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Discordant Voices

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By Amina Zarrugh
Posted: Nov. 9 2012

Amina Zarrugh, a sociology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, focuses her research on gender, religion and nationalism in Libya. She has family roots in the capital city of Tripoli, Libya, where she frequently visits each summer to observe the atmosphere of politics and social life under the Gaddafi regime and during the revolution.

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Tripoli, Libya.Photo courtesy of Amina Zarrugh.

A national survey released by the Pew Research Center last week illustrates increased skepticism among the American public regarding whether the Arab Spring will "benefit" the United States or the Middle East. This uncertainty stems in part from the recent attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Discourses have questioned whether the Arab uprisings were really "worth it" given the loss of U.S. lives. Contrast these sentiments with the collective condemnations of the violence by Libyans, with statements like "Islam is not about killing innocent people" and "We demand justice for Stevens" appearing on signs in Benghazi and Tripoli "sympathy protests" following the attack.

The attitudes expressed by Libyan protesters - in the recent attack and arguably since the inception of their revolutionary movement - have been overshadowed by emphases from the media on a series of "-isms" (terrorism, tribalism, and sectarianism). During the protracted conflict, "Lawrence of Arabia" reels were resurrected from their Orientalist graveyards - apparently only superficially buried - and served as the clarifying lens by which to comprehend contemporary politics and identities in North Africa.

These discussions and the requisite fears they produce have usurped any and all conversations about the country. The hubris of questions about "worth" implies that four American deaths are comparable to that of

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Tripoli, Libya. Photo courtesy of Amina Zarrugh.

thousands of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, Syrians and Yemenis during the course of their respective uprisings. In order to remedy the omissions that have led to such troublesome parallels, we ought to begin by consulting the indigenous perspectives seldom summoned in these pronouncements of "benefits" and "drawbacks."

During my most recent visit in July to my father's hometown of Tripoli, I found wall art and graffiti to be among the forms of communication that can offer us Libyan perspectives. Hardly a patch of wall remains bare as so many are canvas to colorful and vibrant commemorations. The street art is expressive of both the sheer ecstasy of freedom from years of brutal repression and the excessive transaction of blood that accompanied this possibility. Expressions are of longing, love and loss.

One of the most vivid illustrations was that of a large-scale blue and red dove whose shape spelled the word "peace" in English. Yet another featured a faceless individual changing masks from one of green to the restored monarchical green-black-red flag of the revolution. Alongside this face in transition was the statement "Open your eyes. Be free." These messages promote unity, peaceful change and solidarity, which contrast strikingly from preeminent discourses in the United States about Libya and the broader Arab and Muslim worlds.

It is undeniably a time for critical conversations about the "Arab Spring" that not only address terrorism but other issues such as racism and sexism. However, it is also a moment to listen. The sister-in-law of Kais Al-Hilali, an assassinated graffiti artist, said of his death: "Gaddafi killed him twice: the man and his art." In our neglect of their perspectives and vocabularies, Libyans will experience another violence: being silenced.