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Cultural Scene in Libya
A breathing space

TP_Kulturakademie Libyen_Interview_Zayene Bechir
Foto: Zayene Bechir © Goethe-Institut

Despite a fragile security situation, cultural actors try to maintain projects in Libya. We spoke to two of them, who have received support from the Goethe Institut in Tunis with support of the German Federal Foreign Office for this, about the challenges they face.

By Sarah Mersch

Sarah Mersch: What do you consider the most important feature of the Libyan cultural scene at the moment?
Reem Alfurjani:
It is constantly changing. Now it is weak, but still offers breathing space for people. It manages to bring different people together: it doesn’t matter what my opinion is, whether political or not political, or whatever means of contestation I use, but we are both there, focused on one common interest.
Zuhair Abusrewil: I think the community, at least in the region of Tripoli, is hungry for culture and art activities. We’ve seen many activities in the last year, whenever the situation is calm and security improving. Sometimes, we had three, four events on the same day. But since the clashes started again, everything hibernated.
How are you able to maintain cultural projects in this fragile context?
ZA: The risk is high, but there are still ongoing projects and people assist. This is a very good indicator that people are still breathing culture, as Reem mentioned.
RA: I’ve been working since December 2011, but now it has almost completely stopped. It used to be so active before, but now I can hardly hear of any events, unless in art galleries. For example, with Scene we used to do all our events in the old city, out in the public space. But now it would be indoors.
Does the art itself also reflect the current situation, is it a topic?
The topic for our last group exhibition was very open, the only constraint was that it had to have something to do with Libya. Anyone could express whatever he or she wanted, in architecture, photography, graphics and illustrations. The title was: “The beauty is around, but only if we want to see it.” We invested a public space, which has a very nice architecture but was abandoned and chaotic. People started to imagine this space and how beautiful it could be if people wanted it to be beautiful. So each artist has its own message about his surrounding, of what he or she is living.
RA: I know some artists who make paintings in response to the political situation and conflict, but they are too afraid to show them publicly, they only share it with a group of friends. Not all of them, but a lot are afraid. Maybe artists abroad would be more open to share these things.
When Goethe Institute launched the Kulturakademie Libyen, a qualification program for Libyan cultural managers, financed by the German Federal Foreign Office, what was the intention behind it?
Andrea Jacob:
I think it is very important to send a signal towards the country and the cultural scene. Even if the situation is difficult, you should know that you are not alone, and we hope you find peace again. It is not good to only come at the end of the difficult situation, when peace is installed. On a psychological level, it is important to know that there are people outside the country who think about us and they try to encourage and empower us, that’s a very strong motivation of ours.
Reem and Zuhair, you participated respectively in 2017 and 2018, why did you apply at the time?
It takes off where you stopped, Andrea: it’s about knowing that you are not the only one who’s trying. It was interesting to go to Berlin and see how Germany passed its history. It’s nice to know you’re not the only ones’ struggling. Being in Libya, completely cut off from the world, when even internet is sometimes a luxury with all the power cuts, we don’t often have direct contacts with trainers, where someone can for example see my body language, and respond directly on that. I can look up on the internet, on Youtube, but it’s not the same as meeting someone and interacting directly.
ZA: It was the same for me: the possibility to get the knowledge in a very intense two weeks in Tunis and one in Berlin. It’s a form of endorsement. It gives a push to whatever dream you have, to whatever stage you are stuck in. I couldn’t have done the first event of Tilwan without the Kulturakademie. I had the concept and everything ready, but I hadn’t done anything in two years. These two, three weeks gave me the push to realize it. For me it worked.
RA: I am still stuck with Scene. Parts of why I applied in 2017 is because I was facing difficulties. I am still looking for solutions. I am more aware of the possibilities, but I am not there yet, also because Libya is getting more complex. But a really good thing that I got out of it is the community of Libyans I have met. Zuhair and me only met here, and we had the same experience, so when we go back to Libya, there is somebody I can talk to, who can give advice because he knows where the question comes from. I think the community that Goethe Institut creates is also a very valuable thing.
How do you handle the challenges you face in your projects?
I'm still going to the old city with a small amount of people, but we don't do public events anymore, due to the security situation in the old city. We change tactics. For my part I’m focusing on research and conferences, in response to the fact that I cannot do the other things on the ground.
ZA: For security reasons, we decided to move more towards art teachers. We work in public schools, where we do workshops, and we do online work and data collection, whereas originally, we had planned to work in public space.  
With you work being considerably affected by the security situation: what keeps you going nonetheless?
When I was young child, I lived in London, and my grandmother used to come to visit.  She used to tell me stories about the old city where she is originally from, and she used to tell me about traditions. While she was talking, she was drumming traditional beats and rhythms on the table. I grew up to that, and when I went back to Tripoli, the society was completely different from the image of the society that she had given me. So in 2011 after the revolution I immediately went to the old city, and a first campaign turned into a second and into a Master degree and now a PhD, all about the old city because of my grandmother.  So that's the story that motivates me and I dedicated my life to this, even the rest of my life and my whole career to for that one thing.
ZA: We once had a conversation with my university professor and he was trying to do a campaign to promote the importance of architecture and urbanism, while using complex terms nobody can understand. I told him it so, and that he was too many steps ahead and people don’t even know the basics on what he was talking about. Art, music, culture is not a proper topic in school, students don’t know the basic principles. Art teachers in public schools are really discriminated against by the other teachers who consider mathematics, physics or chemistry to be more important, so that in the end they think themselves that they are less worthy than the others and less important than the so-called real teachers. That's what actually made me think, so they need help, they need confidence because they're playing a major role and they don't know how to do that.
If you project yourself into the future, where would you see your project in five, ten years from now?  
I never pictured something that long ahead (laughing), but I think in five years we could see a first result, especially with the teachers. I'd love to see them using new teaching methods in public schools. Because now when they teach how to draw, it's all about technical aspects, it's not about the history or the context, or about making people love art. And in five years, Tilwan should be a self funded organisation, by selling artworks and handicraft inspired by traditions but with a new twist, so that young people actually buy it and reflect on their heritage.
RA: I am the nerd the room. I have a plan for five years from now, and a plan for ten years from now, in a PDF and a slideshow (laughs).  I'm shifting towards research and I want to finish my Ph.D within the next five years. And if the situation allows, Scene should have shifted towards experimental theater, and in ten years would have turned into Scene School of Arts, with a theatre and an architecture department.
And what about Goethe Institut, will you have reopened in Libya by then?
We had an Institute in Tripoli, with German classes, information on Germany, cultural events and exchange, and of course we would like to hope to be back there soon.

Reem Alfurjani is an architect, researcher, and founder and managing director of “Scene”, a project on cultural heritage and site specific theater in the old city of Tripoli.
Zuhair Abusrewil is a journalist, architect and founder of the art platform “Tilwan”.
Andrea Jacob is the director of Goethe Institut Tunisia and current president of the EUNIC cluster in Tunis.