Category: Mali

The California-Libya Connection

Despite being almost 7,000 miles apart, California and Libya have an interesting history, a similar climate, and a relationship that’s worth watching.

At independence in 1951, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world, exporting scrap metal and dates. After the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in 1958, Libya began sending promising graduates to the United States to acquire skills needed to manage the country’s natural resources. Future petroleum engineers went to ‘oil schools’ like Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas A&M, while those focused on agriculture and water (a critical issue in a country that is over 90% desert), attended Federal land-grant universities such as U.C. Davis and Berkeley. Libya’s most prominent hydrologist studied at Davis in the 1970s (perhaps it is no coincidence that California artichokes grow beautifully in Libyan soil).

As Gaddafi’s policies became more erratic and violent, nearly two decades of bilateral and U.N. sanctions reduced Libya’s contact with the West. During the rapprochement with Libya in the late 90s and early 2000s educational links began to re-form, if tentatively. The 2011 ‘Libyan Spring’ spawned literally hundreds of local civic organizations, and prompted a large number of the Libyan diaspora– many from Texas and California– to return to help create a new, more open state.

This year, one might say the Libyans have returned to California. Two out of a record six Libyan candidates were chosen to participate in the prestigious U.C. Berkeley-Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP). The ELP, in its 15th year, is designed specifically to boost the effectiveness of promising mid-career professionals from developing countries, through modules on resource management, global warming, food security, etc. and workshops on negotiation and organizational management. Two past ELP participants have won the Goldman Prize (Environmental Sciences’ analog to the Nobel).

Khaled Ben Halim, one of the 2013 ELP Libya contingent, relocated to Tripoli from Texas during the revolution with the single-minded goal of protecting animals from abuse; “conservation and animal welfare is usually last on the list of concerns during war,” Ben Halim rues, “but these constituencies also need advocates, and I felt that was the contribution I was best able to make.” Ben Halim has been instrumental, among other things, in a campaign to rehabilitate the Tripoli Zoo, whose collection of hippos, oryx and other African fauna barely survived the revolution, due to the efforts of volunteers. On the sidelines of ELP, Ben Halim hopes to create a relationship with the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.  Rida Sherif, a final-year forestry Ph.D. candidate at the University of Mississippi, is concerned with the impact of improved forest management on desertification. ELP participants from the state of Mali, itself severely impacted by the revolution in its neighbor to the North, improve access to education through feeding programs.

Professor David Zilberman, ELP program co-director, says that “sustaining natural resources in post conflict nations is a major priority for the College of Natural Resources, and we are very eager to support Libya’s future environmental leaders.”

My experiences at Berkeley (Ph.D., Agricultural and Resource Economics), and as one of the first U.S. diplomats in Tripoli from 2004-2006, shaped much of what I’ve done since, including co-founding the Avicenna Group, which has specialized in building relationships between U.S. and Libyan institutions, particularly in the area of acute care and emergency medicine.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens, whose ties to California and U.C. Berkeley were widely reported, served sequential assignments in Libya as Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Envoy to Benghazi, and then, Chief of Mission in Libya.  Stevens was critical in generating U.S. support for Libya during and after the 2011 revolution, until his tragic death last year in the attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi at the hands of extremists– an act that had more consequences on Libya’s trajectory than many would care to admit.

Anne O’Leary, who retired recently from the Foreign Service, was the first permanently assigned Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in Tripoli, and in that capacity, created a framework for future US-Libya student exchanges. O’Leary grew up in the Bay Area, and was ‘Diplomat in Residence’ at U.C. Berkeley from 2007-2008. One of her successors, Mietek Boduszynski–you guessed it, another Berkeley Ph.D.– has been responsible for keeping U.S.-Libya educational relationships running, through the current turmoil.

After the September, 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission, the Avicenna Group shifted its focus to the problem of how to provide technical assistance when a sustained in-country presence is either not possible, or very difficult. The organization, with support from American and Libyan donors, has been working closely with ELP, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies to engage advanced graduate students in Engineering and Public Health, for example, to address a series of practical questions such as “how to design an ambulance dispatch system in a city without physical addresses”, “how to train novice medics in the field via Internet-based courses.”

