Libyan Americans Work To Maintain Ties To Homeland
NEAL CONAN, host:
As you can imagine, Libyans in the United States have been watching events in their homeland closely over the past few weeks, and many report that it's difficult to stay in touch with family and friends. The Libyan-American community is relatively small. In fact, we don't really know how many Libyans live in the U.S. because there aren't enough to be classified in the census. But they have been organizing to get information in and out of Libya.
If that's you, call and tell us how you stay in touch, what you've been hearing. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Hafed Al-Ghwell grew up in Libya and moved to the United States back in 1980. He's working with the Libyan Outreach Group, which has been calling for international intervention in the current standoff. And he's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. HAFED AL-GHWELL (Libyan-American activist): Thank you.
CONAN: And Sarah Abdurrahman joins from the studios in member station, WNYC, in New York. She's a producer for WNYC's "On the Media," which is distributed by NPR. She joins us today, not in that role, but as a Libyan-American who's been working to get information out of her homeland. And nice to have you with us today as well.
Ms. SARAH ABDURRAHMAN (Producer, "On the Media," WNYC): Thank you.
CONAN: And, Hafed Al-Ghwell, let me begin with you. What's it like -what was it like to grow up in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya?
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Well, I was lucky enough and old enough to have a few years before Colonel Gadhafi, and it was a wonderful place to grow up as a child. And I spent a few years after he took over, but before he became completely out of line and began his ideas and implementing his oppression in a sort of a very clear way. So it was a wonderful place to actually grow up.
CONAN: And once the colonel took office...
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Yes.
CONAN: ...after a military coup - self-styled colonel. He was the captain at that time...
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Exactly.
CONAN: ...how - was he a daily presence in people's mind?
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Absolutely. They started slowly. It wasn't - in the few years when I was there, he was still surrounded by the people who did the coup with him. So he was sort of counterbalanced by their presence. But you can see an increasing kind of radicalization and even daily life. I mean, Libya was one of those nice, easy places where you had a lot of Western presence, a lot of ex-pats. About 50 percent of the city were actually Americans and British and Italians.
CONAN: And this is Tripoli?
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Yes, because you had the largest, for example, American and - Air Force base outside the continent of the United States until about 1970 to '73.
CONAN: Wheelus Air Force.
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Exactly. And then you have a lot of the oil companies, a lot of old Italian families who continue to stay in Libya after the occupation.
CONAN: Tripolitania, in the old days, was an Italian dwelling.
Mr. AL-GHWELL: It was a really beautiful place. And I remember growing up on my street with many American kids who became lifelong friends and, you know, going to beach clubs and having a very wonderful time. And then, slowly, you saw this radicalization that happened overnight and sort of the same kind of radical speeches coming from Egypt in the '50s and '60s, through Abdul Nasser. And that became increasing, sort of trend, until about 1977, '78, when Gadhafi started to unilaterally make decisions and got rid of most of the people around him.
CONAN: And he was no longer first among peers, but solely the president...
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Became basically, literally, a god. He's not responsible to anybody except to himself.
CONAN: And why did you leave Libya?
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Because of that. I mean, slowly, they started imposing on us military training in schools with humiliation, with abuse. They started busing us by force with military personnel on our buses to try to take us to - to go to these mass rallies that he used to try to hold. Life became difficult. You can sense the oppression everywhere around you. And I really needed to get out, to go to school outside.
So - and I am - one other thing is that I'm proud to say that despite all attempts to intimidate us to go to these mass rallies, I have never participated in one. I actually - the last attempt, I ended up jumping from the bus.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AL-GHWELL: So I'm proud of that record.
CONAN: Sarah Abdurrahman, you didn't grow up in Libya, but I wonder - I know you've been trying to keep in touch with your family there. How many people do you have over - back in Libya, and what part?
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: Well, my whole mother's side of the family is still in the country. A majority of my father's side of the country is still there. We do have some relatives here in the States. And they're primarily in the western part, in Tripoli, and in Gharyan, which is in the mountains about an hour outside of Tripoli. So they're still in the sort of troubled areas.
CONAN: And has it been easy to keep in touch with them?
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: It's not easy. Primarily, I'm trying not to contact family members too much because I understand the risks and the fact that I could be putting them in danger. I am working on a Twitter feed, a feb17voices Twitter feed, where I'm contacting a lot of people within the country who have given us prior approval to contact them.
