In Other Words

The End of History in the New Libya

The Green Book is gone, but what will replace it?


TRIPOLI, Libya — "Our enemies are targeting our nationality and our beliefs.… Throughout their history, the Arabs have faced one foreign enemy with one ambition: to divide us up."

So began the first day of school for Libya’s 14-year-olds in 2010. The previous year they had been taught how the Crusades and the Ottoman "occupation" drove the "Arab Nation" back into a dark age. Now, this ninth-grade history textbook told them the story of Arab nationalism and its leader, Egyptian liberator Gamal Abdel Nasser — the adolescent hero of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It was only a fitting tribute: Nasser, after all, had helped inspire Qaddafi’s 1969 seizure of power in Libya — a coup that Qaddafi institutionalized over four decades in power by exercising sweeping control over even the most basic lessons taught in classrooms.

Qaddafi made his eccentric ideologies the very foundation of Libyan schooling, from the warped renderings of the past in history books to the opaque political theories in the Green Book, the Qaddafi treatise that formed the core of the Libyan curriculum. Multiple generations were taught under this regime, so when the revolution came last year it was no simple matter to fix an education system needing an overhaul from top to bottom.

Members of the ruling National Transitional Council first met in the spring of last year to discuss how to purge Qaddafi’s curriculum, and despite the six further months of civil war that followed, the new Education Ministry managed to dispense with Qaddafi’s old books by the time schools in Tripoli reopened in September. For the time being, schools have relied on flimsy handouts and even reprints of books from the early 1970s.

The question now is how to create an intellectual basis for free thinking out of a near vacuum. What will fill the books that replace Qaddafi’s? If history is written by the winners, Libya’s rebels still have much work to do.

THE NEW EDUCATION MINISTRY is housed in a spacious yellow stone building erected by Italian colonists and boasting a tiled fountain and peaceful courtyard. Open since September, the ministry stands on a tree-lined street just up the road from Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square — formerly Green Square until it was seized and renamed by Libya’s revolutionaries last year.

When I met Suliman el-Sahli, the acting education minister, there in March, he told me that "the most important thing to change in the curriculum was anything related to the old regime."

Generations of Libyans had come to resent Qaddafi’s deep influence on the public schools. Under his rule, any administrator or curriculum designer was required to be a member of the lijan thawriya ("revolutionary committees") — a sort of all-purpose thought police and snitch service. Libyan textbooks printed only what the dictator mandated, with all educational principles ultimately drawn from his three-part, roughly 100-page Green Book, first published in the 1970s. Whether claiming that "dictatorship is established under the cover of false democracy" in elections or criticizing political parties as "instrument[s] to rule the people," Qaddafi’s text was widely considered convoluted and inconsistent — not to mention reviled openly by many Libyans

Students didn’t read the full Green Book, instead absorbing the thoughts of the "Brother Leader" through companion textbooks for the mandatory "Jamahiriya studies." (Jamahiriya, which translates literally as "republics," was Qaddafi’s term for his system of government.) Lasting from ages 9 to 18, these courses formed the basis for education and civic life in Libya, but the Jamahiriya books were also largely incomprehensible. A text for 12-year-olds, for instance, introduces the concept of "popular committees" — local government bodies under Qaddafi’s rule — that were "chosen by the masses." The committees do not "make decisions," the Jamahiriya book says, but instead "collect the decisions of the masses, which they took note of in the popular meetings." The book instructs each class of students to choose such a "committee" to represent them, "and from the committees of each class you will establish the popular conferences, where these committees will choose another committee to go to the regional conferences." But Libyans told me that did not happen when they were students.

Even subjects that did not seem political were treated as though they were. Geography, for example, was taught with maps that failed to show national borders in the Arab world, in keeping with Qaddafi’s exaggerated Nasserist ideology of pan-Arab unity. It was often difficult for Libyan students to know their country’s own borders, Suleiman Khoja, the new deputy education minister, told me.

Qaddafi-era history books, meanwhile, showed little respect for facts or evidence. An eighth-grade text used in the 2008-2009 school year, for instance, includes a photo of soldiers wearing what appear to be World War I-era Western uniforms and standing over corpses in robes. A nearby caption says simply that the photograph "represents the policy of Crusader colonization in the Arab world." In Qaddafi’s version of history, the story was always the same, and the particulars — British? Italians? Did this happen in Libya? — only distracted from the lesson to be learned. "In every historical period," Khoja says, "he emphasized conflict and misunderstanding and cultural hatred — especially when it came to the West."

GETTING RID OF Qaddafi’s textbooks may turn out to be easier than figuring out how to replace them.

Over at the Education Ministry, the new bureaucracy promises revamped social studies textbooks in time for the 2012-2013 school year and revised history books within the next year or two. The hodgepodge of materials standing in for Qaddafi’s curriculum over the past several months, however, suggests this may be an optimistic goal.

In history classes, Libyan students this year have found their vintage early-1970s textbooks abruptly truncated after the reign of King Idris, who ruled Libya from 1951 until the Qaddafi coup in 1969. Qaddafi-era textbooks had all but completely ignored King Idris as a British puppet; now his bespectacled, bearded face is back in Libyan classrooms, while the story of Qaddafi’s rule is gone.

Indeed, with the reinstatement of the monarchy’s tricolor flag and the national anthem "Ya Biladi" ("O My Country"), both holdovers from the 1950s, many of the symbols of nationhood in the new Libya are in fact old; Libyans are moving forward by looking back first, scrubbing Qaddafi’s propagandistic thought from the record until they have decided exactly how to present it to future generations of Libyan students.

The ministry has given a glimpse of its ideological inclinations in the handouts it distributed to schools around the country this past year, simple pamphlets that offer short definitions of words like "democracy" and "citizenship" — this time, borrowing from the once-hated West. According to the pamphlets, every citizen should be granted human rights, including freedom of speech and expression and the rights to organize politically and vote. In teaching these democratic principles, Sahli says the ministry hopes to train Libyans to be loyal to their country first, rather than a tribe, an individual like Qaddafi, or even a "pan-Arab" idea, all of which he says thwart nation-building.

Even so, Sahli vows that the ministry will "not make the same mistake as before."

"All historical eras will be presented objectively, without propaganda," he promises, careful to mention Qaddafi’s rule among them. "Our work at the ministry is to include everybody, whether they are against or for the revolution," Sahli says. "We do not exclude or isolate people. They are all part of the new Libya."

These goals may be clear enough, but when and how the committee rewriting Libya’s curriculum will achieve them is less certain. I met in March with Abdulnabi Abu Ghannaya, the committee’s director, in the ministry’s outer office, where dozens of functionaries filled the sofas while young office boys served coffee and water. When I asked Ghannaya how Libya’s Qaddafi-era history would eventually be presented in schools — a dark spot, a mixed bag, or simply a matter of fact — he said simply that "historians" would take care of it. Grasping for specifics, I asked whether it would be possible to speak with the person in charge of the history curriculum, but Ghannaya could reply only, "Inshallah."

This is not as surprising as it might seem in the post-revolution government. Most current teachers, school administrators, and ministry officials, after all, worked in education before Qaddafi’s fall — some as members of the lijan thawriya — and so had grown accustomed to his megalomania.

Under the dictator, Sahli reminds, "The Green Book was supposed to answer all political questions" for students and teachers alike. Now, he told me, "We all need some rehabilitation."

Correction: The print version of this article mistranslates the caption describing a photograph of soldiers in a 2008-2009 Libyan textbook.

<p> Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance reporter working in the Middle East. </p>