I am an activist, a student of politics, a feminist, and a law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. I recently graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Politics from Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.
My particular area of study is the Middle East and North Africa. I have lived in Amman, Jordan and Nablus, Palestine. I have traveled in the West Bank part of Palestine, including Jerusalem, and around Jordan, as well. I have spent many months living with my family on a farm outside of Tripoli, Libya.
True friendship is libelous. True to my word, I am publishing this piece. Maybe it will reinvigorate my dead passion for blogging. Or maybe Ben’s work will, as usual, be the only thing anyone reads on here. Regardless, this sarcastic Brit never disappoints.
(Just in case you doubt our bond, here is a picture of the two of us on the top of a mountain in palestine. Clear love)
P.S. Ben, WordPress wants me to correct all your pretentious British spelling
“I Would Publish It in a Heartbeat”
The laugh was nonchalant, dismissive. The kind of laugh you give when you hear something so ridiculous that the only justifiable reaction is to be amused. It came in May 2011 when, on the steps of an apartment building in Nablus, Palestine, I said my goodbyes to one Sara Fitouri – a fiery young Coloradan who had, over the previous 3 months, become my friend, confidant and drinking partner. Having already exchanged a parting hug upstairs, away from the watchful eyes of a conservative society that wouldn’t have approved of such an embrace, I expressed a solemn desire that we not simply become two friends who never saw each other again. That we make an effort to stay in contact and meet again in the not-too-distant future. That’s when I heard the laugh. At the time I interpreted it optimistically, I believed it was a forthright and cocky assertion of Sara’s assurance that we had simply become too good friends, shared too many fun and crazy times to never see each other again. But hindsight provides an illuminating truth. Sara was determined to avoid me forevermore and that laugh was simply a rejection of my heartfelt au revoir.
You see, dear, wonderful readers, Sara abandoned me. Like a celebrity with a political cause she was more than happy to completely forget about me the moment I ceased to have any immediate impact on her life. I remained in Palestine for a further 2 years. Sara spoke of visiting but never did. “Not to worry” thought I, “I shall make this whole meet up a lot easier for her. I shall visit her home country”. And so I did. Twice. For months at a time. I found it a strange yet captivating place where my British sensibilities were assaulted with the ferocity of a drunken hillbilly at a gay wedding. Earl Grey tea seemed to be harder to locate than WMD in an illegally invaded Middle Eastern State and the locals seemed to have as much respect for environmental protection as they did for their Latino servants (though they insist on the term “employee”). I travelled far and wide through the assortment of bizarre little enclaves you call States and awaited that magical moment when Sara and I would meet again, sit around a bar room table, reminisce on the old times and see if we couldn’t finally hit that magical 21 shots mark before she passed out again in an undignified heap. Alas, Sara refused to find me wandering, lost, through the wasteland of her home nation. Her argument when presented with this fact can be simply boiled down to “You didn’t turn up exactly at my front door”. I weep for the friendship we built in that chaotic Nabulsi apartment as she so insists on eroding it with her indifference.
Not to be deterred, for there are many, many negative things about me and one of the very tamest is that I’m a stubborn idiot, I decided to search for Sara in her other home. Packing my bags with bad clothes, worse Arabic and the hope of a reunion with an old friend I picked myself up and moved to Libya. That’s right, dear reader, with Sara was refusing to move the hundred metres or so from her house to my location in Florida (I may have misjudged the scale somewhat, please understand that I’m no cartographer and, coming from a tiny island nation as I do, I’m used to things being infinitely closer to each other than is often the case across the pond) I did the only I thing I could do and relocated to sunny, post-revolution, militia-strewn Libya. I endured months of gun battles, RPG fire, sniper danger and general chaos in the hope that at last we would be able to reunite, catch up and lend some value to the idea that perhaps ours was a friendship worth saving. Had Sara chosen not to visit me I could have understood it. After all, Libya was and is a country fraught with violent danger. But Sara, this cold hearted monster of fraternal rejection couldn’t be satisfied with merely avoiding me. Oh no, she waited until mere months after I had finally departed North Africa to publicly announce via facebook that she would now prepare to visit. Enough! I snapped into life, utilising the comments section of that most vapidly 21st century website to complain of her despicable behaviour. Casting my mind back years I threatened to follow up my previous guest posts on her blog, reminding her of a vow she had made to publish any future rantings I might throw her way.
