Is WAS Libya
Dapper gentlemen relax on café chairs under stone colonnades - a beautiful architectural leftover of Italian imperialism, gaze out on Libya’s horizon as it starts to open to the free world. Above the men is scrawled graffiti that reads ‘Eminem’. Kids on Japanese motorcycles scoot around the city’s Assah al Khadra square, heading home to play on Sony PlayStation or watch ‘Friends’ on satellite TV.
Before I went, my idea of the country consisted of TV images of Muammar Qaddafi, and a few catchphrases: ‘Lockerbie’, ‘terrorist state’, ‘sanctions’. I was interested in seeing what Libya’s larger reality looked like.
Having photographed in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime and Iraq under Saddam Hussein I felt prepared to work within strict rules of dictatorship. But at this point in time, Libya was in a state of attempted self-reinvention after years of political turmoil international embargoes and repression.
Libya’s interaction with the West has been tense at the best of times, and explosive at the worse over the past three decades. Qaddafi’s support for an independent Palestinian state and for the Iranian Revolution placed him at loggerheads with US foreign policy. The low points in US-Libya relations came during the Reagan administration with the bombing of Berlin disco in 1986, and of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Libya was implicated in both attacks.
Sanctions were imposed first by the US and later on by the UN that effectively crippled the country economically. Gaddafi once the openly ruthless dictator is now hoping to restyle himself as a peaceful leader, inviting Western and Asian businessmen to help revive his country's oil production. The new US embassy is currently being re-established in Tripoli. the country would seem to be opening wide its arms.
Understandably Libyans are playing with their new-found freedom is like a teenager with their father’s sports car, aching to floor the accelerator but holding back in case it all goes horribly wrong. The county’s businessmen eye this new open door policy with skepticism; on the other hand I met young people who talked excitedly about starting up Starbucks franchises and nightclubs.
But of course 35 years of oppression do not just go away, and paranoia remains palpable in the air. Also, the country’s economy is by no means on solid ground with borders opening to the rest of Africa, the ranks of jobless Libyans are being swollen with refugees.
While there are new economic possibilities and freedoms for some, most of the Libya's population have suffered terribly during this period, and are still struggling. But I sense that many Libyans are wondering if the glitter on the Western horizon is just a mirage that could evaporate at any point into thin air.
'This Is Libya' was the Aperture Foundation's first commissioned photographic essay and supported by a grant from The Joy of Giving Something / Forward Thinking Museum
Words and Images - Jason Florio