theme for this year’s edition of the Austrian non-profit organization, founded seven years ago by Ilja Sichrovsky.

With some 142 participants from over 30 countries during the 7th edition of the interfaith meeting of Muslims and Jews from across the world, that took place between the 7th and 14th of August. This year, they were also joined by unaffiliated people from the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist faiths as well as agnostics and atheists.

Headquartered in the Austrian capital, Vienna, its founder, Ilja Sichrovsky, an Austrian Jew, MJC represented for him a dream to bridge the gap between two faiths, communities, nations that have come at odds with each other especially since the beginning of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the early 20th century.

Through interactive sessions of introductions to Islam and Judaism interfaith, intra-faith discussions, panel on Israel and Palestine (with vivid stories of a Palestinian and an Israeli suffering and pain of loss of loved ones), memorial visit to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Juma’ah and Shabbat prayers (with interfaith celebrations of Tisha Be’av), including visits to a Berlin Synagogue, the conference brought together communities through diverse activities and knit-close interactions with one another.

Despite its focus on Muslims and Jews represented during the conference, other non-affiliated groups, belonging to other religious groups, including from different Christian denominations, Buddhists, Hindus and non religious including agnostics and atheists have attended the conference, which prompted some to question the “appropriateness” of the term « Muslim-Jewish » as a title for the conference.

The Muslim Jewish Conference has become the mecca for Jewish and Muslim young people from around the world, from different communities, racial, social, political and secual backgrounds, making it more diverse than the strict division of such communities.  With rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism across the world, participants were able to share their different experiences, often painful ones of racism for simply being a Jew or a Muslim.

Muslim-Jewish Conference, « a second home » :

“Building a safe space without a (hidden) agenda” is the motto that Ilja Sichrovsky, founder and Secretary General of MJC, keeps repeating when describing the rationale behind the establishment of the Muslim Jewish Conference.  In this conference, the aim was that “people agree to disagree”, stressed Sichrovsky.

With activities such as breaking stereotypes in a brutal yet funny way to debunk certain myths about different religious groups made participants feel comfortable with one another, the feeling of hostility slowly dissipating with such an ice breaker, getting to know about each other.

“MJC to me is a second home and the place I maybe feel most comfortable at,” said Yedidya Paris, a 31-year old Israeli participant from Tel Aviv, while highlighting the conference participants as being like a family members for him. In a world that is plagued with xenophobia and hostility towards anyone who is different, MJC helped him sharpen his curiosity about Muslim people, and getting to appreciate them.

This unique experience of being immersed in a week “full of inspiring conversations” where taboos in discussions are broken, including religion, identities and diving deep into personal stories, and challenges of life in general of being a Jew or Muslim in their different identity manifestations.

From « Us and Them » to « United Despite Differences » : empathy in joy and pain :

The MJC provided a unique opportunity for participants to attempt at “humanizing, empathizing and talking” to and with the “Other”, by putting a face to what one considers as « the enemy », was the sacred mission behind the forum.

Maroua Charkaoui, a 23 year-old Moroccan student, who is attending the conference for the second time (the first one being in 2015), credits the conference an experience for enabling her to open up to other cultures and respect of the « Other » « whom we only used to hear about or hear some of their views in media, talking face to face and discussing issues and coming up with solutions together, » she explained her work with her committee on power, religion and human rights.

In Berlin, the interfaith initiative of « Salam-Shalom Initiative », run by two young Germans : Anja Nana Saleh a Muslim and a Jew, Armin Langer, provided a free space for both communities to interact without fear. The “Salaam-Shalom Initiative » was featured during the conference, with founders presenting their case during an interactive workshop, where they showcased in a video project of some of their interfaith and intercultural activities in Berlin in particular as well as across Germany, helping ease the tensions between communities with regards to rising Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism, anti-refugee sentiment, Far Right threats and the effect of the conflict in the Middle East on Muslim-Jewish relations, building channels of understanding and meeting between them.

Sharing stories of pain and suffering, empathizing with the « Other » :

 

Some of the highlights of the conference included the emotional visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp memorial in Orianenburg (an hour drive from Berlin) where the participants were overwhelmed by feelings of pain and sadness at the level of human atrocities, especially for those who were visiting the place for the first time, while listening to the guide’s accounts of the atrocities committed on Jewish prisoners.