“I would publish it in a heartbeat”. She replied. Just remember those words, Sara, as I attempt to paint a picture with the words that follow.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and anyone who self identifies as any gender or none I present to you the real Sara Fitouri. The story behind the fierce freedom fighter and warrior for social justice you may know. I feel it is my duty to use this electronic space to publish the truth so that the mask may slip once and for all and we may all pass judgement on this web of lies she has served to create.
Sara Fitouri was born in 1946 as Theodore Robert Cowell. After a violent childhood which began to reveal her twisted and sinister nature she went on to kidnap, rape and kill over 30 victims as the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.
After she took advantage of the low level of competence and intelligence amongst law enforcement officials to secretly escape from prison leaving some poor, confused and learning disabled stooge (whose only desire in life was to be kind to animals and paint beautiful pictures) in her place to fry in the electric chair Sara spent some years trawling the strip clubs, illegal casinos and low rent brothels of Colorado, eventually selling enough crack cocaine to disadvantaged urban youths to secure the funds for the cosmetic surgery necessary to reinvent her life.
At some point in the early nineties Sara abandoned her previously nihilistic ideology and found something to believe in. She dedicated herself wholly to her new cause and became a passionate advocate and activist. Through her work as President of the Republican Friends of Israel group she was eventually asked to become a secret operative for Shin Bet and worked on many missions to ensure the arrest, torture and occasional murder of innocent Palestinians in a variety of locations. Her commanding officer at the time remarked that he had never seen someone take such a sickening, almost sexual pleasure in the suffering of others.
She graduated from regional injustice to global and eventually found herself making large amounts of money from a series of financial interests in Congolese coltan mining, Indonesian palm oil, numerous weapons manufacturers and Goldman Sachs. Her investment company, Fitouri Holdings Ltd. operate with the unofficial motto “If the money doesn’t taste of blood, we’re not making it in the right way”.
Finally, Sara’s proclivity for illegal dog fights, sexual perversion and unprovoked attacks on the homeless and vulnerable have seen her arrested dozens of times. She owes her freedom only to her immorally gotten gains and the fact that the American justice system doesn’t send rich people to prison.
If some of this seems a little farfetched or even demonstrably false to you, dear reader, then I am genuinely upset at your lack of faith in my honesty. I assure you these facts are well researched and entirely true and I stick by them unequivocally. And if Sara has any objection to any of the content then as a seasoned law student and soon to be qualified lawyer I am sure she is aware of how she can lay her claim to libel through the appropriate channels. I am sure she is also aware that, due to the antiquated and unique legal system we operate here, the UK is considered the “libel capital of the world” (New York Times, 2009).
You see where I am going with this, dear reader. For now Sara has but two options, considering her publicly stated and verifiable promise to publish this article. Once published she can either accept the truth of every word written herein, her silence speaking a thousand words and her reputation destroyed forever. Or she can be drawn, like a litigious moth to my libellous flame to that London courtroom to clear her name of such accusations. And there she shall find me in the defendants box (do defendants have a box? Or a stand? I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer and whenever I appear in court I refuse to do it sober so my memory is drawing a blank. In any case, I’ll be there) appearing as some kind of British, able bodied Oscar Pistoriu-types character and I shall have my reunion at last. A forced, adversarial reunion, admittedly but as has already been mentioned I am a stubborn idiot and so I’ll take that over none at all.
Your move, Sara.
I was almost too tired to go out. I teased my friends that we could cuddle in my bed and watch horror movies instead of going out. It was a battle I had lost before I even started; they had talked about this Halloween party for weeks. I would perk up, I was sure, after a few drinks. I put on my Robin Hood, but usually mistaken as Peter Pan, costume, and added some extra glitter because tonight we would be heading to the gay clubs. My exhaustion quickly wore off and by the time we arrived at Tracks, drank our first drinks, and made it to the dance floor, I was full of energy. Even as we left the club at last-call, I was incredibly alive. Back at our house, my roommate and one of our friends stayed up for another hour talking. As my friends started to get exhausted and go to bed, I felt great. I told them I would go to sleep soon, and started going through Facebook and my emails on my phone.
4 am. 5 am. I wasn’t tired. Finally at 6 am I started to worry. I hadn’t had enough alcohol to still be drunk. But I didn’t feel right. Why wasn’t I tired? At 7 am I decided to try going up to bed, but laying in my sheets, I still couldn’t sleep. My mind raced 100 miles an hour, just as it had since we started dancing at the club. I began to worry. What is wrong? Why can’t I sleep? Why don’t I feel tired? My anxiety started to build. Somewhere around 7:30 am, anxious but still wide awake, I came up with an implausible, but maybe the only possible, answer: Had I been drugged? No. Who drugs straight girls at a gay club? If I had been drugged it would have had to be a stimulant, but why would someone waste their drugs on someone else?
