This is the story of the book, and the people who created it

Ilya, USA, June 6 2012

This is the story of the Book.
This is the story of Voices 4 Libya.
It’s a long story. But it’s worth it.

Says who?

Says me. I said so. My name is Moussa.
Not really. But that’s another story.
It’s in the Book. The Voices 4 Libya book.

We all met on Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera/English.
Who the heck reads Al Jazeera in English?
We do.

Who are we?
We are people from all over the world who caught the Arab Spring Fever. You saw the flags of our countries on the table at the Book Launch.
Democracy. Democrazy. We are crazy about the demos.
That’s right: People Power.

We saw it in Tunisia. We saw it in Egypt. We watched it together in Libya.
First on the pages of AJE. Then the ones crazy like me were invited to join me on a site I created. How crazy? The site is called koussa.info for one thing. It was created a week after Moussa Koussa defected so that he would seem to Issue Statements on the Internet while he was resting from being questioned by MI-6. The group was called “Bubbles” and we became its “Bubbletoneans”

Zorica joined my group late. She was nervous about this Moussa Koussa character. She didn’t think it was funny. Here is what she wrote on September 23rd, 2011:

First of all I want to apologize for my reaction on name Moussa Koussa when Charlotte gave me an instruction how I can get her e mail address. It was a chat…as I remember. At that time I was in Serbia and just found AJE. Please, understand how much that period was a difficult for me and my family [...] .In addition to that, we hate the name – Moussa Koussa. He was responsible for detaining my brother in law and loosing 18 years of his life in prison. We hate Moussa Koussa.

She quickly saw that we had nothing to do with Moussa Koussa other than make fun of him and his silly name:

Dear Moussa Koussa [the fake one] you make me really laugh by your posts. I like people who has such ability for humor. Only extremely smart people can do this. You have my deep respect

But she quickly gave us a different sense of purpose:

Dear Charlotte and Moussa I need your advice regarding this:
I would like to go again to visit wounded FFs with few girls only. I will make ice cream and I would like to have some personal message from our bloggers to:
Freedom Fighters in Hawari Hospital – Benghazi

….message……
Name /nick and country

I will print original messages with translation in Arabic, make a copy for each wounded FFs and give them. I am sure that these messages will be special for them.

At that time, our group had grown to over 80 members. I put a call out to the group:

…as most of you know, Azizor (Zorica) and her friends and relations have been doing things that are nothing short of heroic on daily basis: feeding the troops, educating children, keeping the youngest ones taken care of and overall, taking care of the invisible daily grunge of the war. In my mind, that is as much of a challenge as that which brave men on the front face. The army, as we know, runs on its stomach. And stomach is the best way to the man’s heart. Trust me, I know about stomachs. And Zorica has been helping take care of the logistics so vital to the cause. [...]

In any case, Azizor would like for each of you to do something else to help out those brave wounded men in the hospital in Benghazi: write them a personal note that will be translated into Arabic and taken to them within a day or two. The current recuperating group is scheduled to be shipped to Jordan in 4 days, so it is important you write something NOW and send it to Azizor (+ copy me) so that she has time to translate it into Arabic and deliver it to the wounded.

We put together an amazing booklet.
In two days, we had one in four of our members respond with a message to the brave thuwar.
We put together an amazing booklet; “we” meaning Zorica with Dr. Marwa, Dr. Fadwa, Dr. Ayman and Dr. Areej. It is all “we” with us. We share credit wherever possible and even where it is not. That’s important about our group: there are no egos. It was October 1, 2011. Zorica told us:

A few nice doctors translated all messages. One of them told me that she can make a cover and put them in plastic cover, so they will look like a small booklet. … The wounded FFs we have visited on Friday are since Sunday in Amman. But every day coming new from Sirt.
I plan to change the title of the messages from A Message to wounded FFs in Hawari hospital- Benghazi to A message to wounded FFs – Libya and send it to Susan. She can print the same and give to the FFs which are now in Amman and she plan to visit them.

