Home > Education, Language Acquisition, Language Learning, Libya, parenting > Gaddafi, Libya, and Me, Part 1

Gaddafi, Libya, and Me, Part 1

Libya’s ex-leader Muammar Gaddafi has been killed today. “Libya’s ex-leader Col Muammar Gaddafi has been killed after an assault on his home town of Sirte, the transitional authority’s acting prime minister says. … He [Gaddafi] was toppled in August after 42 years in power.”

benghazi cityscapeMy parents and I arrived to Libya on October 17, 1985. It was incredibly cold and snowy when we were leaving Serbia despite the fact that it was only mid-October. I said good-bye to my classmates and my teachers. Some of my teachers thought my parents were doing an awful thing – dislocating such a great student in the middle of the school year and almost at the end of my elementary schooling (I was in seventh grade).

My parents were not concerned at all about my ability to adjust to a new school, new immediate environment, new country. They simply expected I would. They would help me with schoolwork if needed, and I’d just handle the rest the way I handled another new school at the beginning of the fourth grade (they wanted me to study German instead of Russian so they moved me to a different school – that was it; I doubt they spent a second wondering what I thought about Russian and German).

My parents applied  to some cultural-technical exchange program a few years before we went to Libya. It was after they lost hope that they were ever going to find work in their field in Austria, Switzerland, or Germany. It was well known that Libya needed physicians and nurses and they wanted to go. I was, of course, going to go with them. I was going to go to a new (Serbian) school, make new friends, and live in a different country. That was it.

When we arrived to Benghazi, it was still warm despite the fact that it was late at night. My mother’s colleague took us from the airport to his apartment. All I saw from the new country was the people in Muslim attire at the airport, the stretch of a highway and the city lights. That night we stayed in the house of our new friends. They had a daughter about my age, Kaca. I slept in her room that night. Interestingly enough, we didn’t talk about Libya, but about Yugoslavia. Libya was there, around us (although still totally unknown to me), but Yugoslavia was what we both left behind.

The following morning, in bright daylight, I finally saw that new country where we were going to live for at least a year and our new apartment. The landscape looked very different. We were surrounded by red sand on all sides. The land was perfectly flat, from our kitchen window you could see for miles ahead. The apartment was furnished and pretty spacious, my room overlooked the center of the village where we were going to live and the hospital where my parents were going to work. This village was called Hawari, it was a suburb of Benghazi, built around the 7th April Hospital as housing for foreign employees, mostly employees from the republics of the old Yugoslavia and the Philippines. On one side, the village was surrounded by Libyan villas (months later I was going to spend hours on our kitchen balcony studying the front yards of these villas, waiting to see a human being step out of the house; I rarely saw any signs of life around the villas).

We had no TV or radio in the apartment (what was the point when we couldn’t understand anything anyway?). Months later we bought a small stereo, but the only thing we occasionally listened to was the Voice of America broadcasts and the few cassette tapes of Serbian music we brought with us.  My parents would regularly bring home a copy of Newsweek magazine, but it took me a while to be able to understand anything as it was only a few weeks after we arrived to Libya that I had my first English lesson. I started going to school immediately (school went from Sunday to Thursday, we were off on Fridays and Saturdays). There was a school bus that would take the kids from Hawari to the city center where the Serbian school was located.

The first day I went to school, I walked to some sort of Principal’s office, and gave the Principal my basic information. He said the school didn’t offer German (which was what I studied before I came to Libya and which, as a foreign language, was one of the requirements for graduation) and asked what my parents were going to do about that. I said I hated German anyway, and I was going to do three years of English in one. He nodded his head  doubtfully and that was the end of our discussion.

The school was a joke. The building was small and dilapidated, the classes had between two and five students on average, and most of the teachers were unskilled and uninterested in what they were teaching. I had a great math teacher in the first few months, but then she went back to Serbia. That was the pattern that often repeated. When people’s contracts expired, they would go back to Serbia, and an untimely replacement would eventually arrive.

Fortunately, by that point in my life, I had good study habits and a good foundation in subjects such as math, physics, and chemistry. So I just followed the textbooks, and my parents helped, my mother with language and literature, my father with grammar, math, physics, chemistry, biology. History and geography I studied myself from the same ridiculous textbooks that followed me until I left Serbia. And I diligently practiced writing the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Every letter was written in a different way based on its position within a word (beginning, middle, end), and there was a forth version of the letter if it was standing alone. I filled pages with the letters the way I did in the first grade when learning the Serbian alphabet, but the Arabic language itself was beyond my ability to comprehend. The instruction our teacher (interpreter by profession) offered was pretty bad, with no real curriculum and no teaching experience on his part. I didn’t learn anything but how to write letters, and I didn’t care.