The experience was culminated by a communal readings from the Torah and the Quran for the blessing of the souls of those who perished in the camp. Muslim and Jewish participants were joined in the same feeling of pain and suffering, comforting one another during the emotional rememberance ceremony at Sachsenhausen, where 200 Muslims were also murdered during its 9-year activity as a Nazi concentration camp (1936-1945).

Muslim and Jewish participants also joined together during Jumuah paryers (with mixed congregations), the celebration of Tisha Be’Av and its spiritual meaning to reconnect with one’s history of pain, memory of suffering of exile and « the return to the land of Israel as the final deliverance ».

Co-existence against all odds :

But behind the “rosy” picture of interfaith dialogue lies beneath its murky surface the taboo, the almost exclusively unique subject of contention between Muslims and Jews, an eternal conflict that engulfed the whole Middle East in the vicious circle of violence, hatred, boycott and occupation ; « conflict », a term Yedidya Paris, and Boaz Morag Wolmark, 31, both from Tel Aviv, find quite “unsettling” for its “being one-sided” account of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the emphasis on discussing the occupation, rather than the conflict, which is “only a result of the century old conflict”, according to Paris.

As a matter of fact, the discussion of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict is usually reduced to the question of the occupation, according to Paris, thus becoming the elephant in the room of a much more complex reality on the ground. His opinion was shared by his committee fellow Wolmark, asserting the difficulty of engaging in an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Jews “without getting to the main clash between the two religions – the conflict,” regretting that the discussion was one sided, with “Israel is occupying the West Bank and a Palestinian State should be established”, without expressing different opinions which many in the Israeli public hold (and even some Palestinians), according to him.

“Such an approach is counter-productive and its consequences are two-fold:, not addressing the core problem,which is the actual conflict between the two sides and, not acknowledging the Israeli narrative of the conflict, resulting in Jews being on the defensive”, explains Paris.

The passion stemming from some of the participants at MJC when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands in stark contrast to the taciturn, composed attitude of Wolmark, whose dispassionate depiction of the conflict and the history of the conflict as well as the establishment of the state of Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust gives a whole new perspective to a narrative that is “not taught in school”, he confesses.

Throughout the conference, the Berlin hotel witnessed up all night heated debates between Palestinian and Israeli participants to the curiosity of the other participants, while being confused, at the level of anger and frustration from both sides, with no doublespeak, just “dughri” in the words of Wolmark, all the time playing down the seriousness of the violence that could be felt from their heated discussions.

“As an Israeli (and Middle Eastern) we tend to say things as they are, sometimes even in your face : “dughri”, an Arabic word also used in Israel that says straight up things as they are, », Wolmark contended, adding that he enjoyed debating with Palestinians « talking about everything and everything.”, regretting that many participants were too polite to speak up their minds.

Wolmark’s feeling of frustration was that there was not enough “safe space” for him and like-minded self-identified Zionist Israelis, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which oftentimes is compounded, confused with the Arab-Israeli conflict, inextricably linked to a century long history of wars, displacement, occupation, terrorism, frustration and hopelessness ; to such an extent the protracted conflict does not need an event such as the Muslim-Jewish conference or any other inter-faith dialogue events to alleviate the pains of Palestinians, as one Palestinian participant from Gaza stated. This latter has been attending the conference for the fourth time and felt nothing has changed in the region.

He spoke bitterly about his inability to visit his family in blockaded Gaza -while living in Europe- for the last five years, yet he managed to discuss with one Israeli participant issues, such as BDS (Boycott Divestment, Sanctions), while differing on its effectiveness to end the conflict.

His frustration was echoed by another Palestinian participant from Jerusalem, whose stance on occupation was as strong as his yearning for more fair and equal treatment as his fellow Jewish neighbors, before even thinking about the two-state solution as an end to the conflict. “That is all I am asking for equality and justice”, he reiterated.

Art as a message of reconciliation and hope :

When interfaith dialogue brings arts to the core of the discussion, it succeeds in making room for more creative ideas to share. With some artists from as far as Israel, the US, Tunisia, and Brazil, participants showcased their different artistic talents from musicians, to photographers and singers.

