The drive to Benghazi from the Egyptian border is long: hours through a stark undeveloped land, rapids over deep ravines, then barren desert. When we reach the city, it is something of a surprise – a decrepit, Mediterranean town cradled by a magnificent seafront, the blue-green coastline stretching to Tunisia. Not many people are swimming. Once or twice I see men wading in fully clothed, but never a woman. From the moment I arrive, I can see Kais al-Hilali’s rage and isolation written on the city walls.
On 17 February – the ‘Day of Rage’ – Kais fought alongside the Shabaab (the angry Libyan youth whose protests sparked the rebellion) inside the Katiba army base. In the early days of the uprising, this impoverished thirty-four-year-old street artist and sign painter found his voice. Prowling Benghazi like a commando, along with other underground artists who had begun to taunt and torment their tormentor, Kais used his brushes and paint to boost the momentum of the revolution. His first political graffiti – a leering, buffoonish, venomous Gaddafi – was close to his apartment. He painted voraciously, and violently – attacking Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, depicting them as monkeys, scratching lice. Gaddafi as a villain, Gaddafi as the devil.
By 21 February, anti-Gaddafi forces had taken the town, and people had begun painting flags of France and America all over the walls of the city’s buildings as tributes to the Nato bombers. By mid-March, Kais’s fame had spread. In an interview with the French channel TF1, he declared that Gaddafi was not the ‘king of all kings of Africa but the monkey of all monkeys of Africa’. Even in the capital, Tripoli, there was talk of the skinny, bald street artist from Benghazi. On 19 March, Kais created his last mural. He was in a car with three other friends that night. Just after midnight, near what his mother later described to me as a ‘fake checkpoint’ on the western side of the city, the car was halted. Shots rang out and assassins, believed to be from the government secret service, hit Kais twice in the neck. No one else in the car was shot.
I visit Kais’s mother on a sweltering afternoon in the middle of June. As I climb the four flights to his old bedroom in the flat where he lived with his family, she weeps silently, wiping her eyes with a dirty tissue. She had borne seven children before her husband abandoned the family. In 2004, her eldest son, who was only twenty-eight and the breadwinner of the family, died suddenly of a heart attack. Now her second eldest is dead.
Kais’s mother shows me a photograph of him as a big-eared seven-year-old (the same age as my own son) with a pudding bowl haircut, wearing a ridiculous clip-on bow tie. His younger brother Taha sits at an ancient PC and shows me pictures of Kais’s artwork. Before the rebellion, he drew lonely images of fishermen in enormous, foreboding oceans, but after 17 February, his images were all caricatures of Gaddafi. His mother turns away. In Arabic, she tells me that he died because he refused to be silent. My translator, Mohammed, grimly repeats the words in English. Refused to be silent.
Then Taha clicks on a photograph I would rather not have seen: Kais dead in the morgue, his skin stretched purple like a bruised plum, the bullet holes visible in his neck.
Even though the city is now the rebel stronghold, one can still sense the fear. In the 1980s, Benghazi was a centre of dissent and then too the response was brutal. There were public hangings that have left an indelible mark. Once you have seen someone swinging from a rope, you learn to shut up.
One morning, I visit the oldest cafe in the city, situated behind the Corniche, the road that edges along the seafront. The Tiki Bar is dark, smoky and completely male. The barman makes me a strong Arabic coffee in a tiny cup and my friend, a young Libyan engineer, explains that until only very recently, people whispered over their cups in the morning – even saying a word about Gaddafi’s family could get you imprisoned, tortured or killed.
Driving through the city, the walls of buildings are plastered with triumphant artwork and slogans: game over! we have a dream! thank you, france! And finally, the powerful and politically outraged artwork, some of it by Kais but also, more recently, by one of his protégés, a silent and rather aggressive eighteen-year-old deaf mute called Radwan.
Kais signed his name in the New York-style tags of the type that you see on subways all over Europe and the United States. Radwan, deaf since birth and even more isolated than his compatriots – Libyans who were already separated from the rest of the world – signs with a crude drawing of an ear with a line slashed through it, depicting a world with no sound.