I cried in bed for the next hour until my roommate woke up. I told him that I hadn’t slept, that I felt weird, but didn’t immediately mention the drug theory because it seemed too irrational to me. A product of my insomnia, perhaps. When I did finally tell him that being drugged is the only conclusion my hyperactive mind had been able to come to in the past few hours, he validated my uncertainty. Sure, methamphetamines would explain my insomnia and my anxiety, but the motive for someone to drug me was completely missing. Still, he insisted that I go to the Urgent Care clinic conveniently 1/2 a block from our house. I must have looked like a zombie as I explained to the nurse that I had been awake for almost 30 hours and that I thought I might be drugged. I definitely felt like one. Like my body was not my own, but was possessed to act in ways I couldn’t understand. The nurse explaining to me that it was probably a bad reaction to alcohol but suggested I take a drug test to be sure. As surprised as I was by my correct diagnosis, the nurse returned and told me I had tested positive for meth. There wasn’t much more to say or do. I went home, and was eventually able to sleep after being up for 40 hours straight.
The next morning my emotions that had been fucked with because of the drugs and lack of sleep started to come in to focus. I felt violated. Someone else had made the choice for me to take drugs. They didn’t know about my health, my history or lack of history with drugs, or anything about me, but still felt entitled to put drugs in my drink.
It is weird, but I am glad it happened to me as opposed to another member of our group. My roommate is in the process of applying for jobs, and testing positive on a drug test could have ruined a job opportunity for him. Two other friends out with us drove home. Had they been drugged they may have still driven and gotten in an accident. I don’t have heart problems or a past drug addiction to methamphetamines. I wasn’t driving that night.
I still felt dirty. Disrespected in an intimate way. Irrationally upset. I spent two days in pajamas lying around the house. I didn’t much feel like going to school or work. I felt weird, and not like myself. After about two weeks, things started feeling back to normal, but I still hate the uncertainty that goes with that night. I look at our Halloween photos, and my eyes seem far off. Like it was someone else who experienced that night with my friends, not me.
Department of Education Meeting: 5/9/2013
Only a few hours after arriving in Washington, DC, I sat with about 20 fellow organizers at a Thai restaurant. Engaging conversation spread over 2 long tables and the only reminder of the pressing issue that had brought students from 11 states together was a napkin being passed around to each person. One by one we wrote our initials and a dollar amount. The light hearted mood was interrupted once the napkin had made its way around and the figure totaled. $602,000. The announcement of our group’s collective student debt infected the room with sober reality.
Our group had gathered in Washington DC to meet with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ask him to cut the Department of Education’s contract with Sallie Mae as a step in unweaving the corporate knots he has tangled our higher education system into. It was time he answers to those of us who shoulder the debt that is a direct result of his decisions while serving as Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. When we introduced ourselves in the meeting we announced our debt along with our names. The figures on the napkin came to life as each of us claimed those numbers out loud and as many of us shared the personal narrative behind the red ink that stains our future; evidence of a failed higher education system. When I said my number I saw Secretary Duncan’s eyebrows rise. I had reciting my number several times the night before in preparation for this meeting. I had frantically cried my number to my mother every time a new semester started and a new loan had to be taken out. The number I had placed on the napkin, the number I included in my introduction, had become so ingrained in my daily stress, that I had forgotten the shocking effect it could have, even on the Secretary of Education.
I began my undergraduate degree the same year Secretary Duncan took office. In his 5 year tenure student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars without any serious change in policy to help students avoid taking out unmanageable loans in pursuit of an education. Also in that time, Duncan has continued to privatize the federal loan process and now the Department of Education spends over $1 billion dollars a year contracting private companies to service federal loans. The largest contract is with Sallie Mae. Instead of using funds to bail out students, Duncan chooses to pay high profits to those aggressively, unethically, and often illegally, collecting on the debts that are destroying students’ futures.
In those same 5 years, while pursuing an undergraduate degree and now a law degree, I have become buried under $145,000 of student debt.
