Yes, it’s another culture post. I’m a Libyan who’s obsessed with the intellectual revival of my country, okay? While political flame wars are fun, it’s the artistic manifestations of this unstable and contrasting country that piques my interest. I’ve written about our cultural bankruptcy and Libya’s lost literature. And yes, I’ve revisited this topic several times before.
Pictured: Something difficult to find Libya (the book, not chewing gum)
What really pushed me to write about it again was a book, namely Chewing Gum, by Mansour Bushnaf. I stumbled on this book almost by accident. There was a BBC report called “killing books in Libya” in which the author himself describes the dismal state of publishing in the country. My compulsive googling habits led me to discover his recently published book, and my rage at being unable to attain a copy led naturally to a prolonged Twitter rant at the injustice of not being able to buy books written by people in the same country they come from.
But a good samaritan noticed my twitter tirade and compassionately bought me the Kindle version of the book, which you can get here by the way. I won’t review the book here since I’ve already done so on Goodreads, but I do want to highlight my reaction upon reading and finishing it.
First off, since I have the unfortunate habit of underestimating Libyan talent, I was taken aback at the literary prose of the book. This is a translated book by the way, a fate that leaves many a written word stripped of the beauty and context of the original language. But the English prose here is even superior to many native English novels I’ve read. Picking my jaw up off the floor, I continued.
The subject matter, whoa. Prostitution, alcohol, love affairs, class division. Libyans like to pretend that this dark underbelly of society doesn’t exist, despite the overwhelming majority of society having some connection to it. But for someone to write about it, and sympathetically no less, was akin to revelation. Why don’t we talk about it? Why are Libyans so afraid of admitting that our social structure is unhealthy and unjust? If you thought ‘systematic repression that has become too ingrained into our subconscious’, then we’re on the same wavelength.
The novel was also, surprisingly, feminist. The repeated symbol of a woman whose intense passions have broken her down because of society’s inability to support her, was refreshing without being too preachy. And the heroine, Fatma, is a symbol of sacrifice for higher aspirations. Relatability, man.
An aged Libyan man wrote a strong female lead. Take a moment to let that sink in.
Libyan horse-riders. Horse riding is a popular sport in Libya. Painting by Libyan artist Ramadan Bakshishi
The story is actually a novelette, and left me with a thirst for more Libyan storytelling. The raw emotion and honesty in Chewing Gum presents a strong impression of one of the many facets of Libyan identity. Our identity is shaped by our surroundings, which is in turn formed from history. We don’t know much about our history because half of it is buried and the other half is being manipulated for political leverage.
King Idris, a much beloved figure symbolizing a more prosperous time for Libya. (Painting by Tariq Al-Shebli)
Never mind history books, Libya has virtually no books, let alone some kind of widely available, neutral source of history where we can all read up on the path that led us to this crumbling wasteland of a country. “Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.” I know it’s a trite, overused cliche, but it’s also true.
Libyans wouldn’t be apathetic (I hope) towards these new entities insistent on forcing an Islamist or Western identity if they had read Libya’s history and realized that we’re not insane fundamentalists who obsessively segregate genders or openly engage in debauchery. But the truth is painfully obvious when someone posts a picture of a younger Libya, where, for example, women and men both engage in social activities together, and people quote “Wow, I can’t believe this used to be Libya.”
A Libyan Mona Lisa. Western and Eastern themes often overlap in the art and literature of Libyans. Painting by Libyan artist Khalid (last name unknown)
We can’t believe it because we don’t know anything about it apart from aged photographs and our grandparent’s vague recollections. Without books, without history, Libyans will be mired in this identity crisis, trying on different cultural standards and discovering that none of them fit just right. We need to know who we are as a people and not wait for someone to tell us, because, news flash, Libya is a tempting place for several countries to manipulate and screw us over.
When you ask a Libyan to describe their society, you’ll often get the answer “we’re conservative”. People mistake this for being religious, when it actually just means that Libyans care about what other people think, which is most certainly not a Islamic trait. And it’s sad that we don’t have a more comprehensive answer, or that we limit ourselves to a very narrow political/religious identity. Even the attempts to describe the current conflict as ‘Islamist vs. Liberal’ is way off the mark, since the average Libyan is more moderate than anything else.
A painting entitled ‘Refugees’ by Libyan artist Ali Enaiza, inspired by the refugees of Ajdabiya during the revolution
For the last three days there has been a cultural gallery here. I went to see the books available, but was sad to find that that section was gone (I went late on the third day). Instead I perused through the artwork and photography. There was some very impressive stuff (again, underestimated). Ask the average Libyan about famous artists and you might get one or two names at best.
One of the artists told us about a disagreement he had with his father. “He told me that I was wasting my time by painting,” he said, echoing a common reaction in Libya towards the arts and humanities. This is just my opinion, but I strongly, strongly believe that it’s the arts that will help us form a more national identity than any other pursuit.
Religion has played a large role in Libyan identity. So has tribalism, regionalism, politics, and our long history of invasion and occupation. The 2011 revolution provided a chance for us to finally show the world who we are, and in my opinion, we stuttered. Libyan culture is, among other things, an amalgam of outside influences. This will continue to be our predominate image until we start looking back through our history and start forging our own unique identity. One thing that needs to stop is our desperate cling to one homogeneous Libya. We can be united while still being diverse.