2014 has not been a kind year to Libya. The tense security situation in the country that has been building up these past few years has finally culminated in an all-out war in several cities around the country, and Benghazi has been hit particularly hard. Fighting is still taking place as I type this.
Books have been a great way to escape this frustrating reality. I’ve read more than usual this year, and my hunt for interesting reading material led me to discover Chewing Gum, written by Libyan playwright Mansour Bushnaf. (which I’ve already fawned about here)
I’ve discovered that reading Libyan literature is, for me, a much more personal experience than reading other kinds of books. It’s a thrilling experience to walk through the streets of your country’s capital 100 years ago, or go on the deadly march to a concentration camp and share the tears your people shed at past injustices. It’s also easier to relate to the characters as they grapple with the same Libyan struggles as you.
My first foray into Libyan literature came several years ago when I read ‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar, after it was recommended to me by a cousin. What I most distinctly remember was the awe I felt at reading a book that took place in Libya, and contained details of a dictatorship that we grew up resenting and fearing. I wasn’t interested in the writing itself as much as I admired the book’s mere existence.
Reading Chewing Gum brought back those intimate recollections and, being older now, left me with a thirst for more Libyan books. I have been fortunate enough to obtain them, thanks to the kindness of friends (like Maraim Badri <3) as well as through the awesome Darf Publishers, a publishing house founded by Libyan publisher Mohamed Fergiani.
This has also been a year of young literature, as the Young Writers of Benghazi published the winning stories of our writing contests. It’s a different, but ultimately just as rewarding experience, to read the stories produced by our youth, who are just starting out on what I hope is a long literary career.
While I’ve already reviewed the books on Goodreads, I’m summarizing them here for anyone who’s looking for recommendations. Fingers crossed that this list will grow in 2015.
“I have no ailments except the house of Agila, the tribe’s imprisonment and the distance from my roots” – Rajab Abu Huweesh
Those lines form the beginning of a famous Libyan poem written by camp prisoner Rajab Abu Huweesh. (which you can read here, with English translation when you scroll over). Al-Agaila was a concentration camp located in the town of the same name, one of several set up in Barqa (East Libya) by Fascist Italy. Because of the Libyan resistance to Italy’s occupation and colonization, the camps were set up to keep a hold on the population and prevent them from joining the fighters. I know what you’re thinking; whoa, Libyan suffering goes way back. Our history is drenched in blood, tears and anguish.
The Camp of Suffering is part tale, part historic documentary. It opens with a brief glimpse of life under Gadhafi before fading to the Italian invasion and occupation, through the eyes of the narrator and his father. The first half of the book details the boy’s life and struggles in the inhuman camp, while the second half takes place in Benghazi and the boy’s new life. At times, it was very heartbreaking for me to read about life in the camp and the inhuman treatment they underwent through starvation, rape and systematic punishment. While the writing leaves something to be desired, it’s still a compelling read. Some choice quotes from the book:
“In Al-Agaila you could lose your smile if you lost hope”
“Son, do you know that the people of the city call [Benghazi], ‘The Mother of the Orphans’. This was proven to be correct, as the city took me into her arms and I would be her son forever.”
Maps of the Soul can be described as the coming-of-age tale of a young Libyan man, although the book itself is much more than the story of one person. It’s the story of Tripoli, or rather one chapter in its long and ancient history.
A restless young man named Othman El-Sheikh longs to leave his static village life and find his prospects in Tripoli. Circumstances allow him to run away from the village and pursue his future, and the novel centers around this journey. He starts in abject poverty and works hard to build up a life, only to have it snatched away when the Italians force young Libyan men into the military to fight their battle in Abyssinia. Again Othman uses hard work and sheer determination to rise in the ranks, and he almost succeeds before losing it all again.
This is a very Libyan book, and by that I mean it’s richly saturated with Libyan life, rituals, and customs, weaving through the fabric of Libyan society. Othman is the archetypal Libyan youth, unsatisfied with society’s expectations and trying to break free, although the invisible chains of these expectations ultimately hold him back. From the book:
“It was thus the rule to say “no” when you should say “yes”, and to say “yes” when your feelings screamed to say “no”.”
“The truth is not what you say about yourself, but what rumors said about you.”
While the book mainly features Libyan men and their struggles, Fagih did not leave out Libyan woman, and mentions several times the harsh restrictions society placed on its female half, especially in contrast to Italian society.
“Perhaps there was no point in a woman like her receiving an education, because it would simply cast a harsh light on the degradation in her life without giving her the power to change it.”
In the background to all this is Tripoli itself, and the reader can experience the sights, sounds, smells and taste of the city through Othman as he moves throughout the city, from the tiny winding alleys of the Arab quarters to the Jewish and Italian districts, describing the historic landmarks as he interacts with them.
One quote that really stuck with me, in light of Libya’s current situation:
“But despite the wounds, the dark clouds, and the stolen, scorched earth, it was still your homeland. You didn’t have any other homeland, and more than being stone, tree and earth, it was people, hearts and emotions”
What better way to end my year of reading Libyan than to finish it with a book by my first Libyan author. This book contains many of the same elements that ‘In the Country of Men’ comprised of; a young narrator, a strained parental relationship, a dissident father, a disappearance.
However, unlike his first book, Matar doesn’t mention Libya by name, instead referring to it as ‘our country’. The clues are all there; the overthrown monarchy, the deceptive revolution, the vendetta against opposition. However, this aspect is left more in the background, perhaps to keep the focus instead on the boy’s growth into the space his father left behind.
Nuri is the only son of a former minister turned political dissident. The boy’s relationship with his father is strained and emotionally detached after the death of his mother and his father’s marriage to a new woman, but this changes when his father goes missing, kidnapped by the regime he fought.
This kind of story has been a very real tragedy for many Libyan dissidents abroad, one of the most famous being Mansour Kikhia, whose body was discovered in Gadhafi’s freezers decade after his disappearance in Egypt.
The real lead in this book is Matar’s writing. He beautifully conveys his character’s emotions and development, giving deep meaning to the simplest detail, with the plot added almost as an afterthought.
A few other books I discovered this year were Khalifa Al-Tellisi’s ‘An Encyclopedia of Libya’s Inhabitants’, which contains information on all of Libya’s tribes, their origins and family trees. African Titanics, written by Eritrean author Abu Bakr Khal, takes place mainly in Libya and deals with the issue of illegal immigration, is also a highly recommended read.
Reading all these books has reaffirmed my belief that Libya’s revival will come through literature and the arts. Its power lies in its ability to bring our culture back to life through the written word, and translating our experiences and history into something accessible.
Next year I might overcome my intimidation of Arabic and dive into Sadeg Al-Neihoum and Ibrahim Al-Koni’s bodies of work. We also have new writing contests planned over at the Young Writers of Benghazi. The war will hopefully end in the near future and we can make 2015 a year to properly celebrate Libyan culture. I hope you all have a happy new year!
(If you’re interested in getting any of the books mentioned here, just click on the title of the book to head over to its Amazon page)