On the Screen, Libyans Learned About Everything but Themselves

For decades, moviegoers’ love of Western pop culture blacked out any reflective cinema

On the Screen, Libyans Learned About Everything but Themselves
Michael J Fox walking across the street in a scene from the film ‘Back To The Future’, 1985 / Universal / Getty Images

The first Hollywood film I watched in a theater was “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” in 2017 in Tunis — the movie in which Disney definitively ruined the franchise forever. Before that, in Libya, I used to buy pirated movies on CDs, or download them from illegal websites. Even the Libyan government got in on the piracy racket, illegally packaging the Arabic-speaking Disney channel along with 19 others and selling it just for 150 Libyan dinars. I say “just,” but 150 Libyan dinars was around $100 U.S., which for some Libyans in the 1990s was a month’s salary. Even in Libya’s “state of the people,” stolen entertainment wasn’t for everyone.

On occasion, those 20 channels would suddenly disappear and be replaced by 20 identical versions of the state-owned Al-Jamahiriya TV channel whenever our “Brother Leader,” the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, decided to speak to the people. Kids like me would be annoyed by the change from their favorite cartoon to footage of Brother Leader speaking for hours. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see this as part of how the state controlled what we saw, knew and even thought.

My friends who grew up in the center of Tripoli have told me how, in the 1990s, they could occasionally persuade their fathers to let them rent a videocassette of a Disney film from particular stores. Living on the outskirts of the city, as I did, I never had that pleasure and only discovered them in the mid-2000s when, as a teenager, I started buying pirated CDs.

From then on, I watched almost all the classic Disney movies. Around me, Libyans were buying satellite dishes for their homes so they could access the Egyptian Nilesat, with its hundreds of free-to-air channels. In 2005, I bought my first computer and began watching pirated movies in earnest: I became hooked on Hollywood films — “The Godfather” series, “Lord of the Rings,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” even older films like “12 Angry Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Back to the Future.”

Although “Back to the Future,” made in 1985, was my least favorite of them all, I had a certain relationship with it, as it was the first time outside the “Libya universe” I saw Libya presented in a film. Well, to be exact, it was a mythical version of Libya. It was the first time I realized how little the world knew about us, even in a film with a multimillion-dollar budget.

You know the scene I’m talking about. It’s when Doc finally demonstrates to Marty that his time-traveling DeLorean works, only for the people he stole the plutonium that powers it to show up. “Oh, my God,” says Doc. “They found me. I don’t know how, but they found me.” “Who?” asks Marty. “Who do you think?!” says Doc, “The LIBYANS!”

Two armed men show up, driving a Volkswagen camper van, beloved of American hippies. One, silent, wears a keffiyeh in the Gulf Arab style. The other, for some unknown reason, is wearing a beanie and shouts in an eastern Arabic dialect. Neither actor, from their IMDb page, appears to be Libyan or Arab.

I never understood why “Back to the Future” would depict Libyans as a terrorist group, until I managed to link the production and release date to the Reagan era Libyan-American conflict, which we used to call “The American Barbarian Aggression.” The movie was released a year before the infamous West Berlin discotheque bombing of 1986, which our Brother Leader’s henchmen were responsible for. Ten days after the bombing, the U.S. Army bombed Libya in what Reagan called “Operation El Dorado Canyon.” A lot of things have happened since then, and a lot of movies have been produced, but America and the world’s picture of Libya haven’t changed.

Later, I learned that “Back to the Future” wasn’t the first film that portrayed Libya. There were Italian and English films from the 1940s to ’60s that featured the country and its people, films such as the “Black Tent” (1956) and “Ali and the Camel” (1960). None could step out of the Orientalist vision that films set in my country should feature camels, an endless desert and belly dancers, with white men and women playing Arab people. Even in the Italian fascist propaganda promoting tourism in Libya in the 1930s, the Italians portrayed Libya as an oriental heaven where you could just chill, smoke shisha and watch some semi-naked girls dancing around.

