Rabia Ben Barka in conversation with Rivka Jacobson
ربيعة بن بركة في حديث مع ريفكا جاكوبسون
The splendid Roman theatres at Leptis Magna and Sabratha stand desolate, longing for performances of quality to make use of their magnificent stages. This is Libya.
Not much culture blossomed in the desert. ‘The 42-year rule of Colonel Gaddafi took the country backwards by 100 years’ says Wael Shater, an ambitious entrepreneur. ‘People are ready for change. Now is the time, we cannot afford to wait,’ he adds Wael.
Exposure to Western cultures has unlocked aspirations for modern entertainment– cinema, theatre and art galleries. I spoke to several Libyans, keen and ready to open their country to Western cultural and economic ideas, to build on what they have and not at the expense of what they cherish.
Rabia Ben Barka explains ‘I became the first Libyan fashion designer recognized for my unique style by modernizing our traditional costumes.’ She has been inspired by tradition, the desert’s magnificent hues and shapes, and of course, years of education in art and fashion schools in the West.
“Her family were the Kennedys of Libya,” said a friend. He was talking about Rabia Ben Barka, a Libyan top fashion designer with numerous international prizes to her name. She is a woman who understands the Western culture and appreciated her country’s conservative traditional dress codes. We spoke over the telephone and exchanged emails and WhatsApp messages. Her voice is low, and her words are measured. Her openness is rather refreshing. She is a woman who has witnessed political and economic turmoil and experienced some devastating blows. Her unwavering optimism and belief in her country’s better future sustain her energy. I was encouraged by talks of a better future. A future where Libya embraces a blending of the traditional and the modern cultures, fashions, cinemas and theatres and, above all, stability and tolerance. This is a tall order for a country that has known tyranny and fundamentalism.
She was the fourth daughter to Fatitima (née Nga) and Mohamed Mansour, hence her name Rabia – ‘Rabha’ is fourth in Arabic. They were four daughters: one died in infancy, and three brothers. From an early age, she and her sisters attended an English school in Tripoli, that is until she reached puberty: ‘it may be the appearance of breasts or a first period’ she says with a hint of coyness. At this point, I guess, like graduation from primary school to High School, tradition dictates schooling by Arfia that is a female teacher coaching young women to become good Muslim wives. ‘Respected young women were not allowed to be seen in public.’ Explains Rabia.
Rabia’s parents, although adhering to tradition, sent their children to England for their summer vacations. They stayed on a farm in Surrey: ‘It was Mrs Price, I think’ she recalls. ‘We learnt to ride horses and she took us to London and other places. We had English classes and lots of fun’ she recalls. ‘I enjoyed horse riding so much that my father bought me two horses when I came back to Libya.’ The family appreciated Western culture. Rabia recalls her father talking about the performance of Verdi’s Aida he saw in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in 1957.
Childhood for Rabia was a happy period despite the fact she and her sibling were under the eagle eye of her mother’s grandfather who ‘never smiled, and everyone was scared of him. He was very tall and very strict. Because his son was too busy working, he took over the duty of ensuring that there was discipline at home. He lived to a 100’, she says with a chuckle.
Her maternal grandfather was the first Libyan to attend an international trade fair in the state of Texas in 1921. He was young, talented and ambitious. He had seven factories ranging from canned tuna-fish, exported to Spain, to the famous pasta factory, di Stefano, which he co-founded with an Italian partner, in Tripoli. Her uncle, Mohamed Nga was the owner of Uaddan Hotel & Casino, referred to as the Waldorf Astoria of Tripoli. It was opened in 1936. It contained a casino and a 500-seat theatre.
It was Mussolini’s Italy that controlled Libya from 1911 to the end of 1942. Rabia’s mother, tall, elegant and beautiful, benefitted from early Italian education. She was the one who would discuss and vet designs that would then be implemented in the textile factory. She would advise on colours and the width of stripes that defined women’s fashion in Libya for many years. Rabia speaks tenderly of her mother, who died in 2012, the year the militia set her textile factory ablaze. ‘Everything I’ve ever had went up in smoke. All my pictures, my design books, fabric, machinery – the lot.’ She gets emotional and needs a brief break ‘even now, so many years since the fire I become very emotional when I try and talk about it’ Rabia says almost choking on her words. Despite it all, she has now decided to rebuild her life. She lost her father this year. A new chapter has to begin. A National Unity Government is in power as of March 2021, and it looks promising. She hopes to design for the public and the theatre.
Rabia is reluctant to make political comments ‘I am an artist. I have nothing to do with politics.’ she says. Yet the political turmoil in Libya had a devastating effect on her and her family’s life. She cannot but despair about the last ten years of lawlessness in Libya, since the 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow and eventual killing of Muammar Gaddafi. She agrees that he withheld the country from progress. The chaos and insecurity for the citizens were not what they prayed for. In 2012 while nursing her dying mother, the local militia burnt razed her textile factory to the ground. She lost both in one year. Now she is ready to face new challenges.
The coup d’état in 1969 by Colonel Gaddafi put an abrupt end to much of the family’s business enterprises and properties. The nationalization of factories and houses they owned, flung the family into an existence heaped with unfamiliar hardship. Rabia was young and very determined. Undeterred by the draconian laws imposed by the so-called Socialist new leader, she tirelessly challenged the new bureaucracy, demanding the return part of her family’s fabric factory to set up her own fashion and design business. She was fortunate. Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha loved her style and helped her return from Rome to Tripoli. Soon she was the first family’s fashion designer. ‘I got back one-third of my father’s fabric factory, in 1991, and that’s when I started to make it my workplace to start my fashion business. I set to work immediately. It was a little workshop. I had that grow to the level I was making mass production for the police and army uniform as well as fashion for men and women.’ She says with modest pride.
During the years she fought for her right to set up her textile factory, she carried on with her studies in leading fashion houses in Italy. She also took part in fashion competitions. At the age of 26, she won the top prize in Egypt’s top fashion show contest. It fuelled her with greater energy to pursue her dreams as a fashion designer in a country that had no history of fashion designers.
Rabia Ben Barka’s textile factory, the hub of modern creativity, rapidly developed and eventually employed 400 people. Most were young and talented aspiring designers and models’ she recalls in a warm voice. ‘I was mentoring young girls and boys as fashion designers and tailors. I was the first to create in Libya Fashion Models. The girls and boys showcased my fashion inside Libya and abroad. We received many awards.’ Her factory had also responsible for ‘mass productions for military and police uniforms.’ There was hardly any theatre during the 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule. The little that there was, she designed the costumes that were required.
Her work is a blend of the traditional and the modern, mirroring her education in the West and roots in the East. She designs for women and men. Her style is bold, flamboyant, yet elegant. Her colours range from exotic tones to pale shades of pink and ivory, interwoven with complementary tones.
She was hailed Libya’s Ambassador of Fashion and Design. Gaddafi, his wife and many African countries leaders were among her clients. Her last fashion show in Europe was just before the West helped topple Gaddafi. She was an honoured guest in the Lviv Fashion Week in Ukraine on 25 October 2009. Ben Barka presented her new Spring/Summer 2010 collection entitled Flowers of the Desert. The title and period may symbolise an overdue new beginning.