BENGHAZI — They call it the "Café of the Displaced," and it's always full. "It's because my customers followed me here," says Ahmed, a smile on his face as he pours a clever blend of coffee, cream, cocoa powder and sugar.
Everybody's known Ahmed for years. And they know his story, which is also the story of Benghazi — from war and pain to reconstruction. To resurrection.
"My family used to run the biggest coffee shop in town, not far from the waterfront, downtown. Everyone passed through there. Some would sit on the terrace all day. Then the extremists arrived a few months after the revolution and took over the entire street," the 30-year-old says as he leans over his coffee machine. "Our coffee shop was shut down and then it was destroyed. The neighborhood's inhabitants left. We fled and the night fell on Benghazi."
Ahmed says he hasn't been back to the area but that it's recently been liberated. "The fighting is over," he says. "This was the last neighborhood to be recaptured from the terrorists, most of whom claimed to be part of ISIS. But they've hidden landmines everywhere, so it's still too dangerous."
The fighting between groups close to ISIS and militias that fought under the banner of the Libyan National Army lasted more than three years. Following in the footsteps of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, Libya had its own "Spring" starting in February 2011. But Benghazi, like the rest of the country, quickly got bogged down in a civil war with unpredictable consequences.
"As a result, Libya is cut in half, with two governments that don't get along and armed factions everywhere," Ali, one of Ahmed's customers, says angrily.
While a semblance of order has returned in city, allowing people like Ahmed to restart a fragile business, more than 40% of Benghazi's infrastructure and buildings have been affected by the fighting. And some neighborhoods, including the old city center, are literally devastated.
Everywhere else, though, small businesses and shops are flourishing. That, in turn, is allowing young people to rebuild their futures, although because of the faltering economy and of a severe liquidity crisis, they have to be imaginative.
"I opened the only cosmetics school in town and maybe even in the country," says Mawada, 24. The young woman teaches her students the basic rudiments of make-up application, how to apply different colors — from purple to cream — or enhance the eyes with an ebony black.
"Since I didn't have any money, I relied on the landlord to give me a special deal. And my students pay me however they can," Mawada says. One of them pays for classes in cakes she makes in her small bakery. Another offers discounts in her family's shop. A third signs IOUs.
In Benghazi, a whole collaborative economy has emerged from the ruins of war. Despite endemic unemployment, shopping centers are setting up across the city, new shops open every day and some streets are busy until late at night.
Still, this new balance is fragile. And the demons of the past continue to loom over the people of Benghazi, who feel divided — eager to move to, to embrace the future, but also inclined to withdraw.
"A constant battle"
Fatma crosses the city every day to reach Tanarout, the only cultural center in the city. Tanarout opened in 2015, in the middle of the war. The traffic-filled journey takes an hour — through a boring urban landscape made of large but charmless houses, through highways and roundabouts.
The young woman never goes anywhere without her guitar, an incongruous object to have in this city whose streets are often blocked by rogue militiamen who claim, rightly or wrongly, to be part of the Libyan national army. "It's not easy to be an artist in Libya," she says. "Society is not used to seeing a woman singing and playing an instrument. Sometimes I have to hide."
Having arrived safe and sound, we hear the first notes of a rehearsal with percussion instruments, while two young painters are working silently in a corner. The cultural center is located in the vast basement of a house that's still under construction, in a dull new neighborhood, at the end of a dirt street. Musicians, painters, and writers cross paths and rebuild the world, evoking the place of art in the reconstruction of their city.
"We're keeping each other warm," says Fatma, smiling. "We support each other and we move forward by creating. For the moment, we can't really go out, but we hope that one day, art will be on the street."
And yet, the center is hanging by a thread, as Mohamed, one of its founders, explains. "Our society is still suffering and it's difficult for it to accept a place like this," he says. "We are being scrutinized by internal security, which believes that it isn't the right time yet to develop culture. Every day, we are afraid that Tanarout will close its doors."
Mohamed and his colleagues are particularly afraid of the Salafists — there are many of them in the city — who have threatened the group and already forced them to move once. "We had to close and leave overnight," he says. "It's a constant battle. We just want to show that everyone has rights. Rights that were won at a high price in 2011 with the revolution and that we won't give up."
This morning, at the "Café of the displaced," people are talking about a terrorist attack that hit a mosque the previous day and left one dead and more than 140 wounded. It is the second attack on a place of worship in two weeks, proof that as much as things seem to be improving, terror is never far away. The first attack killed more than 40 people. A fragile peace indeed.