With Kalashnikov Burgers and Black Comedy, the Libyans are trying to get out of the conflict

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MISURATA, Libya — When Taha al-Baskini won a role in a new play about soldiers reuniting after being killed in battle, his costume was already in his closet. His camouflage pants on stage were the same ones he wore as a militia fighter in Libya’s last civil war a few years ago, when an airstrike injured Mr al-Baskini and killed several of his comrades as they defended their city.

“People are sitting and talking to you, and the next moment it’s bodies,” said Mr al-Baskini, 24, whose brother died in the same conflict, after a recent rehearsal for the play , “When we were alive,” at the National Theater in Misurata, Libya’s third largest city. “You never forget when they were smiling and talking moments before.”

As an actor, “I try to show people reality,” he continued. “The message of the play is: ‘No more war.’ We’ve had enough of war. We want to taste life, not death.

To achieve a lasting peace, Libya must not only emerge from the current political crisis, but also demobilize a generation of young men who grew up knowing only war.

Misurata, whose powerful militias played a key role in overthrowing longtime Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi in Libya’s 2011 Arab Spring revolt, is full of such men. More than 40 of them – mostly veterans of the Libyan conflicts – now perform at the National Theatre, a former meeting hall of Colonel Gaddafi’s political party. They hope to bring entertainment to Misurata, they say, and a semblance of normalcy.

But there is no way to avoid the city’s damage, physical and psychic, on stage.

“I’d rather do something funny to lighten people’s moods, instead of reminding them of the friends and brothers they’ve lost,” said Anwar al-Teer, 49, an actor and war veteran who has raised funds and invested his own earnings in converting the venue, which city officials rented as a wedding venue, into the National’s 330-seat theater.

“But the theater is impacted by the Libyan reality, even if you don’t want it to be,” he said. “A play is like a mirror reflecting the conscience of our society, and our society is sick.”

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The 2011 Libyan revolution turned rebels into heroes. In the years that followed, as the country split into rival political factions and warring regions, many former rebels and new combatants joined armed militias, hoping to defend their hometowns or simply earn a decent living. life. Militias could pay three times the average wage or more.

It wasn’t just the money that attracted. At a time when guns speak the loudest and wearing a militia uniform commands deference, young men begin to imitate the style of combatants, even if they have never fired a shot: drive a pickup. trucks with darkened windows, with long beards, dressed in fatigues.

“They were seen as heroes,” said Mohammed Ben Nasser, 27, a rising star in Libya’s small but growing TV industry who also stars in “When We Were Alive.” “That was how you got money, power, cars.”

Mr. al-Teer, the theater owner, used the social cachet to entice young men to perform instead. Put them on stage, he says, and their social media likes will pile up. (Women are in the audience, and a few perform, but in a country that remains deeply conservative, most of its actors are men.)

“It’s like with TikTok,” he said. “Everyone wants to be famous.”

During Colonel Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, no one was allowed to be more famous than the dictator. The soccer players’ shirts had no names, only numbers, lest they win a sequel. Paranoid about what it saw as the contamination of foreign ideas, the regime banned foreign films. If Libyans saw anything else during this time, it was through smuggled videotapes and possibly illicit Internet downloads.

Thus, Mr. al-Teer teaches many Misuratans how to be a theater audience, how far to clap. He stages Libyan and foreign comedies, tragedies and stories. He plans to add film screenings, which will make his hall the first cinema in Misurata since the few authorized halls closed under Colonel Gaddafi during the revolution. A father from Misuratan recently told him that when he opens it will be the first cinema his children have ever visited.

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Many pieces carry an anti-war message. “When We Were Alive” is a dark comedy in which dead soldiers return to confront their general, who survived and went on to glory. One character had joined for the money, another for the glory, a third because he wanted to fight. They all ended up the same: dead.

“I feel like the public knows what we are talking about,” Mr al-Baskini said. “Generals make political deals with the enemy, while we fight and give our lives.”

Mr. al-Baskini still bears scars on his left palm and left knee from Libya’s last civil war, from April 2019 to June 2020, in which forces from the east of the country marched on Tripoli, the capital.

A three-hour drive along the coast west of Misurata, Tripoli is also marred by violence: half-destroyed houses still litter the outskirts of Tripoli, and families still occasionally jostle to bring children home from school. school when rival militias clash.

A company that sheds light on such violence may seem misplaced. Yet right downtown is a burger joint called Guns & Buns, where most of the menu items are named after guns. The Kalashnikov burger comes with mayo; pomegranate with onion rings; the PK machine gun with tomatoes.

“DO NOT CALL 911, WE JUST MAKE BURGERS,” reads the back wall – although the “N’T” has been erased.

Owner Ali Mohamed Elrmeh, 40, opened Guns & Buns in 2016 as Libyans struggled to expel Islamic State. He said the concept was controversial, but it helped his company stand out. It has become so successful that he is about to open another branch.

“Now we have children, teenagers, even girls – when they hear the sound of guns they can tell if it’s a Kalashnikov, a 9mm pistol or a grenade,” did he declare. “This is the Libyan reality. But my idea was that when you say “Kalashnikov” or “PK”, these things should not scare people. Now you’re kidding.

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Libyans hardly needed the names of burgers or plays to remind them of the violence that permeated every aspect of life. After more than a decade, Libyans say, they are tired of the lawlessness, impunity and violence that the militias have come to champion. These days, dressing like a rebel is more likely to attract snickers and nods than copycats.

Mr. Ben Nasser, the TV actor, said he had many friends who embraced the militia culture as a teenager, including some who dropped out of school to join. Today, the trend is fading and most have returned to college or business. A few, seeing his success, joined him in show business.

“They realized: ‘We are fighters, but we have nothing’,” he said. “They started to be ashamed of being fighters, because now it’s a shame for your family to be a fighter. When they looked at others, they saw that you could succeed without being a fighter.

The financial incentive to fight is also fading: Libya has been largely stable for two years, though politicians continue to pay militias for their own protection. One such politician, Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, prime minister of Libya’s internationally recognized Tripoli-based government, blunted the demand for militia jobs (and gained popularity) by handing out grants to families and newlyweds.

But recent clashes between militias loyal to Mr Dbeiba and other allies of rival Sirte-based Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha are a reminder that violence is never far away.

“People are too used to these things,” said Alaa Abugassa, 32, a dentist ordering a Guns & Buns burger on a recent afternoon. “It has become part of their reality. It’s the new normal.

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