I wait to meet Radwan at the Media Centre of the courthouse. An exhibition of Kais’s art is on display and I sit with Mohammed Atif, the young Libyan who runs the centre. When Radwan arrives, he is accompanied by another deaf mute, twenty-three-year-old Rafhi, his apprentice. Rafhi is calm, with a kind, gentle gaze, and struggles to communicate by making a high-pitched squeak from his useless vocal cords. Radwan, on the other hand, is like a lion trapped in a cage, with an energy that seems ready to explode. Both are grinning and dressed in what could easily be the uniform of urban youth around the world: low-slung Levi’s that hang around their skinny hips, lots of silver rings and bracelets, tight black T-shirts and baseball caps.
Both young men are on their own, without families. Both were born poor. Communication is difficult as neither uses international sign language. Instead, they were taught an archaic form of signing that Gaddafi imposed on deaf mutes in Libya. Radwan and Rafhi sign in a desperate fashion to whoever is with me, my companions working out the meaning from their motions and translating into English.
We gather up spray paints and hit the streets: through winding alleys; bottleneck traffic; shops selling sneakers and T-shirts from Cairo; the old souk with its gold and silver vendors; and finally, the Katiba, the former garrison of Gaddafi’s forces. Radwan makes a painful, strangled noise as we approach. He was imprisoned here for three months last year and subjected to electric shocks. The garrison is a wreck now; it was one of the first symbols of the regime that the Shabaab attacked in the early days of the revolution. Kais was with them, and so was Radwan. Now Radwan searches for a wall that is empty and once he finds one that is suitable, he goes into a kind of trance. In less than thirty minutes he has created a mural of a giant disembodied fist punching Gaddafi in the jaw, blood spurting out of his eye. Rafhi goes next, climbing on a concrete block to reach the high parts of the walls. He is not as talented as Radwan – he draws Gaddafi as a devil. Radwan stands next to him, slapping him on the wrist to get his attention, trying to instruct him without the use of words.
If this rebellion is successful and a new Libya comes, the West will pour money into it as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq , appointing international bureaucrats and business-school graduates to transform the country, and building ‘Green Zones’ that separate them from the local population. I know these two won’t be in that picture, nor will they share the benefits. Even though this revolution was all about the youth rising up, they will be as forgotten and isolated as they are now, in their own deaf-and-mute world.
That night, Radwan and Rafhi take me to their lair. It’s a grim, depressing place – a former Mussolini-style monument with frescoes of silent fighters and patriotic mothers carrying babies. The building is neglected and has been destroyed by vagrants; there is sewer water inch-deep on the cracked concrete floor. This is where Radwan and an entire community of deaf mutes make their home. I try to ask if they sleep here at night – some say they do, others seem embarrassed. There are several dozen of them and they rise up from benches and slap Radwan and Rafhi on the back in greeting when we arrive.
There is a teacher with the youths on the night I visit, a heavyset, greying man called Mohammed who has a deep, rich voice. He is determined to teach them to sign. ‘What is going to happen to them?’ he asks. ‘This whole generation? All they have known is Gaddafi.’ The boys sit patiently in a circle and Mohammed and his assistant begin their lesson.
Most evenings, Radwan can be found near the makeshift tents in the area alongside the Corniche. This is where mothers display photographs of their dead and missing sons, hoping that someone will come forward with information; that they will find out that their children are not dead after all. The day I leave Benghazi, the rebels are still fighting outside Brega, on the Gulf of Sirte, in the direction of Tripoli. Someone tells me that Radwan has gone to Ajdabiya, about an hour away, to be with the rebel fighters there and to ‘get inspiration’. Although he has told me that he ‘likes to fight’, and has knife marks up and down his tanned arms to prove it, Radwan is not fighting alongside the rebel army. I struggle to imagine him at the front line: seeing and absorbing but unable to hear the sound of rockets or bullets flying around him, lost in his silence.
Around the city, on various walls, there are scrawled tributes to Kais. I also see Radwan’s drawings, his signature of a defunct ear. And there, near the tents along the Corniche, are the photographs and posters of those who have disappeared, staring out above the cellphone numbers of family members desperate to know their fate.
Photo © Franco Pagetti/VII Photo