Our meeting with Secretary Duncan included several successes. We brought the concern that the current criteria used to evaluate servicing companies rewards the companies for pushing students into default and does not encourage them to enroll qualifying students into programs such as the Income Based Repayment Plan. As a result of financially incentivizing Sallie Mae for collecting on students in default, the company works towards student failure, instead of helping students succeed in paying off their debt. Duncan welcomed the feedback on the criteria and agreed to consult with us in determining the criteria used to evaluate future contracts. He requested that we communicate further with him on specific suggestions for revisions of the criteria.
Additionally, we demanded that the Department of Education institute a policy that stops funding organizations that have violated the law. We particularly mentioned the Cesar Chavez DC charter school, of which Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord sits on the board. The Cesar Chaves School has recently violated the collective bargaining rights of workers when it illegally fired teachers who were trying to unionize. Duncan showed great concern and stated that he didn’t want the Department of Education funding projects that violated the law.
Our main and clearest demand still goes unmet. Duncan would not yet agree to cut the contract between the Department of Education and Sallie Mae. While he did agree to encourage Albert Lord to meet with us and he encouraged us to go to the shareholder meeting, this is not enough. Duncan heard through testimony at the meeting how Albert Lord treats students who come to Sallie Mae. Past actions have included riot police and K9 units. Instead of speaking with students, Albert Lord has sent the police after them and had them arrested. I will be at that shareholder meeting and so will most of the students who spoke with Secretary Duncan. On May 30th, we will stand alongside hundreds of other student who are dedicated to fighting for our right to higher education even in the face of getting arrested and large amounts of security wielding batons and shields. The pressing question is: how many students will have to be pulled off in handcuffs before Secretary Duncan will be ready to stand up for students and cut the contract with Sallie Mae?
Recently, I have been working alongside students from across the Denver area to create a state-wide student union called the Colorado Student Power Alliance, which works on cross campus campaigns to improve higher education in our state. Most recently we have been focusing on the issue of student debt.
One year ago, national student debt passed 1 trillion dollars. And while my generation is feeling that burden, I, myself, have a binder filled with 4 years of private and public loans from 4 years of undergraduate, at a fabulous, yet nauseatingly expensive, private college. I am not alone. 2/3 of students graduating university are leaving with student debt, the average amount owed is above $25,000. And while many are quick to assert that being in student debt is my fault, blaming the individual simply ignores that higher education has become a way of reinforcing class divides by inhibiting working and middle class from earning degrees without putting themselves at the mercy of large corporations who own the debt that it is becoming virtually impossible for us to pay off. Many students graduating are either under employed or unemployed after graduation illustrating that our degrees are not worth the amounts we are being charged.
After 9 hours in a Van with other members of the Colorado Student Power Alliance, we arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah to protest at the Wells Fargo Shareholder meeting. We joined members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) who, through their fight against home foreclosures in California, had sent Wells Fargo on the run. Past protests had convinced John Stumpf to break a 16 year tradition and move the meeting from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. So, while ACCE pursued the fleeing stage-coach and horse from the west, we flanked from the east. We were there to make sure that unlike any scene from the Music Man, The Wells Fargo Wagon arrived in its destination, not to the joy of the town, but to vivid reminders of its violent foreclosure and debt policies.
Four of us dressed in business attire with proxies in hand walked toward the Grand America Hotel. We were going inside. It didn’t feel like only four of us were going in to that meeting. In efforts to calm my nerves, I thought back to each student who had shared their debt story with me. Those who had written their five and often six figure debt numbers on our debt wall. I recalled the graduates who feared garnishments and unemployment and getting up to 7 calls a day from collectors. I also recalled the 50 letters that student groups around the nation were delivering to Wells Fargo branches in their communities, and I thought of the Macalester students, who within the same hours were beginning a sit-in in their administration building to force their President to kick Wells Fargo off their campus. We were only four, but we were there to speak as part of a generation of youth enslaved by unbearable debt. A generation that is mobilizing in our communities and on our campuses to fight back.
As the second largest private profiteer from student debt, the key to the debt shackles on thousands of my peers was possessed by the multimillionaire corporate banker who stood behind the podium in the front of the shareholder meeting.
During the meeting, after hearing close to a dozen concerned shareholders bring critiques of racial discrimination, unjust housing foreclosures, and John Stumpfs obscene salary- all of which were quickly dismissed by an unphased Stumpf who cast off the concerns with rhetorically empty sound bites of corporate policy- we began our action.
