In Other Words

The End of History in the New Libya

The Green Book is gone, but what will replace it?

TRIPOLI, Libya — "Our enemies are targeting our nationality and our beliefs.… Throughout their history, the Arabs have faced one foreign enemy with one ambition: to divide us up."

So began the first day of school for Libya's 14-year-olds in 2010. The previous year they had been taught how the Crusades and the Ottoman "occupation" drove the "Arab Nation" back into a dark age. Now, this ninth-grade history textbook told them the story of Arab nationalism and its leader, Egyptian liberator Gamal Abdel Nasser -- the adolescent hero of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It was only a fitting tribute: Nasser, after all, had helped inspire Qaddafi's 1969 seizure of power in Libya -- a coup that Qaddafi institutionalized over four decades in power by exercising sweeping control over even the most basic lessons taught in classrooms.

Qaddafi made his eccentric ideologies the very foundation of Libyan schooling, from the warped renderings of the past in history books to the opaque political theories in the Green Book, the Qaddafi treatise that formed the core of the Libyan curriculum. Multiple generations were taught under this regime, so when the revolution came last year it was no simple matter to fix an education system needing an overhaul from top to bottom.

Members of the ruling National Transitional Council first met in the spring of last year to discuss how to purge Qaddafi's curriculum, and despite the six further months of civil war that followed, the new Education Ministry managed to dispense with Qaddafi's old books by the time schools in Tripoli reopened in September. For the time being, schools have relied on flimsy handouts and even reprints of books from the early 1970s.

The question now is how to create an intellectual basis for free thinking out of a near vacuum. What will fill the books that replace Qaddafi's? If history is written by the winners, Libya's rebels still have much work to do.

THE NEW EDUCATION MINISTRY is housed in a spacious yellow stone building erected by Italian colonists and boasting a tiled fountain and peaceful courtyard. Open since September, the ministry stands on a tree-lined street just up the road from Tripoli's Martyrs' Square -- formerly Green Square until it was seized and renamed by Libya's revolutionaries last year.

When I met Suliman el-Sahli, the acting education minister, there in March, he told me that "the most important thing to change in the curriculum was anything related to the old regime."

Generations of Libyans had come to resent Qaddafi's deep influence on the public schools. Under his rule, any administrator or curriculum designer was required to be a member of the lijan thawriya ("revolutionary committees") -- a sort of all-purpose thought police and snitch service. Libyan textbooks printed only what the dictator mandated, with all educational principles ultimately drawn from his three-part, roughly 100-page Green Book, first published in the 1970s. Whether claiming that "dictatorship is established under the cover of false democracy" in elections or criticizing political parties as "instrument[s] to rule the people," Qaddafi's text was widely considered convoluted and inconsistent -- not to mention reviled openly by many Libyans

Students didn't read the full Green Book, instead absorbing the thoughts of the "Brother Leader" through companion textbooks for the mandatory "Jamahiriya studies." (Jamahiriya, which translates literally as "republics," was Qaddafi's term for his system of government.) Lasting from ages 9 to 18, these courses formed the basis for education and civic life in Libya, but the Jamahiriya books were also largely incomprehensible. A text for 12-year-olds, for instance, introduces the concept of "popular committees" -- local government bodies under Qaddafi's rule -- that were "chosen by the masses." The committees do not "make decisions," the Jamahiriya book says, but instead "collect the decisions of the masses, which they took note of in the popular meetings." The book instructs each class of students to choose such a "committee" to represent them, "and from the committees of each class you will establish the popular conferences, where these committees will choose another committee to go to the regional conferences." But Libyans told me that did not happen when they were students.

Even subjects that did not seem political were treated as though they were. Geography, for example, was taught with maps that failed to show national borders in the Arab world, in keeping with Qaddafi's exaggerated Nasserist ideology of pan-Arab unity. It was often difficult for Libyan students to know their country's own borders, Suleiman Khoja, the new deputy education minister, told me.

Qaddafi-era history books, meanwhile, showed little respect for facts or evidence. An eighth-grade text used in the 2008-2009 school year, for instance, includes a photo of soldiers wearing what appear to be World War I-era Western uniforms and standing over corpses in robes. A nearby caption says simply that the photograph "represents the policy of Crusader colonization in the Arab world." In Qaddafi's version of history, the story was always the same, and the particulars -- British? Italians? Did this happen in Libya? -- only distracted from the lesson to be learned. "In every historical period," Khoja says, "he emphasized conflict and misunderstanding and cultural hatred -- especially when it came to the West."

GETTING RID OF Qaddafi's textbooks may turn out to be easier than figuring out how to replace them.

Over at the Education Ministry, the new bureaucracy promises revamped social studies textbooks in time for the 2012-2013 school year and revised history books within the next year or two. The hodgepodge of materials standing in for Qaddafi's curriculum over the past several months, however, suggests this may be an optimistic goal.

