BENGHAZI: At Al-Shaheed Yusif Burahil School in downtown Benghazi the cries of excited boys playing football in the school playground can be heard in the streets outside. It is a sound heard the world over. But not for months in Libya.
This very ordinary and elsewhere totally unremarkable noise returned less than two weeks ago — Sept. 17 to be precise — exactly seven months to the day from the start of Libya’s Feb. 17 revolution.
The uprising against the now-fugitive Muammar Qaddafi closed all the schools in areas liberated from his rule. They could have reopened: Benghazi and elsewhere in the east of Libya has been peaceful for months. But the National Transitional Council decided that students should all restart classes at the same time. It did not want to see those at any one place advantaged or disadvantaged as a result of having more or less schooling.
Not that the plan has been followed to the letter. On Sept. 17, four towns still remained under Qaddafi’s control; two still remain so. But with the fall of Tripoli and all the other towns in the west last month it was decided that the time had come to bring the long school vacation to an end, first with elementary schools and then, last Saturday, with secondary schools. The universities open next month.
There is much “beginning-of-term” busyness in the corridors of the Benghazi school, named after one of Omar Mukhtar’s companions killed in the fight against the Italians.
Teachers rush around with books or sheets of paper in hand. Headmaster Ahmed Bubakr Al-Houni hardly has a free moment. Staff continually enter his office with papers to sign, questions to ask or requests for books or equipment. There are telephone calls to answer. His presence is constantly required elsewhere in the functional if drab 1970s buildings to deal with a succession of issues. A busy man indeed. It is not just the beginning of term; he has to cram everything that should have been learned in the past six months into six weeks before exams can be taken.
Teachers and pupils appear determined to get back to normality — difficult perhaps at the best of times for a school that is bursting at the seams. It has 651 students, far more than it was built for. So there are two sessions: 326 students from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 325 from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Several are from Ras Lanuf and Brega. Their schools, like the rest of the two towns, were heavily damaged in the fighting and for the moment they have to remain in Benghazi. In some cases their families are with them; others are staying in hostels or being put up by other people.
Apart from some Qur’anic verses, Al-Houni’s office walls are almost bare. A picture of Qaddafi previously had a prominent place. So far nothing has replaced it. In fact pictures of Qaddafi used to hang everywhere. “We had to have a picture of Qaddafi in every room, sometimes more than one.” No longer. The brooding omnipresence has been exorcised from the building — and not just from classroom walls.
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