Don’t Want a Gun? Here’s a T-Shirt Instead.

Don’t Want a Gun? Here’s a T-Shirt Instead.

In post-revolution Libya, people have learned to express themselves in a variety of different ways. There are rallies, protests, the ballot box, and even guns. But these days, the city of Benghazi has witnessed the birth of a new form of self-expression: fashion.

A store that calls itself Boza (meaning "spiffy" or "stylish") recently opened in Benghazi, the city known as the "cradle of the Libyan revolution." Boza’s T-shirts, bags, and accessories — printed with clever images and slogans — have attracted interest across the country. They’re also getting attention from Libyans abroad.

The phenomenon of printed T-shirts and clothing is not new to Libya. In the old days, though, most were English imports; few were specifically relevant to the country or its culture. Boza’s rapid rise in popularity comes from its knack for crafting messages that fit the current political situation (or play on the recent revolutionary past).

Some of the political messages go to the heart of the political debate about decentralization. The slogan "I love Barqa" (in both Arabic and English) uses the Arabic name for Cyrenaica, the area of which Benghazi is the capital. In Libyan parlance, the "federalists" are those who want greater regional self-determination, and they’re especially plentiful in Cyrenaica. Other designs celebrate the late King Idris and promote moderate Islam, while others make fun of militias and armed groups. Other motifs showcase the Tamazight language, a nod to the rising self-awareness of the Amazigh (or "Berber") population that also celebrates diversity in post-revolution Libya. 

Boza is the first Libyan company to provide good-quality, locally printed garments that express Libyan and Arabic cultural themes while helping to bridge the gap between western and local cultures. The company has set itself the goal of becoming the brand Libyans use to make statements about their political identities through fashion.

"People tend to express their political views in many ways," says Ahmed Ben Mussa, co-owner of Boza. "Fashion is one of the means people use to advocate their political and social opinions." In Libya, just as in the other Arab Spring countries, politics now permeates all aspects of everyday life. Politics has become like the air we breathe. Boza is providing a new platform for some Libyans to express their political views without having to take them into the streets.

The success Boza has achieved over a short period also highlights the entrepreneurial potential of Libya’s young people, a group that longs for a better future for itself and the generations to come. However, the current political and economic climate is anything but helpful to their aspirations. Funding for new businesses is non-existent despite government promises. Banks don’t lend even to successful start-ups like Boza. The credit crunch makes it hard for promising new enterprises to expand due to limited cash.

But despite the persistent financial and bureaucratic challenges, Boza has plans to expand over the next three years: opening new branches (the Tripoli branch is coming soon), introducing new product lines, utilizing better printing technologies to widen their product range, introducing a Boza app for smart phones, and building an online store (IT and logistics infrastructure permitting).

When the war against Qaddafi finished, Libya became a country obsessed by the horrors of the immediate past, but also fascinated by the possibilities of the present and future. Some Libyans are celebrating their liberation with an explosion of new and creative ideas, cultural experiments, and the rediscovery of the Libyan identity. The success story of Boza shows a side of post-revolution Libya that’s different from the one constantly reported by the media — a side where creativity and innovation can help the country prosper and move forward to a better future.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here