Benghazi has witnessed some of the most brutal fighting of the Libyan civil war. Here, the forces of Libya’s eastern government are battling almost street by street with the militias that oppose them to decide what many believe could be the country’s future.
Benghazi has come to mean many things to many people. However, what, in the popular imagination, Benghazi is not is the home of one of Libya’s last remaining horse riding clubs.
Within sound of the shelling, 21 year old Nouria Sheikh describes the release she gains from riding. Riding, she says, is "a great sensation and an indescribable comfort.”. Noria is one of the instructors at the Martyrs of Benghazi’s Riding Club located in Sidi Al Khalifa, to the east of the city of Benghazi around 45 kilometers from the war’s ever shifting frontline.
Though Nouria has been riding since she was ten, her transition to professional only occurred in the last few years, after her career in the sport was interrupted when the fighting caused her former club, Libyan Marbit to close."Eight months passed without me riding a horse. It was a very difficult period,”Nouria said. However, that changed in August 2015, when a group of businessmen made the unlikely decision to invest in the Martyrs of Benghazi’s Riding Club.
Despite the fighting, the club has witnessed an increase in its membership since it opened. According to one of its founders, Sanad El Barki, the club’s success comes partly from its distance from the city of Benghazi and therefore much of the fighting. In addition to the 50 trainers, 46 people work at Martyrs of Benghazi’s Riding Club in capacities ranging from administrators to stable hands to the security guards who stand vigil outside. .
For Nouria, the club has been a lifeline. Her riding ability has progressed dramatically since she joined, setting her ahead of her peers within the club and leading ultimately to the offer of an instructor’s job, the only woman at the Club to receive such a vote of confidence. Despite her age, and her English literature degree at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Benghazi, Nouria is now responsible for teaching the basics of riding to around 35 girls as eager as her to progress within the sport.
However, resistance to Nouria and the girls at the club comes not just from those worried about the risks from the fighting, but from a society that believes in the importance of veiling its women. However, as Nouria says, "One of the reasons I love horses is because our Prophet Muhammad spoke so highly of them."
Nouria’s public debut came in March 2016 when she rode through the streets of Tripoli in the traditional robes of the country’s east at a festival celebrating Libya’s national dress. It was a further step in a remarkable journey. Nevertheless, Noura’s burning ambitions remain. One day she dreams of owning her own riding club and making an impact on the sport in both Benghazi and Libya. However, whether Libya can still be home to such dreams remains to be seen.