I also learned that “Back to the Future” wasn’t the last film to portray Libya in cinema. However, the films that did focus more on the Brother Leader and his personality rather than the country itself. In the 2012 Hollywood film “The Dictator,” General Aladeen bears more than a passing resemblance to Gadhafi, and the fictional Republic of Wadiya is a deeply religious country where women are killed for fun. It was a comedy, I guess, and definitely not “woke.”

However, if “The Dictator” was “purely fictional,” the 2018 Netflix-produced film “The Angel” falls down the rabbit hole of nonsensical propaganda, as “Back to the Future” did. “The Angel” purports to tell a historical story of Ashraf Marwan, an Egyptian billionaire who has been called “the 20th century’s greatest spy.” Yet the scenes where Marwan meets Gadhafi are anything but historical.

The movie shows Marwan meeting Gadhafi in a luxury Taj Mahal style palace, with belly dancers, prostitutes — neither of which were common in Libya — and alcoholic drinks — which Gadhafi’s government had banned right after the September 1969 coup. The character playing Gadhafi speaks an odd Arabic dialect that doesn’t reflect any Libyan influence. The movie got so many facts wrong, you could argue that Wadiya’s Libya was more real than “The Angel’s.”

“13 Hours,” a Michael Bay thriller based on the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi in 2012 was panned by critics, though unfortunately not because of its portrayal of Libya. Everything is wrong: the Arabic accents, the lack of Libyan actors, the portrayal of the city and its customs. It is as if the filmmakers took previous “American Patriot” films set in Iraq, Somalia, Iran and Afghanistan and simply blended them together.

While all the films I mentioned were entirely cast and produced by Westerners, the Netflix series “Paranormal” (2020) is an Egyptian production, adapted from Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s novels of the same name. The third episode of Paranormal is set in Libya. But the episode fails to accurately portray the country; it shows an eagle-eye shot of Tunis Harbor instead of Tripoli (which, despite the conflict, could have been done) with inauthentic Libyan Tuareg characters and dialects.

The fault isn’t entirely Hollywood’s or Egypt’s. On my travels, whenever I introduce myself as Libyan, most people don’t know where I come from; those who do, either say with a comical voice, “Oh, Libya! Gadhafi!” or feel sorry that I have lived in a conflict-driven country. I remember an Irish guy I met in Amsterdam talked for an hour about how “revolutionary” the Brother Leader was, since he helped the Irish Republican Army in their struggles against the British. Our Brother Leader himself once said, with a proud voice, that no one knew Libya: “When people used to hear Libya they say, what? Lebanon? Liberia? But now everyone says, ‘Oh, Libya — Gadhafi.’”

On my travels to Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, Kenya and the Netherlands, I talked to people who knew about Gadhafi, and each had a certain portrayal of him, either as a crazy ruthless dictator or as a legendary hero. The Turks I talked to thought of him as a hero of the Islamic world; the Kenyans as a hero of the African continent; the Egyptians as the last hero of the Arab nation. But almost none connected him to a country called Libya.

However, while the world — and our Arab and Muslim brothers — didn’t know much about us, we knew too much about the world through our love of film culture.

The first ever cinema to be built in Ottoman-era Libya was an Italian cinema in 1908 that showed silent movies. Later, Italian colonialists built cinemas showing either Italian or Egyptian films; the Egyptian ones were for the Libyan audience, the Italian ones for Italians (or Libyans who started to live the Italian way). It wasn’t only films that were shown in those places but also music, plays and even boxing matches. Almost everyone used to go to the cinema in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The presence of Muslim women was rare. However, some cinema houses used to have a special day for women to attend.

From 1977 to 2011, Libya was a Jamahiriya, a new kind of political system inspired by “The Green Book” manifesto written by Gadhafi. Since the people should “govern themselves,” all private companies were declared public properties. That included cinemas.

By the 1980s, all the cinemas, theaters and production sites in the country were owned by one government entity, the Popular Committee for Cinema and Theater. For more than 30 years, it produced only low-budget films and TV series and didn’t do much for the cultural scene in Libya.