Youssef Ben Soltane, a 29-year old Tunisian dentist living in Paris, a wine educator ; also a passionate oenologist, and a worldly artist, who enjoys life and traveled throughout Europe was a participant in the arts and culture committee.

Recounting his experience of « belonging to several communities rather than one » is what led Ben Soltane to become involved in different types of projects, including voluneering work as a dentist providing oral health outreach in remote areas of Tunisia, fundraising for many charity projects benefiting schools and disadvantaged communities in Tunisia.

Whilst living abroad, he got involved in an interfaith art performance with Jewish artists in Budapest where he lived in the Jewish neighborhood of the Hunagrian capital, made many Jewish friends and « felt welcomed in their community, despite the moments where people reacted negatively to the fact that I was an Arab », he explained.

With similar upbeat feelings about intercultural and interfaith dialogue to Ben Soltane, Charkaoui stronlgly believes that such a dialogue is more than ever before necessary for peace and mutual understanding, by sitting down and discussing religion and other issues freely.

Youssef Ben Soltane’s performance of Leonard Cohen’s « Hallelujah » in Hebrew during the Muslim Jewish Conference 2016 in Berlin.

What Next ?

While the MJC forum seems quite a utopia for some, a dream for others for a better world, it managed to open up free spaces for debate with no fear of being judged, shunned or ridiculed for being different, thinking differently. When participants went home, most expressed mixed feelings of euphoria, and perplexity, while « letting it sink in, process it » because it was overwhelming for most of them, in particular first time participants.

“It is one week where you don’t stop engaging in conversation without hearing the words – Game of Thrones or Pokemon Go,” joked Paris.

 

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Prayer at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Germany) @Daniel Shaked Photography https://www.facebook.com/MJConference/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10153503387991324

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Salaam-Shalom Project founders with MJC members. @Daniel Shaked Photography https://www.facebook.com/MJConference/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10153503387991324

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Categories: dialogue, interfaith, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Libyan chaos lures Islamic State to establish a foothold in North Africa

While the world stood horrified at ISIL gruesome video dated 3rd February 2015 showing the killing of Jordanian pilot Muaz Al Kassassbeh being burnt alive, reactions ensued with Jordanian forces carrying out air strikes on ISIL positions in Mosul, Iraq the following day. A worldwide outrage and anger provoked at atrocities committed by IS militants in the Middle East. The Islamic State succeeded in galvanizing audiences in the Arab world to reject its brutality as “unislamic”, with Egypt’s Al Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim religious authority issuing a fatwa prohibiting the showing of the terrorist group’s videos.

But IS did not only rally the world against it, it also managed to divert the attention- albeit temporarily, quite tactical maybe- from an almost forgotten conflict in North Africa because the world was busy recovering from the extent of IS’s theatricality of macabre execution styles. Until 15th February, the group resurfaced with its release of another disturbing video purporting it was shot in the coastal town of Sirte, 450 km east of the capital Tripoli, showing 21 Coptic Egyptians in orange overalls and being led along the beach by men clad in black. They were decapitated and their blood flowing in the Mediterranean Sea added to the world’s horror at the continuous terrorist group display of savagery. In act of defiance, one of the perpetrators of the execution of the 21 Coptic Egyptian workers (who were abducted in December 2014 in Gadadfi’s hometown) vowed to “conquer Rome” and defeat the “Crusaders”, while pointing the knife towards the turned-red sea in the direction of Europe. Europe that has been mobilized for a possible IS’ attack since 2014, when the group conquered swaths of lands in Syria and Iraq and has been threatening to conquer more lands in the region.

Prior to the video, IS has carried out a successful operation in the heart of the Libyan capital Tripoli, when two suicide bombers, one Tunisian and the other Sudanese , braved security of the luxurious hotel Corinthia. The hotel is where former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan used to stay (and was abducted by local militias in October 2013). It is also where a few Western embassies and companies have based themselves. The attack killed nine people, all foreigners and was claimed by the Islamic State of Tripoli, an IS-linked group.