When the first member of ACCE stood up, John Stumpf tried to quiet her down. There would be a question and answer period later, he insisted. During the previous comment period John Stumpf had ignored all the hands raised by women and people of color in the room and had only called on white men. He had, additionally, cut off the comment period at only four people. We knew that voicing our concerns in a forum provided by Stumpf himself was neither optimal nor possible. We were done raising our hands to be heard. We would not ask his permission to resist. One after another we began standing up to John Stumpf and demanded that he hear our concerns. After two women went, it was my turn.
“You are stealing our future!” I did yell at the highest paid banker in the nation. I was surprised, myself, by the power in my voice. John Stumpf’s head jolted away from the person who spoke previously and shot in my direction. For about the next 15 seconds the floor was mine. I told John Stumpf that Wells Fargo was participating in the destruction of higher education, condemning our generation to a lifetime of debt, and that we demand a process for loan modification. As I was escorted out of the room, I heard a fellow COSPA member’s voice ring out continuing our message to Stumpf, who had temporarily given up trying to silence the voices he ignores on a daily bases. He was silent now. For the time being, he had lost control of the meeting.
Moments after I was led out the doors, members of our team still in the meeting began chanting “Racist Lending is a crime, John Stumpf should be doing time!” They, too, were escorted out, and we were all reunited by the security guards who were anxious to get us all the way out of the building. We complied and headed slowly to the doors but continued our chant. The words echoed off of the marble walls, crystal chandeliers, and back into the shareholder meeting, where an exposed John Stumpf was trying to regain control of the meeting.
The opportunity to see a corporate giant shake- be it by silencing John Stumpf at his own shareholder meeting or the dropping of shutters and locking of doors as a march arrives at another bank branch- is a direct reminder of the power we have. Wells Fargo knows that they cannot hide. That they cannot run. And that, while they can escort us out of meetings, they cannot stop a student movement set to expose and end their violent lending practices.
Christopher, the other half of my cynical, politically angry heart departed to Budapest, Hungary, to take part in a program where they don’t capitalize letters and don’t take gender for granted. The night before he left we scurried to record the parody that we had written months before when we were representing the USA in the human rights council in Model UN. That’s right. Chris. Sara. USA. Human rights. The situation begged for sarcastic humor, and we begged for a creative release that wasn’t creatively spinning US foreign policy to make it appear moral.
Here is the inevitable product of the weekend.
(with links to help understand our less obvious critiques)
Whenever we see countries less fortunate than us,
And let’s face it, who isn’t less fortunate than us?
Our democratic values start to spread.
And when some –istan needs a makeover,
We invade and then take over.
We know, we know, exactly what they need.
And even in your case (Iran)
Though it’s the toughest case we’ve yet to face.
Don’t worry, we have enough drones to succeed.
Follow our lead,
And yes. Indeed. You . Will. Have.
Liberty, you are gonna have democracy.
We will teach you how to rule when we have control.
All the ways to pay us back.
Don’t think of what we do as imperial
Even if our wars have become serial.
Now that we’ve chosen to become your ally,
You must abide by, c-these rules we supply.
When it comes to policy, don’t question our policy.
Free trade, bases
This is the kind of stuff friends do.
Speaking English officially.
Was their culture beneficial?
Don’t make us laugh.
They were primitive- beings.
They now have electricity.
Ha ha ha ha you’re a puppet state.
But you won’t read about that part in History!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And just because I’ve yet to brag, here is a less inevitable, and more ironic result from the conference.
*This post is password protected because I think it can be easily misread to reinforce the barbaric/terrorist depiction of Arabs and Libyans that often stems from US hatred and ignorance. This understanding, would of course, be an incorrect interpretation of my message. I chose to reserve it for people I trust know me and my politics well enough to recognize this. I do not believe that the USA culture is any less (and most likely more) violent than what I have witnessed here. This should be understood only as my reflections from my family trip and my frustrations with the violent culture left in the dust of the revolution.*
You are with Gaddafi or with the revolutionaries? She had a plastic machine gun pressed to my face and a gang of 3 year-olds equally armed behind her.
“No, I am with her.” I pointed to my aunt. Let her deal with them, I think. Wrong answer. The ticking of the machine gun, child rebels screams, and the swinging of a plastic police baton was all that could be heard for the next several minutes. Swept up in an experiment with child militarization, I never once gave the desired answer. I was repeatedly given two options. Most times I had a dozen imaginary bullets piercing my skull before my allegiance could be gauged by the overzealous gunkids. My cousin, who left high school to fight in the real rebel army, watched enthralled by his younger cousins. Was that pride in his eyes? Did their play bring back painful memories he’d tucked deep in his manly façade. The teenage boy I had known 3 years ago had discarded his schoolbooks and childhood for a gun. I barely recognized the adult who lay on the cushion now.