50 copies were made. Dr. Marwa created a beautiful cover with the photos of those writing and their country flags; it was snazzy, I tell you. Professionally done on a 100 euro budget (170LD) collected among us with a help of Dr. Asmaa and physiotherapist Mohamed Ghalal. A labor of love. 50 copies went in a blink. The wounded thuwar, mostly kids 24 years old and younger, loved them.

They were lying in a hospital Gaddafi left unfinished: Spartan, empty, but beloved.

Sirte was still in the villain’s hands. More and more wounded thuwar were overflowing Benghazi hospitals, arriving by choppers, ambulances, private cars — too many, too painful, too frustrating.

We wanted to do more. Fortunately, Zorica had another idea that she shared with Michael, a publisher in our group on October 8th, 2011:

I have another idea. I feel free to tell you about it.
As we have to wait for the first book about Revolution to be written by Libyans, why you do not ask our group to write their own story about Libya:

  • How have they started to follow Al Jazeera?
  • Why have they supported Libyans from the beginning?
  • Their analysis of the conflict reg. FFs-NATO?
  • Arab League support of No Fly Zone?
  • UN Resolution
  • G’s crimes.

I have noticed that there are people highly educated and their posts are “short lecture” about certain issue. I hope you understand what I mean. There are almost 100 people of Moussa’s group and if 50 of them write their own view on Libya it will be enough to be a book. I think that the people in USA and Europe will have clear picture what has happened in this country if this explanation comes from the westerners (bloggers).
Maybe you can discuss this with Moussa….give the people for example 1-2 months to prepare their stories. I am sure that most of the people prefer to learn about some serious issues (politics, wars, revolutions…) from ordinary people like them, then from professional (political) analysts. These stories could be informative and emotional in the same time.

I loved the idea, but with the added proviso that all the profits go to help Libyan kids:

Michael,
I wholeheartedly agree with your and Zorica’s general idea about the need and value of our book.
The value preposition I see is that of

  • our shared experience,
  • our common struggle to find some specific, tangible way to support something as abstract and amorphous as freedom
  • how the need to SHARE the experience brought us together, first on AJE, then on my site.
  • how we continue to struggle with finding meaningful ways to have a tangible impact on the most basic and most universal of human rights. [...]

The need for such a publication, esp. if done right is

  • the story of the Libyan struggle for freedom needs to be told without the mass media bias and
  • from a uniquely individual perspective of all involved, us in Bubbles, true, but more importantly
  • Zorica’s story, Eamon’s story, Libya in Absentia’s story and
  • individual FF’s stories are told from a human struggle story, not as a movement, but as a personal struggle to join the movement, risking all.

In the end, imho, it could be a life-affirming, positive, and yes, inspirational book. A book filled with hope, a beacon for others searching for meaningful ways to make a small but tangible difference in this increasingly impersonal world.

What I do not like:

  • (sorry, going to be honest here): Zorica’s ideas of lectures won’t work. People hate to be lectured, especially in the Western world. We are living in a world of know-it-alls who fail to realize that they know nothing. And people so HATE to have their ignorance exposed in any way. It cannot be a lecture on Middle East; it cannot be a lecture on any of our perceived strengths.
  • profits. I am sorry to sound like a socialist or some tree hugging do-gooder (I am not; I am all for making money and capitalism), but all the proceeds have to be agreed at the outset to go to some greater cause in Libya. I am hoping for a facility that treats war orphans, educates them, helps them heal, but i am not locked on that. I will go with the consensus. But my condition is: everybody’s honoraria go towards a mutually agreed upon cause in Libya.
  • I trust we will avoid religious issues and that will be a guiding principle for all writers. We can talk about how our theism inspired us to do what we did perhaps, but I do not want this as a way to peddle Jesus, Mohammad or Moses?

I am still struggling with how to hook the reader in the first couple of paragraphs, but I am GLAD TO DO this project. Please feel free to share this with anyone in our group or as need be in your publishing company, provided the security of the site is not jeopardized.

