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Libyan Writer Ghoma

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Saturday, 7 October, 2006


By: Ghoma

        This is about Libya and its roving "national capital" city since independence. In 5-decades the nominal, if not effective, capital of the country has moved on average once every decade. From alternating between Tripoli and Benghazi to Baydha, then back to Tripoli, to Jofra, and now on to Sirte! Since the roaming of the capital has been done by both the old and present regimes, it cannot be attributed to the backwardness and asceticism of the one or the eccentricity of the other but to something perhaps congenial they both must share in beside the despicable characters they both have. The question is why and what does it mean to have a traveling capital?

        Back when the state was merely a nominal entity, a symbol, and the government was almost non-existent, the King was the state (in the heydays of statism, Louis XIV put it: "Je sui l'etat!- and in the rest of the hodge-podge world the state is still up-in-the-air theoretical possibility and where every bozo and his brothers of dictators can have their field day without concerning themselves with such weighty matters that wouldn't make any difference to how long they can stay or how much they can pilfer from the state's coffers) the capital followed suit wherever the king happened to be. The difficulty of communication, made of the nascent state, as embodied in the person of the king, an ambulant entity which went around where people were. The king and his entourage would move from one place to another in his/her vast or small dominion. From the mythical Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table (the difficulty of locating the one place for the castle and instead there're as many places as those who preoccupied themselves of finding it/them testifies to the idea that the legend was u-topia and as such was also ambulant!) to the successive dynasties choosing their own regions and cities as their seats. Good example: Morocco, not only different dynasties had founded new cities, such as, Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, Rabat, etc. but more noticeable the still existing extensive compounds, palaces (up to a quarter of the old madinas were king's palaces!), in most of the various cities that have survived the vicissitudes of time. Those days were long gone and history had brooded and spawned in their place nowadays governments which have become -or made themselves- an essential part of life just as oxygen and water. The monstrous juggernauts, as George Orwell had so eloquently described, are so big to delineate and too obese -and thus lazy- to budge around. With their vast swarms of bureaucrats, technocrats, autocrats and the rest of the petrocrats the state's seat needs a quite large a city on its own and no matter where it's located it becomes the pole of attraction for more people. Thus, for quite some time ago, governments had given up the nomadic life and settled once and for all in one place, which became synonymous with the country. Barring exceptional situations, rarely nowadays, one hears of a state moving its capital.

        To start with it may even sound cool, if not hip, to have a capital seat which does not really reside in a city, with all that entails, but rather is an idea which comes close to U-topia.. Perhaps this was also what Plato's visions of the virtual Republic turned to when an erratic self-promoted colonel - who's scavenged some of what the sage of Athens' had dreamed of for his so-called "direct democracy's" game-play - has found a ghost of a country for his childish tinkerings and stupid hallucinations. The only problem with such a conjecturing is that Plato's imagination was bound by reason which is far from sure thing in a high school's drop-out turned into dictator for life. Logic and reason could turn tipsy-turvy when the ass-umed King-Philosopher at the helm turns into mere colonel-charlatan hallucinating in a literally ambulant and to be precise a 'flying tent'? Maybe the non-fixed capital goes along with the alleged restlessness character of the Beduin and the agitated psyche, tribalism, the desert with its shifting sands, and/or just to compensates for the somnolence of the Libyans