It remains a mystery who the members of IS in Libya are in the current chaotic atmosphere where radical groups such as Ansar Sharia and other Al Qaeda-linked groups are also thought to have either defected with IS in order to

 

Now Libya has become the next target for IS’ expansionist projects, putting the North African strife-torn country in the headlines again since summer 2014 conflict. A conflict that pitted General Khalifa Hiftar and his Dignity Operation to the Tripoli-based Libya Dawn operation, supported by a coalition of Islamist-affiliated groups and the General National Congress which has been voted out in the June elections by the current House of Representatives and its Tobruk-based parliament.

 

Out of touch, out of coverage: what’s the frequency in Libya?

 

“Finally Libya is making the headlines,” exclaimed some Libyans on social network earlier this month. The world is finally going to care about Libya, its lingering conflict, but most importantly the international community will start acting about Libya, instead of just condemning, complained others. Libya again made headlines for the same (wrong or right) reasons: Islamic State.

The beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic workers 15 February 2015 brought Libya back into the headlines and the world attention, that has been diverted since summer 2014- when the country started to disintegrate into two rival governments, parliaments, torn apart by rival militias all vying for control of this oil-rich North African nation- by events in Syria, Egypt and more recently Yemen and the Huthis’ renewed rebellion that ousted president Abed Rabbo Yasser Mansoor on January 2015.

But amid the attrition war that claimed the lives of about 2,500 Libyans for the years 2014 alone and thousands more since the ousting of Gadadfi in October 2011, saw two of its main airports, Benghazi and Tripoli, literally destroyed after heavy fighting between pro-General Hiftar forces with his Dignity Operation, allied to the House of Representatives elected in June 2014, based in eastern Libyan town of Tobruk and the Islamist loosely allied factions to the General National Congress of Libya Dawn, elected in June 2012 and is based in the capital Tripoli.

 

Mapping IS growth in Libya

 

But why has the world abandoned Libya, some commentators wondered?

Simon Speakman-Cordall, a British freelance journalist based in Tunis and currently writing a book about jihad and democratization in Tunisia, told me that in December of last year that he has been telling his fellow media people in the North America that it was worthwhile focusing on the Libyan turmoil and the unfolding events of Dignity and Libya Dawn operations that led to a dead end in the resolution of the conflict and the rise of IS, which he credits its first inception in 2012 after the assassination of US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. They gave him a cold shoulder about it.

Speakman-Cordall who attempted a few times to go to Libya to research IS but each time his visa was declined by the Libyan embassy in Tunis, he resigned himself to do his work from Tunisia. The town of Derna is the focal point of his upcoming book, where he is tracking the journey of Tunisian jihadists (radical Islamist fighters).

Indeed, the eastern Libyan town has become notorious for being the North African hub for Al Qaeda fighters since the fall of the Gadadfi regime and having become historically the safe haven for Libyan returnees Afghan war against the Soviet, Iraq war against the Americans and more recently the Syrian war against Bashar Al Assad regime in 2012. Joined by foreign fighters particularly Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Palestinians to name but a few of the other nationalities, the town made bayaa (paid allegiance) to the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi earlier this year.

The BBC has published a map of Libya describing the different locations and spots of different actors on the ground from IS to Ansar Sharia and other loosely-affiliated Islamist groups, with the most extremist with radical, “jihadist” outlook to the least extremist outfits made up of former Libyan rebels who fought the war against Gaddafi and those with tribal allegiances, the most important of which is Libya Dawn.

According to Nomane Ben Otman a counter-terrorism expert with the Quilliam Foundation, the first world-renowned center that researches extremism and radical Islam based in London, IS represents a serious threat to Libya and it is trying to establish an emirate in eastern Libya, he told CNN in November 2014.

 

This goes counter to a narrative in Libya that IS is a phenomenon that is being much exaggerated that it almost gives credit to it. Some doubted the veracity of the Sirte video, claiming that the town is IS-free, in contrast to the show of force by IS in the streets when their militants paraded last week in defiance, managed to occupy the local radio, took the university and placed snipers on the rooftops, reported a local form Sirte on his Twitter on 19 February 2015.

