Libya | Morning Bell

Shedding the vestiges of the old regime, schools in Libya restart on a new note

After 42 years under Gaddafi’s dictatorship followed by eight months of war, schools in Libya, like Talaa Tawfiq, are now rebuilding and transforming. KARIM MOSTAFA FOR THE CARAVAN
01 April, 2012

IT’S SUNDAY MORNING, the beginning of a new week in Tripoli. At Talaa Tawfiq, a school on the outskirts of the city, the grounds are buzzing with activity. Although it’s still winter, the Libyan sun warms the air. Kids play or eat their sandwiches during lunch, groups of teenagers wander the schoolyard. Business as usual, it seems. But Talaa Tawfiq, like schools across Libya, has gone through a revolution.

After eight months of war that killed tens of thousands and left large parts of the country’s cities in ruins, Libya is still picking up the pieces. And some of the greatest challenges remain in the country’s schools, which began opening soon after the fighting ended in October 2011. During Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years in power, education, like much else in the country, was dictated from the top. Schools became places for Libya’s youth to learn the ideological fundamentals of the regime. With the dictatorship ousted, the Ministry of Education, currently under the National Transitional Council, is working with schools across the country to set the education system on a new track.

Talaa Tawfiq’s walls, once plastered with picture after picture of Gaddafi—the “Brother Leader”, as he preferred to be addressed—are now adorned altogether differently. The old dictator’s portrait has been replaced by brightly coloured revolutionary murals: a bird being released from a cage, variations of the new flag, slogans like “We shall never again be in chains” and “Freedom is more powerful than any weapon”.

Just inside the entrance to a building that houses Talaa Tawfiq’s high school is the small office of Taghrid Sheneeb, a teacher in her 30s. Her door is kept open, and we sit and have coffee—dark and sweet, with thick foam—served in small cups. Sheneeb is enthusiastic about the school’s new approach to education. “Now, there’s a change in mentality,” she says. “We want to release a new, better generation of Libyans. And to change the country, you have to start from the bottom. Rebuilding the human is the hardest thing to do.”

The fundamental task at hand is replacing the old system of political indoctrination with a new approach—one that encourages student participation. The Ministry of Education, which is directing this process, is housed in a historic building on a busy street in central Tripoli lined with small bookshops and canteen-style eateries. The office of the deputy minister, Suleiman Al-Khoja, is busy.

“There’s much important work to be done now,” Al-Khoja says. “We have to teach our students many new things. What is a constitution? What are human rights? How do elections work? Many people in Libya have only lived under the old regime. They aren’t familiar with these things. They have never been able to speak freely.”

Some sections of the old curriculum have already been revised and the most blatant errors have been corrected. Chief among them: the way history was taught.

“There used to be nothing in our history books about the time between independence and Gaddafi’s entry into power,” says Al-Khoja in his office. “Nobody knows anything about that period.”

Previous history books had emphasised the years following Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution, and left out, among others, the important national hero Omar Al-Moukhtar, who was killed at the hands of the Italian colonialists, and King Idriss, who ruled Libya after its independence in 1951.

Eighteen-year-old Hassan Morajea, a graduate of Talaa Tawfiq who now studies at the university, loves ruins and old history. “We have so much of that in Libya, but we know nothing about them. I’ve visited places in my own country that foreigners had to tell me about. We should know this. It’s important to know where you’re coming from.”

Gaddafi’s legacy of political indoctrination is equally problematic. In 1975, six years after seizing power, the dictator published the first of his three-volume treatise, The Green Book, which outlined his own ideology—what he called the Third International Theory. The book, Gaddafi believed, would provide solutions to the political and social problems of Libya—and, possibly, the rest of the world. But, rather than providing specific policy points, the work is rich with farcical ramblings. Gaddafi commented on breastfeeding—which he said separates women from men—as well as boxing and wrestling—both deemed “uncivilised”. Every week, students would study these writings during special ‘Political Awareness’ classes. Paragraphs from TheGreen Book would be memorised by heart, citations used to adorn classroom walls. Now, such quotes are nowhere to be seen.

