In Libya, ink-stained hands pen a new chapter

Into a sun-washed courtyard, yards away from a street full of blaring car horns and waving flags, Laila Gurgi and her husband Mohammad al Taboli step out of the Ali Oureyeth High School. The couple has just voted for the first time in their lives, and they are smiling.

“It is difficult to explain how we are feeling,” she said. “It’s like a dream. Today we touched the sky.”

A stranger, Khansaa al-Obeydi, approaches to congratulate the couple on voting.

“We suffered a lot. Today we forgot everything except our martyrs,” al-Obeydi says.

Saturday marks Libya’s first multi-party election since February 1952. There are over 2000 candidates vying for 200 seats in a new temporary assembly tasked with picking a cabinet and appointing a new prime minister. There are lingering security concerns around the country, and many worry that some groups pushing for greater autonomy in the eastern region of Cyrenaica will destabilize a country recovering from a bloody revolution. However, the residents of Tripoli today downplayed these threats and took to the streets en masse, celebrating what many see as “victory day.”

“There is no east and west,” says Obedyi, herself originally from Libya’s eastern region but living in Tripoli.

Volunteer security forces were present at voting stations around the city, many armed only with walkie-talkies to contact armed security forces in case problems arise.

“We are holding the peace,” says Khaled Taghdi, a former member of a revolutionary Tripoli defense force present at the Ali Oureyeth voting center.

Taghdi, whose weathered face is partially covered by an indigo scarf, says that he joined the Tripoli police force, under the control of the Interior Ministry, after they insisted that militia members give up their arms or sign a contract with the Ministry.

“In any case, we are not giving up our arms until Libya is in good hands,” he says, although he declines to define what would constitute a Libya “in good hands.”

“We just need to collect the guns. That is the first step for Libya,” insists Gurgi. She says the second step is to improve the higher education system.

Her husband, al Taboli, agrees.

“A better education system will allow us to exit Gaddafi’s mind and enter a new Libyan mindset,” he says.

A woman, waiting in line with her daughter to vote at the same voting center, also tells of an ailing education system, complaining that although her daughter is studying at university, she speaks no English.

“Gaddafi Arabized everything. We want English!” she exclaims before she, her daughter and her friend shuffle excitedly into the voting booth without giving their names.

In Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square, cars are lined up bumper to bumper and drivers are honking in celebration. Most cars are festooned with several Libyan flags. Riders climb onto car roofs to dance and shout and beat on drums. Those who have cast ballots extend their ink-stained index fingers, proof of their vote, together with their middle fingers in a sort of peace-sign to fellow countrymen.

Celebrations stretch along the main thoroughfare of Omar al Mukhtar Avenue, named after the Cyrenaican freedom fighter and martyr who battled Italian colonizers in the early 20th century and was hanged in 1931. An old woman burns incense on the side of the avenue, inundating cars with smoke to ward off the “evil eye,” a traditional regional superstition. A policeman uses his car’s loudspeaker to chant: “May Libya live free!”

At the ‘Turkish Mosque’ primary school and temporary voting center in the Tripoli neighborhood of Souk Al Jouma, voting center president and headmaster of the school Abdul Ghani Jibrani proudly shows how there are no guns to be found on premises. Jibrani says he and his fellow volunteers have not slept in 72 hours and have been rewarded with a day absent any hiccups.

“You are on free land. Before we felt like refugees,” Ismail Hafida, a pharmaceutical supplies distributor, says as he exits the voting booth.

Explaining the importance of today’s vote, Hafida is interrupted by calls of ‘Allahu Akbar,’ or ‘God is greater,’ and the voting center erupts with the cry.

“Before, foreigners associated ‘Allahu Akbar’ with jihad. Now ‘Allahu Akbar’ means freedom, dignity,” says Hafida.

Hafida says he voted for the al Asala party because it believes in ‘real’ Sharia, or Islamic law, and the banning of usury and dance halls.

At the Sukayna bint Hussein Higher Education Institute in Tripoli, male and female voters are separated by a plastic cordon wrapped across mulberry trees.

Ahmad Abdullah Kishour, a blind man, exits the voting booths led by his son Mohaned.

“We’ve been waiting 42 terrible years. We just need 5 years more and you will see. Libya will be a modern, progressive country,” he says.

Sitting at a study desk in the shade of the institute’s courtyard, a one-armed man tells his story of hardship under former dictator Muammar al-Qadhafi.

Rida Nasser lived in the United States with his then-American-wife from 1978 to 1997 and eventually became an American citizen. In 1994, he began making trips back to Libya to see his family. In ’97, accused of working for a foreign embassy, Qadhafi’s intelligence unit arrested him and put him in prison for 3 months, he says.

“They beat me, took my car, took my license, my social security card, even my passport,” says Nasser, who could not retrieve his American citizenship as there was no US Embassy operating in Tripoli at the time. “I lost everything.”

Today, Nasser says he feels “newly born” with the elections, and he has brought his two sons, aged 8 and 10, to witness the historic day.

“I’m like a big baby. You know in Christmas time when you are so excited to open presents? I feel like that,” he said

“He’s a big baby? I’m a big baby today,” says Nasser Mohammed, a retired aviation engineer.

On September 17, 2011, the day that the Libyan revolution began, Mohammed says that men came to his house late at night. Mohammed’s 14-year-old son answered the door to find a group of armed men looking for his father. A young man grabbed Mohammed before the man’s colleagues put a bag on his head, whisked him into a van, and beat his head with the butts of their guns intermittently for hours.

“They said: ‘Kill him! Kill him like a rat and throw him into the sea,” Mohammed says. He says he was accused of being an anti-Qadhafi activist, but was saved by one of his captor’s insistence on calling a superior and presenting Mohammed to the superior. Upon inspection, the superior was convinced of Mohammed’s innocence and sent him back home to his terrified family, where he spent 6 days convalescing in bed.

“They used to play with us. There was no government. It was a show, a 42 year long show,” he says.

“Look at my wife,” Muhammad says, pointing to a smiling woman standing under a tree, holding hands with her small daughter after exiting a voting booth.

“He’s a big baby? I’m a big baby too!” he repeats.

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