In history classes, Libyan students this year have found their vintage early-1970s textbooks abruptly truncated after the reign of King Idris, who ruled Libya from 1951 until the Qaddafi coup in 1969. Qaddafi-era textbooks had all but completely ignored King Idris as a British puppet; now his bespectacled, bearded face is back in Libyan classrooms, while the story of Qaddafi's rule is gone.

Indeed, with the reinstatement of the monarchy's tricolor flag and the national anthem "Ya Biladi" ("O My Country"), both holdovers from the 1950s, many of the symbols of nationhood in the new Libya are in fact old; Libyans are moving forward by looking back first, scrubbing Qaddafi's propagandistic thought from the record until they have decided exactly how to present it to future generations of Libyan students.

The ministry has given a glimpse of its ideological inclinations in the handouts it distributed to schools around the country this past year, simple pamphlets that offer short definitions of words like "democracy" and "citizenship" -- this time, borrowing from the once-hated West. According to the pamphlets, every citizen should be granted human rights, including freedom of speech and expression and the rights to organize politically and vote. In teaching these democratic principles, Sahli says the ministry hopes to train Libyans to be loyal to their country first, rather than a tribe, an individual like Qaddafi, or even a "pan-Arab" idea, all of which he says thwart nation-building.

Even so, Sahli vows that the ministry will "not make the same mistake as before."

"All historical eras will be presented objectively, without propaganda," he promises, careful to mention Qaddafi's rule among them. "Our work at the ministry is to include everybody, whether they are against or for the revolution," Sahli says. "We do not exclude or isolate people. They are all part of the new Libya."

These goals may be clear enough, but when and how the committee rewriting Libya's curriculum will achieve them is less certain. I met in March with Abdulnabi Abu Ghannaya, the committee's director, in the ministry's outer office, where dozens of functionaries filled the sofas while young office boys served coffee and water. When I asked Ghannaya how Libya's Qaddafi-era history would eventually be presented in schools -- a dark spot, a mixed bag, or simply a matter of fact -- he said simply that "historians" would take care of it. Grasping for specifics, I asked whether it would be possible to speak with the person in charge of the history curriculum, but Ghannaya could reply only, "Inshallah."

This is not as surprising as it might seem in the post-revolution government. Most current teachers, school administrators, and ministry officials, after all, worked in education before Qaddafi's fall -- some as members of the lijan thawriya -- and so had grown accustomed to his megalomania.

Under the dictator, Sahli reminds, "The Green Book was supposed to answer all political questions" for students and teachers alike. Now, he told me, "We all need some rehabilitation."

Correction: The print version of this article mistranslates the caption describing a photograph of soldiers in a 2008-2009 Libyan textbook.


In Other Words

How García Márquez Explains
Latin America

(And Roberto Bolaño and Tomás Eloy Martínez.)

Novelists in Latin America have long occupied a privileged position in society. During the foundation of the Latin American republics, in the 19th century, writers helped draft constitutions, laws, even new grammars. Many participated actively in politics. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose 1845 classic, Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, was read as a blueprint for Latin America -- either civilize like the Europeans or become "barbarians" like the continent's remaining indigenous societies -- became president of Argentina in 1868. Well into the 20th century, authors from Venezuela's Rómulo Gallegos to Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa had such stature that they were serious presidential candidates in their countries.

But ever since Latin America's literary boom of the 1960s, the notion of the novelist as a larger-than-life figure, able and willing to intervene in national and continental politics, has appeared to fade. Earlier authors, most famously Gabriel García Márquez, ushered in an era of magical realism, depicting the extraordinary as commonplace. In reaction, the Latin American novelists of subsequent years became more modest and introspective -- more interested in depicting private lives than crafting allegories for their nations. Today, the novel in Latin America has lost the privileged space it once occupied, and writers are simply not seen as the monumental figures they used to be.

But this is not to say that they have abandoned political themes or that readers should abandon the Latin American novel as a gateway into the region's politics. The violence currently gripping Mexico, for instance, has been perfectly represented by a Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, in his posthumous 2004 masterpiece 2666. And Tomás Eloy Martínez's 1991 novel, Santa Evita, tells us much about the passion play that has become the Argentina of the Kirchners -- Néstor, who ruled from 2003 to 2007, and his wife, Cristina, who has been president since 2007. Even magical realism, after all, is a partially "realist" genre, and García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, though published in 1975, offers striking insights into the politics of contemporary Cuba. To understand today's Latin America, literature is as good a guide as any number of think-tank reports -- and perhaps better.