“We’ve completely stopped teaching the old ideology. But it’s difficult, because it used to be mixed into everything,” says Sheneeb. “Reading exercises, for instance, used to be based on what Gaddafi had said or done.”

The ‘Political Awareness’ classes will be replaced by a new subject: ‘National Awareness’, during which students will learn about democracy, human rights and the concept of citizenship. But until the course outlines are revised nationally, history and politics have been left out of the curriculum.

“For now, we’ve removed the parts that are wrong and we’re only teaching the rest,” says Sheneeb. “The school year became very short because of the war. We’re behind now, so the shorter the curriculum the better.”

While teachers wait for updated and revised materials, another transformation is taking place—this one in the attitudes of the students and teachers themselves.

The past year’s events have driven Talaa Tawfiq’s teachers to revise their old methods of teaching. Sheneeb and her colleague, Aatika Al-Sheikh, have even watched approaches to classroom management among the school’s staff take a turn.

“We want to teach the students respect now. Earlier, it was common that teachers would beat the students. We don’t want that to happen any more. It’s been put down as a law now that beating is forbidden,” says Sheneed. “We want to build our students, not break them down.”

For 15-year-old Maysam Fukjani, who is back in school, this transition has meant something even larger: “We have changed as human beings. We want to build up our country now.” Together with her family, Fukjani left for Tunisia when the war started. “I’m only sad to have missed the revolution, and to not have any memories from it.”

The youth that remained in the country during the revolution and joined the countless protests last year are now more familiar with how people joined together can enact real change. Talaa Tawfiq has already played host to this renewed spirit.

“For the first time, we’ve experienced democracy in the school,” says Sheneeb. “We’ve had three demonstrations among the students. The first two were demanding new school books and a new curriculum, the last one was protesting against the threats of Saadi.” Saadi, Gaddafi’s son now exiled in Niger, made a public address right before the one-year anniversary of the revolution, and warned Libyans that he would return to the country “at any minute”.

Getting all of Libya’s teachers to make the switch will not be an easy task. The education sector is one of the biggest in the country, with some 200,000 people teaching 1.2 million students. That’s one teacher per six schoolchildren. Many of these teachers are under qualified. During Gaddafi’s rule, teachers were hired based on loyalty to the regime rather than merits.

“Many of our teachers don’t have the right competence,” says Al-Khoja. “Fifty percent could probably be asked to leave, the rest are good teachers.” The case is the same with old school principals who shared the authoritative mindset of the previous regime. Many have had to leave their jobs already, says Al-Khoja.

Sixteen-year-old Shayma Tarbah has already noticed how the revolution has changed many of her teachers: “They’ve started to communicate with the students more, and they’re more happy to teach. And now they’re free to say what they want. They couldn’t do that before.”

Despite the headway made by teachers, many schools have been left without classrooms altogether. The war was especially brutal in cities like Misrata, Sirte, Zliten and Bani Walid, where many schools were completely destroyed. Others were used as weapons depots, or turned into field hospitals. And some, says Al-Khoja, were intentionally used by Gaddafi’s men as prison camps. When the troops left, they destroyed as much as they could.

Youth were not spared from the violence of Libya’s revolution. Students witnessed the atrocities of the war outside their homes. “We have many kids who lost a parent or saw their friends die,” says Sheneeb. “These children had to mature a lot during the past year.” Many of Talaa Tawfiq’s teenaged students were on the frontlines. The Libyans who joined the improvised rebel battalions were far from hardened soldiers—most were young men who had never seen a situation like this firsthand.

“I’ve become more forgiving, and more willing to sacrifice things than before,” says 17-year-old Adham Derbal, who returned to school after the fighting ended in October. “I used to be very mad and upset about things—when driving, for instance. Now, I’m calmer. I don’t care so much about things that are not important any more.”