In the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the job of the firemen is to burn books. Because in a totalitarian society, nothing is more dangerous than a conscious citizen:
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door…Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”
Another aspect of books is the spread of words and therefore thoughts and ideas. In George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak was the method employed to combat this threat to the autocracy:
“…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. “
Oppressive dictators think alike, and Libya’s former tyrant was no different. In order to keep a leash on the minds of the people, Gadhafi abolished Libya’s previous culture, replacing it instead with an engineered image of him as saviour of the country (and indeed, of Africa in general). It wouldn’t do to have other heroes, which is why the shrine of Omar Mukhtar in Benghazi was demolished. Nor it would be prudent to read anything other than what Gadhafi says or approves of, which led to systematic control and censorship of speech.
Many writers were imprisoned, tortured and/or killed. Libraries and cultural centers were shut down, turned instead into “mathabat” , meeting halls for Gadhafi’s thugs. Publishing companies were shut down, replaced by state owned ones. His “green book” was taught as gospel in schools and university. What few newspapers, radio stations and television channels existed were all controlled by the regime. Writing in Libya was a dangerous profession.
So it’s no surprise that when the revolution happened, a tidal wave of words, both written and spoken, washed over the country. The opinions and beliefs that everyone had secretly held were finally uttered, hindered no more by the regimes’ wall of silence. In Benghazi alone over 100 magazines and newspapers were founded, because everyone had something to say. Books were published about the regime, channels and radio stations were established.
This wave of words has ebbed since then. Most people now use Facebook to express themselves, but this isn’t without its consequences. Rumors and fear-mongering are a prominent feature on social media and Libyan press agencies. We’re still learning the privileges and repercussions that freedom of speech gives us.
The literature situation is still rather dismal. In Benghazi there’s only a handful of bookstores, with limited selections available. Tripoli is better in this regard, but only slightly. Many have said that Libya is not a nation that likes reading, but there is evidence that indicates the contrary.
A used-book fair was held in both Tripoli and Benghazi, with an unexpected turnout. From this article on the fair:
One visitor, clutching a novel and a volume of poetry, said that there were so many people at the fair, it was quite overwhelming. “I had the impression that Libyans are not readers,” she said, “so I am very surprised.”
But with limited resources it will still be difficult to encourage the newer generations to read. This is partially the reason why I started The Young Writers of Benghazi. Encouraging aspiring writers and producing literature on a local level will give us the chance to showcase the literary talents in Libya, tackle issues that directly pertain to our culture and society (as opposed to importing books), and will give Libyan literature a chance to flourish. So far the support we’ve gotten and the talent we’ve seen among Benghazi’s students have been incredible.
My first exposure to Libyan literature came when I read “In The Country of Men” by Hisham Matar. It’s a captivating book about the life of a boy with a dissident father, growing up in Gadhafi’s Libya. I had read it before the revolution, and seeing the same emotions about the tyranny that I felt written down before me was a new experience. I knew that most Libyans felt the same way, but were too afraid to voice it.
Further research into Libya’s literature revealed a side of our culture I was unaware of. There were writers and poets, both young and old, who had received recognition outside the country. Sadeq Neihoum, Ibrahim Al-Koni and Hisham Matar are just a few of those with incredible writing that we are largely unaware of.
Supporting local writers, poets and journalists will strengthen our culture. It’s imperative for Libyans to turn to books and other forms of the written word to fortify their own thoughts and protect their newly gained freedom of speech. Just as the absence of books and knowledge strengthens a dictatorship, their propagation will strengthen our democracy.