2666, Roberto Bolaño

Before settling in Spain, Bolaño lived for several years in Mexico, the setting for some of his best works, including both 2666 and 1998's The Savage Detectives. 2666 is a monumental, 1,000-page novel divided into five parts, the fourth of which, "The Part of the Crimes," deals with the femicides that have plagued the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez -- the model for the fictional city of Santa Teresa, in which the novel is set. In his descriptions of more than 100 fictional homicides, Bolaño's use of clinical details -- he notes exactly where the women are killed and even what they are wearing -- makes the novel's resemblance to reality all the more apparent. Some critics and readers have taken issue with the specificity of these violent scenes, but this is precisely Bolaño's point. He finds a way to represent the repetition of violence and the impunity of its perpetrators -- the lack of solutions to these crimes. In Santa Teresa, the pathological public sphere ends up normalizing something that is truly abnormal: compulsive, repetitive murders.

At the same time, Bolaño's novel suggests there is a point when this tragedy cannot be normalized. The policemen in charge of finding the killers are depicted as casual misogynists, even joking about the murdered women; with these men's prejudices, it is almost impossible that any crime against women will be solved. Bolaño also portrays some of the killers as jealous husbands, men resentful that their wives make more money than they do. More than a recounting of violent crimes, then, 2666 can be read as a critique of the Mexican social order: It goes beyond the gory violence to its roots, suggesting that at its dark core a patriarchal culture is responsible for treating women as objects easily disposed of -- as much by their partners and friends as by the drug lords or the factories where they work.

The whole of 2666 can be read as an allegory for the darkness of life in today's Mexico. The killings in Santa Teresa go on, but the citizens, used to it, continue with the party. Christmas, for instance, is celebrated in "the usual fashion" -- with posadas, piñatas, tequila, and beer -- despite the violence enveloping their society.

Santa Evita, Tomás Eloy Martínez

Martínez's Santa Evita, which deals with the necrophiliac character of Argentine politics, is grounded in well-known historical facts. Part of the book is a biography of Evita Perón, the charismatic leader who was the wife of President Juan Perón in the 1940s and became a populist leader in her own right. Another section concerns the afterlife of Evita's body, which was embalmed and later confiscated by the military that overthrew Perón in order to prevent the body from being used as an anti-authoritarian symbol. The novel follows the wanderings of the embalmed body, which gives this otherwise realist text a potently surreal tone. The narrator wants to escape her but can't: "She always finds me," he says. In death, Evita becomes even more powerful -- a secular saint of sorts, forever influencing Argentina's politics.

In real life, following the untimely death in 2010 of Néstor Kirchner, who was expected to run for the presidency again in 2011, his widow, Cristina, the current president of Argentina, has similarly sought to create a cult of personality surrounding her deceased husband. In speeches, she refers to Néstor simply as "Him," painting the dead president as an outsized figure, a providential man who pulled the country from the abyss. In turn, Néstor has become more powerful dead than alive -- a phenomenon that Martínez's novel prefigures.

Some analysts say the cult of personality Cristina has created seems to be about Néstor but ultimately is about her. In this sense, Cristina is the new Evita; as Perón says in the novel about his wife, "She is Argentina."

The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel García Márquez

Nearly four decades after its publication, García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch provides surprisingly skillful commentary on contemporary politics, namely in Cuba. The novel belongs to the Latin American subgenre of the "dictator novel," which reveals many aspects of Latin American political culture under dictatorships: the outsized character of the autocrat, the cult of personality surrounding him, and his populist appeal.

Although The Autumn of the Patriarch is set in a fictional Latin American country, García Márquez may have modeled his dictator on several historical Latin American strongmen: Bolivia's Mariano Melgarejo, the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo, and Venezuela's Marcos Pérez Jiménez. But the behavior of the novel's patriarch, slowly losing his grip on power and reality itself, bears a striking resemblance to that of Fidel Castro, who has become a totemic figure in Cuban and Latin American politics and shows up for special occasions, though he no longer wields any real power -- it is Castro's brother Raúl who is the real ruler.

Cuban bureaucracy, the product of 50 years of Communist Party rule, has created an endless parade of party officials intent on preventing promised changes from ever arriving; change would mean losing power. García Marquez's novel suggests that no one lets go of power easily, not even a dictator's most pragmatic advisors. In the novel, the patriarch's circle of advisors plants the dictator's face everywhere -- on stamps, coins, statues -- as part of an elaborate charade to make the dictator think he is still in control. By mounting this campaign, however, it is the advisors who end up in charge. García Márquez, the fanciful magical realist, knows more than we might think about how mass media can control societies.


Latin American writers today may have lost the privileged space they once occupied in society, but their works are no less politically insightful. Bolaño, Eloy Martínez, and García Márquez are latter-day Virgils, guiding their readers through Latin America's complex, labyrinthine politics.