When the traffic jam starts to clear in Istiqlal Street in Benghazi and fasters finish their iftars (Ramadan feasts), public boxing rings are set up along sidewalks behind the Tibesti Hotel. The games are played by young amateurs, under the supervision of trainers and ex-boxers whose dreams were dashed by the former dictatorship.
In 1977, Muammar Gadhafi banned the game of boxing and dissolved its union according to the provisions of the Green Book, which considered boxing and wrestling “savage sports.” Some sarcastically ask how the hanging, torture, imprisonment and killing of the Libyan people by the dictator are not considered savage games! The dictator prevented the people from practicing boxing and wrestling, but did not hesitate to train his police battalions and special guard in the arts of fighting, punching, kicking, strangling and neck breaking.
Boxing had flourished in Libya between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s. Libya presented to the Arab and African sports scenes champions who achieved real prominence, such as Ahmad al-Bernawi (nicknamed “Jaqram”), Maatouk al-Sadeq, Rafi al-Athram, Ayad al-Fallah, Abd-al-Rahim al-Wadawi and other athletes. Boxing matches used to attract large audiences and considerable viewership. Several world champions visited Libya and played friendly matches with Libyan boxers, including world boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The ban on boxing came as a great shock at the time to boxing athletes and fans. The move was seen as regressive, like the omission of English and French from school curricula, the burning of musical instruments in public squares and the confiscation of books.
“Colonel” not cut out for it
Qais Qarqoum, a young man who enjoys sports and literature, watches a free boxing match between youths from Benghazi in Istiklal Street. We asked him how he felt now that the game has actually returned through the boxing union, which has begun to organize itself, open boxing rings and invite clubs to participate in its competitions for the purpose of selecting the Libyan national boxing team and participating in tournaments abroad in various weight categories.
Qais says, “I feel great! This is a sport of chivalry, gallantry, courage, self-defense and freedom.” Qais is knowledgeable about the history of the sport because he is a supporter of the Al-Hilal Club and because of what he heard from his father Qais Hayta, a famous and funny personality in Benghazi: “It is said that Gadhafi used to live at a lodging house in Benghazi, and met the well-known coach Abd-al-Sami Makhlouf. Gadhafi wanted to be a boxer, but when Makhlouf examined his body, he told him, 'Your body is not fit for the game. Boxing requires a relatively short spin so the boxer can bend, dodge the opponent's punches and direct his straight and fast punches skillfully.' Gadhafi did not forget this. Out of spite for Makhlouf and the Libyan boxing champions, he called off the game and dissolved its federation.”
According to another account, boxing produces champions and stars, and a dictator resents any fame aside from his own, especially in sports that involve physical force. So he banned the sport. Veteran athletes in Tripoli say that Gadhafi decided to ban boxing after the 1976 Olympics, when Libyan boxer Gibran al-Zagdani won the world heavyweight championship and became the focus of international media. The colonel felt threatened by the man’s stardom.
In Benghazi’s Istiqlal Street — where the revolutionary demonstrations started, pounding the “Al-Fadeel Bu-Omar” security battalion and extending to the other cities of Libya — young people are thrilled about the return of banned activities. Today, there is freedom without limits. All youths want to participate in boxing matches, but the only gear they have is gloves. They play the game in regular clothes and listen to the calls of the referee, who is also the coach. When the game ends with the victory of one of the players, they amicably shake hands, without hatred or rancor. None of the players deliberately seek to injure or hurt their opponent. In a nearby corner, a young man who has knowledge of the science of nursing attends to players who have been bruised or cut. If it is necessary to transfer any boxers to the hospital, all the cars present turn to ambulances.
In fact, Libyan sports activities are still suspended on the official level. But squares and streets may witness amateur matches in many different games, whether spontaneously or through informal civil organization. Boxing is just one of the games played there which did not wait for its nascent union to organize a competition on its behalf. Thus, the youths decided to practice the sport in squares and in public streets. The people of Libya are enjoying their restored freedom.