The OEA, the Joint, and the Old Turk

The Martyrs' Square, Tripoli, Libya

This is the story of two individuals who despite sharing 25% of their genome lived in times that seem eons apart. She is standing in the biggest and most famous city square, which has received different names over the centuries. It is bordered by historic buildings. One of them is notable for tracing its history back to the pre-Islamic era, while another one, the red one, flaunts a plate noting that its construction dates back to the era before Christ—veritably before history itself started to be recorded.

While history runs its course, Sara must wait. She is meeting a man who has promised to get her a joint. Over here, hash is a definite no-no for women. So are cigarettes in general. Smoking is strictly forbidden. Forty years ago, she used to hang out with friends and smoke in this same square. It was allowed back then. Furthermore, in front of where she is positioned right now, there used to be a pub called OEA, like the beer brand. However, that’s also gone. Only the two historic buildings that are situated behind her have been spared from demolition.

As she waits, Sara recalls the day her grandmother and namesake said to her, “Our name is special.”

In response, Sara had asked, “Why is that?”

Her grandmother had then started to expound her views: “It doesn’t bear a profound meaning but is a common name everywhere. It is easy to pronounce and doesn’t need to be spelled out. It is not a name people feel the need to abbreviate and swap for a ridiculous nickname, and, since it’s not contingent on trends, it’s been used for centuries without ever losing its efficacy. If you conduct a little bit of research on the matter, you’ll see it’s been carried by many great women. It has inspired both ballads and ditties. In short, it is a name that can make you feel like you are someone when you are down in the dumps.”

After listening closely to her grandmother’s words, Sara had said, “But I don’t want to be considered important.”

“Well, we all need to feel we matter, though significance may mean different things to different people, for different people place value on different things. Some give priority to family, others to socializing outside. Some to cultural dictates, others to work codes. Some to staying sober, others to getting sloshed.”

“Have you ever gotten drunk?” Sara had asked in a muffled voice, knowing the question might have annoyed her grandmother.

“Yes, I have,” her grandmother had replied bluntly. “It was with an older Turkish man. I had broken out in a cold sweat after entering the OEA; I had never set foot in a bar before. Girls who went to bars were considered whores. I had swathed my head in a scarf to conceal my identity and had gone into the pub anyway. An older Turkish-looking man spotted me and treated me to an ale. We made one hell of a team: he wanted to chew the fat; I wanted to drink. Accordingly, he told me stories about the Red Saraya and the museum it had become, about the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, about the rush of drinks and drugs, and about the 60s.

“ ‘I wish I could return to the 60s and be the young lad I once was back then,’ he commented. ‘It was a time of social liberties. Women slept around, one could drink until one passed out, and in lieu of weapons people deployed arguments against those with contrary beliefs. With a beer can in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I proclaimed myself a revolutionary one day and a liberal the next. It was all just mind gymnastics anyways. People’s convictions evolve over time. Beliefs are nothing to die for. Live to the fullest, and enjoy the only life you know for a fact that you’ve got.’”

Sara didn’t believe everything her grandmother had told her to be an accurate representation of the way events had unfolded in her past. Instead, she was under the impression that her grandmother had spiced up her tale by ascribing to the old Turk some of her personal sentiments. Sara understood her grandmother’s embellishment of her recollections as a message for her. While waiting for her dealer to arrive at the square that presently was known as the Martyrs’ Square, but ironically enough was once called Green Square, Sara pictured herself talking to the old Turk, striking up a casual but fascinating conversation. The alcohol was certainly whetting her appetite for drama.

Sara died of cancer a couple of hours later at Tripoli Central Hospital. The last thing she had done was smoke a joint that a Filipina nurse had rolled and subsequently administered to her as a palliative measure. While stoned, she had traveled through her imagination back to Green Square, where she sat down with her grandmother and the old Turk. They had drunk wine from the region and had then started jawing away about everything under the sun, kicking the chinwag off with the relevance of various articles of apparel and moving all the way over to discussing the scions of mother time and father towel, to wit, surrealism. It had seemed so real… Perhaps she had already ascended to heaven. Perhaps all of them had.

A distant voice called out, “Her glass is empty! Another round of OEA beers!”

All raised their glasses and hollered, “A toast to Libya and life!” Thereafter, everything faded away.


Written by Safia Ltaif.

Choose your own adventure

A world where a woman is supposed to step outside her house covered as if in disguise is a world where a woman is supposed to feel as if she is

a) about to commit a crime.

b) constantly being threatened by her ferocious environment.