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LOCATION: North Africa

POPULATION: 4 million

LANGUAGE: Arabic; English

RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)


Libya is located in North Africa, bordered to the east by Egypt and to the west by Algeria. The name Libya is taken from an ancient Egyptian name for a local tribe. It was later applied by the Greeks to most of the people of North Africa. For centuries, Libya was ruled by foreign powers. It was colonzied by the Italians. Libya finally achieved independence in 1951.

Today, Libya is a pro-Arab, anti-Western state ruled by a dictator, Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi (b. 1942). The United States and the United Kingdom consider it to be a criminal country. It has huge amounts of oil, however, so most other countries of the world have avoided being as hostile to it as have the United States and the United Kingdom.


Libya has a population of over 4 million people, more than half of whom are under the age of fifteen. More than 90 percent of the population identify themselves as Arab, with most of the remaining minority composed of Berbers and black Africans. About three-quarters of the population now live in urban areas concentrated along the coast.

Libya is located in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea. It is the fifteenth-largest country in the world. Libya is bordered on the west by Tunisia and Algeria, on the east by Egypt and Sudan, and on the south by Niger and Chad. To the north of Libya lies the Mediterranean Sea, with southern Europe at the opposite shore. In all, more than 80 percent of Libya is covered by the Sahara Desert. There are no rivers. There are a few saltwater lakes near the Mediterranean coast.


Arabic is the national language of Libya and, although the government officially discourages the use of other languages, English is the most popular second language and is regularly taught in school.

In greeting, a Libyan says As-salamu àlaykum, which means "Peace be with you." The response is Wa àlaykum assalam, which means "And peace be with you as well."

Common Libyan female names are Aysha, Fatima, Amna, Khadija, and Asma. Male names are Muhammad, Ali, Yusif, Ibrahim, and Mukhtar.


Libya has many legends based on the exploits of Muslim leaders who resisted European invaders. These leaders, such as Umar al-Mukhtar, often come from religious backgrounds and are considered well-learned. They are called marabouts, or holy men, and are believed to have baraka, or divine grace. This allows them to perform miracles.

Most folklore in Muslim countries tells stories of important figures in religious history. One such story is that of al-Isra wa al-Miraj. According to legend, on the twenty-sixth day of the Islamic month of Rajab, the Prophet Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca, Saudi Arabia (then Hijaz), to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nocturnal visit to heaven. This legend is in part responsible for the importance of Jerusalem to people of the Islamic faith.


The overwhelming majority of Libyans are Muslim. Most Libyans belong to the Sunni school of Islam, which was brought by the original conquering Arabs.


Libya commemorates secular holidays and Muslim religious holidays. One major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. They do this in order to reflect on God and on the plight of the unfortunate who do not have enough food. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate for three days.

The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of Abraham to obey God's command in all things, even when Abraham was told to sacrifice his son.

Other Islamic holidays, celebrated to a lesser degree, are the Islamic New Year, the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, and the Tenth of Muharram. This holiday commemorates Moses leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. The Prophet Muhammad instructed all Muslims to fast on this day.

Secular holidays include Independence Day (December 24), and a holiday commemorating the United States withdrawal from Wheeling Air Force base (Evacuation Day) in Libya on June 11, 1970. Army Day is August 9, and Proclamation Day is November 21.


Male babies are usually circumcised at birth. Some families wait until the boy reaches the age of ten or eleven. Children of both sexes are expected to help with household chores.

The majority of Libyan marriages are arranged by families. Even those who marry for love must have the approval of their families. Weddings take place either in a mosque or in the bride's home. The ceremony is administered by an imam (Muslim prayer leader). A marriage contract is signed during the wedding ceremony.

Elderly family members are cared for by their children, and none are put in retirement or old-age homes. Upon death, the deceased's body is washed, clothed in clean linen, and buried with his or her right side facing Mecca. Only men attend the funeral, and women express their grief at the deceased's home by wailing.


Islam is central to Libyan life. This is easily seen in their social practices. Daily life revolves around the five daily prayers Muslims are required to recite. Many Libyan men attend the mosque regularly in keeping with the five prayer times. Libyan women usually pray at home.

A Libyan always greets guests with a cup of coffee or tea. Desert tradition requires that a guest be offered food. Hospitality is part of the Libyan code of honor.

Since alcohol is forbidden by Islam, Libya has no bars or nightclubs. There are many sidewalk cafes, however. Here men drink coffee or tea and socialize. In the evenings, most Libyans can be found at home.

