Illuminated only by the swerving headlights of passing cars, an ordinarily busy Tripoli street is softened by the darkness. Its shops are either closed or operating with generators or candles. Some residents use their mobile phones to navigate the nearby streets and alleyways; others use candles, while some avoid the light, moving in the shadows.
Young men gather on the street corners. Some drink coffee to the sounds of humming generators and distant gunfire, something that has become a norm in present-day Libya. Others crowd around an outdoor foosball table, illuminated by an oversized glowing tablet phone. They are laughing, focusing on the game. Power cuts are nothing new to them – they have become part of the everyday Libyan experience since the revolution, although the last year and a halfs or so has been particularly troublesome. The cuts happen almost daily, at random times and for different lengths – in the depths of winter, the heights of summer or when there is heavy fighting. Before the revolution there were fewer power cuts in Tripoli, say residents, although the situation varied from region to region in regime-era Libya. When Gaddafi held celebrations in Tripoli for instance, which needed extra power for decorative lights and generators, he would take supplies from other areas of the country, leaving them in the dark and cold while he conducted the festivities. However, during the last four years, rolling power cuts have become part of the fabric of daily existence in the Libyan capital.
For some, being out on the streets with friends is preferable to staying at home when the lights go out. But many have also rediscovered neglected values in the dark. Some people have even started to look forward to that moment when the beep of the air-conditioner signals the suspension of all things electrical – Facebook, the Internet, the TV and lights. In an age of selfies, hashtags and constant status updates, the effect of these power outages brings to mind the cheesy slogan of a mobile phone advert: Sometimes things need to switch off for people to switch on.
“It started as the worst thing ever – no light, no electricity, not being able to do any of our daily activities,” says Hisham Takita, a member of a Tripoli-based NGO, sitting in a downtown coffee shop. “It felt like the world had stopped. When the electricity returned we were thrilled. Then, going through that same thing each and every day, my brothers and I started to see how shallow we had become, so dependent on technology to fill our daily lives.” He continues to explain how the repetitive nature of the cuts brought with it the realisation that they had previously neglected to see what lies beyond the barriers of technology and social media.
“We have now started new hobbies and rekindled old ones. Music, writing, storytelling. We’ve rediscovered our own selves and each other,” he says. “We have even started to wait for the electricity to go out so we can enjoy time together, something that didn’t happen much before.”
But not everyone embraces the power cuts as wholeheartedly as Hisham. As the houses and apartment blocks on one side of the street are blanketed by darkness, many on the other side are secretly pleased – their own power has now returned. A chorus of ululations can be heard in celebration, while across the street others start lighting candles and refilling generators in preparation for a power cut that could last anywhere between four and 16 hours.
“The minute the electricity cuts, two things happen simultaneously: a chorus of ‘NOs’ echoing across the house, and my brother begging us to tell him that the ‘MyFi’ modem is charged,” says Lubna Ali, a student in Tripoli studying remotely at the Open University. Shaking her head, she explains the precious nature of the portable wifi device, which can still pick up remote Internet signals while there is no electricity.
“I immediately reach for my phone and laptop, praying that the battery is full to get me through the next four to nine hours,” she says, depicting the daily frustration felt by students and anyone who relies on computers for work. “If it’s not, I bury my face in my pillow. I then try to catch up on some studying by a hazy candle light – but that only convinces me that I will no way pass my exams this year if this keeps on happening.”
Once the last of her devices dies, Lubna either lies down, staring into the nothingness of the dark, or joins her family for a storytelling session. “Something about the dark makes my father reminiscent of days when there was no electricity and all they had was a few candles. It’s only then that we get to learn more about his past, our family and origins,” she says.
As families across Tripoli, Benghazi, Sebha and other towns huddle around orbs of light – like planets circling on their axes around a sun – primary school teacher Nada Sassi finds time for other diversions when the lights go out: reading, cooking, reflection and photography (if she has charged her camera batteries).
“It’s difficult and frustrating when there is no electricity, but I’m doing my best to see the good sides and focus. For example, I read more when the power is off,” she says. “But one thing I can’t stand is people playing with power, sabotaging it. I hate that. When I have work, on the Internet or any other thing that needs power, it really makes me feel like wanting to stay at home and do nothing.”
Nada’s sentiment is shared by many. Especially those in hospitals, schools and camps, or with kids and the elderly to care for. “I feel bad for the children,” Nada says. “It really affects some of them. When the room is dark students find it hard to focus. We also give less homework as parents complain how difficult it is for their children to study when the power cuts.”
