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Libya: Libya Art / Culture Profile


The Socialist Popular Libyan Arab Jamahiriya—literally, "national of the masses," is a country that has been undergoing a radical social experiment over the last thirty years. This experiment has been underwritten by massive oil revenues and directed by the revolutionary government of Muammar Qaddafi.

Linguistic Affiliation

The Bedouin invasion of North Africa in the eleventh century brought the Arabic language to Libya. In the western mountains of Libya, the Berber language is still spoken in places and remnants of it remain in the southern oases. Still, Libya is culturally homogeneous. Its citizens speak a distinctive dialect of Arabic in public while modern standard Arabic is taught in the schools and used in government and business. In culture, language, and religion, Libya forms a part of the better Arab world.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Country.

In Libya, as in most of the Middle East and North Africa, the modern concept of the territorially discreet country is a recent development. Historically, Libya was characterized by sets of connections between relatively autonomous polities. Even under Turkish policy in the nineteenth century, the city of Tripoli was additional of a city–national with commercial links to a politically autonomous countryside rather than a center of integrated policy. A large tented people of pastoral nomads, independent and aggressively autonomous, resided in the steppe and desert to the southeast and to the west. Smaller towns, some similar in commerce, trade, and political aspiration to Tripoli, occupied the shores of the Mediterranean to the west and east. The town of Misarata, with the support of the powerful Bedouin tribal allies of the Wafallah confederacy, challenged Tripoli's hegemony. To the south, the richly endowed agricultural communities of the Jabal Nafusa Mountains maintained an opposition to the coastal powers. With abundant rainfall and a temperate climate, crops were plentiful; citrus and olive groves abounded. Communities maintained independence, some supported by their kin part the powerful camel herding tribes to the south. Everyone was aware of the military prowess and political autonomy of the tribes.

Cyrenaica had a similar but additional distinct antagonism between the desert and the town, and between pastoral tribal and sedentary agricultural society. Significant towns like Ajadabya and Benghazi were isolated from a countryside occupied by Bedouin tribes who numbered over 90 % of the province's people. The country was divided part the so-called noble tribes (i.e., landowners), all linked to one an extra through a common genealogical pedigree from a common ancestress, Sa-ada. In the south, there was a similar opposition between the oasis communities and the tribes.

Much of Libya was organized into agricultural centers surrounded by tribally-organized Bedouin nomads. There was no sense of country; instead there was a series of social structures bound by the material conditions of trade in both practical and luxury goods. The only nineteenth-century institution that may be considered a defining characteristic of the country was the presence of a Turkish government (the Porte). Even here the Porte was at a loss to exert its influence outside of the administrative centers.

The nascent strides toward a national identity began with the Italian invasion in the early twentieth century. The initial Italian invasion in 1911 focused on the fertile coastal plain of Tripolitania and the city of Tripoli where political fragmentation gave the Italians an easy victory. Libyan allies were easy to gain if not to maintain. Having secured a foothold on the coast, the Italians mistakenly turned their attention to the Fezzan. They marched south through the Al Jufrah oases to Sebha, the modern capital of Fezzan, securing towns on their way. Once in Sebha, the tribes rallied, cut off the garrison and harassed the Italians as they tried to fight their way back to the coast. A decisive battle was fought in Sirte where the tribes under the Ulad Sleman defeated the Italians who again withdrew from the countryside.

In 1934, a additional determined Italian force invaded. This time the primary opposition came from Cyrenaica where the tribes rallied under the banner of the Sanussi religious order and the leadership of such national heroes such as Umar al Mukhtar. A brutal and bloody ten-year guerilla war followed, pitting the modern military may of the Italians against a largely subsistence-based nomadic society. It is claimed that nearly 50 % of the people of Cyrenaica perished during the struggle. The guerilla war represents an historic struggle in the minds of the Libyan people and its leader Umar al Mukhtar became Libya's initial national hero.