Most Libyans treasure their privacy. This has been particularly true since political opposition to the government became a punishable offense. Libyans avoid making any public comments that can be interpreted as political criticism.


Living conditions for most Libyans have improved in recent years. Housing shortages, however, continue to be a problem. The typical Libyan family lives in an apartment. Those who can afford them hang Persian carpets on the walls as decoration. It is common to have at least one sofa and a few embroidered floor cushions for seating. Some families can afford television sets. One-tenth of all families have cars, often Japanese.


Libyans live with their extended families in tightly knit communities. A typical household consists of a man, his wife, and his sons with their wives and children. Also included are unmarried daughters and other relatives such as a widowed or divorced mother or sister. At the death of the father, each son establishes his own household and repeats the cycle. Marriages are conducted by negotiation between the families of the bride and groom. Men and women are generally not allowed to mix socially.

The traditional roles of men and women changed noticeably in the 1970s. Then, the government began encouraging women to vote and to work outside the house. Working mothers were offered cash bonuses. Day care was greatly improved. The retirement age for women was set at fifty-five, and laws were passed ensuring equal pay for equal work.

In spite of the government's efforts, some traditional views have been slow to change. For example, women are more likely to be secretaries than engineers. However, by the mid-1980s women had broken into several professional fields, most notably in the health-care arena. Recently, the government has tried to further redefine the role of women and expand its armed forces by making military service required for both sexes.


Two styles of clothing are currently common in Libya. In the cities, there is a mixture of Western and traditional clothes. Girls commonly wear brightly colored dresses, and boys wear jeans and shirts. Young men and women wear predominantly modern clothing, but most women continue to cover their hair in keeping with Islamic tradition.

The traditional attire for men is a long, white gown worn over a shirt and pants. Some men wear a black or white Muslim hat on their heads. Traditional women also wear long gowns and hair coverings. Most women's gowns cover both the head and body. In rural areas, traditional dress is very common.

Styles of dress in the cities will often fall along generational lines, and it is not unusual to see people walking side by side in differing styles of garments. Unlike in other parts of North Africa, in Libya dress has not become a political issue.


Before every meal, a Libyan recites the Muslim expression Bismillah, or "In the name of God." After finishing the meal, the Muslim then says Al-hamdu lillah, which means "Thank God."

Couscous is a very popular food. Couscous is semolina (a type of wheat flour) sprinkled with oil and water and rolled into tiny grains. The grains are steamed and then are ready for use in a favorite recipe. It can be mixed with a number of sauces and then combined with a variety of meats and/or vegetables. Couscous is also combined with honey and milk and served for breakfast. The main meat eaten by Libyans is lamb.


Babaghanuj (Eggplant Dip)


  • 1 large eggplant
  • 5 Tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1 garlic clove, pressed through a garlic press
  • 3 to 4 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons olive
  • oil 3 Tablespoons chopped parsley


  1. Heat over to 400°f. Bake whole, un-peeled eggplant on a cookie sheet for 40 minutes until soft. Allow to cool until it can be handled.
  2. Peel the eggplant and mash the flesh in a bowl. Add the other ingredients, and mash together well.
  3. Mound the dip on a plate or in a bowl. Drizzle olive oil over the top, and sprinkle with parsley.

Serve with triangles of pita bread.

Adapted from Coralie Castle and Margaret Gin. Peasant Cooking of Many Lands. San Francisco: 101 Productions, 1972.

Most Libyan meals are eaten with kasrah, a flat, round, nonyeasted bread. Kasrah is often eaten with dips, such as babaghanuj, a dip made of mashed, roasted eggplant mixed with lemon, tahini (sesame seed paste), and a pinch of salt. A recipe for babaghanuj can be found above.

Dates from palm trees are used in many forms by Libyans. The fruit can be eaten fresh or squeezed to make juice or date honey. Dried dates can be ground into date flour, and date pits can be roasted and ground to make date coffee.

Coffee and mint tea are popular drinks, served throughout the day. Alcoholic beverages and pork are forbidden by Islamic law.


Before World War II (193945), few schools existed in Libya. Less than 10 percent of the population could read or write. After the discovery of oil in 1959, Libya invested in new schools, vocational training centers, and universities.