I wanted to get this out to you right away, so you may get some follow ups as my thoughts continue to gel on this. Thank you for taking the initiative.
Your friend,
- Ilya

Fortunately, Michael agreed with our list of demands. I say “our” because all the writers were on the same wavelength. We all wanted to do this for the same reasons. Behind the scenes I secured several editors: Charlotte, a retired researcher from New Zealand; Philip, a man in publishing in England; Susan, an editor in Amman; and, of course, Zorica who ended up gathering the majority of the Libyan stories. Here was my letter to the group, sent out a week later, on October 10th:

Dear Freedom Writer,
Yes, you! Don’t look around. We mean you.

You’ve felt connected with Libya ever since the first February demonstrations in Benghazi. You felt yourself a part of Arab Spring ever since Tahrir Square. Searching for information unavailable anywhere else, you came to Al Jazeera English. Frustrated and empowered at the same time, you yearned to do more. You started posting, interacting, connecting with thousands of like-minded people from around the globe. Then you found us. And we found you. It was mutual, to be sure.

But that passion, that hunger of yours to do something meaningful and tangible and in some small way affect and contribute to the CHANGE, that fire stayed with you to this day.

You have seen what Azizor could do with half an hour of your time.
You have seen the difference you have been able to make in the life of men who came as close to giving their all for freedom as we will ever see.
You have seen the joy, amazement, surprise and appreciation in their eyes.

Now you can do that again.
Actually, you can do more.
You see, Michael, (Heckyes), a member of our group is a publisher.
He would like to create an anthology, a collection of people’s stories.
Write about the path that brought you here. Tell the world about your journey: about your need to make a difference for the better in the world. Share with others your inner struggle to do something meaningful and personal in this increasingly impersonal world of ours. Something using this amazingly complex and sophisticated machinery to do an act of simple human kindness.

We will interweave your story with those of Libyan Freedom Fighters and civilians, wounded and those caring for them, with those who live next door to you and half the world away.

We have a few basic rules or covenants we are working under:
(1)
All the profits and proceeds go to a mutually agreed upon humanitarian cause in Libya. I am partial to children who have been affected by this war: orphaned, crippled, traumatized. When the thurwar were freeing Tripoli and gained control of Aisha’s house that she built after she razed a children’s clinic, that little tidbit of information, so seemingly insignificant in this vast ocean of Gaddafi crimes against humanity grabbed me by all my emotional strings. I want to do something for Libya’s future, yes. But I want to do something just for the kids who are hurting. (The cause itself is negotiable and I will yield to consensus as long as it’s in Libya; I just wanted to let you know where I was coming from.
(2)
Please abstain from selling your personal religious views, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish or anything else.
(3)
Please try to fit your story in 600 to 900 words. That should be 2-3 pages. We will be editing/condensing stories into that size.
(4)
Timeline for this starts now. You have two weeks to summon your muse and negotiate with her. Do not negotiate with the editor. Please, two weeks.
(5)
Think of the title for the collection. Best title wins!

FAQ

Q: “but…but…but what do I write? I have nothing to say!”
A: you do. Write about how you came to care about Libya. Write about what brought you to AJE. Write about why you are passionate about freedom in Libya and what your hopes are.

Q: “but…but…but…what if it’s boring? especially when compared to others and their stories?”
A: we have a lot in common, surprisingly. we are all different, true, but we do have this shared experience that will not just coalesce all the individual threads into something greater than their sum, but weave them into a beautiful quilt. Even if some threads are black and white, the quilt will be beautiful.

Q: “what’s this ‘a lot in common’, pale face?”
A: our common struggle to find some specific, tangible way to support something as abstract and amorphous as freedom. our common need to SHARE the experience brought us together, first on AJE, then on this site.

Q: “I am still struggling with what to write”
A: Write about how we continue to struggle with finding meaningful ways to have a tangible impact on the most basic and most universal of human rights. That was Zorica’s booklet.