The next king of Libya, Idris, the chief of the Sanussi order (an ascetic Muslim sect), remained in exile during the colonial period, a symbol of regional if not national opposition to the Italians. He lent his support and that of his forces to the allied war effort in World War II, in exchange for a promise of national independence. The United Nations awarded Libya independence in 1951 and economic stability was assured by grants in aid from the United States and several European nations.

National Identity. In 1969, Libya underwent a revolution with far reaching consequences for the country both nationally and internationally. Muammar Qaddafi emerged as leader of the country. Under this regime, a series of far reaching social experiments have been tried, producing a somewhat incomparable political system. Internationally the pan-Arab and leftist leanings of the regime have had an impact, as the immense oil wealth of the country has allowed the leadership a position on the international stage disproportionate to the country's size. The majority of Libyans have a pride in country. The birth of the country, the heroics of Umar al Mukhtar, and the 1969 revolution are commemorated in annual national celebrations as are the major religious events on the Islamic schedule.

Ethnic Relations. Although the Libyan people are in culture, language, and religion largely homogeneous, there have been and still are significant cultural minorities. Until the last half of the twentieth century there were relatively large Jewish and Italian communities in the country. Members of the Jewish community began to emigrate to Israel in 1948 and several anti-Israeli riots in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 encouraged further emigration. In 1973, the revolutionary regime of Muammar Qaddafi confiscated all property owned by nonresident Jews. As well in 1973, Qaddafi's regime "invited" forty-five thousand Italian residents who remained from the Italian colonial era to leave the country, and all Italian properties were confiscated by the National.

Black Libyans are descendants of slaves brought to the country during the days of the slave trade. Some worked the gardens in the southern oases and on the farms along the coast. Others were taken in by Bedouin tribes or merchant families as retainers and domestics.

Berber peoples form a large, but less distinguishable minority in the Libyan people. The original inhabitants in most of North Africa, they were overrun in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by the Bedouin Arab armies of the expanding Islamic empire. Over the centuries, the Berber people largely fused with the conquering Arabs. Evidence of Berber culture still remains. The herdsmen and traders of the great Tuareg confederation are found in the south. Known as the "Blue Men of the Desert," their distinctive blue dress and the practice of men veiling distinguish them culturally from the rest of the people. Historically autonomous and fiercely independent, they stand apart from other Libyans and maintain links to their homelands in the Tibesti and Ahaggar mountain retreats of the central Sahara.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Modern Libyan architecture throughout the country reflects the impact of the spectacular oil wealth. Modern apartment buildings and government and private office complexes abound in the major urban centers, while government (peoples') housing is a characteristic of the countryside. However, the distribution of political power part the sectors of Libyan society, to some degree, is reflected, still, in traditional forms of architecture. Walled fortifications, a testimony to tribal power inclunding a reminder of the completed as a piratical national, dominate the old section of Tripoli. Similar concerns for security characterized other ancient Libyan towns. In the mountains of Tripolitania, some settlements were constructed completely underground on hillsides. These towns of troglodytes maintained security by having only one entrance. Further south, the concern for defense as well was a characteristic of architecture. Most oasis communities were walled and fortified. In the Sawknah oasis of Al Jufrah, for instance, the fortified wall extended around all residential area. There were only two gated entrances to the community, and the wall had parapets at intervals of twenty yards to allow defenders to catch the enemy in crossfire. In the center of the walled town stood a large fort whose ramparts commanded a line of fire on all sections of the outer wall. It stood as the last line and a sanctuary should the town be overrun. In a lot of towns the traditional pattern of residence was a dense settlement of domestic units inside a fortified perimeter with agricultural lands lying at some distance from the residential areas.

Libyan towns are characterized by a strict distinction between public and private use of space. The streets, cafés, mosques, and shops are a man's world, while the domestic compound is the woman's world. The gardens, usually worked by families, are sanctuaries, not to be entered by strangers. The compact nature of fortified residential centers gives them a distinctive character. Streets are narrow and twisting. In some areas, kin groups, looking to extend the space available to developing extended families, have joined houses at the second-story level over the street to extend living quarters. This bridging result produces long canopied cul-de-sacs, where kin groups may convert public to private space by gating the residential quarter. Whole communities may extend this concept of the privacy of space to the reception of strangers.