However, Libya Dawn claimed on a visit to Sirte last week that they found out Gaddafi loyalists among IS, which could give credit to the neighboring city of Misrata, 200 miles east of Tripoli that its militias that are instrumental in the Libya Dawn coalition that they are fighting Gaddafi loyalists and protecting the Libyan revolution from counter-revolutionary movements. Is IS part of this movement that could threaten the very existence of Libya’s third largest city? A plausible answer may lie in the recent Derna-based IS brigade, Al Battar’s warning to Misrata about interfering in its operations and that “his head would end up on the entrance of the city,” Al Battar Media Foundation, IS brigade media office stated a few days ago. Misratan militias that have been struggling to wrest control over Sirte since 2011 competing for control with Ansar Sharia and other radical Islamist groups more or less linked to Al Qaeda.

This power struggle as evidenced in the rivalry between different militias across Libya is symptomatic of the continuous fragmentation of the Libyan state. The country has become a failed state since the summer 2014 where factionalism as well as political and social void exacerbated the already deteriorating security, political and economic situation of the country. The entry of IS in this anarchic setting is a red indicator that unless national dialogue between warring factions of Libya Dawn-backed GNC and Operation-Dignity backed House of Representatives in UN-brokered peace and reconciliation talks in Geneva and Ghadames since January of this year, the conflict may linger and even deteriorate if some of those factions shift allegiances and decide to join IS as part of the power struggle logic.

 

Response to IS execution in Libya and aftermath of operations

 

When General Abdul Fattah Al-Sissi responded to the execution of the 21 Egyptian Copts by carrying out strikes in Derna in reprisal, jet fighters bombed IS training facilities and ammunition stores, a statement broadcast on Egyptian TV on 16 February 2015. The strikes caused the death of scores of civilians, including women and children.

The Derna attack outraged many Libyans, especially anti-Hiftar and the GNC as well as Derna Shura Council condemned the airstrikes and promised a harsh response against Egypt.

On 20 February 2015, a car bomb killed around 40 people, all civilians in the town of Guba, between Beida and Derna. IS claimed responsibility for the attack in reprisal to the Derna attack and that suicide bombers were involved in the attack. The GNC and House of Representatives firmly condemned the Guba massacre, along with the UN and the international community. It prompted some dialogue delegates in the UN-brokered dialogue process boycotted the round of talks which was due to start on 22 February in Morocco, but have been suspended in protest at the massacre. Seething anger in Libya grew and many Libyans especially in the east accused the UN, the UK and the US of favoring Libya Dawn and the Muslim Brotherhood, accusations that have been refuted by the US and the UK. Frustration with UN security council’s refusal to lift embargo on weapons to Libya after a plea presented by House of Representatives, along with Egypt pulling back its demand for an international intervention in Libya on 18 February isolated Libya and pushed back to UNSMIL plan for a united national government in Libya and which is supported by Tunisia, Algeria and Italy.

The US , France and the UK followed suit urging for the unity government and hoping for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, hoping that the “urgency of IS will bring factions together”.

The situation in the south of Libya is as dire as in the north of the country where locals have been struggling with different militia groups vying for control of illegal activities such as weapon smuggling and human trafficking since the war in Mali in 2012 and the return of Tuareg Islamist militants to Libya. The situation that has been made worse with neighboring Chad and Niger mobilizing forces to fight Boko Haram, while warning about the spillover of Jihadi groups in Libya’s into their territories. In December 2014, during a forum on security in the Sahel region in Senegalese capital Dakar, Chadian president Idris Déby-Itno warned about the Libyan quagmire by calling NATO to finish the job of securing Libya from terrorist organizations that are linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and the Sahel region.

 

Meanwhile, the security situation in Libyan remains fragile in particular for Egyptians, who were urged by Libya Dawn to leave the country following Egyptian strikes on Derna last week. Thousands have already crossed the Tunisian and Egyptian border crossing with Libya. In addition to the difficult economic situation, people continue to suffer sever power and water cuts, as well as delay in payment for government employees of their salaries. With oil production dipping to a severe low level with 200,000 barrels a day in late 2014, the country, whose economy depends at 95% on oil production may be facing bankruptcy unless it managed to end the political turmoil and restore security in the country to ensure stability and return of investors and international companies to get the country back on track.