And so, you know, these are people who have accepted the risks and are willing to speak because they recognize that their voices are the only weapons that they have against the regime. So, you know, even with my own family members, unless I have, you know, express approval from them ahead of time, I won't reach out to them, because there is a crackdown on people talking to outside media or outside family.
CONAN: Sarah Abdurrahman a mentioned Twitter feed. We have a link to that site at our website. Go to npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION, and you can find it. Feb. 17, of course, is when the demonstrations in Libya began.
And I wonder, Hafed Al-Ghwell, has it been easy to keep in touch with your family?
Mr. AL-GHWELL: No, no. Like Sarah just mentioned - I mean, I've been trying them on a regular basis. Sometimes I get through to one of my sisters or to my mother. Most of the time, it's very difficult to get through. I haven't been able to get through to any mobile in the city. And unfortunately, for me, in some ways - unlike her, my entire family from both sides is there, including tens of first cousins and aunts and uncles. They're all in Tripoli, all over the city.
CONAN: In Tripoli.
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Yes.
CONAN: And as far as you know, still in Tripoli.
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, I have the larger family, big parts of it are in Misurata and Benghazi, but my immediate family, in Arab sort of tradition, immediate family will include your first cousins and aunts and uncles. That's entirely in Tripoli.
CONAN: And Sarah Abdurrahman, what are you hearing from the people you've been in touch with, the people who are willing to be talked to?
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: Well, it depends on the region. In the East, in Benghazi and around that area, we're hearing a lot of sense of relief, a lot of happiness. People are very excited to finally have their freedom for the first time in more than 40 years.
At the same time, it's a qualified happiness because, consistently, what we're hearing from people there is until the western region and until the capital is free, they can't truly celebrate, and trying to combat the attempt by the regime to kind of divide the country to east and west and make these rumblings of civil war, which isn't actually the case.
In the west, in Tripoli, primarily, what we're hearing is a lot of fear. Even the people that we have been able to talk to on a regular basis and who, you know, last week, were a little bit more fearless about speaking with us, now are saying, you know, no phone calls, you know.
They might still send us messages. They might still send us emails, but they're - we're hearing from a lot of people on the ground that in these days that have a little bit quieter since last Friday, there's been more of a crackdown. And now they're actually going after people who have been seen at protests, people who have been injured at protests or people who are talking to outside media or to people on the outside, criticizing the government.
So what we're hearing now is that people are very, very frightened. I mean, at best, the information flow that we were getting out of the country was a dripping faucet. And now it seems like even that is starting to close up. So - yeah. I mean, people are just very, very afraid.
At the same time, it seems like they're not losing their optimism. They - across the board, what we're hearing from people is that they think the regime is done. It's just a matter of when it's done and how many -how much loss of life is going to happen between now and then.
CONAN: But this is not for technological reasons. This is - excuse the metaphor, divisive fear.
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: Yeah. It's both. It's both. I mean - even since we've started this endeavor, when trying to reach people, we don't get through to them on the first time. We get through to them on the 10th time. We have to call a lot. A lot of the times, the calls are dropped. So, yes, there - you know, there is - there are technological barriers. Then there's also the fear.
I mean, we don't call people unless we have a family member of theirs or somebody that we can say referred us, because people are so scared. So if we just call and say hi, I'm calling from America, I have some questions, you know, people will hang up on you. They're terrified. They don't know whose calling. Maybe it's secret police in the country, trying to see if they're - some of the people are willing to talk.
So even the connections that we have, have to be passed along through very close sources, and even then people are scared. They might talk, but not let us record. Of course, we always permission before we record. So we'll get details, but we don't necessarily have the audio to supplement it.
CONAN: We're talking with Libyan-Americans about keeping in touch with family and friends back in the home country. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nabil(ph) is on the line, calling us from Bakersfield.
NABIL (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead. You're on the air.
NABIL: Yeah. I just want to express my feelings about this whole thing. I mean, my family and my wife's family are in Benghazi. And this whole thing - I catch up with it - started out as a very simple request. All that people wanted is some freedom, and they want peace. That's all they were asking for. And they came out in the streets - women, men, children, unarmed civilians - and unfortunately, it turned out to be as bloody as it is right now. That was never the intention of the people.
CONAN: And are you in touch with your family there?
NABIL: I was in touch with them early on, because they're in the middle of this. And I did managed to get through this morning. Now, the people of Benghazi - you get multiple feelings from them. They are - they smell freedom. That's - first of all. And they feel so relieved that they can - that the Gadhafi regime is no longer on them. But the same time, they are very apprehensive about the situation, and they don't know what tomorrow may bring.