The Libyan films that were produced in Gadhafi’s era were mostly propaganda; many shared a common theme of characters fighting against capitalism, as symbolized by evil characters like greedy businessmen or beys (a Turkish word for gentleman that also means businessman in Libya). Sometimes the evil character was a sheikh who used religion to enforce the bey’s greed or a traditional male figure who enforced societal restrictions.

The good guys were mostly ordinary people who believed in Jamahiriya’s values and recited them to the audience while fighting back. To this day, you can find those same stock characters in the Libyan creative scene; I noticed the bey character appears in a current popular Libyan TV series called “Zanget Al Reeh” (“Wind Alley”).

The only film that was a commercial and creative success, at least in the Arab world, was “Lion of the Desert” (1981) by Moustapha Akkad. With its portrayal of the country, its people, its history, its culture and its struggle, I would argue that it’s the only film — to this day — that really captures Libya.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Libya was a state with many enemies, and the regime fought back by seeking to remove all Westernized ideas and Western culture. In schools, we were taught about Western cultural imperialism. In 1986, the people’s regime burned Western musical instruments, such as guitars. American, British and Italian cultural products such as films were banned, and the only way to get them inside the country was by smuggling them from Tunisia and Egypt. But all of that didn’t stop Libyans’ love of world culture, and people continued to watch Hollywood movies inside their homes. They were hungry for films, a hunger that the regime-approved fodder of simple plots, techniques and stories couldn’t satisfy.

This love is reflected in the Libyan dialect and everyday life. Like many people around the world, Libyan men affectionately called a tough guy “Rambo,” and a lot of girls I know dreamed of being Disney princesses. The love of Bob Marley went further; in Libya, I knew people who put Marley on a level close to a Murabat, the Islamic near equivalent of a saint. Friends who wanted something would implore you “wa rahmat Elbob,” or “in the name of Bob.” It wasn’t meant ironically.

When Marley died in 1981, some Libyan fans even carried an empty coffin in the streets of Tripoli to carry out Salat al-Ghaib, an Islamic ritual to pay respects to the dead when the body is absent. Before the police stopped them, Libya was one of the first countries in the Arab world where singers performed reggae music, and Libyan reggae is a popular and thriving genre in the country. We have a lot of reggae musicians who look up to Marley and sing and dress up like him.

Libyans were not fond of their own movie and drama culture. Yes, some characters and actors are still beloved and quoted, but they are mainly comedy characters. There are no iconic Libyan movie characters, remembered and revered like Adel Emam or Bruce Lee. First and foremost, Libyan cinema failed Libyan stories.

While I was writing this, I vividly recalled a home cinema where I used to watch movies. My father, uncles and cousins — 20 men, teenagers and young boys — used to gather in one room, all shouting and fighting for a good place to sit on the ground. One of my uncles would put a videocassette into the VCR, perhaps one of Lee’s films or a smuggled Rambo. When the film started, the boisterous room suddenly went very quiet. It was a collective experience, but one that also allowed us to virtually travel and see the world.

I relish those memories, but, as someone who loves both cinema and my own country, it saddens me that we learned more about the stories of other countries than that of our own.

A lot of Libyans today are still surprised to discover there were Amazigh, Tuareg and Tabu peoples in Libya before 2011. The state didn’t want them to know. Every day we discover new traditions, stories, characters, lives and local dialects that we didn’t know existed in our country. It is not only the world that doesn’t know much about Libyans; Libyans themselves don’t know much about Libyans.

Libyan creatives need to study the rich history of our country and work on delivering stories that resonate with Libyans, so they can see how much their country has to offer — both to themselves and the world. Maybe then we will see a Bedouin Rambo or a suave Fezzani spy, a Tripolitanian prince or a Cyrenaican princess. Or even just the ordinary Libyan heroes or heroines — the ones I saw all around me while growing up in Libya, and still see today — that a new generation of Libyans can look up to.

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