In parallel, Avicenna has been working with faculty at the University of San Francisco (UCSF)-Global Health Sciences, and the U.C. Berkeley School of Optometry, to scope projects in, for example, retinal scanning for diabetes (assisted by a Libyan Ph.D. candidate), hospital administration, planning for acute and emergency care, and sustainable design. California-based firms with international interests, like the Berkeley Research Group, a law and economics consultancy, have helped underwrite the costs of ELP’s Libya outreach.

Recent exchanges have also been cultural: several in Libya and California helped bring noted Libyan artist Mohammed Binlamin to Davis in early April, to participate in a Stevens memorial exhibition, hosted by the John Natsoulas Gallery. Binlamin spent several days in Berkeley, visiting with local artists and touring a local foundry and galleries, with the goal of bringing California-based artists to Libya.

Collectively, the Libya-California links are multi-faceted, decreasingly random, and neither permanent nor fail-proof– but with attention, they have the potential to contribute to a more stable Libya, a more creative U.S.-Libya bilateral relationship and new approaches to the provision of meaningful, cost-effective assistance to post-conflict states.

A Race Against Time for Timbuktu’s Famed Collections

With Salafist mobs succeeding in toppling and defacing Sufi shrines in Libya last year, it should have come as no surprise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), imitated these acts while spreading guns and anarchy south. Having failed to hold Timbuktu, AQIM set out to destroy centuries-old manuscripts stored in (mostly) private libraries. While the corpus contains extensive local commentary on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), it includes other material retrograde elements deem “un-Islamic”.

Through a set of extraordinary events, local custodians of more than 300,000 rare manuscripts (foremost among them Abdelkader Haidara,  who spent decades acquiring and caring for what is perhaps the most significant of the local collections, previously housed in the Mamma-Haidara library),  managed to secret most of the volumes to  Bamako, 700 kilometers away. About half of the manuscripts went by road, and the other half by water, down the Niger River from Timbuktu and across the inland sea to Djenne, where 300 taxis took them the rest of the distance.

Now, the West African intellectual trove faces another threat: the elements. If they are not protected, the manuscripts, many of which are friable, will not withstand the rainy season, which begins in a few weeks. Each volume must be isolated, and individually boxed – at a cost about 30 dollars per book. To cover this, supporting organizations have started a fundraising campaign, seeking relatively modest amounts to stave off the most immediate threat, through boxing/ isolation, application of desiccants, etc.

The Timbuktu trove contains histories and travelers accounts, commentaries on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), as well as commercial transactions and treatises on medicine, slavery and astrology. The chronicles constitute the main primary sources on the history of Islamic West Africa from the 12th to the 18th century, and debunk the widespread notion that pre-Colonial Africa produced no written sources worthy of mention. The Timbuktu collections yielded significant works by black-African intellectuals– like “Tarikh es-Soudan” (a history of the Songhai empire, written by Abdel Rahman Ibn Abdallah al Saadi in the late 1500s), and Tarikh al-Fattash (“A Seeker’s History”), believed to have been written by Al Hajj Mahmoud Kati in the 1600s, and the Tadhkirat al Nisyan (“Notes to the Obivious”), by an anonymous author. These three works provide a rare and unique perspective on the social and political history of West Africa during this time, including commentary on not only the local pre-colonial dynasties, but also Arab, Tuareg, Jewish and other peoples prior to the Moroccan invasion of the 16th century (backed by the British, who sought to eliminate any potential threat to its interests in the Transatlantic slave trade).

This situation is one among many within the context of the “Arab Spring”, or “Arab Revolutions” that collectively underscore the need for new multilateral/ binational mechanisms to safeguard cultural and human heritage in times of immediate crisis, working with local authorities where possible (before, during and after a crisis) to draw up contingency plans, deploy expert conservationists, and lobby for defensive action; to fill the gaps as the international organizations ramp up to provide longer term solutions. Of course, the direct human cost of hot conflict must be of paramount concern, but addressing these two issues is not mutually exclusive:  collateral cultural losses are often the result of basic neglect, not mis-prioritization of resources. Are we about to lose another major piece of human history, for lack of a few million dollars?