Libya now uses a Western-style education system that includes six years of primary school, three years of preparatory school, and three years of secondary school. Schooling is required for both boys and girls until the age of fifteen. After completion of secondary school, Libyans may attend either vocational schools or universities.

Libya's first university was established in 1955 in Benghazi. This was followed by universities in Tripoli, Mersa Brega, and Sabha. All schooling, including that at the university level, is free. This includes books, school supplies, uniforms, and meals. Today, about 90 percent of Libyans are literate.


Traditional Libyan folk dance is a very popular. Music and dance troupes often perform together at festivals. Line dancing is also popular, with dancers linking arms while swaying, hopping, and gliding across the stage. Singers are often accompanied by musicians who play violins, tambourines, the ùd (a windpipe made of cane), the tablah (a hand-beaten drum), and the lyre.

The Libyan government controls the production and distribution of printed matter, and all printing presses are government-owned. Libraries, also government-owned, have abundant collections of old religious writings, but far less modern literature. Material critical of the regime or of Islam is censored.


Most workers are employed in the oil industry. It is the largest and most important part of the Libyan economy. Other people work in state-owned manufacturing. These companies produce machinery, appliances, cement and construction equipment, cigarettes, clothing, leather goods, textiles, shoes, fertilizers, and industrial chemicals. They also make processed foods such as olive oil, citrus fruits, tomato paste, tuna, and beverages.

Many farm workers moved to the cities during the 1960s and 1970s following the oil boom and industrial development. Agricultural workers now make up less than one-fifth of the work force. These workers grow citrus fruits, barley, wheat, millet, olives, almonds, dates, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco. Many farmers raise sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and poultry, and produce dairy products and honey. Fishermen operating out of Tripoli bring in tuna, sardines, and mullet.

There is a shortage of unskilled laborers. Because of this, many unskilled foreign workers from neighboring countries live in the country. Libya also has hundreds of thousands of foreign technical workers, needed especially to advise on petroleum extraction and to design and construct irrigation systems.


Libyan sporting events tend to be very strenuous and spirited. Popular sports are camel and horse racing and football (what Americans call soccer). Camel racing and horse racing have been popular events for thousands of years. Competitions are held on racetracks in rural areas. Football is both a spectator sport and a participation sport. Libya has a national football team that competes in regional matches with other Arab and African teams. Other popular sports are basketball and track and field events.


Radio is a popular form of communication in Libya, with state-sponsored news, religious, and musical programming. There are about one million radios and more than seventeen hours per day of broadcasting. Libyan television began in 1968. There are three stations. Two of these rebroadcast foreign programs with Arabic subtitles. The third is dedicated to explaining the ideas expressed in Qadhafi's Green Book. Libyans are expected to have a good understanding of the ideas in this book, although most people pay it little attention. Movie theaters show imported foreign films.

Libya has nine museums housing archeological, religious, and historical exhibits. Chess and dominoes are enthusiastically played, both in cafes and in homes.


Libyan art, in keeping with Islamic beliefs, does not contain realistic depictions of people or animals. Instead, artists paint designs that are complex, geometric, and abstract. Libyan artisans use intricate lines and geometric shapes in their carpets, embroidered goods, jewelry, leather goods, tiles, and pottery. Islamic words and passages from the Koran (the sacred text of Islam) are often etched in elaborate calligraphy. Libyan architecture has the same restrictions against portraying human or animal figures, and lifelike statues and adornments are not found on buildings.


The greatest problems facing Libya today stem from economic problems and the lack of political freedom. Since the mid-1970s, when Libyans enjoyed a very high standard of living, changes in oil prices have led to serious economic problems. This has caused housing shortages as well as dissatisfaction among young people.

Most crime in Libya is property theft, with relatively few incidents of violent crime. A significant number of convictions are for what the government calls "crimes against freedom, honor, and the public." This could mean anything from public drunkenness to student demonstrations to more serious political offenses.


Brill, M. Libya. Chicago, Ill.: Children's Press, 1987.

Castle, Coralie, and Margaret Gin. Peasant Cooking of Many Lands. San Francisco: 101 Productions, 1972.

Copeland, Paul W. The Land and People of Libya. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1967.

Gottfried, Ted. Libya: Desert Land in Conflict. Brookfield, Conn.: The Millbrook Press, 1994.

Metz, Helen C., ed. Libya: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1988.

Wright, John. Libya: A Modern History. Balti-more, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.


ArabNet. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Libya. [Online] Available, 1998.

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