Tales from Libya: Moss and Ivy


"All the grass is gone," I said to the Colonel, pointing at the playing field as we were leaving. Two goals stood at either ends of a dusty field, the remnants of grass only visible around the edges. There had been more grass in December, but now in February, it was bare, despite the rains that had turned the rest of the country green.

"No," he said. "But also no moss." We both laughed.

This past week I enjoyed another trip to Libya to participate in the graduation of the first two classes of the ELT Tiger English program. It was a delight to see the students again and get to spend some time with them. Their spirit and hunger for progress is genuinely inspiring. Sadly, though, it is impossible to go anywhere without confronting the signs of a deeply troubled past.

During the trial of ELT Tiger this past autumn, an unexpected event occurred one day during class. The power had failed, so we were sitting in the dark, passing an iPad around and practicing reading a story in English. The story described a young man traveling through a forest. The character comes upon a house:

The house was made of stone and the roof was shingled with cedar shingles. Moss was growing on parts of the roof. Ivy grew up the front of the house, and covered some of the ground floor windows.

This passage seemed perfectly innocuous to me, but it ended up causing a fight in the classroom that lasted the better part of an hour.

"Do you know what moss is?" asked one student, smiling.

"Yeah," I said slowly, not understanding what he was talking about. There was a pause.

"She's moss," he said pointing to another student.

For the next few minutes, the students tried to explain. The limitations of their English, as well as the roundabout insinuations they were making, made it difficult to get their meaning at first, but it soon became clear. And soon heated.

Gaddafi's signature color was green. The Arabic word for moss is now a term used in Libya to describe supporters of Gaddafi, still loyal to his regime, even after the revolution. The word ivy, it turns out, is the term used for former Gaddafi supporters who have since joined the revolution.

Believe it or not, there are still many Gaddafi supporters in Libya. While it's easy to dismiss these people, I've only met a few and they were not radical, violent, or indecent people. In fact, when I questioned them as to why they still supported the brother leader, their response was always the same: "Safety was better before."

For the few citizens who were fortunate enough to be relatively unaffected by Gaddafi's violence — and not fortunate enough to travel abroad for the opportunity to see how limited life in Libya under Gaddafi was — it is not so difficult to understand their position. Since the revolution, the country has been very unstable. There has been a lot of social unrest, violence (including rape), and power cuts and petrol shortages. There are many Gaddafi "supporters" for whom these are the primary issues. They choose to ignore or deny the atrocities the brother leader perpetrated against his own people and others.

"1300 people killed by Gaddafi in one hour! People snatched from their homes at night! What kind of safety is that?" was one student's passionate reply.

The class that day was no longer an English class. It suddenly became a mediation session, and I found myself in the middle. These were men and women who had participated in the revolution, some who had lived through all 42 years of Gaddafi's rule, and all who knew people who had been killed, under Gaddafi or during the revolution. The wounds were raw.

The argument in the class centered around two students: one moss and the other a revolutionary accused of being ivy. It was an emotional affair.

"She does not understand," I said. "She does not understand what Gaddafi was. She is thinking only of her small world. But she is not a bad person — you all want the same things: freedom, safety, prosperity for Libya. I know she wants these things, but she does not understand Gaddafi, and you yelling at her will not help. You need to understand her perspective, understand why she feels the way she does. You both need to work to understand each other."

I explained the moss perspective. I explained the revolutionary perspective. And I tried to show the students that fighting with one another would get them nowhere. For a people silenced and denied choice for 42 years, the concepts of crafting arguments, level dialogue, and decision-making can be difficult to explain or demonstrate. And for many, the wounds are still too fresh. Some students wanted to change the subject because the dialogue was uncomfortable, but I did not let them. We were getting somewhere.

Eventually, we took a break as a class. I slumped down in my chair and joked with some of the students, "It's just a story! Who knew some moss and ivy would cause so much trouble?"

Within ten minutes, the two students who had fought most passionately against each other were sitting next to each other, their heads together in quiet and conciliatory dialogue.

With people like these, there is great hope for Libya.

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