Learning to Be Libyan in the Happy Days of Yemen

"Reem Gabriel"

My father used to say that we were all the sons and daughters of an officer, except for our little sister Jumana, who was the daughter of an ambassador. 

I don't remember my father as an officer. I was a newborn when, in the September revolution, he was detained and stripped of his military rank. I was also too young to remember the time he served, a few months later, as an ambassador to Greece. But I clearly remember the days when he was an ambassador to South Yemen, and the years we spent in Aden.

Initially, we lived in a building reserved for foreigners. Known as "the Libyan family," we formed many friendships there. My brother and I were the only two Libyan members of our building’s "Black Masks Gang."

A year later, we moved to a house nearer to the embassy. My father spent most of his time in his study, and I keenly watched the guests who came to meet with him there, hoping he would let me in. I’d sit and click away on the old typewriter, and Salma the secretary would come to my rescue whenever the letters got stuck, so I could keep writing. 

There is no doubt that nostalgia distorts the truth, but that period in Yemen was truly wonderful. Even school, which children usually abhor, was fun. I studied in Yemeni schools from third grade to sixth grade. My classes began at noon, so I would wake up and have breakfast before putting on the beige pants and white shirt and heading to school. 

 

In our last year, I would come back from school to our empty house, and climb over the red brick fence to reach the terrace. From there, I walked into the house to change out of my uniform, before joining my family and friends at the Gold Moor Club. We spent the rest of the afternoon there, my mother and her friends passing the time by drinking tea and embroidering, as my siblings, my friends and I swam and played around the club, or climbed the nearby mountain. On low tide days, when the sea would recede, we found great pleasure in chasing the crabs that ran and hid in the sandy caverns. If I was bored, I convinced the cooks at the club's kitchen to let me watch them as they prepared the meals. 

Libyan families took trips outside of Aden together. On one of those picnics, after a long day of playing and swimming and drinking tea and cocoa, we discovered that the key to one of the cars had disappeared in the sand. The cars repositioned themselves to light up the shore, and everyone started looking for the keys. The only thing I remember after that is my sister waking me up when we got home; I had fallen asleep in the trunk of the family Datsun. 

We spent our last September festival in Yemen in the vast, green garden of the house. It was filled with guests from across the world. When I walked into the party, I spotted my father chatting with some guests. When I joined them, one of them asked me directly whether I was Libyan or Arab. I thought about it for a little bit, then said I was Libyan. They all burst out laughing, thinking that my answer meant I believed I wasn’t also Arab. Of course he didn't know that in the Yemeni dialect, which I was fluent in, the word "Arab" referred only to Yemenis, and not to the rest of the Arabs. I responded the way I did because I didn't understand his question, not because I didn't know that I was both Libyan and Arab. 

 

A few months later, my father was asked to return to Libya, and upon his arrival, his passport was seized, because the regime suspected that he was affiliated with a political party. And we were forced to stay in Yemen to complete the school year. 

After profound longing for our father, our homeland, and our winters, we returned to Libya. In my new school, I wasn't the only Libyan–that's when I first understood the differences between us, and what lay behind them. Meanwhile, my father, who had represented Libya for many years as an officer and a diplomat, was now regarded as a foreigner by many people around him. 

It has always annoyed me that feeling Libyan in Libya is not enough–you must leave the country to really experience that sense of belonging. I grew up with an image of Libya as a large nation filled with love and life, but now, this image often escapes me. To recall it, I must recall the days we spent in Yemen so that Libya can return to the way it was: my country, the place I always miss.

Born in Benghazi, she is a visual artist and cultural activist. She has participated in several exhibitions in Libya, Egypt, England, and the United States.

Reem Gabriel
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