Q: “What if I can’t write worth a damn? And my English sucks.”
A: We have editors. We have interpreters and translators. Do your best. This will be an interactive and iterative process.

Q: “Who is doing this with me?”
A: In addition to the Bubbletonians whom you’ve grown to love, hate and then love again, a whole lot of Libyans, we hope. From the wounded FF’s to the doctors and nurses healing them. From the Libyan FF’s to civilians.

Q: “But does anything we do on AJE ultimately matter? Especially when compared to those losing their lives in Sirte right now?
A: Read Linda’s note about her meeting with Rawdan Ziadeh of the Syrian Transitional Council and what he had to say about the role of the AJE bloggers like you.

Below are random notes
I am hopeful that once assembled the thread of individual narratives will not only coalesce, but interweave into a quilt of the book. The paths we followed to get here are very different, but we all share the same great, positive, happy ending. So all the journeys come into focus through the lens of Free Libya. I am mixing my metaphors again, sorry.

Of course the weaving of these threads is going to be the publishers and editors’ work. I would love to alternate the accounts from Libya with those of the Westerners, those of the fighters with those of the writers, those of the wounded and those who are caring for them.

To me, AJE and to a smaller extent the space where we chat and share is our common denominator. It is the magnet that brought all these disparate people together, it is the catalyst too. It is what coalesced us into a critical mass large enough to be heard and make a small difference.

We are hoping for about 20 Western stories and a similar number from Libya. In the end, we will shoot for 256 pages or so in the book, including black and white photos.

From that point on, it was less romantic than one might imagine.

Everything was done by email, by Internet, by interactive chat dedicated to the book project on the koussa.info site. We developed a procedure for storing raw, edited and final texts on the same page, a procedure for approval of the edits from the authors, a procedure for procedures. Told you, it was pedestrian. But the system worked. And a good thing too, because when the stories translated from Arabic began arriving from Benghazi, we were seasoned.

Zorica gathered up stories, found translators, and developed a system for photographs. Amazing Libyan stories began pouring in. Moving. Gut-wrenching and sad. We could not work through some of them without finding ourselves in tears, but we did. Philip edited a few stories despite his heavy schedule. I did a few and all the poetry (I have a thing for poetry). But Susan and Charlotte did all the heavy lifting while I was busy with all the minutia of running the site, uploading versions of stories, keeping track of who has what and at what stage.

In the midst of it, the title emerged: Voices FOR Libya, with the preposition “for” expressed as a number “4″, symbolic of the Internet shortcut most of us have come to use in our new medium. Our prime directive: edit only to make the story readable; preserve the VOICE of the author at all costs.

We needed a website for the book. Even we weren’t crazy enough to sell the book from a koussa domain! Michael secured the site, and we were lucky to enlist one of the world’s preeminent and respected geek bloggers, Sebastian X to create its contents. More on Sebastian later. We found Lana on Twitter, a Russian married to a Libyan living in Canada. Lana not only translated several stories from Arabic: she also brought us a story of one of the first 17 February prisoners of AzZawiya.

At the same time we were designing a book cover. The only idea I had was to make the title letters out of the country flags: flags that helped Libya. The number “4″ became a group project: Charlotte suggested the pen, I used an AK47 as its mast and a keyboard suggested by someone else spanned the horizontal. Abubaker Almasdour helped, and when he could help no more, Zorica found Weeshi.

I must say, Weeshi is a most remarkable young man with amazing graphic talents.
But I also must say that Zorica threatened him.
She did not threaten to feed him to the lions.
No.
Worse.
She threatened to give him to the thuwar, should he not deliver the book cover graphics.
Weeshi was so afraid that he also agreed with Sebastian to do the Arabic mirror of our book site.

In the end, the book cover is striking, beautiful and unmistakable. Nobody can tell it was done by a committee, but it bears a fingerprint from half a dozen contributors: Abubaker, Weeshi, Charlotte and others.