Taha Shakshiki from Tripoli’s Energy Crisis Committee, which collaborates with GECOL (the General Electricity Company Of Libya) and the Ministry of Electricity under the Libya Dawn government, says the outages are a consequence of multiple issues – high consumption during winter, the ongoing fighting that has damaged power stations and pylons, and a lack of available funds.
“If we were left alone to attend to our work we would manage. The workers are patriots, going out to fix cables in all conditions. But they cannot work if they are under fire,” Taha says – a reference to the power situation in Benghazi, where over a year of heavy fighting has taken its toll on the electricity infrastructure. But he also believes something more malicious is at play. “There are problems with money, security and theft, but also with sabotage. Cables that distribute power to hospitals, schools and homes are being deliberately cut and transmission chambers destroyed. Recently, a 12-kilometre stretch of towers was attacked. Different people do it for different reasons, but mostly they want to undermine the revolution,” he says.
“It’s the citizens who are affected. We’re all losing because both sides are fighting. What we need is security, reconciliation.”
Ongoing fighting between rival governments in the east and west of the country, and heightened divisions in the south, are all amounting to a fractured Libya where basic infrastructure and vital services are on the frontline of civilian suffering.
Taha explains that the Crisis Committee, which is in charge of dealing with the current electricity deficit, is managing the limited resources by the implementation of rolling power cuts. This means outages in each district, or part of a district, come at different times, in random cycles, to share resources and allow the network to cool down. With all the damage, it simply can’t handle Tripoli’s high levels of consumption.
But a few places remain illuminated – one of them, Martyrs’ Square in downtown Tripoli. The area is a commercial district overlooked by the Red Castle, which was built on ancient Roman ruins during the time of the Arab invasions and was occupied by the Arabs, Spanish, Maltese, Turks, Italians, British and, eventually, the Gaddafis. Now, it houses the Tripoli Museum and is run by the Department of Antiquities, and the square outside has become home to a returning young crowd drifting with their cars and bikes.
“When the electricity cuts I bring my family to the fair rides or to the square to watch the bikes. Everyone loves it. There’s no fighting here, no Daesh. We’re gentle people,” an older man with his children explains, eager to share the nature of Libyans and give a different face to a country associated with war.
The young men in hoodies, jeans and caps on bikes and quads perform for the crowds to the sound of burning tyres and scorching fireworks. For some residents, it is only a few more hours now until the electricity comes back on. For others, it may be a lot longer.
“I sometimes say alhamdulillah we have a house and shelter, especially when I think about people who are suffering more than us. Like the Tawerghans or other families from different parts of Libya. Really, when I just think about that I say alhamdulillah for what I have and stop complaining,” says school teacher Nada, reflecting on the situation whilst cooking up a power-cut snack.
For the people of Tawergha, a city in coastal Libya that was completely destroyed and emptied of its residents after the 2011 conflict, the power cuts have been particularly damaging. The Tawerghans, now amounting to some 30,000 internally displaced people, have been living in temporary camps across Libya for the last four years. The shelters – many of which are simple, made from corrugated metal – are not well-insulated. So when the power goes out and they are unable to use their electric heaters, many make small fires in wheel rims from abandoned cars inside the shelters, in an attempt to cook tea and warm their feet.
However, people’s spirits are surprisingly resilient and strong. Wrapped up in UNDP blankets, Nama, a schoolgirl who lives in a camp with her 10 brothers and sisters, laughs when asked about studying in the dark and cold. “We have suffered worse than this, with God’s help we’ll be fine.” Her time in the dark, she says, is used to cook, clean, study and play with the other children. Occasionally, the family watches old videos of the desert, lakes and palm trees of their hometown of Tawergha, on mobile phones before the batteries die, accompanied by renditions of traditional folk songs from the region.
As the night draws to an end and the return of power comes closer, university student Lubna, on the other side of town, tries to look at things in a positive light. “It’s not all bad though. Most of the time, our busy street with lots of shops has too much noise. The power cuts bring much-needed peace and quiet to the area – not to mention more than enough time to tell one or two of the more embarrassing family stories we’ve never heard before,” she says, laughing.
Then, on a more reflective note, she says: “Being part of a generation comfortable with technology has its setbacks. Without it we can’t seem to comprehend that life can actually include other things. My mum and dad are like a walking time capsule. They spend hours talking about how things were back in the days – how simple life was, how less angry and more friendly Libyans were. There is definitely a lot we can learn from these moments.”