By Nohad Topalian
After 36 years in exile, Libyan journalist, political activist, artist, documentary filmmaker and long-time Kadhafi opponent Mohammed Makhlouf came back to Benghazi.
Makhlouf spent his decades abroad directing anti-Kadhafi films. He also created the Sout al-Horeya (“Voice of Freedom”) page on social networking website Facebook, which is credited with helping incite young people to rise up against Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.
To celebrate the first anniversary of the Libyan revolution, Beirut’s Zico House held an exhibition of Makhlouf’s political artwork and screened his documentaries. Magharebia met with the “Renaissance Man” in Lebanon to get his perspective on a Libya free of Kadhafi and what lies ahead for his homeland.
Magharebia: What was it like to see Libya after 36 years in exile?
Makhlouf: It’s the feeling of returning to homeland, family and birthplace. This feeling grew when I saw my family and people enjoying freedom after 41 years of repression. It was an indescribable feeling to see a people liberated from slavery and injustice, after years of hearing about such things only in books, newspapers and novels. I could see the happiness Kadhafi and his regime had stolen returning to people’s eyes. They were smiling again.
When I returned in March of 2011 to Benghazi, I recognized the sea, dust and sun as my home. This was an important thing for me, as I had always been looking for a homeland, moving between London, Lebanon, Dubai, Tunisia and Qatar.
Magharebia: Why did you leave your country in the first place?
Makhlouf: I’ve always had a problem with the dictator. I’ve always believed that soldiers should protect the people, not rule the country. Rulers should be civilians. This is a democratic idea in which I believed. Therefore, I had to leave Libya for Britain in 1975.
The ones who actually engaged in revolution were young people: the new generation. The role of our generation, including the ones who had been imprisoned or exiled, was to inspire them. I used art as a tool for struggle, by making political posters and films on Libya.
Magharebia: Tell us how you used Facebook pages to encourage young Libyan revolutionaries.
Makhlouf: I created the ‘”Libya: Freedom Now!” website. After Kadhafi’s intelligence sabotaged it, I replaced it with “Sout al-Horeya” where I clearly appeared with my own picture. Through the page, we were communicating with young people to explain the meaning of freedom and democracy, and the importance of liberation from Kadhafi. Some young people were arrested and a special agency was created to spy on them and me.
I’m proud of this page because it was the first one to incite the people and the new generation. We introduced them to the national flag which has now been officially recognised. Therefore, I say thank you, internet!
Magharebia: What role awaits you in Libya today? Do you have new plans to work alongside the young people who made the revolution?
Makhlouf: I hope to return and establish a cultural centre combining the press, cinema and arts, and to organise workshops for the new generation.
This is the second phase of my contribution – to pass on what I’ve learnt to young people, who had been repressed and prevented from travelling and learning other languages. I have to settle down in Libya because, after all, I’m nearing the end of my life.
Magharebia: Does this mean that you’ll dedicate your art for the service of Libya?
Makhlouf: My goal is to prevent people from bringing a new dictator to rule. I hope to launch workshops to explain democracy, under which citizens have a right to freedom and a homeland.
My role will be to convey the idea that whoever rules Libya must respect human rights and freedom of expression.
Now his goal is to help them tell their tales through film.
Magharebia: Do you foresee an Islamist government in Libya?
Makhlouf: The National Transitional Council comprises many types, from former communists to secularists. Libyans have always been a moderate Muslim people, distant from both Islamist and liberal extremes.
Magharebia: Were you surprised by Kadhafi’s fall? Makhlouf: Anyone who knew the pulse of the street, people’s dreams, aspirations and disappointments – even if they were away – knew how it would all end.
Magharebia: Now that you’re back in Libya, will you produce a new documentary?
Makhlouf: I’ve recently finished a film on the city Az Zawiyah, which had seen many of Kadhafi’s atrocities. The people of the city contacted me and asked me to work. For three months, we collected virtual diaries of the city, conducting interviews and photographing children after the victory.
The film is entitled “Az Zawiyah: City of Resistance.”
Magharebia: What is next for you?
Makhlouf: There are hundreds of stories that took place at the time of Kadhafi, but the people don’t know them. There were also hundreds of stories during the revolution. There is a group of Facebook friends that are waiting for me to start.
I promise you that there will be real Libyan filmmaking soon, with young people benefiting from their experiences. There will also be a Libyan film festival and we will produce documentaries.
We have to document scores of stories. We must record what has taken place, what is happening now, and what will take place in the future of our country.
My slogan is: “Tomorrow… Hope.”