Neighbor Against Neighbor: A Story of Libya's Lingering Divides

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An Arab man and his black-skinned neighbor, and a country still healing from war

zzzlibya article.jpgA Libyan volunteer fighter guards a building in Tripoli. (AP)

TRIPOLI, Libya -- I heard recently why Azzedine Meshergui and his family had to leave their home in the old city. He was like other men there, with his plain speech and rough hands, save that he had tried to help his neighbors when few others would. Later, things went wrong for him. Such are the fortunes of war.

I first met Meshergui a year ago. War had reached Tripoli, and the regime of Muammer Qaddafi was collapsing. Qaddafi fled while his forces killed whom they could. I found Meshergui raving through his neighborhood in grief for his son, Mohamed, murdered two days earlier.

"I had no weapons, my son had no weapons!" he cried, plowing through a group of onlookers. "Only those who went to Green Square to cry 'Muammer' had weapons!"

Mohamed had gone to buy fish and hadn't returned. His mother reached him once by phone, but the second time a strange voice answered. They found Mohamed in a parked car, bound at the knees and shot through the head.

On the day that Mohamed Meshergui died, I had left my apartment in Tunis with my girlfriend, also a reporter. That night we crossed the border and the next day hitched a ride with two rebels and some captured rifles. A day after that we reached Tripoli.

There was still fighting in places, and only two hotels were open. Both were expensive. We decided to rent a small house in the old city from a young man named Ayman, who was sprucing it up for his impending marriage.

There we came upon Meshergui. He was weaving down the alley, shouting and trailed by his wife.

"The mother of the martyr!" cried bystanders. Someone draped a rebel flag over her shoulders. She posed for our cameras, looking miserable.

I knew the old city from earlier visits. It dated to Phoenician times. In the seventh century it fell to Arab armies. A 16th century Ottoman corsair named Dragut recovered it for Islam after a period of rule first by Spain, then by the Knights of Saint John. Dragut's bones lie entombed there in a mosque by the sea.

A century ago, the Italians chased out the Ottomans. Then the World War Two allies chased out the Italians and installed a king, himself chased out in 1969 by Qaddafi. Once, the old city was all whitewash and palms. Under Qaddafi it became a slum.

Behind the seafront cafés are crumbling houses and dirt alleys. Poor Libyans live there alongside even poorer sub-Saharan laborers permitted to settle by Qaddafi, an enthusiastic pan-Africanist.

The Street of the Bakeries starts from a second century Roman arch by the harbor and cuts through the old city to an empty place where people park cars and burn trash. There, behind a metal door, lived the Mesherguis. It was there that, last year, I encountered Meshergui exploding in grief. Later that day, I returned to learn more.

"Oh, it's you," Meshergui said, cracking the door. He had calmed down. "Come in. What's your name?"

I introduced myself and said I was sorry about his son.

Several generations of Mesherguis were bustling in the courtyard. A chicken was pecking among their feet. Meshergui was a fisherman. Now he carried a gun to help secure the old city. I asked him what Libya needed next.

"Ballot boxes," he said. "A new generation is going to lead Libya now." He even saw room for Qaddafi's supporters, "provided their hands are free of blood."

"Are there pro-Qaddafi people in this neighborhood?"

"Even the neighbors," he said. "They're from Chad. The father is in Qaddafi's militia."

After visiting the Mesherguis I went next door. The people living there were black.

"We're from Sebha, in the south _ not Chad," said a young man named Ali Hadar. "We're not pro-Qaddafi. And my father's a trader, not a fighter. He's trapped in Sebha now by the war."

Maybe Ali was telling the truth. Maybe Meshergui had reason for believing otherwise. Or maybe for him black skin was suspect. I would never know. I had other concerns: articles to write; power cuts and food shortages; the danger of violence.

Until that week none of the neighborhood's young men had owned a gun. They were fishermen and schoolboys. Now they called themselves revolutionaries.

One night they were outside smoking water-pipes and singing about Bou Shafshoufa -- "old frizzle-head" -- a popular name for Qaddafi. Suddenly five rapid gunshots crashed through the melody as Ahmed Merimi, age 18, swung an arc of bullets from his Kalashnikov into the sky.

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John Thorne, an American journalist based in Tunis, has covered North Africa since 2006.

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