Libya’s Bloody Road to Freedom

It’s called a street, but it’s really a neighborhood. Al Sarim Street in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, falls between low-lying Nasr Street and elevated Al Jumhuriyya Street. Its older buildings date from the Italian colonial era. Most were built as single-story homes on the upper side of the street. I used to drive down this street daily on my way home from my law firm nearby.

But on Saturday, the day before rebel forces poured into Tripoli, this calm neighborhood, which empties out at noon to allow traffic to pass through its wide streets with ease, became a fireball.

Last fall, a few months before the revolution erupted, I was summoned to the regime’s party headquarters in Tripoli, where I was interrogated by seven pillars of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s security establishment. They were angry about an article I’d published in the newspaper Oya criticizing undemocratic laws. They accused me of instigating anarchy and refusing to obey the law. My phone was tapped and a guard was posted at the door of my law office. In March, I left my law practice behind and fled to Canada with my 3-year-old daughter.

The neighborhood we left behind is clean, calm and uncrowded, despite the presence of several businesses and public buildings and its proximity to downtown Tripoli. As soon as you reach the western end of Al Sarim Street, the Mediterranean coastline stretches up ahead of you, and you can see a large park. The neighborhood contains the houses of the well-to-do, but it is also home to the first public housing complex built in Tripoli, a cluster of gray four-story buildings that blend into the rest of the neighborhood’s buildings, and are indistinguishable from them.

When life in Libya became harder, the majority of the people living on the upper side of the neighborhood converted the street-facing parts of their homes into shops and artisanal stores. They also added extra floors to their homes, in response to a growing housing crisis that had overtaken the nation.

The area is also known as Al Zuhur — the neighborhood of flowers — because of the trees and plants that flourish behind the walls of houses, and the fact that the street is shaded by the decorative trees with their intertwining branches. The higher part of the street is planted with evergreen shrubs that hang all along the slope until Nasr Street, where the fortress of the state television building sits.

Typically, the neighborhood youths stand on corners and intersections, or in front of the shops, talking, joking or just staring at passers-by.

But last Saturday was different. That evening, the call to prayer began from the minarets of the Ben Nabi and Buhmeira mosques after sundown and continued to ring out for longer than usual — a signal to take to the streets. The young men ran out of their houses to the rhythm of “God is great, God is great, thanks be to God.”

Some left their homes with dates in their mouths that they hadn’t yet had time to chew, while others rushed out still swallowing the day’s first drink of water after the Ramadan fast.

They left without having organized themselves beforehand, intent on achieving freedom or martyrdom. The youths of Al Zuhur were jasmine trees whose petals had scattered, night-blooming flowers that had blossomed with sunset, their beautiful nighttime scent wafting through like the Arabian jasmine that the young men of Tripoli sell to Libyan ladies in traditional attire on their way to weddings.

As chronicled in phone calls to Al Jazeera from Tripoli and in Facebook posts, Al Sarim Street and its young men rose up with the rest of Tripoli, the city whose head was yanked back by the hair and whose teeth were broken each time it raised its head to try and smell the scent of freedom.

The young men rushed out, during the iftar meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast, their mothers ululating behind them and their fathers praying along with the mosques, knowing deep in their hearts that they would either return with their heads raised high, carrying the torches of freedom, or not at all.

Last weekend, all along Al Sarim Street, martyrs fell victim to the bullets of cowardly snipers hiding on the roofs of buildings, fighting for their freedom tooth and nail as they broke their city’s humiliating blockade. They fell on the street right in front of their mothers and fathers, who stood on balconies and doorsteps, bidding them farewell with cries and prayers.

The corpses mounted on the hot pavement, a testament to the birth of Tripoli’s freedom. The light in their still open eyes will not be extinguished, and their blood, which has spilled on the streets, will not cool until all of Tripoli is free, the scent of flowers and henna returns, and its people come out singing an old Libyan tune by Tripoli’s blind but visionary singer, Nuri Kamal: “Jasmine flower, you have reminded us of his smile and days from our past.”

Azza Kamel Maghur, a Libyan lawyer and human rights activist. This essay was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.

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