Pitbull Songs, Guns, and Cinnabon in Libya

The country is opening up to Western influence after decades in isolation. The recent changes there are both dramatic and amusing.

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A man rides a motorcycle in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square. (Christopher Reeve)

A convenience store near a major Tripoli road serves a uniform clientele on Thursday nights, the beginning of the weekend in Muslim countries. A stream of well-groomed young men in fitted clothing keeps the cashier busy. The customers, although not together, all make the same purchase: disposable cups, ice, chasers, and salted snack foods. The store blasts "Rain Over Me," a sexy dance song by Pitbull.

There are no nightclubs, bars, or bachelor pads in Tripoli, so many young men celebrate the weekend by driving around women-free streets in late-model cars, drinking smuggled top-shelf alcohol, and moving to the tunes of Tupac and khamsen girsh (50 Cent) playing on Tribute FM, Libya's first English-language radio station, which founded just three months after the start of the February 17 revolution.

After the civil war and decades of isolation, Libya has begun to open to the world and its influences, from the English language to new ideas about political participation and the role of women in society.

Libya, a country whose shores lie in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea -- that crossroads of cultures -- was not just closed politically during the four-decades-long reign of now-dead strongman Muammar Qaddafi. The country, long considered a "pariah state" because of Qaddafi's connections to terrorism and public revulsion of the West, was simply isolated from the outside world.

The other North African Arab Spring states of Tunisia and Egypt, unlike Libya, were significantly connected to the global economy and open to foreign visitors, and they saw greater international movement of their own citizens beyond persons fleeing political repression and visits to border states.

A hermetic dictatorship since 1969, Libya's recent opening is a unique occasion.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, few countries have opened up after decades of isolation. Considering Libya's location, where three continents meet, it has the potential to become a hotbed for cultural diffusion.

Comparing Libya to other Arab states I have visited, the culture is remarkably conservative, and not just religiously. It is no doubt connected to years of isolation and officially sponsored suspicion of outsiders.

Feeling the gaze of distrustful eyes when I took pictures at Tripoli's Martyrs' Square and walked around Benghazi's central neighborhoods, I was reminded of time I spent in Cuba. (Qaddafi and Fidel Castro were, at least politically, friends.)

Libyans were insulated from outsiders. Qaddafi established a system in which tourists had to stay in the presence of licensed tour guides -- no wandering or mingling with the locals. The Cuban government, before recent economic restructuring, also sought to keep foreigners, with their radical ideas about personal freedoms, away from locals. In Libya, official xenophobic rhetoric went beyond a disdain for the West and in 2004 manifested itself as death sentences for a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses for allegedly infecting over 400 Libyan children with HIV. (The accused, who maintained their innocence, were allowed to leave Libya three years later.)

Qaddafi also fomented a culture of distrust among Libyans with his al-lijan al-thawriya, similar to Cuba's neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Libyans didn't know if they could express a political opinion in the presence of a neighbor, lest that neighbor report the utterance to authorities that had zero tolerance for dissent.

The conservative nature of the society means that although Libyans are extremely hospitable and generous, I was never able to meet a Libyan mother or wife to thank her for preparing a delectable meal for me. Common areas of homes become the domain of men when there is a male visitor in town.

Qaddafi did not prepare Libyans to interact with the world in either English, the de facto language of international communication, or in any other tongue besides Arabic, so even hotel staff are monolingual. One hotel receptionist, Ahmed AlShareef, 26, proudly showed me his English workbook, from which he learned his favorite phrase: "Let's go!"

With Qaddafi gone, there is a cultural opening evidenced by small signs throughout the country.

AlShareef's father, who goes by "Shreefo," and I spoke over extra-sweetened tea at the family's olive farm near Tripoli's Airport Road. He was interested in the world beyond Libya and particularly shocked to learn that his favorite wrestler, John Cena, is only an actor.

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"Shreefo" collects olives at the family's farm near Tripoli's Airport Road. (Christopher Reeve)

There's also a new English-language newspaper, Arabic-language media and civil society organizations, with many of these ventures spearheaded by Libyans who have experience abroad. The Western-style democracy Libya is now embracing has translated into a flurry of capacity-building activity for political participation from ordinary Libyans and conferences to encourage international trade. Recent events include cosmopolitan titles like "First International Media Forum," the "International Exhibition of Educational Aids," and the "Military and Security Industries Exhibition."

Libya was, until recently, devoid of big-name fast food restaurants. Although Libyans call their breaded and deep-fried chicken "kuntacky," there are no KFCs in Libya. Libyans got their first taste of a global brand with the August 2012 opening of Cinnabon, in Tripoli. More big names will likely follow.

During an evening in the outskirts of Tripoli, I spoke to a group of young men about the country's new gun culture. As they took turns shooting at imaginary people while playing Mafia 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 on PS3, we discussed Libya's new fascination with firearms. During the civil war, when citizens picked up arms for either side of the conflict, the country became flooded with guns. For the most part, Libya had been gun-free, so the issue of newly armed citizens is of concern to Libyans, their government, and the international community, as weapons easily cross borders and are used to attack diplomatic personnel.

When I spoke about the U.S.'s gun problem (mass shootings, crime, violence, accidents), I was told that the U.S., unlike Libya, has a functional police force, reducing the need for armed citizens. A few men said they would give up their weapons when Libya's police force can offer them security.

One 22-year-old said there is a distrust of the new Libyan government, adding, "They can't use military power against us because we are still a military people. We all have guns in our houses. If they use the power against us, it will be another revolution."

That argument, yet to grow old in the U.S., might justify a continued civilian gun culture in Libya.

Libya's young people are also growing their knowledge of other religions. Enas AlDrsey, 26, is a youth trainer and human rights advocate from Benghazi who facilitated the work of international media in Libya's second city during the revolution. Late last year , she attended several conferences abroad to support youth in the country's budding democratic movement.

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Enas AlDrsey and her father, Abdulwanes AlDrsey, at their home in Benghazi. (Christopher Reeve)

After speaking with a European peer at one such event, AlDrsey concluded that Judaism and Christianity were not, as she previously thought, somehow conducive to Western progressivism. She says that she learned that those religions are as conservative as Islam, but that the West had simply separated religion from governance, and in many instances, Europeans had put religion aside altogether.

Granted, things in post-conflict Libya aren't moving entirely smoothly. It was in Benghazi that I was almost hit by a bullet, and where I witnessed a neglected, insular city, the result of Qaddafi-era policies. It is Benghazi that sees the bulk of violence against outside forces: the attack on U.S. diplomatic personnel that led to the killing of Ambassador Stevens and three colleagues, an attack on an Italian diplomat, and just in the last week, an attack on a church and another at a European school -- reportedly because of a sex education textbook illustration.

Tribute FM, the new English-language station, is "embracing Libya's new freedom," according to station manager Rama Saffaf. But as in the rest of the world, the conflict between the established culture and new ways of thinking and doing things will not disappear. Whether the issue is music, guns, alcohol, video games, nightclubs, the English language, McDonald's, Christianity, or broader concepts like personal freedoms and the role of religion in governance, Libyans will need to figure out how to keep the ideological battle violence-free and to exercise their preferences in the post-"pariah state" marketplace and policy arena.

But that's just part of being a democracy.