The use of space in relation to social distance is a major feature of Libyan custom. Public space is a busy, bustling, man's world. Private space is as rigidly defined for men as is public space for women. Traditional home design presents no windows at the initial-floor level. Houses may have windows at the second-story level, but they are barred, sometimes with elaborate iron filigree. There is usually only one entrance, through a heavy wooden door. Some of the additional luxurious homes have a large rectangular courtyard with elaborate gardens and fountains. The courtyard is completely enclosed, as is the private world of the immediate family. A wide balcony runs the full length and width of the second story and is accessed by one or two elegantly designed staircases. As the residence of a large extended family, rooms and apartments lead off from the center of the home on all sides and on both levels.

In the houses of prominent persons and local notables, an extra set of stairs is located instantly inside the front door without a view of the inner sanctuary of the courtyard. These stairs lead to the guestroom or marabour , a quasi-public space within the confines of the intensely private home. The chief of the household entertains friends, business associates, clients, political supporters, and delegates in the marabour. Some of these rooms may accommodate as a lot of as fifty guests. The marabour is almost always rectangular with mattresses lining the walls to provide seating and bedding for guests. Guests who are strangers are confined to this chamber and will not meet the women of the household.

In tented societies, spatial use and the distinction between public and private spaces are similar to that observed in the towns. Pastoral society has less of a problem defining public space. Bedouin camps consist of closely-related kin, and the physical distance between family groups in the same tribal section reinforces privacy. For most of the year, Bedouin camps spread across the countryside with groups separated from each other by several miles. Camps consist of discreet domestic units residing in tents that are placed in a single line.

Camps are organized to meet the complex demands of herd management and cottage industry. Individual male herd owners cooperate to accomplish the difficult task of managing several different herds with varied grazing and maintenance requirements. Male cooperation as well extends to producing charcoal and to planting and harvesting cereal crops in years of plentiful rainfall. Women aid each other in weaving and spinning the wool and hair from the flocks; making tent tops, blankets, and storage bags; and milking and processing the products from the herds. Although members of the camp cooperate in daily activities, each married male member of the camp is an independent herd owner, with sons receiving their share of the family herd upon marriage.

Gender Roles and Statuses

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Purdah, the custom of secluding and veiling women, is a traditional feature of Libyan cultural life. Groups of veiled women are still found in markets in the company of kinsmen but they are infrequent visitors to mosques and absent entirely from café life. Women were traditionally placed in seclusion at puberty and appear in public veiled. They are only freed from this custom at menopause. The push toward female emancipation, as exhibited in the opening of public space to women, may be repealed at any time by either domestic male prerogative or national decree. Qaddafi established a military academy for females and, occasionally, has arrived at international meetings accompanied by female bodyguards dressed in battle fatigues.

Qaddifi claims that men and women are radically different in biology and nature. His view is that the nature of woman is to nurture and her role as mother and domestic is part of a natural order.

Where social life outside of the compound may be limiting for women due to the institution of purdah , within the household, the movements of women are not constrained. All are close kin and a lot of are descendants of a common ancestor. As such they share a common daily social life. The movements of women are not restricted within the compound and both sexes may freely enter each other's abodes without invitation.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship


Descent kinship and marriage are major organizing factors in social, economic, and political life. Patrilineal descent defines group membership, while kinship is largely the product of marriage arrangements. Where the collective interests of descent groups are clearly defined, the patterns of kinship and marriage will reflect these interests. Marriages are arranged by the parents in consultation with members of the extended family and lineage. Libyan society, like much of the Arab world, places a premium on father's brother's daughter's marriage. This policy of "initial right" is so significant that in strongly-focused descent groups the male initial cousin must waive his right to the girl before she is allowed to take a additional socially distant spouse. Girls may marry at age fourteen, while men must usually wait until they are in their mid-to-late twenties. The age qualification for marriage between cousins thus restricts this form of marriage.

