After Gadhafi, Libyans Try To Reclaim Their History

For decades, Moammar Gadhafi repressed and distorted Libyan history, attempting to subsume centuries of civilization under his cult of personality. For Gadhafi, Libyan history began and ended with the Bedouins and the fight against Italian colonization. Now Libyans are emerging from the revolution with a nascent desire to know who they really are. One family in particular is taking the lead in trying to restore to Libyans a sense of national identity, beyond tribal affiliations or geographical location, in hopes of refocusing attention on accepting diversity and getting along.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For decades, Moammar Gadhafi repressed and distorted Libyan history, attempting to build a society dominated by his cult of personality. Well, now Libyans are beginning to grapple with the challenges of reclaiming their history and forging a national identity. One family in particular is taking the lead in that effort.

NPR's Peter Kenyon recently returned from Tripoli and has their story.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well before Libyans took to the streets this year, university lecturer Amel Jerary supplemented her income by leading cultural training sessions for foreigners coming to live or do business in Libya. She soon realized she had no clear answer to one of the most frequent questions, who are the Libyans? She took that question to her students at Tripoli University, asking what it meant to them to be Libyan.

AMEL JERARY: And these students, it was about 200 students, age 18 to 25. And about 40 percent answered something to the effect that it doesn't really mean much. And I was a bit embarrassed about that answer, because I thought how come Libyans don't really feel like they're proud of their country, like they should be.

A. JERARY: It's ironic that a year later, these same students were actually dying for their country.

KENYON: Jerary found that Gadhafi had succeeded to a depressing extent in convincing Libyans that he embodied the country. She says psychologically this was one of the most devastating impacts he had on Libyans.

A. JERARY: It's almost like we're at a loss, because for so many years it seemed very clear Libya was Gadhafi, Gadhafi was Libya. And now Gadhafi is gone, so who are we?

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

KENYON: Much of the evidence about who Libyans are and how they live is collected here at the National Archives in Tripoli, run by Amel's father, Professor Muhammed Jerary. He founded the archives during Gadhafi's reign, an experience he compared with walking in a minefield. He said from the start, Gadhafi sought to dictate what the archives would focus on, beginning with the name of the facility.

MUHAMMED JERARY: We started - we suggested Libyan Study Center. He refused this name and he put the Libyan Research and Study Center for Struggle Against Italians.

KENYON: Professor Jerary says that summed up Gadhafi's historical vision. Other than the fight for independence from Italy and Bedouin culture, it was all about Gadhafi himself. But over the years, Jerary managed to compile a more comprehensive view of Libya's past and he's hoping people will embrace that now.

M. JERARY: And it is healthy to have the history of each community - when for instance the Berbers starts living here, when the black people start living here; the Arabic, when they came, of course we have the Phoenicians, who are very old. They have been in this country for at least 1,500 before Christ. It's like the States. If we want to stay together, we have to accept each other and also we have to know the background of each other.

KENYON: As a tour of some to the 17 million documents in the Libyan archives quickly shows, however, studying the past is no idealistic path to peace and harmony. On the contrary, Jerary says one reason to study history is to understand how long some of Libya's ethnic, tribal or regional conflicts have been going on.

As in Iraq, moreover, the archives lack some of the more explosive documents from Libya's recent past - the secret police and intelligence files that would reveal more about the crimes committed by the former regime.

Amel Jerary, who will shortly begin field work on her dissertation on the subject of Libyan identity, says she'll be fascinated to learn how Libyans come to see themselves now that Gadhafi is no longer around to tell everyone, as he once did, to forget about being Libyans - just be Arabs.

A. JERARY: It was then the Pan-Arabic attitude and movement and it was very popular at the time. Eventually when he said he was disappointed in the Arabs for not supporting him, he turned towards Africa. So, you know, the switch from being Arabic to being African confused people a lot. And now, all of a sudden we're just Libyan. It's almost like we're starting all over again, in every sense.

KENYON: The Jerary family is working with other Libyans to help fashion a positive and democratic vision of the new Libya. But they're all too aware that there are any number of blood-soaked alternative paths that have been taken in the past and may be taken again.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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