When it comes to love, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya was unlucky for unmarried 33-year-old truck driver Ahmed Nori Faqiar. His looks would have benefited if his parents could ever have sprung for a dentist. Lack of means forced him to live unhappily at his childhood home well into adulthood. Marriage, a home of his own, kids — all are dreams that the wiry Libyan had long ago steeled himself to stop hoping for.
“Before, I was not even daring to look at girls as wife material, because I knew I could not afford” to get married, say Faqiar now. These days, though, Faqiar wears the mismatched camouflage of Libya’s rebels and a dashing bandana on his head, pirate-style. He carries a gun. He is a veteran of battles for Libyans’ freedom from Gaddafi's regime — and it’s the women who are talking to him.
“Girls around the area come up to you and say, ‘Thank you! You made us proud, you made us happy,’” Faqiar told me one night recently. He spoke on the sidelines of a camel and couscous feast that the people in this Tripoli suburb threw for several thousand young rebels, after slaughtering 10 camels.
From a specially raised dais, speakers praised the young rebel fighters late into the evening. Hundreds of excited young women and girls in head scarves mingled near rifle-toting young men, a novelty in this conservative country that was overwhelming to members of both genders in the crowd that night. “It’s like a wedding!” Faqiar exclaimed, shaking his head in surprise.
Relations between Libyan men and women — deeply distorted by the eccentric Libyan leader’s refusal to provide normal opportunities for Libya's young people — have changed “100 %” in the days since Gaddafi fell, the young rebel said. “Thank God,” Faqiar added.
Nearby, young women said the same, and laughed about taking their pick of a husband from among the rebels when the war was done. Before the revolution, young men her age “were just lazing around in the streets, no future. I didn’t care about them at all,” said Esra’a el-Gadi, 20. “Now I look at them in a totally new light — they stood up against Gaddafi. It’s something.”
“We saw them as lost youth, unemployed,” Rahana el-Gadi, 19, said of men of her generation. “Now we were surprised, so surprised to see what they’re capable of,” she added.
Jokes passed by cell phone text messages across Libya confirm the newfound eligibility of the young civilians turned fighters. “Forget doctors and engineers: We want to marry a rebel,” one of the widely circulated text messages goes.
But Libya is still a deeply observant Islamic country, and very few of those unacquainted young men and women were actually talking to each other during the night of rallying that followed the camel feast.
With dictators falling in much of the Middle East and North Africa, Arab men and women in newly liberated nations hope to redress one of the most profound and damaging iniquities wrought by rulers like Gaddafi — the lack of economic opportunity that stunted every aspect of the lives of the region’s youth.
The Arab region has the second-largest %age of young people in the world. Almost two out of every three Arabs are under 30, a level exceeded only in sub-Saharan Africa. And the Middle East and North Africa boast both the highest youth unemployment and unemployment overall on the planet.
Years ago, political scientists, including Diane Singerman, began using the term “waithood” to describe the crippled outlook for the young generations of the Arab world. Unable to find jobs, or jobs that paid a living wage, millions of young Arabs were fated to live unhappily at home, unable to afford marriage. And in conservative Islamic societies, marriage for many is the only launch there is into independence, dignity, and a life of one’s own.
In effect, for young Arabs of ordinary means, “If they’re unemployed, they have no hope of becoming adult,” Singerman, an associate professor at American University in Washington, DC told me earlier this year.
Around the region, the average age of marriage has edged up — and not, for most, because millions of young Arab men and women were enjoying their single years. Young Libyans had it especially bad. Gaddafi didn’t just fail to develop well-paying jobs for the young — he destroyed jobs with erratic socialist schemes that warped Libya’s economy. So much so, that the Libyan government officially estimated unemployment in recent years at 20%, twice that of the already high regional rate.
As US diplomats in Libya noted in a 2009 WikiLeaked cable that looked closely at the country’s high rate of waithood, more than 60% of Libyans lucky enough to have jobs worked for the state. Despite Libya’s vast oil wealth, gross domestic product per capita is less than $10,000.
Marriage in Libya is particularly expensive, with days of celebration and gold-laden dowries expected. Libyan women have a perception that there is a shortage of marriageable young men, both because of the death tolls of Gaddafi’s military adventures in Chad and elsewhere and because of the lack of jobs.
“If you tried to count the number of spinsters among us, you couldn’t, you’d make mistakes — there are too many,” said Rahana el-Gadi, the 19-year-old young woman at Janzour’s rally for the young rebels.
(This was adapted from Foreign Policy Magazine. ww.foreignpolicy.com)
(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)