We were at the end of our 2 hour journey east.
“See the buildings that were bombed? NATO.” My uncle directed our attention back and forth across Tarablus (Tripoli) Street, the main street in the town of Misurata, a town 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Tripoli.
After the rebels seized Benghazi, Gaddafi officials had proposed dividing the nation in half granting the east sovereignty, a proposition they hoped would halt the rebels’ progression west. Misurata became a glitch in that plan when it emerged as a rebel strong hold in the western half of the nation early in the war.
“They fought here for almost 6 months, but the revolutionaries couldn’t get past Gaddafi’s troops. Then NATO bombed Gaddafi forces, allowing the rebels to move on to Tripoli”
The front of every sand colored, three-story building was splattered with bullet holes. Most windows were shattered. The street lamps bent over succumb to gun fire, and the palm trees were now tall columns, their leafy tops blown away. Every few blocks was the remains of a structure cut in half by a no-fly-zone enforcing NATO. Graffiti on tanks read “free Libya” but their eerie presence along the side of the road, abandoned with bullet holes, is a constant reminder of a recent violent revolution that maintains a grasp on the minds of the “free” Libyans.
“That is where his snipers hid, on the top of that insurance building.” My Uncle relayed the battle stories of the surrounding infrastructure as told to him by his wife’s family, Misurata natives.
Trips to Misurata have become a hajj of nationalism. Tripolitans, never having ventured east before the war, enter the bullet ridden city in packed cars with their families to celebrate the victory over Gaddafi’s forces which enabled the rebels to progress on to Tripoli. After moving beyond Misrata the rebels secured the capital and through which the country, a victory that everyone recognizes would have been impossible without NATO involvement. My own mind tackled the need of NATO intervention, a bittersweet savior the need for which had been implanted decades before the knight on a white steed entrance.
“And finally here, the museum.”
The destination for our envoy was a make shift trophy shelf of items seized from the Gaddafi compound, weaponry taken from his soldiers, and other war souvenirs. Out front the massive metal eagle that had once watched over the Gaddafi home in Tripoli stood defiled by spray paint and surrounded by tanks and bombs, all too large to fit into the small freestanding building. Gaddafi’s picture decorated the entrance mat. Visitors embraced the opportunity to trample his face as they entered, most pausing for additional stomps. Several of the children were particularly enthralled, staying for several minutes jumping passionately up and down. I hesitated, and gently walked across, unsure how I felt about participating in this celebration of death. Had my privileged US life left me unable to relate to my family who find unquestionable joy and beauty in the death of this, despite all his terrible acts, human? Was I disrespecting my family by avoiding the face as I walked in?
While most museums disguise their promotion and perpetuation of imperial legacies by presenting captured cultural artifacts of far off cultures and neutralizing wars through sterile scientific presentation, this museum did not hide behind a faux objective lens. Through my discussions with people here, I find that most are so devoted to upholding the infallible depiction of the rebel army that they couldn’t fathom another form of depicting the recently passed war.
Pictures of the rebels and civilians who lost their lives in Misurata lined the walls. Child art projects from during the revolution simultaneously celebrate the new Libya and cartooned the now deceased leader, who had been hiding in exile at the time of their creation.
Images of blood splattering from amputated limbs served as the prosecuting evidence for the adjacent walls lined with passport pictures of those, both Libyan and not, who had betrayed the rebel cause in the city. A wanted list of vengeance hunting those who’s condemning choice was to fight for the status quo.
The enthusiastic curator, points to different objects. He lifts a cardboard cover to expose a picture of a young soldier in street clothes; he lay sprawled on the street, having taken a bullet to the head, large portions of his mind exploded on the pavement. My grandmother, brought to tears, sat in a chair near the entrance for the rest of our visit simultaneously crying and praying. As her sobs and holy whispers were the background sound for the remainder of my visit to this museum, I found comfort in her response and emotion, for it was the only one visibly displayed by my family with which I could relate.