 

Categories: ISIS, Libya, Libyan Revolution | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The World Wonders Who Is This Nation of Heavy Drinkers”: Demystifying Teetotalism in Libya

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Libyan dry white wine from Misrata (photo credit: Guilhem Roger)

“God invented Guinness so the Irish would not rule the world” Irish saying

 

Dhat Al Imad Towers: Symbol of Prohibition

“There is so much social hypocrisy here that Libyans do not drink,” Barbara, a European young woman working in Tripoli complained to me. “Yet, every Thursday evening, I see a lot of young Libyans drinking heavily. They do not know how to drink here. There is no social drinking . It is not like in Tunisia,” she explained the pattern of drinking among people in post-Gaddafi Libya. Barbara is among many foreigners, particularly Westerners, who have noticed the social stigma around alcohol drinking in this conservative Muslim North African nation.

Unlike its Western neighbor, Tunisia, where alcohol has been legalized since the French “protectorate” (the term used by French colonial system denoting the colonial period of Tunisia between 1881 and 1956), alcohol is legally banned in Libya. Post-independence Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba continued with his predecessors’ laws and regulated the use of alcohol drinks in Tunisian public spaces such as bars, restaurants and hotels. With the ousting of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the advent of a moderate Islamist-led government of Ennahda in Tunisia, many liberal Tunisians who declare themselves as open drinkers feared that once Islamists are in power, they will curtail individual freedoms, of which  that of drinking and selling alcohol in public.

When former Tunisian PM Hamadi Jebali went to Washington DC in May 2011 -a few months before the first democratic elections in Tunisian history in October 2011- he stated that if Ennahdha comes to power, it will not seek to close brothels (prostitution is legal in Tunisia since the 1940s under French colonialism) and bars. He referred to Prophet Mohamed abstaining from destroying statues that people of Mecca used to worship and advised his companions to be patient with the “non-believers” until they accepted Islam and the existence of one God with no compulsion. The same applies to alcohol, we do not want to see a bar in every house,” he insisted. This statement may have shocked many in Tunisia, even if some doubted his deep intentions as “a soft way” to start banning alcohol gradually.

The situation is totally different in Libya. It has often been in fact, ever since Gaddafi took power in 1969. He banned brothels and bars that were “tolerated” under the reign of Libyan king Driss I. The Tripoli area near Jamaa Borgheba is still infamous for being the red-light district of Tripoli till today, albeit illegally and discreetly but people attest to the presence of Tunisian and Moroccan prostitutes there. What about alcohol then? Libyan law makes it illegal to sell it in public places including hotels and restaurants. Yet, long before King Driss’ reign in Libya, some Libyans had often engaged in the brewing of a unique Libyan alcoholic drink called “bokha“. It is brewed from mainly figs and dates and methanol is added to the mixture.

The drink is famous with Libyan Jews in the Diaspora but also Tunisian Jews (many of whom have Libyan origins and might have brought it to Tunisia when they migrated to the country in the 19th and 20th centuries after successive famines in Libya).

In London, where there is an important Jewish community of North African descent, during religious ceremonies kosher bukha, made in Tunisia or in France by North African Jews,  is served in houses for Shabos (Shabbat) and other religious events. The drink contains  between 40 and 50 % of alcohol. During the annual pilgrimage to Al Ghriba Synagogue in the Tunisian island of Djerba in April, Jews from all over the world, often of North African descent, converge to get the blessings of the holy place. Its custodian, Perez Trabelsi, gives one shot of bukha to each visitor. With around 3000 visitors in average before the Tunisian Revolution, Perez would perform the ritual of drinking after each visitor coming to him to have a shot of bukha. “By the end of the ritual, he would be too drunk to walk on his feet,” Bochra, a Tunisian businesswoman who often attended the Ghriba procession told me.

But, if such a brew is strong enough to make someone unable to stand on one’s feet after a few hours, can it become lethal to the extent that it causes the death of over 70 people in a few days? Many in Libya wondered after the tragic death of 101 young Libyans, who have been admitted to Tripoli hospitals on March 10, 2013 for alcohol poisoning. The number of patients reached 1066 that some dangerous cases such as kidney failure, blindness etc were recorded. Some more serious cases were transferred to Tunisia. Poisoning through bokha has become the headline in Libyan social networks and media outlets in Libya and abroad. People were horrified at the quick rising number of deaths. “The strange thing is that there were girls too,” some exclaimed on Facebook. In a conservative society, the news of Muslim females drinking alcohol comes as as a big shock, a shameful act that few were able to comprehend.

