Can Libya's Schools Unlearn Gaddafi's Miseducation?

Libya Students at School
This school in Misrata shows little evidence of the devastation that has made it the most war-wrecked city in Libya, but the country’s psychic scars are everywhere. Davide Monteleone / VII for Newsweek

The prisoner's confused gaze flits from one captor to the next as they bellow and shriek at him. He has red marks on his forehead and a swollen eye. Tufts of feathery gray hair surround his head like a badly drawn halo. He sits on the edge of his chair and attempts a conciliatory smile. It's no use. The captors break into song, angrily clapping in time. "With our souls, our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, our leader," they snarl. The man's lips move, almost imperceptibly. It's a song he wrote, a paean to Muammar Gaddafi. His name is Ahmed Ibrahim; he was the Libyan dictator's minister of education. "Come on!" one of the men yells in his face. "Join in!" Ahmed Ibrahim lowers his eyes, and the side of his mouth twitches. He is emaciated, weak. His jailers didn't even bother to tie him up.

The video ends, and Anwar Suwan slips his cellphone back into his pocket. The marks on Ibrahim's forehead, the bruised eye—did his captors beat him? "Of course we beat him!" the militia commander exclaims. "Do you know who Ahmed Ibrahim really was? A close relative of Gaddafi—killed people arbitrarily, threw them into prison holes where they would never see the sun again." He makes a gesture of contempt. "We put him in a cage in the prison yard," he says, smiling. "Whenever anybody enters, he has to bark." Suwan laughs. "We beat them all, don't worry. And we beat Ahmed Ibrahim extra hard. We need to know where he stashed away his money."

No one can say when or if Libya will ever recover from Gaddafi's 42-year reign of psychosis. It's not just a matter of the untold thousands who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed in those four decades, although that in itself remains a staggering social problem. Today the country is full of armed men like Suwan who live to settle those old scores—or worse, those who now see their chance to grab a share of the power that Gaddafi and his men once misused. Militias that once fought together against the regime are now battling each other for control of a road junction, a building, a rural airfield. But there's another, quieter struggle: if you look around, you see people trying to heal a mangled society. Whether they can do it remains to be seen.

"Our goal is change from the inside out," says the seminar leader. She's dressed in skinny jeans, sequined ballerina flats, and a light-colored hijab—no makeup. Women her mother's age sit in a semicircle around her. "We need to remove everything negative left over from the last regime," she says, and begins writing a list of class rules on the blackboard: "(1) Respect the new system. (2) Turn off cellphones. (3) Talk directly, not secretively." She's been sent here by the Tripoli City Council to help retrain the teachers at one of the city's most venerable schools, Jalaa Elementary. Not far away is Martyrs' Square, where the revolution hit the capital a year ago.

Much of what the instructor says may smack of self-help platitudes, but the women listen raptly. "First of all, one needs to know oneself," she tells them. Schools in Gaddafi's Libya were all about following instructions, never about thinking for yourself. Now the time has come to loosen the ropes. "If you disagree with anything, you have to speak up," the instructor says. "Silence is participating in negativity." She dashes back to the blackboard to write down the basis of democracy: "The right to disagree and solve conflict without fighting." One by one, the women share their thoughts on the importance of free speech. "In other countries, they show everything on TV, the bad stuff too," says one in a Gucci-inspired hijab. "We shouldn't feel shame over such things."

Another teacher speaks up. She wears a crocheted cellphone purse over her shoulder, in the new Libyan colors: red, black, and green. "This country was hostile to children," she says. "Asking questions is a child's nature. Questions were forbidden. Now both they and we have to start asking questions." She pauses. "The wonderful thing is, for the first time in my life, I can sit in a group and speak my mind freely." The instructor beams. "See? The course is already bearing fruit," she says. "Remember! We have freedom now! Do not hesitate! To solve the problems, we need to talk our way through them!"

Amna Arebi, the teacher with the crocheted cellphone purse, was raised in Tripoli's old quarter, a fisherman's daughter. Walking home on Independence Street, she recalls how she rejoiced when Gaddafi overthrew Libya's corrupt monarchy in 1969. Then the dictatorship took shape, and the happiness vanished. "I am bitter about what Gaddafi took," she says. "I am soon 60 years old, and now I want as much of this freedom as possible."

The winter sun casts a sharp light on the colonnaded sidewalks. Tripoli, a blend of Italian classicism and Arab street life, could have been—should have been—as pleasant as any little patch on Earth. "As a mother of seven and a teacher for 30 years, I know some things about children," Arebi says. "We have to take care of them all, including children of Gaddafi's supporters. They're silent now, but they're there." But what has become of the teachers who supported him? "Some stay at home. Others just keep quiet. They have to be permitted to repent. But what a relief to no longer teach Gaddafi's Green Book! My holy book is the Quran. Now that book will finally take the lead."

A man's legs protrude from beneath a desk in the principal's office at the Sayyida Zeinab secondary school. They belong to the acting vice principal. He's repairing a wall outlet, but he quickly gets up and welcomes the visitor. Tripoli's Abu Salim neighborhood, where the school stands, is far from the gentility of Jalaa Elementary, Martyrs' Square, and Independence Street. The roads are potholed, and trash is everywhere. Gaddafi's largest prison stands here, now empty. No common criminals were sent there; it held only political prisoners, thousands of whom were massacred under the dictatorship. The neighborhood is where the dictator's supporters made their last stand in the capital last August.

