Page last updated at 13:26 GMT, Thursday, 10 March 2011

Learning to speak freely in Libya

By Michael Buchanan
BBC News, Benghazi

Benghazi in Eastern Libya liberated itself from the Gaddafi regime in the first week of the uprising, and is seen as the epicentre of the rebellion. But what is life like there now?

Cartoons on street in Benghazi
Cartoons criticising Gaddafi are now seen on the streets of Benghazi

I was travelling around Benghazi early the other morning, my first full day in the city.

As we neared a roundabout, my bleary focus was sharpened by the sight of a small Toyota pick-up truck approaching from the right.

What piqued my interest was not the vehicle per se but the fact that perched on the back was a large machine gun - pointing skywards, thankfully.

The conflict that I had previously only seen and heard about seemed very real. A closer look at the truck revealed that it had no number plates.

My interpreter, far wiser to the subtleties of Benghazi than I, said that it was probably one of the hundreds of imported vehicles that had been sitting by the dockside when the fighting started and had now been appropriated by the rebels.

City of opportunity

He gave me a tab of all the illicit goods one can now acquire here - around $3000 will buy you a top-of-the-range, imported car, a few hundred dollars for a Libyan passport, with a European-made handgun costing about the same.

Benghazi at the moment is a city of opportunities, if you know the right people.

I was actually travelling to get my media accreditation, which seemed bizarre given the haphazard nature of authority in the city. But Libyans don't seem to work much in the early morning, so the press centre was shut.

I don't throw anything away, I tidy my street. I am now a human being
Osman Mehdawi, Benghazi resident

The driver suggested we pop into a local cafe while we waited - but not just any cafe. He took me to Tika's.

The place was spartan - about half a dozen, small wooden tables, around which cheap, green plastic chairs sit. The menu was simple - strong shots of Arabic coffee.

The main choice it seemed was whether to have it with or without several spoons of sugar, although I was told I could order tea if I wanted.

The walls were covered in black-and-white pictures of Benghazi from the 1950s, but the cafe actually dates back to 1938.

It is in fact the oldest coffee shop in the city, and it is undoubtedly the best place I've found to learn the stories and the secrets of Benghazi.

There was a constant din of conversation, which spilled out onto the street, as customers who couldn't fit inside, smoked and drank outside.

Free speech

Before the revolt, people only talked about football, apparently. Now all they talk about is fighting and freedom.

The recent advances by Colonel Gaddafi's forces are not overly concerning the locals.

tea drinking on Benghazi street
Anti-government demonstrators drink tea on the street in Benghazi city

The beauty of Benghazi at the moment is that everyone wants to give you their opinion, in some cases literally queuing up to talk to you.

I squeezed into a spot by the counter, and was almost immediately joined by Osman Mehdawi.

Most of his front teeth were missing, he had a wispy grey beard and while he is officially 56, he said he was re-born on 17 February, the day the Libyan revolt started.

Before that, he said, he felt that this was not his country - he threw his cigarette butts on the pavement, for instance, not caring which state his city was in.

"I felt like an animal," he continued, "liable to be taken away at any moment for any reason."

He was specific about when he had decided that Colonel Gaddafi was not right for Libya - January 1976, when several protestors, including a couple of friends, were hanged from Benghazi lampposts.

All that has now changed, said Osman, "I don't throw anything away, I tidy my street. I am now a human being".

One of the staff, who overheard our conversation, said the air was now clear in Benghazi: "The rains came and washed away the old senses, the old ways of thinking".

They also appear to have washed away almost all Gaddafi supporters in eastern Libya.

Less than a month ago they ran the entire country, now they are as rare as hen's teeth in this part of Libya.

Another Tika customer, Salah Youssef, a retired air force pilot who has re-enlisted as a member of the anti-Gaddafi rebel army, told me that those who had not fled were being carefully watched.

Libya map

"They don't answer the door, they hide, heavily armed," he said.

"Now is not the time for them," said Salah, "we have to push towards Tripoli."

"When the time comes, we will deal with them.

"How?" I wondered.

"We'll have to kill them," he replied nonchalantly, "or many of them at least."

A few weeks ago, such talk may well have seen both men arrested in the middle of the night.

Osman for instance spent five days in prison, he told me, for standing beside someone who made an anti-regime remark.

And he was by no means the only Tika customer who disappeared, following seemingly innocent conversations over their shots of caffeine.

The cafe's patrons - all men, mostly elderly - are almost childlike in their enthusiasm to talk about everything and anything.

And like children, they are learning a new language, that of a people no longer afraid to speak their minds.

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