        Dictators's obsession with power and its perks overwhelms whatever little reason and commonsense they may have had when they find themselves ensconced at the helm of sprawling bureaucracy. In their frantic drive to survive they recognize no boundaries nor respect to any norm: from squashing whoever interferes with their plans to being ready to, and indeed do, trample on anything deemed important by their countries's folks. Not only do they disregard law and order (depends on how one see law & order issues, dictators could also be seen as fanatic sticklers to order and obedience!) but also don't hesitate to do away with whatever doesn't square with their neurotic sense of security and ever-changing volatile moods. This is not just a mark of dictatorships only, true revolutions are also prone to the tabula rasa's attractive glamors of new beginnings of starting all-over again with clean slate. True also dictators, unlike revolutionaries, do the ravaging of their countries's heirlooms only out of poverty of ideas, to cover for their lack of legitimacy, or due to their inabilities to solve the major political and economic problems, and oftentimes just to putter around to further stir the cauldron in order to take the attention away from some burning and more difficult issues. The upshot to everything they do is to keep themselves in power as long as they possibly can. To this end and only to this end, they wouldn't hesitate for a minute to throw everything in the country for the dogs including what it treasures most particularly when history and the symbols of its identity are perceived to be obstacles to their aforementioned only objective. Thus the national symbols are seen as burdensome relics, vestiges of a bygone times and regimes that indeed have lost their gravitas and turned into mere knickknacks to be monkeyed with -and even disposed off- whenever the occasion warrants. History with its heroes and villains, calendars, national commemorative holidays, anthems, flags, monuments and even the national capital all lose their hallowed auras, that's, their symbolic values, and become mere detritus from the past like any other ordinary objects being subject to corrosive elements and the vagaries of time -and not to forget the whims of the self-apotheosized dictator.[The process is reminiscent of what happens, according to Walter Benjamin, to the works of art and their auras in the age of mechanical reproduction!]. The blasphemy of Qaddafi in this area is perhaps the worst of the breed. He's done plenty of these plus some!

        Let's be clear here. Not all symbols are equal nor they all have the same weights, values, and statuses. Therefore, not every monkeying is barred nor every infringement -on what constitutes national identity- is bad or any change in it is sacrilegious. One can always find good reasons to take off the veneer -or the pith?- of reverence out of certain sacred cows held dear by the gullible multitudednd endow them with the sense of the mundane, if not the profane, so they could be worked on, modified, and even disposed of. Case in point the American Revolution's rejection of the yoke of England and all the symbols thereof, the French Revolution's rebellion against King, Pope and Aristocracy along with the trappings that went with them; Attaturk's cast-off of the Caliphate, the past, and the Orient; Mao's attack on the 'Four Olds' (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits); Germany's, Italy's and Japan's repudiations of their erroneous early twentieth century political fallout into Nazism, Fascism, and Militarism, etc,

        If we start from the factoid that Capitals work as symbols in addition to being the seats of governments. Then they become the focus for the nation's attention as well as the repository to many of the bests of what the country could and indeed have produced: from memories to material artifacts. Capitals remind their hinterlands of belonging to a larger community beyond their immediate surroundings and thus help in unifying the country's various groups and regions.

        There're plenty of reasons why capitals get changed: some of these are political, others economic, and still more geographic-urbanistic motives. But all these reasons pale in comparisons to the weight of history and psychology. Tokyo, Mexico City, and Cairo are good examples of the enduring value of sentiment over practicality -despite these cities have reached population sizes that seem to be beyond reasonable sizes. Rome, Paris, London, and Berlin are the major cities -actually megalopolis- of their respective countries and thus magnets for attracting more people than they'd like to have or could manage easily. Et cetera, etc. On the other side, Islamabad, Dacca, Brasilia, Abuja, Canberra, etc. are testimony to the fact that cities cannot be built overnight. These and others like them remain to this today remain artificial white elephants in two dimensions in a world with at least four dimensions -lacking the patina that past endows which becomes also the source for the veneration by the rest of the country- with no roots and traditions or the veneer time brings to give them the sense of rootedness and permanence.

        Tripoli's less than a million and Benghazi's only few hundred thousand residents are not excessive population loads to warrant the transfer of the national government out of them. As to natural resources (water, for example), services, and infrastructures, these still have to be provided whether in relatively small settlements or large cities. [Actually a certain population threshold is needed to run certain services -mass transit systems- and to get the economy of scale benefits]. As for the contention that big cities use more of the fertile land around them, that's a debatable point. Given the thinness of the coastal strip and the scarcity of fertile lands as well as the location of cities amidst these oases, such a point has merits and must be taken into consideration. However, the modalities of land uses are a matter of political, economic, and historical-cultural variables and choices. Following an equal distribution of development around the country, with population growth policies consonant with development's objective as well as with the country's resources and future goals, a reasonable densities for cities can be found. All these in a addition to well- designed and guided planning processes and their enforcements, are some of the ways to minimize the footprints of the cities and thus limit their impacts on adjacent land.