A Libyan friend of mine who studied and lived in the US admitted he sometimes drinks but socially “like in the West,” he insisted . ” You know that Gaddafi ordered the building of the five towers of Dhat Al Imad -commonly known by some in Libya as shisha maglouba (Libyan Arabic for an upside down bottle)- to symbolize prohibition in Libyan society, according to Gaddafi” he explained to me. The five towers are cylindrical, bottle-shaped skyscrapers. His under-statement hints to a deep malaise among many young Libyans who question the use of such a prohibition in a deeply conservative Muslim society. What is banned, forbidden is often the most desired, some would say. The myth of Libyans being teetotalers has been challenged recently. Many Libyans who would often flock to Tunisia to go to its trendy bars in Sousse, Hammamet, Djerba and Tunis is reminiscent of young Saudis who would travel to the small island-state of Bahrain during weekends to get drunk.

” The World Wonders Who is This Nation of Heavy Drinkers”

 

“There is this social hypocrisy that Libyans do not drink because they are devout Muslims,” noted Barbara. Some Libyans on Facebook sarcastically made comments about the status of Libya being the country of one million Quran reciters and now the world discovering they are a nation of drinkers. “The world wonders who is this nation of heavy drinkers ,” Min Libya (a pseudonym), a young Libyan, who describes himself as a  “low-key” liberal and often drinks”, wrote on his Facebook status one day after the tragedy of alcohol poisoning deaths in Tripoli. “Why can’t they just regulate drinking alcohol and end this hypocrisy that no one drinks in Libya? That way, young Libyans can drink sensibly like everyone else,” he insisted. The sarcastic note hides a deep resentment and distress of many Libyans by the tragedy.

The death of over a hundred young people and the blindness of several more through alcohol poisoning has left many Libyans in shock, puzzled and distressed but not indifferent at the extent of the tragedy and its impact on post-Gaddafi Libyan society. Self-denial and “social hypocrisy” have let room to heated debates on social networks and media outlets about alcohol consumption unearthing an old and persistent taboo in Libyan society: that of open alcohol consumption. Some empathized with the victims and lashed out at the hypocrisy behind the issue of alcohol drinking in Libya; others made strong statements in which they blasted the victims’ loose behavior for leading an immoral life of “binge drinking” (the mysterious deaths of these youths made some think that they were heavily drunk, hence their sudden deaths).

Min Libya called on his Facebook page for the regulation of alcohol consumption as well as the industry of alcohol brewing. This bold statement may be shared by other fellow Libyans, yet it shows the development in mentality regarding some social taboos in Libyan society and culture. This lifted up the lid off social stigmatization of alcohol consumption and denial that more and more Libyans drink including young women. It came as a shock for many that among the victims were young women, yet it showed a deep malaise in Libyan society that this scourge of alcohol consumption is related to a number of factors, including post-conflict/war stress and traumas.

Those who sympathized with the victims justified the act of drinking alcohol by the (side)-effects of the nine-month conflict in 2011 on the morale of many youths, some of whom resorted to drinking to numb the psychological disorder and stress caused by war atrocities. I met a young Libyan from Misrata in Tunis last year who was jailed in the infamous Abu Salim jail in Tripoli during the Libyan Revolution, was tortured and later released. He would drink so heavily when he comes to Tunisia that he would fall and vomit in the street, a French friend of his told me.

The culprit who sold the poisonous alcohol in Tripoli was caught in the western Tripoli area of Ghergharesh by a Tripoli brigade fighting criminal activities. He has been identified as Elisa by the captors. Yet little is known about the number of people who were involved in the business of brewing bukha. However, six were arrested connected to the case of alcohol poisoning. This underground industry has always flourished under Gaddafi. A young Salafist living in Benghazi confessed to me once that there are farms east of Benghazi where people brew bokha, while authorities are turning a blind eye to it.