“This is the best museum ever!” One cousin proclaimed. He didn’t see the nauseous look on my face before he bounced away, his attention now shifting to another missile. “Look”
I simultaneously fought down my lunch and back my tears. Like most USians, I have a fairly high tolerance for gore that has been built up from years of intoxicating violent images in almost every movie or show I had watched. Additionally, my father had never hid the brutal realities of the Arab world, and had often shown his small children videos and photos of Israeli and Gaddafi violence. I was able to glaze over most of the bloody pictures, but my families interactions with the exhibit pushed my emotions over the edge. I could accept the bloody truth of the war, but not the truth of its impression on my family members. The fight for freedom had released another reality, that war stops the hearts of the losers and taints the hearts of the victors.
In the corner, a large screen TV rolled videos of the fighting. The curator had the remote in his hand and was anxiously queing up the video of Gaddafi’s death. My uncle gathered the younger members of the family to watch. My three-year old cousin, who had shot me repeatedly with a fake handgun the night before, squirmed behind her mother, using her mother’s leg as a shield from the gruesome images flashing on the screen. I had seen it many times before. Arab news channels had played it proclaiming Gaddafi’s death. US channels had played it under the guise of news, but with the subtext of Libyan barbarity, and was received as porn for the curious westerner, hungry for images of a revolting east.
The newscasters back in the US had been unable to sympathize with the population that had spent their entire life watching their family members murdered by the colonel bleeding at their feet. The soldiers now enacted their revenge in kicks and pistol whips. I had distracted myself from the video in the past with critiques of the broadcasting and how emphasizing and demonizing the violence used against Gaddafi ignored the systemic violence, the barbarism, in drone attacks and occupations their own nation participated in. The newscasters in the west had always reported the death of Gaddafi with a strong implied conclusion that Libyans were irrational and violent, and therefore inferior in their behaviors. In the museum, my family watched, unrepentant, at the leaders final moments.
“He was a terrible man” they had told me each time I raised an objection. “He deserved to die”. Yes, I understand for the rebels to succeed, Gaddafi would have had to die, but must this death be celebrated instead of mourned as a necessary evil of war? If we cannot extend our morality to Gaddafi himself, then at least to his soldiers who were either socialized to support the fallen leader or so economically limited they sought a soldiers pay. Do their mangled bodies deserve to be broadcast as the inevitable justice for those who opposed the revolution? Could the nationwide mourning not include all the victims in its prayers? Or was there only faith enough for the rebel victims whose faces lined the walls inside of the museum.
In coping with the war, the dominant narrative in Libya has clinched relentlessly to an understanding of the war biblically entrenched in good and evil. The rebels cannot be comprehended outside of angelic perfection. As often done in war, the rebels and citizens of Libya had diluted the brutal reality of death and war by dehumanizing those at the other end of their 17 year-old soldier’s gun. Those dressed in green, often from the neighboring town, were repeatedly described as not Libyan and not Muslim through the duration of the war. The same justification echoes now. They weren’t like us and they wanted to kill us. Do they seek to convince me, or themselves?
My hope for Libya is contingent on destroying the boundaries between the good and bad in the narrative of the revolution and post revolution politics. In order to move on from war and into creating a new state, Libyans must accept the limitations of all new leadership and their own potential for corruption. Accepting the imperfections of the military, and thus the fallibility of the rebels’ side of the conflict, would open up the opportunity to understand that Gaddafi forces were composed of humans, their neighbors and family, capable of logic, emotion, and even good. Rehumanizing the ‘enemy’ is the emotional cost of rediscovering our own humanity, that is the nuances and contradictions that make us less than perfect. They must recognize the rebel faults from during the revolution, including the massacre of surrendering or captured opposition, lynching of non-Libyans suspected of fighting with Gaddafi, and other impulsive actions unjustifiable even in the midst of war. Perhaps even recognize that all aspects of Gaddafi’s existence were not dripping in Satanism. It is, of course, recognizing the complexities of the individual that allow us to understand the corrupting abilities of power and the power of the structures that lead some people to act beyond our own rationalization and comprehension.
Without accepting and acknowledging the humanity of all the characters in the current war narrative and the resulting government, a humanity that includes a susceptibility to corruption and vengeance, Libyans will leave the most powerful agencies in the nation vulnerable to unregulated abuse, flourishing within a false belief in Libyan Rebel exceptionalism. The people must be cognizant of their leader’s capability to behave against their will, against their morals, to keep history from repeating itself. After all, Gaddafi’s 42 year presidency started with a revolution.
Breaking down the binary framing will allow for another crucial realization: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Third party influence, even if accepted should be heavily scrutinized. People here are already wary of US involvement and NATO’s role in the revolution. But the USA will exploit hesitancy. A stronger stance is necessary if the nation is to maintain any of its sovereignty in a mostly US dominated international scene.