        Planning and allocation policies have to admit that capital cities are more than mere aggregates of buildings. Cities that play roles beyond their mere physical presence. They're part of the seen and unseen symbolic glues that hold a nation together. In essence, they're samples of the best and worst of what their countries have produced and work as mirrors to their citizens energies and creativity or lack of them. Since they are the repositories of the best and worst of what history has left behind ( in the ideal they preserve also the process of sedimentation which worked on them), capital cities are charged with the task of representing the continuity of human memories and will of their nations. Like most cities's relationships, in general, to their regions, capital cities act as encyclopedias, in which present and future generations will find, read, and study the peaceful and turbulent political, economic, and cultural histories of their nations's long or short lives. Thus capitals are in a category of their own: from the layout of the city itself, to its architectural styles, monuments, institutions, and even neighborhoods are a cross section of the country, testimony to the vagaries and shifting moods of time and political systems, local or passing, and acceptance or resistance to invaders as well as the ravages and contributions of all who set foot on their soils. In nutshell they 're the embodiment of history and collective will in three -actually 4-dimensions.

        A country and its state have been compared to many less complex entities and analogized to more graspable ideas. From family, household, flock, to community for the country; and a pater-familia, household-head, ship's captain, and even to shepherd, and managers for its government. But all these analogies and images fall short and don't do justice to the extremely complex nature of a society and its state. Whether the relations dominant in the society are of the geimenschaft (organic relationships) type or the gesellschaft (rational-mechanistic) ones the fact remains that numerous groups are jockeying for interest and power, innumerable variables are at stake and their interactions are not easily predictable or clear-cut.

        When faced with such complexity one has to be careful how to manage each of the variables and all together. That's where the art of the possible, politics, finds its opportunities and challenges. The compromises here are always a matter of which priorities to tackle first, which bargains are worth making, and which strategies work best to achieve the looked for objectives. Only a simpleton or an idiot will play with all variables at once hoping for the chance to hit the right stroke. Neither in theology (the cosmos and the 6-day creation's story) nor in commonsense shuffling of the cards in one shot is done. Some fundamental -the so-called foundational truths!- are kept constant while others are being manipulated. This also accords with the scientific method. Einstein's famous dictum:"God doesn't play dice" has perhaps captured both ends of human endeavors: Faith and Reason!

        We're constantly reminded by the wisest among us of the fragility of human conviviality, institutions, and thus culture and civilization in general. A quick look to the so-called failed states can testify to such an advice: Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan. Iraq, etc. are vivid examples of the rapidity of the destructive forces to vanish, in no time, what generations and centuries had worked upon. As it turned out neither history nor language or faith are enough glues to hold together a society which for various reasons has lost its bearings. Neither the German School nor its "Arab Nationalist's" version represented by Sati' al-Husari theorizings hit the target. Perhaps it's time to try the American-French and now European Union's foundational truths, that's, an idea or set of ideas to be hold as "true and self-evident".

        Societies and their countries were made of conventions, institutions, symbols, and shared values. They're nothing more than a bunch of myths, legends, symbols, and will or lack of it to hold onto them tightly. When any of these comes less, then a problem arises, a dysfunction starts gnawing at the core of the country. Whether it heals or gets worse depends on many factors among them the alertness of its citizens. Dismantling a capital and moving away the government -its blood supply- is tantamount to pulling the plug off that city and in the process changing the focus of the country to a new point which has still to take hold in the population's consciousness and imagination. And so with any other symbol and artifact! The more taking out or degrading of these cultural identifiers, the more people get less attached to what they meant and thus start losing slowly or suddenly the anchors that gave the sense of who they were. As they say nature abhors vacuum, and so do people! In place of the secular symbols, memorabilia, and artifacts of the country, another compensatory identifier will fill in the void, usually that would be, Religion!

        So why is Qaddafi dragging the capital behind him wherever he goes? Perhaps Beduin's abhorrence to institutions? Or, again, fear and megalomania are a terrible combination! One of the ways to screw up the country badly and thus make it feel vulnerable is to keep shuffling everything including what traditionally been static, as the capital. And perhaps in the process the dictatorship survives but nothing worthy will ever last. Despotism knows that the only thing holding it to life is the presence of the despot, once this gone no one is going to remember what he's done or what capitals he'd built. Who remembers that al-Baydha was once the capital of Libya?


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