'This is not the Libya I remember. And I like it'
FARAH ABUSHWESHAwas seven when she left Libya and her parents, to live in safety with her Irish grandmother. Two weeks ago, the film-maker and writer returned to a changed country, to meet her father again
AS THE AIRCRAFT descends into Tripoli, I have a flashback to my seven-year-old self undoing my buckle and trying to get off the flight. Inconsolable, I begged the cabin crew to let me return to my parents.
This is my first visit to Libya since then. Three decades ago my parents had to send me out of Libya to my Irish grandmother for my safety. Then my father, Redwan Abushwesha, a Libyan writer, was to be arrested by Gadafy’s security forces on suspicion of political dissent.
It was a year before I saw my mother and several more before my father was permitted to leave Libya temporarily. Two years ago he told me Gadafy’s regime had threatened his family’s safety should he not return, even though he had been acquitted and released from prison.
At baggage collection, I meet Cathleen from Swords returning to teach, ahead of her Libyan husband and seven children. She tells me most Irish women married to Libyans remained during the revolution.
My Libyan homecoming is more than just reconnecting with half of my family and history; it is also relevant to my current activism and newfound connection with Libya through Women4Libya (W4L), a civil-society group supporting Libyan women. I am attending the One Voice women’s conference, an event to make recommendations on new policies, a new constitution and the role of women.
At arrivals a group of women hold welcome signs for Shaharzad Kablan, a Facebook friend and activist who is also on the flight. No familiar face awaits me, as I haven’t told anyone of my return, but with customary Libyan warmth and hospitality Shaharzad’s group welcomes me. There is extra excitement when they hear it is my first trip back.
The drive into Tripoli is filled with outbursts of creative expression. Fresh street art – satirical, political and celebratory – adorns the walls. New Libyan flags are flying high.
At traffic lights a car plays the pre-Gadafy national anthem. Everyone rolls down windows and sings. This is not the Libya I remember, and I like it.
Salha, the driver, points out streets where the first wave of protesters were gunned down and the bridge where a courageous soul raised the new flag. She and her husband used to drive through these streets just to get a sense of solidarity with the freedom fighters.
We pass the abandoned cafe where just a few months ago Gadafy infamously appeared in a golf cart and umbrella, arrogantly defying the call for him to step down.
At the Radisson hotel, where the conference is being held, armed guards search our car for bombs. There are signs reading “No Guns Beyond This Point” all over the walls. Meeting my friends Salha (a different one) and Sara, I break down like a child, wanting my mother, father and sister there to share these sights, sounds and emotions.
This is when I notice women protesting. Another new feature of new Libya: freedom of expression. I ask them why they are there. They explain that, although they were active during the revolution, they haven’t been asked to the conference to share their concerns. I tell them I am Redwan Abushwesha’s daughter, and as a storyteller I have come to tell their story if they will let me. They do.
Rihab recounts how she smuggled arms and had her car searched while a soldier held a gun to her face. She feared he would trip and it would go off in her face.
Fatima tells how she lost three sons in the revolution. As a young student, she and her friends criticised Gadafy and were arrested – the first of four arrests, each more brutal than the last.
I have never felt so humbled by such brave and proud women. The conference organisers appear and invite them to attend, explaining their exclusion was an oversight.
THERE’S A BUZZin the air as people busy themselves with networking, strategising, recounting and planning. In the lobby, I hear my name called out. My cousin Najwa, whom I last met in Rome when I was 15, has come to the hotel with her daughter. She had gone to Tripoli International Airport to meet me, but my aircraft landed at Mitiga military airport.
With Libyans, once you have hugged and kissed the life out of each other, it’s customary to ask after the health of every member of the family. Then they try to fatten you up with sweet delicacies and delicious food – only to point out as you eat that you’ve got fat. I laugh it off, as it’s true.
When the liberation of Tripoli was proclaimed, Najwa, à la Scarlett O’Hara, ran around the house, pulling apart curtains and clothes to make the new flag, using paint for the crescent and star, and went to Martyrs’ Square. It was her proudest creative effort, she said.
We arrange to visit my 98-year-old grandmother in Azziziah, a small town outside Tripoli, a few days later, but Najwa warns that fighting in the area may make it unsafe to travel.
That night there are loud gunshots and explosions, and I can’t sleep. I hear over breakfast that eight people died and that there was heavy fighting in my grandmother’s village.
As I give an interview to a Tripoli radio show about returning to Libya, a woman walks by and calls out “ Farah ma habebti” (my beloved). Souad knew me as a child. It feels good to see someone I knew back then.
The next few days are taken over by a flurry of meetings with ambassadors, UN officials and local women’s groups. Our main aim is to connect grassroots organisations with established NGOs.
I also tweet from the conference, saying that the former interim leader Abdel-Jalil is admonished by the women for his comments on polygamy. One woman tells him she intends to be prime minister and she isn’t asking permission. The frustration among Libyan women is palpable. They were key in the success of the revolution, and the newly formed government has not adequately represented them in political appointments nor included them in high-level delegations and meetings or other decision-making roles.
That night Najwa takes me to see family. Our car is stopped and searched. It has become common for women travelling to have cars searched: allegedly, female supporters of Gadafy have shot at guards at checkpoints. I wonder if this is a ruse to keep women home.
The next day my hotel room fills with female friends. Salha is preparing for her brother’s engagement formality. In Libya the man’s family go to the girl’s house and propose en masse, bearing gifts and sweets. Women pop in and out, veils removed, wishing her well. I am like a porter, opening doors and making sure no man peers in.
Later we hear chanting and car horns, as thousands of protesters have gathered. The people who died the night before were from the Weshafana tribe.
Talking to the protesters, I am mindful that, however peaceful the protest, some are armed. They are angry because the media has reported they were anti-revolution and hiding Saif Gadafy, Muammar’s son. For three hours they demand that the media minister come out and apologise. He does and they leave.
ON MY LAST DAYmy father comes out of hospital to join me. He has been delayed by a medical check-up in Tunisia, necessary because he had throat cancer two years ago. For two years he has been unable to speak and we have communicated by text message. He kisses my forehead, something he’s done since my childhood. We last met in May 2010. We have been able to meet only intermittently since I left Libya; at one point we did not see one another for 10 years.
Many friends who know of him as a writer and painter didn’t realise he was my father. Several comment on how similar we are in personality. I am childishly chuffed at how well known my dad is and to be acknowledged as his daughter. My dad is tired. I can see the past year has taken a toll on him physically. He leaves, arranging to return the next morning to take me to my grandmother.
Unfortunately, the next day we learn it is unsafe to travel to see my grandmother. I am devastated as I haven’t seen her for 10 years, and she is nearly 100 and barely conscious.
Instead, my dad and I go to the old-town souq to buy souvenirs for my mother, my sister, and her children Megan and Calum in Dublin. We meet friends of Dad’s who are delighted to see us together again and keep telling me how much I’ve grown in 30 years.