Culture

Libya's cultural life has largely been put on hold by the events of recent years – the strict controls of the Qaddafi era sent many writers and artists into exile and the current civil war has left little room for cultural expression. What happens next and when will depend on the security and political situation that emerges from the turmoil. Libya's demographics are among the least diverse in Africa.

People

Libya’s demographic mix is remarkably homogeneous: 97% are of Arab and/or Berber origin (the Berbers also call themselves Amazigh), with many Libyans claiming mixed Arab and Berber ancestry.

Another important group is the Tuareg, whose prerevolution population in Libya numbered around 50,000. The Tuareg are predominantly concentrated around Ghadames, Ghat and the Jebel Acacus.

Southeastern Libya is home to another once-nomadic community: the Toubou, who number less than 3000. They have strong links with a larger population of Toubou across the border in Chad.

Religion

Approximately 97% of Libya's population is Sunni Muslim, with small communities of Kharijites (an offshoot of orthodox Islam) and Christians.

The generally tolerant Maliki rite of Sunni Islam, one of four madhab (schools) of Islamic law in orthodox Islam, has come to predominate in Libya. Founded by Malik ibn As in the 8th century, it is based on the practice that prevailed in Medina in the 8th century and preaches the primacy of the Quran (as opposed to later teachings).

Environment

Libya is one of the largest countries in Africa and its environment is one of the continent's most degraded – the Sahara overwhelms the vast majority of Libyan territory and its wildlife has been devastated and water scarcity has reached critical levels. Issues such as these rarely make the news in a country with more immediate concerns, but the they will need urgent attention when Libya returns to peace.

The Land & Wildlife

Libya is the fourth-largest country in Africa and twice the size of neighbouring Egypt. Despite the fertile coastal plain of Sahel al-Jefara, and the mountains of Jebel Nafusa and Jebel al-Akhdar in northern Libya, 95% of the country is swallowed up by the Sahara Desert.

Apart from desert species such as gazelles, fennec foxes, snakes, scorpions and the notoriously shy waddans (large goatlike deer), Libya's once-abundant wildlife has largely been wiped out by hunting, habitat loss and a drying climate.

Environmental Issues

Colonel Qaddafi's brainchild – the Great Man-Made River (An-Nahr Sinai), which pipes water from vast under-desert reservoirs to thirsty coastal cities – is a temporary solution for a country critically short on water and there are increasing concerns over the project's long-term environmental impact, particularly upon water table levels in agricultural areas. Projections also suggest that Libya's underground water supplies will be exhausted within five decades.

Other environmental concerns include Libya's near-total dependence on fossil fuels for its power needs and the rubbish that all too often litters Libya's wilderness.

Food & Drink

Libya doesn't have Africa's (or even North Africa's) most exciting cuisine, and food has become a question of necessity. Although eating remains a great social event and cities like Tripoli still have plenty of restaurants, the security situation means that most Libyans eat at home and in the company of trusted family and friends. Most food has to be imported, meaning that fresh produce is not always easy to find.

Staples & Specialties

The staple tourist diet usually consists of couscous and chicken in Tripolitania and the Fezzan, with rice replacing couscous in Cyrenaica. For a little variety, try the macaroni-based dishes inspired by the Italians. Shwarma (strips of sliced meat in a pocket of bread) is also widely available as a street snack.

The local diet (which you'll rarely find in restaurants) revolves around rice and couscous eaten from a communal plate, with some of the more enticing dishes including: algarra (lamb or seafood cooked in a high-temperature oven in a pottery amphora); bourdim (meat slow-cooked in a sand pit); fitaat (lentils, mutton and buckwheat pancakes cooked together in a tasty sauce in a low oven); rishda (delicately spiced vermicelli-style noodles with chickpeas, tomatoes and caramelised onions); and bazin (unleavened bread made from barley and flour but without sugar and cooked into a dough-like consistency).

Tea (shay) is widely drunk, both at home and (by men at least) in public teahouses. It's usually served black and with plenty of sugar and (sometimes) mint (na'na).