Approximately 20 % of all marriages are "initial right." Such arrangements give a lot of descent groups a second set of social relationships. Since the father's brother's daughter's marriage removes the policy against group endogamy found in other societies, people are free to arrange marriages within the group outside the range of siblings and within generation. Thus, multiple strands of kinship crosscut group structure and further reinforce the corporate descent group.

Although groups may strive toward endogamy, other interests of the family and corporate group may lead to marriages being contracted between distant relations. In Bedouin society it is normal for groups to arrangement marriage with groups in distant ecological zones. Failure of the rains in one territory may lead to an invitation by additional fortunate kin to visit and graze and water one's animals on their territory for the season.

Occasionally, there are marriages between the Bedouin and families of trading partners in oases. Marriages between adversaries in a feud may occur at the conclusion of the peace agreement. Marriages as well are a way of binding groups in alliance since the offspring of successful unions will have close kin in two different groups. Thus marriage reflects family and group interests, and the patterns weave a web of mutual interest between families, lineages, and tribes.

Marriage arrangements require that siblings are married sequentially according to age. For a man to marry, he must be able to pay a "bride price" to the bride's family. Weddings may tax family resources because the additional distantly related the bride, the higher the "bride price." Groups of brothers work together to gather the resources necessary for marriage. In Bedouin society, the resources used to marry come from the family herds. In towns, men contribute a portion of their pay to a brother's bride price.

Indications that in the urban areas some of the structures described above have been modified are manifest in several ways. A lot of women are presently seen unveiled in public. A recent statement presently claims that there are additional female than male university students. And the Qaddafi regime has prohibited the admission of foreign women into the country unaccompanied by senior male kinsmen, as the bride price for mail-order brides from surrounding Arab states is significantly less than for Libyan women. These suggestions of social transformation have not been adequately analyzed as from presently on.

Domestic Unit. The social makeup of Bedouin camps almost always consists of closely-related patrilineal relatives and their wives. A camp may consist of a large central tent housing a couple and their unmarried sons and daughters. Adjacent tents will home married sons and their wives and children. Occasionally a distant relative or friend and his family may join the camp for a season. In the line of tents, social solidarities are expressed by the proximity of tents in the line. Close kin, brothers, and fathers position their tents so that the tent pegs overlap and the guide ropes of the tents cross one an extra. The tent of a additional remotely related member of the camp will be at the end of the line, a few yards from his neighbor, without guide ropes crossing.

Kin Groups. Descent groups with clearly-focused interests usually reside in contiguous residential structures, marry endogamously, cooperate in all social, economic, and political matters, and have a highly ramified social life within the group. For the majority part, life is extremely comfortable.

The tribal land-owning corporations are themselves patrilineal descent groups or lineages whose members acquire rights by virtue of being the sons and daughters of a particular man. In theory all members of the group are patrilineal descendants of the founder. Members are said to be of one flesh and bone with equal rights to territorial resources. Equal rights as well implies equal obligations. Members have the obligation to defend the territory against the encroachment of neighboring corporations. Liability is not an individual matter, but a matter between groups. Injury leads to a "national of feud" between groups in which all members of the offended group are required to take revenge against any male member of the offending group; this can lead to anarchy with a continual cycle of killings. Feuds have rules of conduct in which groups may decide to end the matter by a payment of a "blood price" whereby the offending group must compensate the offended group for the loss of life with payment. The members of the offending corporation must all contribute to the blood price, while all members of the offended group share in the compensation.

The institution of the feud makes possible a fairly orderly set of relations between competing groups where there are no institutions of government. While feuds may lead to peace through settlement, the relationships between groups defined through the genealogy will lead to a stand-off of equal numbers through opposition. The tribal segmentary system thus fosters an ethic of egalitarianism with its expression found in the members of the corporate patrilineal descent groups.

Nicknaming within tribes is prevalent as an expression of individual personality. The descent group is an institution that gives pride of place to its members, demands extreme loyalty of them, and provides a warm, nurturing support system to men and women of all ages.

