National Geographic : 2013 Feb
Rediscovering Libya 59 coast, where he used to fish as a child. The photo collector’s makeshift exhibit was the first of its kind in benghazi and possibly in all of Libya. Small crowds would gather to ponder the images from a banished yesteryear: mules clattering down alleys bearing jugs of olive oil; the lumi- nous Ottoman-era hadada Square, currently overtaken by jewelry vendors; the Italianate parliament building, destroyed at Qaddafi’s or- ders and now a parking lot. Old men crouched in front of Gargoum’s photographs and stared for a very long time. Their eyes said what their mouths could not. Some of the photos included forbidden visuals, such as the old Libyan flag, which is the new Libyan flag. Gargoum’s streetside gallery also included posters on which he would write deliberately provocative passages such as: “Those who sac- rifice liberty for security deserve neither.” “Free minds of America and Europe, you have always disappointed us.” “The Libyan people are more important.” unsurprisingly, these dissident musings earned Gargoum ongoing harass- ment. Every September, coinciding with the anniversary of the brother Leader’s ascension to power, ministry of Interior officials would escort Gargoum to a police station and make him stay overnight. “we know what you’re try- ing to do,” they would tell him, though they always let him go. he continued to display his images and his messages. but the photographs he had collected of Qaddafi’s sworn enemies he kept hidden in his home office, where he wrote on the walls sentiments that he did not dare display on the streets of benghazi—bitter laments like, “ The ceiling of the regime is too low for me to stand!” when the first peaceful protests began in mid-February, Gargoum closed his gallery and joined the demonstrations, but soon retreated to his house. Eight months later, on the day that Qaddafi was killed, he returned to the souk with his photographs—not just the usual im- ages, but also those of artists and intellectuals and soldiers who had once defied the dictator and been executed as a result. Included in this more expansive exhibit was a painting he had made in 1996, the first year that he had offered up his photographs and sly slogans to the jittery public of benghazi. The painting consisted of a single monumental figure engulfed by dark- ness—his back turned, his hand holding a torch aloft. Though Gargoum had intended it to be a self-portrait, he had unconsciously reproduced the exiled statue of Septimius Severus. On this new day of freedom Gargoum placed the painting on an easel and took out his paint- brush. with careful strokes he added a crowd of wispy figures to the background. he then nodded with satisfaction at the finished product, a por- trait of an unfinished nation, its people standing together the evening after the revolution—mo- mentarily blinded by torchlight, waiting for a new vision to pierce the darkness. j TAKING THE PLUNGE On a lazy Friday boys cool off at a Tripoli beach. As normal life resumes, Libyans hope hotels like the Marriott (green, at left) will reopen as part of a fledgling tourist economy.