January 19, 2012
The Libyan revolution has not been kind to Mahmud al-Arabi. Last March, forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi ransacked his grocery store in Zuwara after he fled to Tunisia, stealing about $6,000 worth of supplies. When he returned in September, facing mounting debts, al-Arabi turned to selling beer and liquor — an illegal enterprise in a country where alcohol has been banned for four decades. His new business drew the attention of Islamist rebels who helped to overthrow Gaddafi. After they threatened the store’s landlord, they blew up Arabi’s shop. Out of money and out of work, Arabi spends his days in his trailer home lamenting the turn his country has taken. Says he, “I got nothing but suffering from this revolution.”
Throughout this country, Libyans are discovering that their hard fought battle to win freedoms is at risk. Puritanical Muslims known as Salafis are applying a rigid form of Islam in more and more communities. They have clamped down on the sale of alcohol and demolished the tombs of saints where many local people worship. The small town of Zuwara near the Tunisian border, dominated by a heterodox Muslim sect despised by the Salafis, is quickly becoming the battlefield for competing visions of Libya’s future.
Arabi’s trailer sits on the outskirts of the town, surrounded by crushed Heineken beer cans. Inside, bowls strewn around the floor capture the rain drops that leak through the porous ceiling. “I prefer selling alcohol to begging,” he says, explaining how he lost his entire savings during the revolution. After Gaddafi loyalists took the town, he was a wanted man for supporting the anti-regime fighters and had to be smuggled to Tunisia at a cost of 3,500 dinars. “I lost everything in my store and had no money. So I decided to sell alcohol.”
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