One Hand on Fire: The Libyan American Perspective

So much has happened since the start of the uprising in Libya. From elation to moments of despair, perhaps no group has felt this upheaval more poignantly than the thousands of Libyans currently living abroad. From their homes across the United States and Europe, these families wait on pins and needles for a sign, a phone call, or a news bulletin. It can be difficult for someone unfamiliar with the situation to understand what being abroad during such turmoil can feel like. One Libyan-American I spoke with, Tasbeeh Herwees, was kind enough to agree to share her experience and answer some of the more common questions floating around about Libya. Here, in her words, is her ordeal of seeing her homeland in turmoil:

What is it like to be abroad while such tremendous changes are taking place in Libya?
Someone – another Libyan-American watching the events unfold from back here – said that it’s like having had one hand lit on fire and the other filled with water and being unable to put the fire out. That is just a succinct summarization of my life in the past few weeks. It’s like my body is being held hostage by my life. My heart and head are already in Libya – constantly in Libya – and I’m just kinda going through the motions back here. I’ve gotten behind in school and work; my personal relationships have suffered. I haven’t had sleep in weeks, and when I do, it’s restless. We’ve all been permanently attached to screens – computers, TVs, phone. Any time I’m away from news coverage, I feel anxious and worried, like something major’s gonna happen. Everything else seems kinda trivial. It angers me to see Charlie Sheen on the TV, and I get upset when a fashion blog – to which I subscribe or read for that very same reason – posts something about fashion. I’ve been irrational, basically. I want to shake everyone’s shoulders and yell, “DO YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IN LIBYA?”

But mostly, I’ve felt incredibly helpless and that’s the worst feeling of all. It’s terrifying to watch all this stuff happen – people being shot in the streets arbitrarily, patients being thrown out of hospitals, people being kidnapped in the night – and know that there’s nothing you can do to help make it better. And, in some sense, blogging about it has been incredibly cathartic and therapeutic. People throw around the word “slacktivist” but it really has been the only way I’ve been able to cope with the stress and the anger and the sadness. If I didn’t have an outlet for all of it, it’s likely I’d just sit somewhere in a dark room, in a dark corner, and have dark thoughts.

Have you been able to reach any of your loved ones in Libya and what have you heard?
We have been able to reach relatives. Most of them live in Benghazi, which has been liberated, so they’re just over-the-moon with happiness. When we called, we could hear the zafa, the procession of honking cars they usually do for weddings, outside. But there was also a sense of reservation about Tripoli. They’re still waiting to REALLY celebrate and they don’t want to do that until Tripoli is liberated as well. They’re so hopeful for the future and for the first time I hear real happiness in their voices. It’s like they’ve been muffled their entire life and someone’s finally ripped the tape off their mouths. My aunt was sharing anti-Gaddafi protest chants with my mother for our protest here in California. I’d never even heard her say his name before much less speak ill of him. It was surreal.

Would you say there is wide consensus about what is taking place in the Libyan community?
Yes, absolutely. I personally have yet to meet someone who still supports him. Even people in our community who use to openly support and benefit – monetarily – from the Gaddafi administration are protesting along with us. The Gaddafi regime shot itself in the foot when they reacted aggressively and violently against protesters – and when they started to kill people, you sensed a unification of the entire community. It doesn’t matter what you did before all this happened because right now? He’s killing our own people. That’s a stupid move. People were motivated by anger and grief and, even in some cases, revenge; those are powerful, unquenchable feelings.

I do want to say – at the risk of defending these supporters – that a lot of them are being coerced into doing supporting him. Their families and livelihoods are being threatened. In some cases, the regime has been exploiting the country’s poorest, most desperate people (of which there are many – 33 percent of Libyans live under the poverty line) by offering them money, jobs, free cars “¦ Many have been hiding behind the guise of Salafism, a sect of Islam that condones speaking up against a ruler, but many Salafists have sided with the protests, especially after the massacre began.

What are your feelings on foreign intervention?
There’s a very small part of me that wants it – if only as a quick fix to all the death and destruction. But there’s a bigger part of me that knows that the worst thing that can happen to Libya is foreign intervention, especially considering the country’s oil wealth. Beyond just money, though – the Libyans need to have the honor of winning this themselves, and by going in there with our tanks and our guns we’d be hijacking their revolution and snatching away the thrill and satisfaction of victory. Sometimes I feel like the Western world is like that nosy, stuck-up person in all your social circles who can’t stand it when she’s or he’s not invited to the party and decides to throw her own party on the same just to spite you. How dare the world change, how dare history be made without including America?

What do you think about the press coverage and how are you keeping updated on the situation?
I’ve always been in love with Anderson Cooper but “Mr. Anderson” has been commendable these past few weeks. Certainly, just like all the other news outlets, he failed to report on the protests when they first began, but when he caught up, he really caught up. You hear a lot of people questioning his motives but I honestly don’t give a crap. At least Libya’s story is getting attention and that’s all I care about.

