Back to School in Libya and Struggling to Adjust

New York Times , October 4, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya — The classrooms at the Dawn of Freedom middle school were empty. Teachers shuffled around aimlessly outside or gossiped in the halls. A small group of bored teenagers sat in the theater and hatched a plan to coax their classmates back.

The revolution was the problem, they figured. Just weeks after the liberation of Tripoli, their neighborhood, Abu Salim, remained a bastion of support for Libya’s deposed leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The loyalists’ children — including teenagers who were recruited or had volunteered for military service — had little interest in learning the history of the uprising or the new national anthem, their friends said

The solution was fliers, said Osama Mohamed, a 15-year-old who wore a brown blazer and led the teenage committee. “They will say: ‘To the children of Libya. Please come back to school. We want to move Libya forward.’ ”

As the country totters on the precipice of change, Libya’s challenges were starkly apparent in Tripoli’s schools, particularly here in Abu Salim. In recent weeks, educators, filled with a new school year’s customary hope and dread, opened their doors to a confusing new reality. To undo the colonel’s rigid, dogmatic curriculum, the teachers were guided only by a thin pamphlet of instructions given to them by officials of the temporary government.

Neighborhoods like Abu Salim, where the civil war’s wounds are still raw, faced the stiffest test. Last week, the neighborhood’s divisions weighed on the few students who returned to newly reopened schools and their teachers, on the lookout for looming social problems even as they focused on urgent everyday needs.

Teachers, regardless of their sympathies, were asked to brush white paint over the former government’s propaganda. Counselors whose only role had been to take attendance prepared themselves to deal with young fighters returning from the front. School principals devised ways to repair walls pierced by artillery shells.

And they threw up their hands at the Qaddafi-era etchings inscribed by students in dozens of desks: “God and Muammar and Libya and that’s all,” read one, the most popular slogan of the colonel’s supporters. “Down, down Sarkozy,” written on one desk, signaled a student’s opposition to the rebels’ foreign backers.

The adjustment was easier in other parts of town, like Tajoura, which was solidly anti-Qaddafi. Students in those areas returned to school in greater numbers. But Abu Salim was the scene of fierce fighting during the battle for Tripoli, and school administrators say parents might simply be scared to let their children leave the house.

In addition, schools in Tripoli are focusing until January on reviewing existing lessons, not new curriculums, to allow schools in other parts of the country that closed during the war to catch up.

On the first day of school on Saturday, according to the principal, Mohammed Melek, more than 100 students came to the Anniversary of the Revenge High School, the name recognizing Colonel Qaddafi’s expulsion of Italians in 1970. Shards of glass from windows shattered by a NATO bombing littered a classroom floor. A green flag sitting on a teacher’s desk had not been removed.

“We’re trying to do our jobs as if things are normal,” Mr. Melek said.

He said that teachers were preparing a curriculum that would include instruction on a new constitution, the fall of the previous government and lessons designed to “raise the morale of students.”

“We need to plant in them the love of the country, the spirit of reconciliation and forgetting the past,” Mr. Melek said.

But a student, Mahmoud Najem, 17, contradicted Mr. Melek, saying only a handful of students had actually shown up. “I think most of the boys want Qaddafi,” he said, talking about an impoverished neighborhood where the old government had tried to buy loyalty with cars and cash gifts. That largess, however, was not extended to schools like this one, with a shabby playground and broken desks.

Teachers at primary schools were more optimistic about the year ahead. On the edge of Abu Salim, teachers at the Abdulrahman bin Aouf elementary school ignored local divisions and dived into the history of the most recent revolution with noticeable enthusiasm.

On a playground, a stack of Green Books smoldered after being set on fire. In a classroom, a teacher with a soaring voice delivered a lecture on the significance of Feb. 17, the day Libyans consider the start of their latest revolution, which had its roots in protests outside the Italian Consulate in Benghazi in 2006.

The young students, befuddled or bored, stared back blankly, so the teacher led them in a song.

A math teacher, Souad Abdulla, said: “We cannot ignore 42 years. We have to teach the children what happened so they appreciate how the 17th of February happened.”

Down the road, there were signs of a backlash to the revolutionary zeal. The Sayyida Zeinab school was also full of the new green, red and black flags, draped on walls and waved in the hallways by teenage girls. A teacher, Karima Ramadan, said the display hid a more complicated reality.

Children had refused to sing the new national anthem, and someone had torn the school’s official new flag. Other teachers slapped her during an argument about politics, Ms. Ramadan said, adding that she opposed the previous government.

“They are very poor, and they’re still loyal to him,” Ms. Ramadan said, referring to Colonel Qaddafi. “I don’t understand.”

Abdullah al-Ashtar, a local official working with the schools, said he understood how the gloating by revolutionaries might anger other students but added, “We don’t want to kill that joy.”

Instead, Mr. Ashtar said, school officials would bring students together for discussions, and teachers would be encouraged to reach out to children in pro-Qaddafi families. “We’re trying to reform them,” he said. “Not push them away.”

For the time being, he said, the colonel’s loyalists would have to “keep it in their hearts.”

He expected there would be some confusion.

“We had principals who were mostly pro-Qaddafi,” Mr. Ashtar said. “Some were volunteers in the fight. Schools were turned into arms depots. So many schools were destroyed.” Even the names of the schools were a problem, with many named after Colonel Qaddafi’s 1969 coup. Other old names, like Dawn of Freedom, would still work, he said.

Many of the books would have to go. Rabia Schwa, who has taught history and geography at Sayyida Zeinab since 1986, leafed through the history textbook, as other teachers gathered similar books into plastic bags destined for the garbage.

“The leader of the revolution,” Ms. Schwa read from a page. “The great revolution,” she read on another. “We couldn’t change this. Our students were usually confused. We can keep the geography books, maybe.”

Zohra al-Tayef, a counselor at Dawn of Freedom, said teachers would have to undo years of efforts by the former government to sow divisions between tribes and regions. “No one should say I come from here, or there,” she said. “We are Libyans now.”

Even as she spoke of guiding the children, she admitted to her own difficulties coping with the changes around her.

“May God let the right side win,” she said, adding, “We don’t even know what the right side is.”

Suliman Alzway contributed reporting.