Life in Libya: A Hidden Story

by Maryam Al-Ansari


I was born on 30 November 1994, in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. My father worked for a gas and electric company in Brega almost a day’s drive east of Tripoli. We were a family of four, me, my elder brother and my parents. My memories of this time are very hazy as I was so young, but I remember we used to live in front of a beach that had families for all over Libya come to visit it. Although working in Gaddafi’s Libya, my father did not agree with the regime. He thought the government was corrupt. Gaddafi’s loyalists knew that my father was one of the many who were opposed to the government and kept threatening to take our lives, so we were forced to leave my home country in the summer of 1998 to become refugees and live in England. The journey to the UK was very long. We left to Malta on a ferry with many other Libyans and stayed there for two months, then a plane from Malta to London. After spending 6 months in a flat in London, we finally settled in Manchester in 1999. We knew that being away from Libya at that time was the safest decision to make. We left everything and everyone behind, aunts, uncles, grandparents – everyone that was important to us, this was hardest for my parents. They sacrificed their lives by leaving their homes, families and jobs for their children to have a better future.

Coming to England at the age of four, the only thing I could remember was the sudden feeling of not being surrounded by my family.In our culture, family is a huge part of our lives, all the grandchildren, aunts and uncles would meet every weekend at our grandparent’s house. My grandma would serve us home cooked meals like rice with steamed vegetables cooked in tomato sauce, big pieces of lamb sitting on top of a couscous platter, stuffed peppers with a squeeze of lemon and much more. She would also bake delicious Libyan sweets for us.The first time we went back to Libya was in 2005 to go to my aunt’s wedding. It was seven long years after we’d left. In that time my grandmother had passed away. I’ve always known Libya to be very hot so I was expecting it to be very sunny. When I stepped off the plane, I was hit by a cool breeze and the bright sunshine. Although it was winter, it wasn’t cold like it is in England. At 11, I was really excited to be surrounded by family again.

Growing up in England was not difficult when I was a child, but when I got older and had visited Libya many times over the years, I became aware of my religion, Islam and my Libyan culture. Slowly acknowledging that I was once a refugee and had to seek asylum in the UK back in 1998, it hit me that I have two homes and I was confused about which culture I belong to. In Libya, people that have dual citizenships are identified as “double shafra”. The phrase “shafra” means a mobile SIM card. Just as dual SIM phones are considered convenient devices, a “double shafra” appreciates the benefit of having two passports as opposed to one. Whenever I travel to Libya, the only question that seems to be asked is “which do you like best, Libya or Britannia?” (England). I would always answer Libya, of course because I loved being around my family. As a young British Libyan, I found it difficult to live in a place that isn’t my home country. I feel torn between the two because I’m too “Libyan” to fit in the UK and too “British” to live in Libya.
After the Libyan revolution in 2011, most Libyans were able to go back and settle in Libya because it was no longer under the Gaddafi regime. People return to their families and live in peace. Me and my siblings had already started schools and college so it was hard for us to leave, but my father has returned to Libya to serve his country and work to make it a better place. Although Libya was at war for 8 months, it is still not stable today.  People are ‘disappeared’ and killed every other day but despite it all, they try their best to live. They go to work, study and they even have weddings. I bought my first camera in 2010 at the time of the Arab Spring revolution, I took pictures at the protests that broke out in Manchester and London in support of the Arab freedom fighters and posted them on social media. I was inspired and decided to study photojournalism.

Since the revolution, I go to Libya almost twice a year and take pictures of weddings and also document the streets of Libya. Last year (2015) I was booked everyday for two months to shoot weddings. Documenting people’s special day, makes me happy because despite the struggles in Libya, then and now, I am able to make them happy by giving them pictures to look at of their wedding day and life still goes on.