The Graffiti of Benghazi

By Ethan Chorin

Six months after the February uprising, there are several major differences in the physical appearance of Benghazi, Libya’s rebel capital. The city is unmistakably cleaner, the result of a few pre-uprising civic works (including the cleaning of Benghazi’s putrid central lake) as well as the newfound civic pride that has compelled citizens to sweep up in front of apartment buildings and storefronts. The streets are festooned with the ubiquitous red, black, and green of the Monarchy flag. Many of the burned-out, Italian colonial-era buildings, such as the Cinema Qureena on Maidan Al Shajara (Tree Square), have been either boarded up or cordoned off.

The flavor of the transformation is clearly set by graffiti, from crude black scrawls on walls and old billboards, to elaborate, intricate illustrations and caricatures, heavily focused on Muammar Gadhafi and a few recognizable figures of the Tripoli regime. Some of the messages are angry, others urgent; others are just plain creepy, or humorous, or both. Many of these efforts are interactive in a decidedly low-tech way, as new hands add to (or poke fun at, or laugh with) another’s work.

One wall painting shows a mod Gadhafi wearing rectangular-framed glasses, his hair parted into a massive black, two-part afro, from which bombs are falling. Another depicts The Leader and his second-eldest son, Saif Al Islam, erstwhile symbol of reform, a smiling, miniature devil resting on Saif’s shoulder, appearing to offer him a gun (a clear allusion to the “good Saif”/“bad Saif” dichotomy that grew with the latter’s February 21 “last bullet” speech, warning that Libya would dissolve into civil war). One drawing portrays Gadhafi as half man, half water buffalo, with crossbones interwoven into his facial hair. One of my favorites is a Janus-like conglomeration of Omar Al Mukhtar, the hero of the Libyan resistance to Italian fascist occupation, and a lion (Omar Al Mukhtar’s moniker was “Lion of the Desert”), next to which another hand, far more glib, has drawn a laughing Gadhafi and a “V” for Victory (or perhaps “peace”) sign. At times the words give an indication of when the graffiti was written: “No foreign intervention,” reads one, “We will not beg, and we will not budge.” Another reads “This way to Qatar Street,” clearly a reference to the leading role played by Qatar in rallying other Arab states to the rebels’ cause. Note the prevalence of the (dissonant, of course) Nazi swastika and stars of David, the latter presumably referring to “street” talk that imputes some personal and/or institutional connection between Gadhafi and Israel.

The following photos were taken in late July 2011. For further background, see my “Benghazi Blues” in Foreign Policy.

1. Afrodaffi

2. Gadhafi and Saif Al Islam, with small devil (on Saif’s shoulder) seeming to present him a gun. The writing above reads “Begone, son of a Jewess.”

3. Gadhafi as Jamoos (water buffalo)-devil, with Green-book hat and crossbones, next to rebel (Monarchy) tricolor flag

4. Half-Omar Al Mokhtar, Half-Lion of the Desert (with laughing Gadhafi-head and V for Victory Sign added later)

5. Gadhafi KO

6. Red-eyed devil

7. “The Feb. 17 Revolution Association: For the sake of Libya”


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