And one thing for sure - and I want to share this with you, and (unintellgible) is what they keep telling me. This is not a civil war. This is a revolution, an uprising by the people. It's indigenous as against a tyrant regime. And contrary to what we hear, that it may turn out to be a civil war, it is not. It is not at all.
CONAN: Well, Nabil, thanks very much. I'm glad to hear your family is doing well in Benghazi.
We're talking with Libyan-Americans about keeping in touch with their families back home. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to Omar, Omar with us from San Francisco.
OMAR (Caller): Yes. Mr. Conan, thank you for having this topic. It's extremely timely, at a very critical time. I want to say that Gadhafi has really brainwashed the young folks there by shouting the slogans and all that garbage. But my question - Libya is a very resilient country. That's the land of Omar al-Mukhtar. I'm sure you know his background.
What - two points, if I may, Mr. Conan: 80 percent - I believe it's 88 percent of the oil comes from the East, yet the development in the Tripoli area, around him and his tribe, the east part is completely in poverty and it's just - it's like a - completely. That's very unfair, of course.
But I think the equalizer here will be - enlisting defected Libyan pilots to use maybe one of the Arab nation's airplanes or fighter pilot, because that would be the equalizer to Gadhafi. Otherwise, Gadfahi will continue on bombing people until thousands more die.
CONAN: Omar, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
OMAR: Thank you.
CONAN: And I wonder, Hafed Al-Ghwell, I think a lot of us know the geography of Libya through a study of the campaigns during the Second World War. And one of the things you learned was that the campaign moved all the way west and then all the way back east, and then back and forth and back and forth. The desert is a fluid area, in many respects. Are the people of Benghazi, you think, afraid that while military force fortune may not favor them, that it may flow back the other way?
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Precisely. I mean, this is really the biggest fear of these liberated areas, is not so much what's happening now, but the fear of - that they overcome - overcame this fear to fight Gadhafi and his forces and push them out. And they're still doing it now, as we saw yesterday in Brega and others. And the biggest fear they're facing right now is really the fear of having him come back.
And as you mentioned, the desert is sort of one of those environments, like Rommel and General Montgomery's air forces have proven. I mean, Benghazi, I think, was destroyed during that period something like four, five times because of that.
CONAN: Yes. So was Tobruk. Yeah.
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Exactly. So it is a - and it's a vast country. I mean, to get a sense of this, the country is almost twice the size of Egypt and about three times the size of France. So it's a massive - and with very small population pockets. I mean, the total population of Libya - if you include even the expats and the, you know, the foreign workers - which, for example, is a million Egyptian foreign worker alone from, you know, not - other countries - it's about six million people. That - I mean, it comes out to almost one person per square kilometer kind of, you know, there. And so...
CONAN: Unusual. If the revolution, though, should succeed, if Mr. Gadhafi does leave power, would you consider going back?
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Absolutely. I mean, not necessarily because I want to go back and participate in government or anything like that. But I definitely would like to go back and see my family and spend time with them. I haven't been able to do that for 20 years now. The last time I ever was allowed to go back to Libya was in - early 1990. And so that's a big, important issue.
The second thing is if there's something we can add value to, of course. But, you know, as we've spent 30 some years or two-thirds of your life almost in the United States, this is home.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Sarah Abdurrahman, I wonder how you felt - might feel about that.
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: I mean, I very much consider myself an American, and I very much consider myself to be Libyan. And I think that one of the tactics that Gadhafi has used to separate the people - as I mentioned before, he tried to divide people along east and west line. Another tactic that he use was to divide people among, you know, Libyans inside of the country, versus Libyans on the outside of the country.
So, you know, that was a rhetoric that you saw a lot like, oh, they're living in the States. They're living so well. And you guys are here, and they don't care about you. And what I think...
CONAN: I do remember the phrase stray dogs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: Yeah. And what I'm seeing - which I've never been more proud of my fellow Libyans, because what I'm seeing both with the Libyans inside the country and the Libyans outside is the most impressive sense of unity and brothership and - brotherhood, excuse me, and that everybody there and everybody here and in U.K. and other parts of the world, they're all very much excited about working together and rebuilding the country together and...
CONAN: And Sarah...
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: ...whatever experiences that we can bring to it.
CONAN: And Sarah Abdurrahman is a radio producer. She knows what that music means. We're out of time. She works at WNYC's (unintelligible).
Mr. AL-GHWELL: Thank you. And it's a pleasure to join you and to join Sarah on this.
Ms. ABDURRAHMAN: Thank you.
CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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