Blog entry by Astrid Dinneen
Anyone in the world
By Lynne Chinnery
In this three-part autobiographical blog, Hampshire EMTAS Specialist Teacher Advisor, Lynne Chinnery, takes us on a journey to Libya where she reminisces about the challenges and opportunities of moving to a country so drastically different to her own. In Part 1 Lynne sets the scene and readers experience the culture shock she felt when she first arrived in Libya. In this second part we find out how she eventually found her place.
Sami, Leyla and Idris all dressed up for Eid
Part 2: Embracing the culture
After a year, I was pregnant with our first child, Sami, and as my husband didn’t want to leave, I felt I had no choice but to stay. I’m so glad I did.
Life soon settled into a fairly comfortable routine, with the main meal at lunchtime and a siesta afterwards if needed. Work and school were usually mornings only, six days a week but many people had two or more jobs to make ends meet. In the evenings, people stayed up late to make the most of the cooler night air. We sometimes went out to the lake for a walk in the gardens or stayed in and watched television. There were just two channels on Gaddafi’s strictly controlled TV in those days: one in Arabic and the other divided between French and English, mainly so that Gaddafi could spread the word of his Green Book and Socialist Jamahiriya theory. Most programmes were centred on his teachings and his take on the news, but there were some South American soap operas dubbed in Arabic that everyone crowded round to watch, as well as some ancient British sitcoms on the French/English channel for me. Tuning in to watch Terry and June whilst sat in a villa in the heart of Benghazi was a surreal experience, and I was surprised to find myself looking forward to each episode as there was little else I could understand, apart from rented videos and the BBC World Service on the radio.
Politically, Libya was a dictatorship under the complete control of Gaddafi, who was abhorred by the majority of its citizens (or at least that’s how I perceived it in Benghazi, where the resistance to the regime was strongest). But he had been in power so long and his rule was so harsh, that the majority of the population had learnt to live in a state of reluctant acceptance. For many, this was all they had known. Even my husband had been a child of just seven years when Gaddafi first took power from King Idris in a coup in 1969.
With my usual ability to pick the right time, the West had declared sanctions with Libya shortly after I arrived. Private enterprise had been slashed previously under Gaddafi’s vision of a Socialist state and, apart from a few shops selling cloth, which were still allowed to open in Soog AlJareed (a traditional market in the centre of Benghazi), the majority of shopping was done in the large government department stores or in the government Jamias. The department stores stood mostly empty but with one or two products in abundance, such as rows and rows of washing powder, endless lines of canned ghee, or shelves with just one type of skirt or sandals but very little else. The Jamias were local stores where we could buy necessities such as rice, oil and pasta - very important to a country with Italian heritage (Libya had been occupied by Italy from 1911 to 1943 and had retained some of its dishes, language and buildings). All items were modestly priced in the Jamia but rationed and you had to show your ration book in order to acquire them. Occasionally, we could also purchase some electrical goods such as a TV or a washing machine. If there weren’t enough for everybody, a lottery was held (although you still had to pay for the appliance if you won). Anything else people needed was bought on the black market, mostly from suitcase importers who travelled abroad to bring back what they could to sell. Not surprisingly, prices kept rising and the Libyan Dinar fell even further due to the sanctions, meaning that the cost of travelling abroad was particularly high and so I couldn’t visit home as often as planned.
I had been warned not to speak to anyone I didn’t know well about anything political – you could be locked up or even worse, and never to mention politics on the phone or in my letters home as these were all monitored. But with trusted family, friends and colleagues, we could speak freely and a closeness laced with black humour prevailed.
Sometimes there were flurries of physical resistance and I remember once stopping on the great bridge that spanned the largest of the lakes in central Benghazi, watching mortar bombs being fired into a block of flats. It sounds strange now, but we just stood there watching the whole scenario unfold before us as if we were watching a film. The residents had been evacuated because there were insurgents (the side we wanted to win) hiding within. I don’t think we ever found out what happened to them as such events were never reported in the news.
But on the whole, these were exceptions to our everyday life of family, school and work, interspersed with occasional picnics in the nearby countryside, trips to Jabal Al-Akthar Mountains (The Green Mountains) or days spent at one of the many breathtaking beaches. We now had three children: Sami, Leyla and Idris and so our thoughts were mostly preoccupied with acquiring the things we needed on the black market, getting our children ready for school on time, the successful growth of our language school and, for me, trying with great difficulty, to help my children with their Arabic homework and decipher the letters that came through the door when my husband was away.
There were some cultural aspects that I found more difficult to adjust to than others. For example, I just couldn’t understand why women and men had to sit in separate rooms unless they were family or close friends. This was especially painful at the beginning when I didn’t speak Arabic because if I was separated from my husband, I had no one to interpret for me. I also had to learn how short was too short for a skirt or dress, that trousers could only be worn with something long over the top, and that sleeveless tops were shameful. Libya had a real mix of orthodoxy at that time. Although the hijab was rarely worn, you could see women completely covered in a long-sleeved dress down to their ankles and a headscarf hiding their hair or, at the other extreme, you might see a young girl dressed in Western clothes driving by in her sportscar, her hair flying in the wind. Luckily for me, my husband’s family were somewhere in the middle, they were Muslim and believed in modest dress but were not insistent that anyone should wear a scarf, feeling that this was a personal choice.
The longer I stayed in Libya, the more ordinary the customs became to me. As my Arabic grew, I looked forward to the women’s get-togethers, known as ‘lemmas’, as a time to catch up with each other’s news and above all to laugh. I began to feel shy wearing my swimming costume on the beach and started wearing shorts over it as some of the Libyan women did and I wore a long shirt over my trousers when I went out. At home, I often wore a jalabiya: a long shift that was much cooler than jeans and a T-shirt. And I found that sitting on the floor to eat from shared bowls on a low table or tray was actually very sociable and relaxing, plus it certainly saved on the washing up! And all the time I was adjusting, my spoken Arabic was improving as I absorbed it from those around me. My literacy skills were also slowly coming along as I continued to teach myself from a book I had brought with me, and practised reading my children’s school books, frantically trying to keep up with them, but failing.
How did Lynne's family adjust to living in two languages? Come back next week to read the third and final part of her autobiographical blog.
[ Modified: Tuesday, 11 October 2022, 12:14 PM ]