The desert song is unshackled. With the defeat and death of the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan writers greet a new era. For the first time ever, they can bare their souls without a dictator or occupying power hovering over their pens. Until Gaddafi’s demise, exile was a necessary condition for novels, poems or simply statements against the nation’s chronic problems such as women’s rights, poverty, tribal friction and individual liberty.
Anguish has been the theme of Libyan writers since Adam was booted from nearby Eden. When the land became a colony of Ancient Greece (circa 300BC) Callimachus recorded the excesses of imperialism in what is now Benghazi. Then came the invading Romans, Turks, Italians, French and British. Authors in Libya have never been free.
In the aftermath of the revolution that has now deposed and killed Gaddafi, the dream of literary freedom has at last arrived. It has been a long, cruel wait through the many torments of history.
Colonel Gaddafi, as a young soldier, himself wrote poetry and short stories that dreamed of civil liberty. After independence from Britain in 1951 he led an army coup against Libya’s autocratic monarchy, when King Idris was abroad for medical treatment. Gaddafi’s writing then turned to a wishful social theory, The Third Way, a middle ground between communism and capitalism. It was an inspired political vision, but in practice it degenerated into despotism. And Libyan literature maintained its pain.
Writers were censored. Dissent was not only discouraged but punished by jail, torture and worse. In one infamous case in 2005, author and journalist Daif Al Ghazal wrote articles that criticized Gaddafi’s system of government. He was tortured, then killed. and his body dumped in Benghazi. Many other writers lived in fear, careful in what or how they expressed their inner thoughts. These included several talented scribes including Kahled Darwish, Wejdan Ali, Mohamed al-Asfar,, Ramez Enwesri, Saleh Gaderboh, Wafa al-Buissa and others. It seemed that to be creative without fear was only possible by living abroad. And this tended to limit their issues to the political.
One recent novel of note, In The Country Of Men (Penguin) by Hisham Matar, was shortlisted, in translation, for the 2006 Booker Prize. In 2007 it won a Commonwealth Writers Prize and many other awards. It’s about a boy aged 9 experiencing Gaddafi’s oppression, and begins thus.. “I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it”.
On state television under Gaddafi, young Suleiman watches the execution of his best friend’s father. The path to adulthood is fraught with despair. Matar’s second novel, Anatomy Of A Disappearance, was published this year, 2011, in March. He lives in London.
Previous Libyan authors wellknown in English include (according to Wikipedia) Maryam Ahmed Salama (Dreams Of A Captive Girl), Ibrahim Al-Kouni, Ahmad Al-Faqih and Sadeq al-Neihum. To which I would add Bashir al-Hashmi (Screams In Our Village), included in Libyan Stories (Kegan Paul International, 2000).
Literature, like religion, thrives in bondage. It also echoes history. “Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days where Destiny with men for pieces plays” (Omar Khayyam). During months and years ahead, the Libyan Revolution still has a long way to go. What will evolve as its new system of government? How will the factional jealousies of tribes and religious sects blend?
These are complex human issues that will add impetus to writings from Libya. However, with authors unchained at last, their novels and their think-pieces will hopefully emerge from tales of anguish and of hope to literary peals of joy.
Happy reading! From Cathy Macleod at Booktaste.