Why you should care
Because even the darkest music can bring some light.
When you have to run to class after hours of manning an armed Libyan checkpoint, you usually don’t bother to change clothes. As a volunteer teacher of his native — and long forbidden — Berber language, Bendeq Bendeq typically gives lessons dressed in his digital camo pants. The trousers have become trendy among the 20 or so youngsters, his students, who gather at the squat in Zuwarah, a coastal town in Libya’s northeast. Don’t be fooled by the coordinates: It’s a fine squat with hash and booze, as well as a 6-mile-range radio station and a full set of musical instruments, including a banjo.
Shifts at the checkpoint became more lax recently, so it´s easier to come across Bendeq in Tifinagh (as the house is named) and see him perform. The 34-year-old Libyan is not only the frontman for Atwilul, a modern folk band, but also the pioneer of metal music in his mother tongue. No one else has written a metal song in Berber, and the art form remains an underground sensation as it challenges cultural norms. A hardcore atheist, Bendeq has even written a song criticizing Islam.
It’s about much more than music. At a time when hardcore Salafism is on the rise, Bendeq has created an organization without religious, political or tribal moorings. He’s showing an alternative to mosques and militia garrisons for these kids, while also letting them know from experience that the European ’paradise’ is not all it’s cracked up to be. Libya, his mere presence attests, is worth saving.
“Bendeq has sacrified a lot for music and arts in Zuwarah. Other than dedicating a lot of time to promoting those, he has also spent a lot of money for instruments anyone can use at Tifinagh,” says Youbas Halab, a local metal music fan. Halab, 27, recalls it was 2006 when Bendeq first became famous in Berber villages and cities in Libya. Saif-al Islam — Moammar Gadhafi’s second son but the first one in the succession race — had loosened his grip on the Berber minority and gave them a rare chance to sing in their own language.
Bendeq has played dozens of shows across the region, and his recordings include the only existing studio version of “Itiq,” a song that iconic assassinated Algerian singer Matloub Lounès played in a concert, but never recorded. “He [Bendeq] released the first demo in our language in Libya!” says Halab, who misses the days when he could travel to Europe and attend music festivals. Since most of the diplomatic delegations have pulled out of Tripoli, Libya’s capital, all the paperwork has to be done in Tunis, but visas rarely get stamped on Libyan passports today.
Music has been both a passion and a shelter for Bendeq amid the growing chaos in Libya. The war that ended Gadhafi’s four-decades rule in 2011 was also a major milestone in his life. Promises of a brighter future, though, vanished, and it’s been increasingly difficult for most Libyans to make ends meet ever since.
After waiting in vain for conditions to improve, on Aug. 6, 2017, Bendeq and his friends Mazin Moammer and Darif Lhosh boarded a small boat they had bought and set off for the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
In Germany there was little else I could do apart from breathing, but here, home, I still have the feeling I can help change things.
After an 18-hour journey, the three were rescued 100 miles from the Libyan coast by the Golfo Azzurro, one of the two ships the Spanish nongovernmental organization Proactiva Open Arms was operating in the central Mediterranean. It would take three more days before Italian authorities allowed the crew to disembark the three Libyans in Sicily.
“It was a strange day,” says Agus Morales, a Spanish journalist onboard the Golfo Azzurro. “They are usually dinghy boats crammed with sub-Saharan migrants, but this time it was just three Libyans on a fiberglass boat.” Even more striking: One of them was rescued with his guitar. Bendeq played for the crew during their three-day wait, Morales recalls, including “farewell songs” before docking.
From Sicily, the three friends set off for Rome, although they would not stay long. Their initial plan was to reach Germany, so they paid 1,800 euros (about US$2,000) to an Egyptian taxi driver for the ride to Paris. From there, it was a pleasant train ride all the way to Leipzig, where a close relative of Bendeq’s lived. The three men requested political asylum before being lodged in a center for migrants like them in the German city. Their first impression was horrible, and it did not improve. While the three friends were relatively comfortable in the room they shared, the atmosphere in the center was sordid. Bendeq remembers how hard it was to sleep because of the constant fights between migrants, “many of whom were drunk all day.”
“I used to tell the guards about the stabbings, the robberies and the riots, but nobody would lift a finger,” says Bendeq.
Despite the unfriendly atmosphere, Bendeq managed to focus on German-language classes and even gave a few concerts in the center’s laundry alongside Lhosh, also a musician. But the war knocked on his door again. In January 2018, a close friend was killed in a skirmish near Zuwarah. “I could not stay any longer,” Bendeq says. “I thought I had to come back, and that’s what I did.”
“But didn’t you arrive here fleeing the war in your country?” the German officer at the customs control desk asked Bendeq before he boarded a plane in Berlin. “Why the hell have you come back after making it to Germany?” people still ask him in Libya.
“War made me both leave and come back,” is his standard answer. But when you let Bendeq explain things, he admits he felt lost in Europe.
“In Germany, there was little else I could do apart from breathing, but here, [at] home, I still have the feeling I can help change things. I can contribute to society at some point,” Bendeq explains before resuming his volunteer work at the squat. Several kids are waiting inside for their first guitar class.
4 Questions for Bendeq Bendeq
- What was the last book you finished? Free Will by Sam Harris.
- What do you worry about? The universe.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Freedom.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Connecting music with knowledge — science — and feelings.
Read more: Migration nearly killed this radio star. And he’s warning Gambians.