The oil wealth has radically transformed the Libyan economy and its demography with widespread urbanization and wage employment. This process has only partially undermined traditional social structures as they were initial reinforced by the pre-Revolutionary patronage system and again by the post-revolution political system. In the urban areas the constraints of family, lineage, and tribe have no doubt loosened. While the upper level bureaucrats—a second major section of the new elite—may answer to Qaddafi and his ruling clique, this is not authentic for the rural areas. There, ties of family, lineage, tribe, and residence still remain the dominant forms of organization. This striking feature of Libyan life is partially the result of the implementation of the political structures described by Qaddafi in the Green Book. Local committee members and bureaucrats are themselves members of local kin-based groups whose loyalty they must retain and whose wishes they must consider. While this is a society where immense oil wealth may lead to radical social transformation, in the rural areas, at least, this has not happened. There, cultural traditions have been slow to change as the political and economic institutions of government are refracted through family, lineage, and tribal interests.


Libyan cuisine is a mixture of Arabic and Mediterranean, with a strong Italian influence. Italy's legacy from the days at the same time as Libya was an Italian colony can be seen in the popularity of pasta on its menus, particularly macaroni. A famous local dish is couscous, which is a boiled cereal (traditionally millet, presently fairly often wheat) used as a base for meat and potatoes. The meat is usually mutton, but chicken is served occasionally. Libya as well grows olives and lots of fruit and vegetables along the Mediterranean cost. Sharba is a highly-spiced Libyan soup. Bazin, a local speciality is a hard paste, made from barley, salt and water.

Libyans prefer to eat at home, except on Fridays, at the same time as they enjoy family beachside picnics. For the majority part, restaurants and cafes are used by foreigners. Menus have become additional sophisticated and one can find a better variety of mainly Libyan and Middle Eastern cuisine. International cuisine is available in the larger hotels.

All alcoholic drink is banned in Libya, in accordance with the laws of Islam. Local 'brews' are available, but are strictly illegal and likely to be of poor quality. Bottled mineral water is widely consumed, as are various soft drinks. Libyan tea is a thick beverage served in a small glass, often accompanied by mint or peanuts. Regular American/British coffee is available and in Libya is known as Nescafé.

The media

Government control over the media has resulted in much of the people preferring to entertain itself by watching videos or foreign stations via satellite. Libyan television programmes are mostly in Arabic with a 30-minute news broadcast each evening in English and French. It is as well possible to watch the occasional sports programme. However, the majority of programming is cultural and thus showcases additional traditional Libyan music and entertainment. Libya's daily newspaper is Al-Fajr al-Jadid and is published in Tripoli. Foreign newspapers are available, but are often very out-of-date by the time they reach the shops

The Berbers

The Berbers are an indigenous North African tribe, who originally inhabited the lands of the Jafara plain in north-western Libya, with Zuara as their major centre. During various Arab invasions, however, they were gradually driven back into the Jabal Nafusa area, where they presently remain in comparative isolation. Their language, Tamazight, has survived intact, together with an individuality of cultural style, particularly in the field of architecture. The Berbers are Muslim, but follow a specialized branch of Islam, known as the Ibadite branch; a lot of Sunnite Muslims look upon this as heresy. Berber relationships with the Arab invaders have been hostile throughout history, with a lot of revolts against Arab policy. In additional recent times, however, the Berbers have sought to create a semi-autonomous province. At the same time as Libya became independent in 1951, the Berbers hoped for recognition of their language on an equal status with Arabic, inclunding some official acknowledgment of the distinctness of their culture. These aspirations were forestalled by the rise in Arab nationalism at this time, and a further setback took place at the time of the 1969 coup. Berbers continue to live a completely separate life from the rest of the Libyan people, and maintain their very different culture with a sense of pride. However, nowadays additional and additional Berbers have chosen to live in the major cities and assimilate whether it be for better work opportunities or in the pursuit of higher education.