In the end, we had to draw the line.
We had blown all the deadlines.
The idea was to finish the book by the New Year.
Ha!
How naïve we were!

The “problem” was that Zorica kept bringing in new stories. Abdelaziz, “Libya in Absentia” (aka Khadeeja), Dr. Fadwa, Dr. Osama, Zorica’s son Kamal who is in Serbia, Mary’s sons: Ali and Sami, Abdelrouf, Zorica’s brothers in law Mahdi and Faraj, Zorica’s neighbors Laujain and Layla and Zorica’s nephew Ali and others kept helping her with translations. And those stories were great! We couldn’t say “no”.

Nearly all the stories had been edited and re-edited. Charlotte, a woman of infinite patience and incredible attention to detail, had gone back and forth with some Libyan authors more than 20 versions. It was she who framed the Qu’ran Ayas of the Martyrs’ stories with the appropriate font. It was she who caught the big mistakes like the wrong versions or the invisible ones like the double spaces that nobody else saw. It was she who felt the voice of the author the purest. In short, Charlotte had become our editor-in-chief because she has the biggest heart of us all.

At one point, however, I had to be the bad guy and say “no more”.. To save the money, I had been doing the book layout in InDesign, and making each correction cascaded down into Word files, InDesign files, pdf files they generated. I drew the line.

The January of 2012 was ending, and we were nearly done. The sentence I used was something like “the submissions of Libyan stories is closed unless it’s the Omar Al Mukhtar family“. That was on January 23rd, my son’s 18th birthday.

Three days later, Zorica emailed us telling us she has told Hawa my sentence and now she is meeting with Mohammed Al Mukhtar, the son of Sheik Omar Al Mukhtar.
It is nothing short of amazing!

In the end, during February, we got Mohammed’s story, and Khadija’s and her brother Mukhtar Al Mukhtar’s as well. We sent all the stories to volunteers from our group for proof reading. Simbad, Colin, Jane/Wosson, Philip, Transplant Trees and Christine, a friend of Charlotte’s in New Zealand, each read a group of the stories. Charlotte checked the errors and typos they found and I made all the changes needed in the master copy of the book. Zorica checked name spellings and helped Weeshi made changes to maps. We found photos from among the many sent to us by Libyan authors, doctors and staff at Hawari General Hospital, and Zorica to fit in the spaces at the end of each story. All of our proof readers and others — especially MCC, Def, Suzanne, Viviane/Asldkure, AK47, Tom, Tesse — cheered us on to get the job done and off to the printer. Whew!! What a month!

Finally, we sent it all to Michael and he did the rest.

But more importantly, we got Khadija, her husband Sherif and her brothers Mukhtar and Mansour on our Team Libya.

Because Mansour shipped 50 copies of the book for its Libyan authors at his own expense.
Because Sherif got the Council of Culture involved in our project.
Because now, we are working on the Arabic version of Voices 4 Libya.
Because all of them with others on Team Libya — Dr. Abdelaziz, Khadija, Sharif, Mukhtar, Dr. Fadwa, Dr. Osama, Mary, Hawa, Jamila, Weeshi, Halima, Dr. Ayman, Laujain and Zorica — started a Libyan arm of our Voices 4 Libya Charity which we launched in April 2012 in Washington State.

This is the story of the Book.
This is the story of Voices 4 Libya.
It’s a long story. But it’s worth it.

2 thoughts on “This is the story of the book, and the people who created it

  1. I asked Zorica to write a book and the proceeds would go to charity before she graciously responded sayings the bloggers should do it was how it really started.

  2. I was a small contributor to the AJE Libya Blogs most of the way through the conflict. I had no idea that you remarkable people were doing this, I sincerely regret not joining the Moussa site although I visited the chat room frequently, ( was new to blogs back then and a little intimidated) I congatulate all of you involved and I will most certainly be ordering a copy.
    Thank you for your effort and caring.

    Gary

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