These hopes live in the little part of me that believes, or needs to believe, in any agency for Libyans and Libya. Are the only roads to nationhood strictly routed like the guiding rails at a slaughterhouse by impeding capitalism, lust for oil, and other factors, dictating a determined, unknown but likely unfavorable, outcome?
The thought of Nablus has been haunting me constantly over the past several months. Both the prospect of returning to the Arab world this summer in my current trip to Libya and the realization that my students and friends are more than a year beyond my last memories of them have brought these recollections to the surface. Though only two nations away from where I lay now, Palestine feels like another realm of my existence that is always so far removed but constantly calling. An abandoned home. My junior year of college- the fall in Jordan and spring in Palestine- proved to be a powerful experience. Despite being dictated a bit too extensively by a guy, that year has been the single most life changing experience I have had. I often refer to parts of my life as pre-Palestine and post-Palestine. Though the ‘traveling changed me’ rhetoric is often overplayed and exaggerated, I don’t know how else to explain the transformation. I don’t remember how I was before or how to be how I was. I occasionally catch glimpses of the past in outdated expectations of me some people still hold and in old pieces of my writing, but the recently past me is a looming stranger.
Thankfully, before my time in Palestine I lived in Amman, Jordan, which for me, served as the “Levantine for Dummies” version of the Arab world. Though the language, culture, and food are similar to Palestine, the penalty for inefficiently conforming is less painful. Problems from insufficient Arabic vocabulary were eased by the proficient English skills of most Jordanians and too scandalous of clothes resulted in stares but never real danger. I had the culture and language training needed to make the transition to Nablus, with regards to culture and language, easy.
Shattered and angry hearted I lost myself in Nablus. I lost what I had come to know as myself and left a different person, but also, I allowed my self to become lost within my experiences and time in Nablus. Palestine occupies a conflicted part of my heart. The pain that I experienced while I was there is unmatched by any emotional or physical experience I have had. (My week in the hospital on morphine with a ruptured spleen after being beaten by a NY “mountain” takes second) Yet, through being so recklessly damaged, I entered into the community of Nablus with an exposed wound, humbled by my vulnerability; I sought refuge and healing in my students, friends, and roommates. The result was a transformed self that, I believe, could not have occurred without an un-ignorable awareness of my own imperfections. I was humbled by my own privilege and made aware of my own relative weakness. Spending time with victims of unjust prison sentences, domestic violence, and deep losses, I was ashamed by my own low tolerance for emotional pain. I began to develop a more balanced perspective on my life. Some things, like the powerful conversations I have and my family became elevated in importance. Others, like making money, focusing on what people think of me, and the hardest of all, holding on to painful romantic relationships, have finally found their proper place in the back of my mind.
In the past year in a half I have begun photography and drawing. My relationship with a camera is one which I have pondered relentlessly. On one hand I love that photography forces me to find the spectacular in the mundane. I must stop and take in all aspects of a scene- shapes, lighting, colors, etc.- in order to get the effect I desire in my photograph. I also think that it allows me learn about myself. As I compose a photograph, the choice of subject, the zoom, and various other factors are conditional to my preference and I believe a photo tells us more about the person behind the camera than the subject in front of the lens. My concern is that a camera places a literal barrier between the self and the other, forcing me to remove myself from the scene I am documenting. In addition, photography is inherently exotifying as a photographer selects the extraordinary elements of a scene for documentation. This particularly comes into play with tourist photography, where I tend to (and I believe most do) take pictures of the things most different or unusual from my own normal life. The result is a documented reminder of all the relatively “extreme” parts of a place, and not the ordinary.
The culmination of exotifying images held as depicting truth and an artist placing themselves removed from the subject was the major and dangerous flaw of an event in which a photography professor at our school presented her photos from Saudi Arabia. I watched shaking in fury as image after image of hijabed women and un-translated Arabic flashed before the naïve US audience that bought all descriptions of racism, sexism, and oppression as factual. (I was the only one who asked towards the end of the Q&A if she spoke arabic or tried to learn. She answered “no”.)
For the time being I find photography as an effective way of making me slow down and appreciate where I am but I try not to forget that my photographs are subjective (Take this as a warning that my photographs- and any photos- are only how I see a place at that moment.)
I have also continued to learn to play the guitar and become a more aggressive and unapologetic activist. I’ve adopted a dog and been accepted into law school.