The school's broken windowpanes and bullet-scarred walls testify to the battle to root out the snipers who were holed up inside. The former principal, a local Gaddafi stalwart, doesn't dare return. A mathematics teacher is filling in for him; the acting vice principal and ad hoc handyman is a science teacher. "This is a ghetto, you know. Like in America," says physics teacher Karima bint Hamid, dressed in a black jalabaya and a pale blue hijab. "And this is a ghetto school." Faculty members say they've never heard of the city council's retraining program. "I would love to hear about new teaching methods and become a better teacher," says Khalifa Abdalah, who teaches Arabic. "We're starving for something new."

Libya Students at School
The government is hurrying to create new, less ideologically slanted textbooks and to retrain teachers at some schools so they will encourage pupils to think. Davide Monteleone / VII for Newsweek

The teachers reminisce about Gaddafi's loopy education policies. English was abolished in the '80s, to be replaced by the sub-Saharan African languages Swahili and Hausa. One year, agriculture was decreed to be the most important subject, and the president of the university was replaced by an agronomy student. "We were like pieces on a chessboard," says another teacher. "That's putting it nicely," Karima interrupts. "Lab rats is more like it."

Outside one of the entrances at Libya's Ministry of Education, there's a rug where you can wipe the dirt from your shoes. It used to be displayed reverently on a wall: a portrait of Gaddafi in a white officer's uniform. Now it lies on the pavement, grimy and stained. Inside, discarded Gaddafi-era schoolbooks are stacked precariously in old cardboard boxes, like rotten fruit. Abdulnabi Abughania, a heavy-set man with a luxuriant moustache and dense, swept-back hair, works here as director of the ministry's Department of Curriculum. "Everything needs to be rewritten," he says. He asks a secretary to bring some of the new history texts. "They're small pamphlets," he says. "We don't have time to produce real books before school starts. Gaddafi wanted history to start with himself, so older history was completely neglected. The kingdom before 1969 was completely erased from the text books. Ahmed Ibrahim, the minister of education, rewrote everything."

The geography texts will have to be redone, too. Gaddafi insisted that the Arab world was borderless, so the maps rarely showed national boundaries. "He changed the calendar so Libya had a system shared by no one. He wanted to destroy the Roman city of Leptis Magna and the Greek ruins because they were made by 'intruders.' Masterpieces several thousands of years old! A couple of years ago all the math textbooks for fifth grade were withdrawn. One exercise was about seven dwarves and one king. The word 'king' was unacceptable. There was only one ruler: Gaddafi himself."

The secretary returns with an armload of old textbooks and a few of the substitute booklets. "Look at this," says Abughania, opening a Gaddafi-era history for ninth graders. "'Chapter One: Our enemies and how to attack their belief system.' 'Chapter Two: The Arabs resist a common enemy in their own land.' 'Chapter Three: The enemies of the Arab world wish to break it apart by creating artificial boundaries.' Do you want me to continue? He degraded history. He turned it into ideology."

He turns to one of the new texts. Modern Arab History—9th Grade covers the Ottoman Empire, the Italian colonial occupation of Libya after 1911, World War II, and the Arab independence movement, including the birth of modern Libya in 1951. But anything after 1969—those 42 years under Gaddafi—is missing. "This is not the time to write that history," Abughania says.

Suwan is relaxing in his barracks at a base outside Misrata, the most war-wrecked city in Libya. Even before the revolution, the militia commander was one of Misrata's most powerful businessmen. He owns hotels in Jordan and has interests in Saudi Arabia. When Libyans rose up last year, he stepped in as one of the rebels' main sponsors, and he made a point of being wherever the action was. He remembers his first visit to Ahmed Ibrahim's jail cell. "I spat in his face," he says, with satisfaction. After the capture of Gaddafi's eldest son, Saif al-Islam, in November, Suwan flew to the southern city of Zintan to see him in person. "I spat on him, too. Twice. "This is from Misrata—and this is from me," I said, and left. I was on his death list."

It's late. Suwan leads me to my car in the darkness. "What they did to us," he says, and breaks off. "You cannot imagine." A cold wind blows in off the sea. Suwan—the man who boasts of spitting on prisoners—is weeping. "My sister disappeared during the first wave of attacks, in March," he says. "I'm still searching for her. Everything I do now, I do to avenge my sister."

On the blackboard at Jalaa Elementary, the instructor finishes spelling out the rules: "(9) Be honest. (10) Be neutral." She hands one of the teachers a sheet of paper marked with faces representing various emotions: happy, surprised, insecure, sad, angry, shocked. The task is to choose one. "Before I came, I was insecure. Now I feel better," the woman says. "Choose from the list," the instructor insists. The woman searches. "Confident," she says. "I choose confident," and she passes the paper to her neighbor. "Confident," says the one in gray. "Confident," says the one in blue. "Confident," each one says. "Confident." "Confident." "Confident."