The Arab Spring was the main focus of many news outlets when it first began in 2011. But not many months later, the reporters moved on to another tragedy. As they always do, they flocked over the next bloodshed and affliction, like vultures despite the constant struggle and instability that plagued the countries of the Arab Spring years after the revolutions.
We frequently visited my country of origin before the revolution took place in February 2011. Every summer we returned and were greeted by familiar faces and picturesque sceneries. Looking back, my most cherished memories were those spent in my homeland.
Strange how they say that “home is where the heart is”. I have lived in a total of four different countries over the years, so my concept of home was always warped. I’ve never believed in the location of your home being wherever your heart desires, nor have I ever understood the meaning behind that statement entirely. For me, home is where people speak my native tongue, where my family resides, where my history is rooted, and where my blood runs. My home is Libya.
Libya, where beauty runs in every crevice of every structure, where you can feel the culture and the archaic stories run through the grounds you walk on, where the crash of every wave tells ancient stories of colonialism, conquest, and victory. This is where my home is. It is a place where I feel grounded and connect to something bigger, a place where I feel a strong sense of patriotism.
However, the summer of 2012 was different. It was a year after the fall of Mummar Gaddafi and the country was far from being settled. Nevertheless, my family and I were hell-bent on going back home despite the situation in Libya. Our aunts and uncles living there assured us that we had nothing to worry about, and that despite the unpredictable atmosphere we would be safe. We took their word and planed out our trip back home.
We arrived that summer and were greeted by the familiar heat and humidity. At the airport, my uncle picked us up and drove us to our house. He was a giant of a man, as tall as he was big and with a heart that matched his size. After getting our luggage and mounting his truck, we were on the route towards our house. The journey from the airport to our house was a long one, I prepared myself, got comfortable, and looked out the window.
It was at that exact moment that all the enchantment my country had, started to slowly slip away as we were confronted with the reality of the aftermath. The colorful apartments that once stood tall, were reduced to nothing more than grey rubble. On every other billboard, pictures of fallen soldiers were immortalized, serving as a constant reminder of what was sacrificed. What was once the busy bustling capital was as quiet as a ghost town. Armed soldiers were on standby on every corner, establishing an uneasiness in my stomach, as I wasn’t able to determine whether I was to feel protected or threatened.
As we were winding down the roads leading to our house, my uncle made an unexpected stop at a store. I was unable to determine what kind of store it was, but he told us that he would be right back and told my father to come with him. When they eventually came back, my uncle had a medium sized black box in his hands, he opened the trunk of the car and put it in the back. For some strange reason, we all knew not to ask any questions about the box. We stayed quiet, until we eventually reached home. I couldn’t help but notice my dad’s discomfort since coming back from the store and I couldn’t help my curiosity either. What was in that box?
It wasn’t long until we found out.
When we arrived home, my uncle turned to my dad and said, “let me teach you how to shoot it.”
My dad can only be described as a teddy bear. He’s the most un-confrontational and peaceful man I know, someone who believes in negotiating through issues and never resorting to violence. This made seeing the large AK-47 in his hands just as striking as seeing a baby with a bazooka. My mother made my siblings and I enter the house, not wanting us to see anything first hand. As we entered the house, we heard a loud bang from the gun being fired outside, and we figured my dad was a quick learner.
Having lived all of our lives abroad and never having been subjected to gun culture first hand, this all came as a shock to us. The loud crashing sound of the bullet was like thunder and struck each one of us like lightning, especially my 10-year-old brother. Seeing our reaction, my mother took charge of the situation. Being the strong woman that she was, she told us, “it’s just for protection, and that everything was going to be fine.” Something about her calm and reassuring tone made everything okay again.
But that first night we spent back home wasn’t okay nor mundane. However, despite how much everything had changed, one thing hadn’t and it was our house. Everything was precisely where it had always been. Everything was untouched, and that brought us all a sense of safety and security. We felt like no matter what, it would be our fortress, our house, our home that would protect us from everything. And for a moment, as the last minutes of light were cast upon us from the sun-down, we forgot about everything outside, it was as peaceful and ethereal as entering a twilight-zone. And just as the sun departed from the sky, the night came with a pitch-black darkness reeling us back into reality.
After dinner, we all left to our rooms to lay down and rest from the jetlag. And almost immediately after I laid my head on my pillow, the gunshots began. They sounded so close, like they were happening right on our roof. One crash was followed by another, instilling fear right down to my bones. They were so loud, I thought to myself there is no way I’m hearing guns, they must be missiles, maybe even something stronger. The whole house seemed to shake. I heard my little brother open the door to his room and dart down the stairs to my parent’s bedroom hoping to feel more secure sleeping between them. I, too, left my room and went to my older sister’s room.
I opened her door quietly, “May I sleep with you tonight,” I asked her hesitantly.
“Yeah,” she said as she made room for me on her bed.
I laid in my sisters bed that night as the sounds of the bullets outside continued. With every pop, I thought of my grandparents who were closer to the city, I thought of my cousins who had heard the NATO missiles in their sleep for a year, I thought of what once was, and I thought of the price of democracy. And how much the price of it is worth everything.
Despite it being a price that can only be paid by the currency of violence and blood. A price that banalised a whole country’s view on brutality. A price that the youth of my country continues to pay, almost six years after the revolution. A price that was orchestrated by foreigners who assume they know better, despite them never having to sleep under the sounds of bullets.
Cover image by Surian Soosay via Flickr
Read more about events from around the Arabic world with Lebanese politics here