I made friends with kids that were around my age, and we hung out in the middle of the village, maybe sat on a bench and talked, or walked around the village. Occasionally we went to some sort of a “club,” which was the only thing there was in the village in addition to a small grocery store and the hospital. In the club, grown-ups (including my father) played chess, and we could occasionally watch a movie (with no Serbian subtitle) and drink tea with peanuts. (I have never learned anything about the origin of this drink that consisted of tea and peanuts that were in the actual drink).

There was not much to do. I was a budding teenager and I continuously longed for things. I wanted my country back, I wanted more friends, I wanted a “normal life” (“normal life,” I suppose, meant doing the same things teens did back home, which I am not sure was much different from what I was doing). I complained a bit, I was unhappy a bit, but I worked hard on my English and I was happy about my fast progress.

Libijska pustinjaMy parents worked a lot (according to Serbian standards), and I was learning how to entertain myself in the absence of TV, radio, movie theaters, restaurants. Occasionally my parents took me to downtown Benghazi, but it was mostly to do some kind of shopping. Silly shopping. To buy things you didn’t need. We could never buy anything we actually needed (for example, shoes, clothes, technology) as only traditional Muslim attire was available in the stores and maybe, maybe some technology at ridiculously expensive prices.  If you happened to go to the few semi-empty department stores in Benghazi, and by any chance you decided to actually buy something, it would take forever (literally) for you to attract the attention of a store employee and pay for your purchase. Now Serbs were definitely not known for their great customer service skills, but the behavior of department store employees in Libya was beyond imaginable. They would simply stand in twos and threes and talk animatedly, gesticulate, giggle, and there was no way to attract their attention. First you maybe tried to make an eye contact, then you said “Excuse me” or the equivalent to “Excuse me” in Arabic, but they would absolutely not respond. They would continue to talk, simply ignoring you, and then, maybe fifteen minutes later, if you were still there, they would saunter lazily up to you and take your money. Numerous times my parents and I just put the stuff back onto the shelf and left the store. It really came down to how bad you needed something.

Most of the food we needed we bought at the small supermarket in Hawari, but there was nothing too fancy in the Libya of that time. When meat, eggs, or bananas would arrive, you had to wait in line for a long time and then buy large quantities of these foods. You never knew when the next delivery date was going to be. Libya was under sanctions then, and there was definitely a shortage of many foods.

There were sections of the city that were right on the water, with well-maintained gardens and palm trees, and maybe a tall building or two, but we never went there. Nobody went there. Libya had no tourists or foreign businessmen.

There was a modest Serbian library in the Serbian club that was located on the first floor of the building where my school was, and my father took me there often.  I read whatever books the library had, books that were appropriate for my age and those that were not, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Spending many hours on our kitchen balcony,  I started experimenting with water colors and temperas, ending up with some version of sunset and a lot of playful “abstracts.”  I made carrot cookies that were actually edible, and started making paper and cardboard decorations for my room. My room became the cleanest room in the house. I started keeping a journal, and I wrote often. I spent time with the few friends of similar age I had, and I went to whatever birthday parties I was invited to. At one of these parties, a brother of my Albanian classmate, one of the few people that were older than me, asked me to dance with him and that was it – I was in love. My journal started filling fast. I celebrated every instance  of seeing this boy. Directly, or from the window of my room. A few years later, I laughed at the number of specially decorated journal entries that looked like this: I saw Bini. He said hi. It didn’t look like I wanted from him much more than that.

I guess I was lonely. And I was definitively very nostalgic. Maybe it was the first time I felt that emotion. I longed for the people I cared for, but even more for the places I left behind. That surprised me, the fact that I wanted back the city I never particularly liked. That from afar, I loved and terribly missed everything and everybody. I wrote a few letters, I received a few letters, but I was definitively never much of the letter-writing type. I daydreamed. I walked around the village. By the time mimosas bloomed, I accepted Libya for what it was. A slightly strange, lonely place for a foreign teen  to be. And a paradise on earth in some ways.

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  1. Bob DiNardo
    October 21, 2011 at 1:51 am

    I left a comment on your Facebook page about this, saying that I found in very touching. And I’m just very glad you’re here with us now.

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