By Lubna Benhalim
I remember back when I was young my mom would refuse to buy me whatever I asked for. She used to say, “Don’t just buy things because other people have them.” She’d insist I discover my own likes and dislikes and gain my own understanding of all kinds of issues. At the time I thought this wasn’t necessary at all.
Once I liked a small bag which was trendy and stylish at the time. My mom wasn’t very enthusiastic about buying it for me, and a short time later she said, “why don’t you make your own bag? That way, it’ll be yours. No one else will have anything like it.” She inspired me: I designed a purse, tailored and decorated it; and she proudly told her friends that her daughter had made her own bag.
You’d think I’d be proud too, but I used to get very annoyed. I wondered why my mom was so strict with me, encouraging me to make things while my friends could simply buy whatever they wanted. It’s only years later in my life, as I reflect on what I’ve achieved, that I can finally see what she was doing: she was shaping my personality in a way that’s become increasingly useful as I’ve aged. Those early lessons have stayed with me. It’s as if she’s inside my head now reminding me, “if I can’t buy it, I can always find a way to make it!” My mom understood the uniqueness of each human and she made sure I saw it too, in myself and in others. She taught me that I can set a goal in my head and achieve it if I decide to.
My family life was atypical in other ways too, especially compared with other Libyans. We were three kids raised by two hard working architects, and while we lived an outwardly similar-looking life to our peers, our home was quite different. In the time long before the internet, my parents were keen on teaching us English so they’d buy us books and stories and make us watch English cartoons, and we also played games and had our own hobbies. We lived full lives. I don’t remember ever being bored. My parents also used to take us on trips with them from time to time and travelling with them really opened my eyes to the world.
I suppose what helped me realize we weren’t an average family was that my friends kept asking, “is your mom Libyan?” As time went on, my parents kept supporting me to challenge the norms of our society. I studied architectural engineering and then worked as a designer for seven years – without much enjoyment, I must say. Architecture is something that I’m passionate about but people kept asking me to design what they found fashionable – usually stuff I really disliked! Eventually I had to admit I was only working because I felt like I had to. The fun had gone out of it.
Then came the eventful year of 2011. I had my first child so I stayed at home for a while, and the next thing, I started to cook more and to post recipes on Facebook that were popular. Until then, I had had no idea that my true passion was in the kitchen. I was really unhappy with the poor quality of the photos I was posting though. While my food tasted amazing, it didn’t look anything like the pictures I’d got used to seeing in cookbooks and magazines. This is how I discovered the world of food styling and photography…and I also discovered how few resources there are in Libya for anyone wanting to learn how to style and photograph food! I ended up buying a lot of books and watching YouTube videos as I taught myself this form of photography. This adventure kept me busy during the rough political times we were facing. Looking back, I realize I was keeping my spirits up, finding ways to stay positive and productive. By 2014, when my Facebook page began to grow in popularity, I realized my energy was helping other people too. That inspired me to set up my food styling and photography business, which I called “Mezian”. Again, people seemed to love what I was doing. I was thrilled to be given the Nader award for the best female entrepreneur 2017 and happy to see what my business was achieving. But something was missing: something in me continued to feel dissatisfied. Slowly I was starting to understand that Libyan society still saw me as a woman first, not an entrepreneur. It was as if my achievements meant less because I’m not a man.
In 2018 I took another explorative break. I went back to blogging and set up a new website, and I found the freedom to take risks, to create recipes and work in a way that satisfied me. People seemed to enjoy my work when it was most authentic, and that encouraged me to be daring.
Instagram became my preferred platform now and I started to attract a different kind of audience through my lifestyle and photography content. People started reaching out to me and they’d repeat the same question that had accompanied me through my school years and college: “are you really Libyan? Were you born here or did you move to Libya recently? Is your husband Libyan?” It was so strange to be back in tis place where I was perceived as an outsider. It started to bother me and get under my skin: I’d wonder, why do people think this way? Why do I seem so unusual? Yes, I knew I wasn’t doing things Libyan women are typically supposed to be interested in, but I was expressing my own style and my fully Libyan identity. So what did people mean? Did they simply think that achievements like mine are impossible in Libya, or that women can’t do a good job in challenging circumstances?
I was puzzling over all of this when the Coronavirus hit. The next thing, I lost my job as a CEO of a co-working space. I was really upset at first but I knew everything happens for a reason, so I looked for the opportunity in my new circumstances. I became interested in artisanal baking and started building a new Instagram community around that. Once again, I discovered a lack of information about the baking I wanted to do, but I insisted on learning as much as possible because I was passionate about it. My family were as supportive as always, including by eating any failed attempts! My father was particularly helpful: he kept enjoying my many trials at making a Panettone. They encouraged and motivated me at every moment. I wouldn’t have had the courage to carry on and experiment with new recipes if they hadn’t been at my side. It’s been really hard work: I’ll tell the truth – I never even worked as hard as this during my university days when I was studying.
My next move was to start selling what I bake. You’d think this was a logical next step in growing a business, but many people seemed to want to think negatively of me, making comments that I was only baking because I’d fallen on hard times. They couldn’t understand my passion for doing something creative. This kind of negative feedback is easy to ignore as long as I stay focused on doing what makes me happy. I’ve opened a micro bakery at home in preparation for opening the first artisanal bakery in Libya very soon. I can’t wait to grow this business!
I’m telling my story because I want to inspire other Libyans. I want people to understand that being successful, passionate and happy doesn’t depend on externalities like the place or time you’re in. You can set goals and achieve them by creating the right environment, by the way you think and because you stay focused until you achieve the goals you’ve set in your mind. As I raise my own children, I think about how important it is to set boundaries in the right place, in a way that doesn’t limit a child’s potential. I’m proud to carry on the tradition set by my own parents who worked so hard to support me, my sister, and my brother to become three successful people.