The recent attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the anti-Islamist rallies that followed have caused a lot speculation in the West: just what do the people of Benghazi want? Are they Salafis who just want to shoot at us from VW minibuses à la Back to the Future, or are they freedom fighters who killed Ghaddafi so they could join the world’s liberated peoples?
There’s no easy answer to that question, of course. Post-revolution Libya is a tangle of often-competing factions. But this much I can say from my time in post-Revolution Benghazi: when given a choice, the city will choose burgers over burkas every time.
Granted, that’s not really either-or proposition. Islamists eat fast food, too, when they’re not torching KFCs. But although Eastern Libya is a religiously and socially conservative place, the Benghazi people I met were genuinely curious about western education, politics, and sports. Ask a Libyan man for the starting squad of the 1982 Spanish World Cup team and you’ll have the answer in a heartbeat.
And there is a decidedly western food craze in Benghazi these days: burgers. When I was there earlier this year, it seemed as easy to find a burger as a shawarma. And the best of these Benghazi’s burgers was at a big-windowed restaurant called al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab means “the youth” in Arabic, and it’s also the name of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-inspired insurgent wing. But the Benghazi version of al-Shabaab is place of peace, a sign of a city that wants to put war behind it and just go get a burger.
The first thing you’ll notice are the lines. At Benghazi’s Al-Shabab, people wait up to an hour for a burger. An assembly line of grillers, tomato slicers, and condiment arrangers prepare the large burgers as swarms of men jockey for a space at the counter. Their names will be called when the order is up, but they also want to keep an eye on the parade of square, white tickets to make sure no one has switched tickets to be served quicker.
The others, the families, friends, and unofficial girlfriends, sit in the front of the restaurant like expectant fathers in a hospital waiting room. It’s worth the wait. Al-Shabaab cooks up a near-perfect burger: juicy meat, drippy cheese that sticks to the foil wrapper, and some harissa to add some Libyan spice.
The place was packed when I was last there, and I was the only non-Libyan. No one took much notice of me or gave me any strange looks. When I mentioned this to my friends, they weren’t surprised.
“Why would they think it strange that a foreigner came here for a burger? It’s the best,” one said.
On Friday, September 21, a reported 30,000 people marched through Benghazi denouncing armed militias and extremism. One mob surrounded the headquarters of the Islamist militia Ansar Al-Sharia—thought to have participated in the assault on the consulate—and demanded it surrender its weapons. The AP reported that after firing shots into the air, the militia fled, and the protesters stormed the compound.
The murder of ambassador Chris Stevens, who was well respected in Benghazi, seems to have been a catalyst for Benghazi residents who have been hoping for the militias—originally created to fill the security void during the revolution—to disarm.
For me, those largely pro-Western protesters, not the armed radicals, symbolize Benghazi. In February, I walked the streets alone every day and never felt unsafe. Nor did I ever hide my US nationality. On the 17th, the one-year anniversary of the revolution, people filled the streets to celebrate, driving and honking, waving the pre-Qaddafi black, green, and red flag. And French flags. And British flags. And Italian flags. And American flags.
“Our revolution would have gone nowhere without NATO air support,” my translator told me as he attached Libyan and French flags to his car.
That night—after eating two Shabaab cheeseburgers—I went to the courthouse square, the epicenter of protest during the revolution, to buy some revolutionary trinkets for my recently born nephew back home. One vendor had key chains, necklaces, wristbands, earrings, hats, and t-shirts—all sporting the Libyan flag colors. When he learned I was American, he gave me one of each, refusing payment. He shook my hand as if I had personally defended Benghazi from Qaddafi’s tanks.
It’s the kind of moment that makes me think that Benghazi is on the right track, despite the recent violence. But in Libya, things aren’t always that simple. It is entirely possible that hamburgers are not a referendum on the west at all. Maybe they are, particularly at al-Shabaab, just really delicious.