I do have a huge problem with some of the rhetoric and terminology in the conversations or coverage of Libya. You hear words like “rebels” and discussions about civil wars or – UGH – people talking about “Islamists.” “Islamist” is the most meaningless, made-up word I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like an appendix. Or a benign tumor. It has no use.

In the beginning, it was Twitter, some Libyan Facebook groups and, to a certain extent, Tumblr. But after the media sat up straight and starting giving the situation the attention it deserves, I’ve been following up LARGELY on Al Jazeera and sometimes Anderson Cooper. I think Ben Wedeman was the first reporter inside Libya and it was thrilling to see the first professional accounts coming out of Libya.

What are your feelings on Gaddafi and his son Saif?
Maybe you can just insert a long string of profanity here? Screw Saif. He was supposedly the Western-educated reformer. He was supposedly Libya’s savior. His values are as flimsy as his smile. To be quite honest – and I’m a pacifist, so this is huge – I can’t wait to see them die. And I hope they suffer. Gaddafi, sure, but he’s exhibiting signs that he might be legitimately insane. Saif is, as far as we know, mentally stable. And he’s a hypocrite. So yeah, I’m looking forward to them being strung up and killed, preferably by the Libyan protesters. I don’t even care about whether I’m politically correct or whatever. They need to die and it needs to be painful and it assures me that at the very least, the pain they will experience in Hell will surpass anything that happens right now.

Are you optimistic about the future of Libya?
Oh, hell yeah, I am. I can’t wait. I’m already planning to go back there and help rebuild society. it’s going to be amazing.

But seriously? Anyone who doubts the future of Libya needs to watch what’s already happening. They’ve already set up an ad hoc government, they’re already organizing, already rebuilding the country. A turning point for me was seeing photos and videos and tweets of young Libyans cleaning up the streets. That’s monumental. When I was in Libya in 2009, there was garbage EVERYWHERE – in parks, beaches, piling up on sidewalks and streets – I never saw someone pick up a single piece of trash. Someone actually laughed when I asked them where the trash can was. And I think that really has to do with a lack of pride in being Libyan, in a lack of pride of Libya. They didn’t care enough to clean it up. But seeing them clean things up was just absolutely monumental. It was illuminating. You can already see them stand up a little straighter.

What can people abroad do to help Libya?
I wish we were all doctors and can just go over there and heal wounds and help people. But that’s unrealistic. If you can’t donate – I recommend Islamic Relief, but there are lots of other charities and whatever little helps, even if it is a dollar – then I suggest informing people. Signing petitions. Let people know what’s going on. A lot of people still don’t even know where it’s located.

Now that there’s a need for humanitarian relief, I’ve really been trying to channel my frustration into that. I’ve been working with Islamic Relief to organize a banquet and trying to spread the word via my blog, or any of the media outlets that get in contact with me. It’s the first time, throughout this entire ordeal, that I felt like I was actively doing something to help them. A comprehensive list of charities and information on how to help Libya can be found here.


The latest reports from Libya include air strikes in the mostly peaceful (and opposition controlled) Benghazi as well skirmishes in a number of western Gaddafi strongholds. The son of Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al Islam, sat down with Al Jazeera English recently and gave a twenty minute interview that can be found here. Watching it takes on a slightly surreal connotation when you realize he is speaking to a well-informed journalist as though everything is completely normal. He even asserts at one point that the protesters maybe number 300-500, tops. Clearly this is a family that has become completely unconcerned with reality.

I’d like to thank Tasbeeh for sharing her experience with me and allowing it to be shared with the readers of Persephone. Talking about facts and discussing particulars can be sterile and simple but really understanding how this fighting is effecting the human component is another thing entirely. We wish her, her family, and all the inhabitants of Libya, a rapid transition to the type of government and freedom they absolutely deserve.

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

2 replies on “One Hand on Fire: The Libyan American Perspective”

Really, thank you for sharing.

My S.O. is Tunisian, and I’ll never forget the mixture of dread/helplessness/adrenaline/anger and eventually jubilation that we went through as we spent countless hours–nay, days–watching the events unfolding live on Al Jazeera English. And reading Tasbeeh’s account of her changing relationship and impressions of what’s happening on the ground sounds so much like how my S.O. react(s)/(ed) to his homeland.

It’s truly an amazing period in North Africa and the Middle East right now. While I’m sad and indignant for the absurdity that is happening in Libya, it’s inspiring to see the resilience of average Libyans standing up for their fundamental human rights, especially in the face of a megalomaniacal, evil regime. I just hope that the West catches on that 1) there are things that go on in the Muslim world that have NOTHING to do with terrorism or radical Islam, and 2) that there are some things that are bigger and more important than Western political or commercial interests.

Also, a huge round of applause for Olivia for her insightful explanations of the region’s current events!

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