We Are Strong Women

"Mariam Salama"

Among the many photographs that document my work as a tour guide between February 14, 1990, and January 30, 2011, this one holds a special place in my heart. To this day, this photo ignites in my soul a desire to break out of the cocoon. So what’s its secret? 

This photo captures a group of Japanese tourists who had just completed a tour of the Red Palace museums, and the old houses, mosques, churches and schools in the alleys of the old city in Tripoli. At noon, it was time for lunch at the Al-Safir restaurant, but it was difficult to walk away from the captivating sites. If it were up to memory alone, the day might have been thrown into oblivion; but one of our era's greatest inventions, the camera, managed to document the moment in all its splendor. 

 

I have yet to discover this photo's secret. But the woman in glasses on my right, with a red jacket wrapped around her waist, holds the key. I was introduced to her at the entrance of the museum in Martyrs' Square by the group's escort, who worked for the Al-Rabban Tourist Company, whose director was keen on opening tourist channels with Japan and Mexico. She enthusiastically congratulated me on my job, which flustered me. After 15 years of working as a tour guide, I took the job for granted (a Libyan trait at its core), which had stripped it of any sense of achievement. But her overwhelming delight at the fact that I had managed to step out of the confines of society gave me a renewed sense of self. I was a Libyan girl exploring a field that was new even to men–a field that had never managed to compete with the oil industry, which had captured the attention of the Libyan state in a way that left little space for other fields to develop. 

 

I was a self-taught tour guide. I hadn’t trained under any other tour guide–male or female. In the photo, I am holding a copy of the second edition of my travel book, printed in 2005. Its first edition came out in 1995 (it is worth noting that a Japanese woman translated it into Japanese, and gifted me a copy). This was a lot to accomplish by a girl who hailed from a family whose daughters were either teachers or housewives. I might have had the same fate if our educational institutions had not arbitrarily terminated the teaching of English language in our schools just one year before I graduated from the Department of English at the University of Tripoli's Faculty of Education. Despite being unable to work as an English teacher, I could not walk away from my passion for writing and translation. On December 8, 1989, I finally found the job of my dreams. On January 1, 1990, I joined a project to manage and organize the old city of Tripoli. It was much more than a workplace; it was also a school, from which I graduated as a translator, tour guide, and researcher. 

 

The woman in the picture was a Japanese physics professor, with a deep understanding of dedication and competition; she was the president of the society of physicists, which brought together more than 2000 scientists. This woman embraced me with admiration and appreciation throughout the tour, curling her hands into two fists and repeating: "We are strong women." On her face was a smile of contentment, for that morning, in the continent of Africa, she had met a girl who spoke English and worked in tourism. 

Let me tell you why I used the term "Africa." When I accompanied a delegation of American women in 2005, they didn’t distinguish between the continent's north and its south, and their knowledge of Libya was near nonexistent. They even brought us soap and shampoo as gifts. I only realized what the gesture meant when one of them wondered where I bought my dress from, and asked me if there were actually places we could go shopping in Libya.

Born in Tripoli, a writer and translator. Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Al-Zaytuna University in Libya. She has several published works of fiction and poetry, including “Six Roses and a Flute,” “For This Branch, Words,” and “The Closed Garden.”

Mariam Salama
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