Stepping out of my hotel on Friday evening, I could see cars backed up for miles, stretching all the way around the Benghazi’s biggest lake, not far from the shores of the Mediterranean.
Horns blared in every direction, but not just car horns: bull horns, oo-gahhorns, vuvuzelas, aerosol-powered horns, even a bagpipe or two. The air smelled of exhaust, gasoline and the occasional whiff of hash. It was a cacophonous mess, overwhelming, painful to the ears, joyful, extraordinary.
Stepping closer to the cars, I could see people of all ages stretching out the windows, waving Libyan independence flags that were sometimes larger than the person waving them. Boys and girls, men and women, the elderly, they’d all come out to celebrate.
Militiamen on “technicals” — pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons in the back — danced on the roof of their trucks. Teenagers stepped into traffic to dance, while the cars they were blocking egged them on. When these cars moved forward, the teens sometimes jumped on the hood to dance. Almost every song associated with the revolution blared simultaneously.
Not far from my hotel, a group of militiamen stood watch. One of them, a plump man in fatigues with a heavy, prematurely gray beard, came up to me and asked for my camera — not good. Someone had mentioned to me earlier that they might not appreciate being photographed, so I’d actually been avoiding them. Nonetheless, this particular guy was on to me.
He took the camera, inspected it and nodded to himself. “Here,” he said to me in English. Rather than return my camera, he gave me his AK-47 and proceeded to start snapping pictures of his fellow militia. They all mugged for the camera, and he did his best to take photos. He even insisted I get in the picture with them. Soon enough, I got my camera back, though he jokingly pretended to drop it, then slapped me hard on the back, chuckling to himself.
As for the thousands of Libyan families in their cars, their goal was to reach Benghazi courthouse and its main square, the symbolic heart of the Libyan revolution. At this rate, though, there was no chance that most of these cars would ever find a place to park. Since the road runs all the way around the lake, at least they had another option: to continue as a procession of hundreds of cars, cruising slower than a person walks, laughing, cheering, singing, waving Vs for victory to whomever made eye contact with them.
They may not have realized it, but these Libyans had just created Benghazi’s first true Independence Day parade.
With Twitter and other social media, NPR’s Andy Carvin monitored immediate, on-the-ground developments during the upheavals of the Arab Spring from Washington, D.C., through thousands of tweets and an army of followers that numbers in the tens of thousands. Now, he is in Libya, meeting face-to-face with some of those activists. He’ll be sending us periodic updates on his journey.