Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

For Manchester, as for Its Libyans, a Test of Faith | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Wilmslow Road in Rusholme, Manchester, known as the Curry Mile. The city is home to 10,000 Libyans, the largest population outside Libya. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

MANCHESTER, England — The stretch of Wilmslow Road that runs through the Rusholme neighborhood, south of the city center, is known as the Curry Mile, thanks to the Indian and Pakistani restaurants that have been here for decades.

But that label no longer seems to do the place justice.

Kurdish barbers sit next to stores selling shimmering saris. An Islamic bookstore faces a Jamaican supermarket. There is an Arab print in the area too, withcafes named after Damascus and Dubai. The food is from Tunisia, Vietnam and all points in between. These few blocks contain a whole world.

And part of that world are the 10,000 or so Libyans in Manchester, the largest community outside Libya. Many arrived here to escape Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s brutal regime and have been here for decades, a quiet presence in the city, well woven into Manchester’s fabric.

Now, a British citizen of Libyan descent, Salman Abedi, has inflicted the most grievous pain on the place that raised him. On Monday night, he detonated a bomb full of nails, bolts and ball bearings at the Manchester Arena, killing 22 people and injuring dozens more.

He attacked not just a concert venue. He attacked a city and its sense of self as the proudly cosmopolitan, multicultural capital of northern England.

The Manchester still reeling from Monday night’s terrorist attack is not the decaying postindustrial wasteland of the 1970s. Nor is it the Ecstasy-fueled party city that emerged a decade later, or the gang-ridden gun crime capital of Britain that lodged itself in the popular imagination at the turn of the century.

It is none of those things and all of those things. It is the gleaming glass towers of Spinningfields and the hipster bars of the Northern Quarter, the leafy suburbs of Chorlton and Didsbury, the high-rises of Hulme and the uneasy, red brick streets of Moss Side.

It is a city of 530,000 people — in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million — many of them now wondering whether the city really is the exotic, polyglot, polychrome place they believe it to be. It is smaller than London, of course, and perhaps not as rich or as sophisticated, or as famous, but no less confident or international.

As graffiti on a disused rail depot not far from Piccadilly train station has it, Manchester sees itself as “a haven for heathens, hoodies and ‘hipsters’, hijabis and Hebrews, highbrow intellectuals and ‘however-you-sexuals’ … it’s home to all.”

It is that open-mindedness that first brought Libyans here, in search of their own haven. “People often call it Libya’s second capital,” said Hashem Ben Ghalbon, a Libyan who has lived here since 1976 and who was, for decades, one of the leading figures in the dissident movement based in Manchester after escaping from Colonel Qaddafi.

When he first came, he said, he found “no more than a hundred” of his countrymen.

“If you go to the hospital up the road, there will be Libyan doctors,” said Saif Eddin, who moved to England from Libya 12 years ago and has spent the last decade in Manchester. “If you get a coffee at Costa Coffee or Caffe Nero, the guy serving you will be Libyan. There are lots of Libyans who work at Manchester Airport. If you go to the immigration office, the woman who works there, she’s Libyan.”

The attacker works in a Lebanese restaurant called Beirut on the Curry Mile. There are no Libyan restaurants or bars nearby, nor are there shops or community centers dotted around the city — no physical sign at all, in fact, of a thriving expatriate culture.

“There are a lot of us here, but we don’t live in the same place, like the Jewish community,” said Tariq Olilish, 18, a native Libyan raised in Manchester.

Mr. Ben Ghalbon suggested that could be explained by the circumstances of their arrival. Like him, many who came to Manchester were dissidents fleeing Colonel Qaddafi’s repression.

They came, he said, because it was “cheaper than London, life was not so fast, but it was still cosmopolitan and welcoming,” and it became a hive of anti-Qaddafi activity. Mr. Ben Ghalbon and his brother, Mohamed, founded the Libyan Constitutional Union, an activist group dedicated to Colonel Qaddafi’s removal and the restoration of Libya’s Constitution.

Among the exiles, though, there were countless schisms. Mr. Ben Ghalbon said some were “more religious” than others, and some had differing tribal loyalties. “We were not well integrated among ourselves,” he said.

Even like-minded dissidents were afraid to congregate, unsure who was a fellow traveler and who was a secret agent for Colonel Qaddafi. For “security,” Mr. Ben Ghalbon said, it was better to stay apart, to blend in and to disappear.

There is embarrassment among the Libyans here that “one of our own,” as Mr. Olilish put it, carried out the atrocity. Mr. Eddin said he could understand why the city, and the country, might feel as though they had “done someone a favor and been kicked in the face.”

The New York Times