On the streets of Tripoli, freedom and jubilation

TRIPOLI, Libya

I was walking down one of this city's largest thoroughfares on Thursday with my eldest son, 17-year old Hyyan, after the news — at that point, still unconfirmed — broke that Col. Moammar Gadhafi had been killed.

We heard the sounds of different firearms exploding around us as people celebrated. Hyyan provided commentary in the authoritative tones of an expert: "that's an RPG, that's a 14.5 mm, that's a 24." We chuckled when we heard the sound of a rifle amid the heavier artillery — in Libya, the rifle is hardly considered to be a serious weapon anymore.

Hyyan had been living with his maternal grandparents in nearby Zawiyah in August when the revolutionaries entered the town and the Gadhafi forces began their indiscriminate shelling, and it became impossible to get him home for a while. He had a difficult time then, falling asleep and awakening to the sound of gunfire. Eventually, he learned the skill of distinguishing the sounds that the different weapons made; he's probably better at that than at telling apart the voices of his relatives and friends.

From the beginning, he had wanted to volunteer and go off to fight with the revolutionaries, but I persuaded him not to, arguing that he was still a minor and, moreover, untrained. However, faced with his insistence and my own fears that he would run off to join the revolutionary forces behind my back, I acquiesced to a middle ground, and let him join our neighborhood's military council to guard the area. Now, walking down the street, he regretted not having brought his Kalashnikov with him, and not being able to join in the joyous celebration.

Before we began walking, Hyyan and I had been sitting outside a small coffee shop in the Zawiyat Dahmani neighborhood, close to the center of town. Joy had been spreading across the city with the news that Sirte had been liberated, and suddenly, the shout went up that Gadhafi was dead, and the chants of celebration and praise to God grew louder.

Hyyan and I were initially skeptical, worried that the rumor would prove to be unfounded, as had happened with earlier news about the capture of some of Gadhafi's adult children. I went into the coffee shop to watch the television. Al Jazeera was attributing the news to one of its sources, but it was still unconfirmed. Then I heard a man shout into his cell phone, "The dog's dead! The dog's dead!" I approached one of the young men celebrating raucously outside the coffee shop and told him that I was afraid the news wasn't true. He replied that he hoped that it was, then added that it was more important that Sirte had been liberated, because that was what really meant that Libya was free.

Hyyan and I got into our car and drove off. The streets were packed, and the air was electric with the energy of victory that springs from the sound of cars' horns and shouts of joy and "Allahu Akbar" coming from the throats of men, women and children. The red, green and black independence flags were waved by people on the sidewalks and gripped by taut arms that emerged from car windows. As we approached downtown, the traffic got worse; some streets were completely blocked. Revolutionary volunteers and policemen were directing traffic with flags and victory signs.

When we finally found a place to park, we got out and I was able to walk and get a better look at the street.

Cars passed us, carrying passengers who themselves were carried on the waves of a powerful joy. On the back of a pickup truck, a group of young men sang and clapped, one of them wearing a terrible wig, a symbol of Gadhafi's famously wild haircut, which had given him the disparaging nickname Abu Shafshufa (father of the fuzzy hair). Another young man, in Algeria Square, held up a large portrait of Gadhafi in traditional women's clothes. A beautiful young girl in modern dress stuck her slim torso out of the back window of a car driven by a woman, with two other women also inside — and called to a young man standing on the sidewalk, probably a family member, to join them.

In Martyrs' Square, the crowd was larger, and the gunfire louder and more frequent. Hyyan told me not to go in, worried that I would be overcome by the crowd and the stench of gunfire. I heard a voice calling my name, and looked around to find a young revolutionary whom I knew. We exchanged greetings and congratulated each other, and spoke briefly about our hopes and concerns for the future.

Then Hyyan and I got back in the car and started to drive home. We passed a young revolutionary who asked me to turn on my orange blinkers — I noticed most of the cars had done so, too — as a sign of celebration. A woman was distributing sweets to all the drivers. All along the Wall Road that goes around Tripoli (said to be named for the wall the Italians erected to keep Libyan nationalist fighters out of the city), many people stood chanting "Allahu Akbar," and spraying the cars with orange blossom water, a custom traditionally reserved for weddings. One of the young men shouted as he showered us: "A new life! A new life!"

Omar Abulqasim Alkikli is a writer and a former political prisoner. This essay was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.

© 2011 New York Times

On the streets of Tripoli, freedom and jubilation 10/22/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 24, 2011 10:17am]

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