Last week, during the battle for Ajdabiyah, I was sharing a ride from Tubruq to Benghazi with a 25-year-old guy dressed in a green knock-off Adidas soccer jacket with yellow stripes. I struck up a conversation.
Me: “Why are you headed to Benghazi?”
Hussein: “I’m stopping in Benghazi for the night, and then heading to Ajdabiyah. It’s my hometown. Going to fight [that is, to join the rebel forces].”
Me: “Take care of yourself, man.”
Hussein: “Thanks. What’s your name?”
Me: “My name’s Ryan. I’m from the United States.”
Hussein: “I’m Hussein. Your name’s Bryan? I love Bryan Adams. Celine Dion, too.”
Me: “Uh, the name’s Ryan. With an ‘R.’ ”
Hussein has four brothers and one sister. Four of the five sons are fighting with the rebels.
Me: “Your mom most be scared.”
Hussein had been studying engineering at a university in Benghazi for a while, but dropped out. “What’s the point?” he said. “All of my friends who had graduated weren’t getting jobs anyway.” To get a proper job — an official one, with a regular salary, he later explained — you need to have been in the army. “And even then, it’s pretty damn hard to get a proper job. You need connections.” Most formal employment is controlled by the state. Otherwise, people work in the informal economy.
Me: “How long have you been involved with the rebel movement?”
Hussein: “From the beginning. I was one of the protesters who started even before February 17 (the revolution’s “official” start date) — on February 15, in Benghazi.”
Me: “How did you know to join the demonstrations in the first place? How did you get involved?”
Me: “And how’d you get into Bryan Adams and Celine Dion?”
Hussein: “Facebook, you know? And other websites. Online, people are always talking music, sharing music.”
The Libyan musical landscape in 2011 is diverse, as is the case across the Arab world. There are older-style local tunes, popular with the elder folk. There’s Arabic pop, which mixes tabla rhythms with dance beats — Lebanese stars like Nancy Ajram and Wael Jassar
are ubiquitous. There’s catchy rai music from the Maghreb, like Cheb Khaled. There’s hip hop, or what they call here raab (the letter “p” doesn’t exist in most Arabic dialects; it gets changed to a “b”). Fifty Cent is pretty popular, and there’s some homegrown hip hop as well.
And then there’s the soundtrack to the revolution. In Benghazi’s central square, nationalist songs celebrating Libyan freedom stream out of large speakers in Gar Younis University’s support tent. (Gar Younis is Benghazi’s largest university.) Best of all, one clever Shargawi (that’s what you call someone from Benghazi) remixed a speech by Qaddafi in which the colonel vowed to take Benghazi back from the rebels street by street, house by house, room by room. Entitled Zenga zenga, dar dar — “Street by street, room by room” — it’s become a pop sensation in liberated Libya.
And yesterday, as we drove through a checkpoint, some rebels on inspection duty asked where we were from. “I’m from the United States,” I said in Arabic. “Yeah, man! I loooove heavy metal,” he responded in English, put his fingers up and rocking his head back and forth, doing his best Ozzie Osbourne impression.
Last night, some rebel fighters in Brega put us up and shared their dinner with us. We talked foreign affairs and the politics of intervention. This morning, one of them — Khalid, a 39-year-old bakery owner from Benghazi — called me over.
“Hey Ryan — come here for a second.”
“You like Sabaringasteen?” he asked.
“Sabaringasteen? You don’t know Sabaringasteen? He’s American.”
I drew a blank.
“Listen to this,” Khalid said, punching buttons on his phone.
I recognized the opening snare hits and guitar riff immediately — they brought me back to the eighties. Then the Boss’s voice kicked in. “I was… born in the USA…”
“I love Sabaringasteen,” said Khalid with a broad smile. “And Kenny Rogers. You know Kenny Rogers? Kantaree [country] music. I love kantaree music.” Khalid was wearing a red turtleneck and stone-washed jeans. He has a handlebar mustache and a bit of a paunch. It worked. All he needed was a ten-gallon hat.
I smiled back. “Bruce Springsteen — he’s from the same state as me in America,” I said. Gotta rep Jersey when I can.
Xavier Mas de Xaxàs (my traveling companion from Barcelona’s La Vanguardia), our volunteer driver Muhammad (from Benghazi), and I spent the rest of today between Brega, Ras Lanuf, and Al-Sidr, all oil towns and ports along the Gulf of Sirt. We moved forward and backward as the rebels advanced and retreated, interviewing them.
As I write this, it’s 7:00 pm on March 29, and we’re driving back from Ras Lanuf to Brega. We pass young rebels with Kalashnikovs who had never touched a gun until the revolution, driving their own cars to the front, wearing camo and black-and-white checked kuffiyahs (neckerchiefs) and reflective sunglasses — thawra chic. Groups of them sit by the side of the road, eating dinner. Some have brought along whatever they could find at home for protection — construction helmets, work boots, and even those plastic dive masks you wear to go snorkeling. Toyota Hilux pickup trucks zoom past, bearing Russian-made artillery pieces older than me.
This is what a twenty-first-century ragtag volunteer army looks like. These guys are all heart, not much coordination, and no training whatsoever.
To the north, in the stone’s throw between us and the Mediterranean, rises an orange gas flare from the Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Company. Here, from the Sirt Plain, come most of the 1.6 million barrels of oil that Libya produces each day. (Well, that was the figure before the revolution; it’s much lower now.) Behind us lie the gutted, burnt-out shells of Qaddafi’s tanks and supply vehicles.
We pass a yellow road sign with a camel symbol on it. Camel crossing.
Muhammad, the driver, slips a CD into the stereo.
“You’re so beautiful… I wanna get with youuuuuu…”
Akon. In Ras Lanuf.