It is no surprise that the number of Libyans consuming alcohol increased since the death of Gaddafi but there has been no study or a quantitative/qualitative research of alcohol consumption in Libya. Almost a year ago, the Economist published a report entitled “Tequila Umma: Alcohol Consumption in the Muslim World in which it drew a chart on alcohol consumption in eight countries from Pakistan, to Lebanon and Iran. It described Libya as a flourishing black market for spirits. It listed Libyans consuming an aggregate of 0.11 liter of alcohol per person annually between 2003 and 2005. The chart described Libyan alcohol consumers as being “the Gaddafis before their fall”. How true are the Economist‘ findings is dependent on more accurate quantitative and qualitative research/findings into alcohol consumption in Libya to gauge the extent of the phenomenon in post-Gaddafi Libyan society.

The Irish Connection and the Libyan Diaspora in Ireland

 

Ireland, the Emerald Island, is considered as the most conservative country in Europe, religion-wise. The Catholic nation has often bred this image of being a staunch Catholic country where religion plays an important role in Irish society and culture. Yet, this nation of 6 million people is also famous for being one of the “merriest” nations when it comes to drinking alcohol. Guinness, the Irish booze par excellence, is consumed without moderation in Irish pubs in Ireland and around the world. The Irish Diaspora in the UK and the US have brought with them traditions from their island, including the St Patrick’s celebrated annually in March. The Great Famine of the mid-1840s forced around one million Irish men, women and children off their island and sought a better life in the New World. Until the 1970s, Ireland remained an under-developed country compared to its European counterparts. It witnessed an economic boom after joining the EU in the 1970s and became the Celtic Tiger thanks to its rapid economic growth between 1995 and 2008.

Ireland bears an uncanny historical, social and cultural resemblance with Libya: both had witnessed famines in almost the same period of time (for Libya in the 1760s, 1790s and later in the 1940s), a lot of Irish and Libyan population left their homelands to neighboring countries, Britain and Tunisia respectively (where living standards were better than in their homelands), both came under the rule of “ruthless” colonial powers: Italy and the UK. Other traits include the clan/tribe system, where it faded in Ireland and subsisted in Libya and bagpipes music, to cite but a few of the common cultural traits.

Irish cuisine still has potato-based recipes, which was the staple food of most Irish families since the 16th century and until the Great Famine with the failure in potato crop. This unsophisticated cuisine although it developed recently thanks to the cosmopolitanism of its cuisine and to the openness to foreign cuisines is rooted in Irish history where many Irish had to survive eating basic food, where potato is the main ingredient. In Libya, food made of barley in particular became the basic staple food for Libyans. Bazeen is an example of a Libyan dish that historically, Libyans during successive famine periods, used to consume quite often to survive when there was nothing else to eat  during years of draught.

There is a considerable Libyan diaspora in Ireland, the most famous of an Irish-Libyan is former Libyan Minister of Health Fatima Al Hamroush. During Gaddafi-era, a Libyan school was set up in Dublin and many IRA members supported Gaddafi and continued during the Libyan Revolution. Many Libyans chose to settle un Ireland, particularly students. Some married Irish women there and had Irish-born Libyan children. The island has become a hospitable place to live in for immigrants since the 1990s, including Libyans. Where Guinness is Ireland’s national brew, bokha is Libya’s “unofficial” national alcoholic drink. Bukha is also consumed by Tunisian Jews during religious events and weddings.

Yet, Libyans never claim to be alcohol consumers as would the Irish often pride themselves in being among the biggest consumers of Whiskey and Guinness in the world. Even during Prohibition years and the rise of temperance movements in 19th century America, bootlegged whiskey continued to flood US markets, competing with Irish whiskey. Where it is common that you may be stopped by a friendly Dubliner in the streets of Dublin and amicably invites you for a pint of Guinness in the local pub (it happened to me and a Tunisian female friend in 2006 but we had to politely decline his offer), a foreigner is even more surprised by hospitable Libyans insisting on inviting you to their house and making you eat couscous or taste the good old bazeen.

When Iranian president, Ahmadinejad declared in 2008 that there are no gays in Iran, his statement was met with mockery over his denial of the existence of an important homosexual community in Iran. It will be a long time before officials in Libya admit to the fact that alcohol consumption in Libya is a reality and no longer a social taboo that needs to be hidden from the outside world.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Categories: Gaddafi, Ireland, Libya, Libyan Revolution, Tunisia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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