Book Review: The Return

“Nabokov and Conrad [were right]…They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved…But Pasternak and Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed…What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” – Hisham Matar, The Return

Libyan expats and exiles often talk about the pain and difficulty of leaving Libya, of being unable to return or see relatives. For them, being deprived of the country for the past few decades has been a bitter loss. However, these recollections are often met with incredulity and disbelief by Libyans in the country, who would give anything for the chance to live in the United States or Britain, or for a brief respite from the overbearing omnipresence of family and social expectations. It’s this chasm between two different kinds of struggle that is difficult to bridge, and a prime source of tension between the two groups.

Hisham Matar is one of the very few Libyans who is trapped in between; stuck in a chasm that is neither here nor there. Raised in Libya and exiled by Gadhafi, his father was kidnapped, detained, and most likely killed by the regime, and Matar has spent much of his life consumed by the search for answers. I was introduced to Matar through his first novel, In The Country of Men. This book, and the one that followed (Anatomy of a Disappearance), were both coming-of-age tales of a young boy who has to come to terms with his father’s disappearance. In The Return, fiction is replaced by the real life account of Matar’s search for his father.

For much of his readership, Matar’s book is a unique glimpse into the life of a person and nation haunted by a dictatorship. But for myself, and for most Libyans, the book is more personal. Every recollection of some small detail in Libya, past or present, evokes a feeling of kinship with the author, as though he is speaking directly to us and acknowledging our shared experiences. This is why my reading of the book has been more critical.

Scattered throughout the book are glimpses of his father’s life, who fought constantly against the regime. Under Gadhafi, these tales of resistance might have once sparked romantic admiration in Libyans who were equally appalled at his rule. But being on the other end of a revolution that failed to transition into a state, it makes one wonder whether the “dissidents” against Gadhafi knew what they were doing. Many fought with the goal of overthrowing him, but very few – if any at all – understood what it took to turn Libya into a democratic nation. Reading about his father’s training and army-building in Chad only brings forward feelings of disapproval now; these dissidents are no longer viewed as heroes but as reckless, irresponsible anarchists.

The same goes for Matar’s account of the revolution and immediate aftermath. The hope and nationalism and potential he wrote about in such beautiful prose is gone in Libya, replaced instead with horror at the movement we had once supported, which is now dismantling the country. One point I really took issue with was the judgement he cast on Libyans. “The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: people would come to long for the days of Qaddafi.”

Is that really the most unimaginable thing though? Are the public acts of beheading something we ever imagined happening in Libya? The devaluation of the dinar to the point where Libyans are going hungry, something we could imagine? No matter how much you hated him, to deny that life under his rule could possibly be anything worse than a failing country where hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been forced out of their homes and cities is to convey a supreme ignorance of the current situation.

There was another instance of this judgement that irked me. Matar talks about the “unfinished state of modern Libyan architecture”, blaming it on the nation’s “lack of self-regard”, unaware that many Libyans – who save their modest income for decades to build their houses – oftentimes run out of money when it comes to “finishing” the house. It is a harsh observation, which is a running theme in the book. The only time he seems to praise Libyans is when he discusses their role in the revolution. Of course, as Libyans, we are often harsh towards each other, although we disapprove when it’s done publicly.

All in all, the Libya that Matar writes about is one that is long gone. He dwells on the past excessively, and romanticizes a revolution that has brought about one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history. While the book is called ‘The Return’, Hisham Matar is not returning to the country he knew but rather to a new Libya, one that he is seeing for the first time.

Again, my reading of the book was critical, because I feel such a personal connection to the things Matar writes about. For me, it’s not the account of a heartbreaking story from a third world country. It’s a history that I too have lived, a reality I’m currently burdened under.

But I ultimately recognize that this is his story. As much as I want to be involved, to say, “No, this is how things happened,” it’s not my account, it’s not my history. And its his personal narrative is what makes the book so fascinating. From his life as a child in Tripoli, to the impermanence he carries around while growing up, and that particular feeling of being stuck in time, Hisham Matar has lived an extraordinary life, one that he describes in what is undoubtedly a masterful form of writing.

The most fascinating part of the book, for myself, were the encounters and correspondences with Seif Al-Islam. It’s difficult to imagine Seif sitting in a London hotel, having a chat with a dissident’s son, or texting and using emojis. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine Seif anywhere that isn’t in front of a camera, speaking platitudes or threatening destruction. However, Matar’s description of the tyrant’s son aligns with the general impression that I’ve seen; a visible, almost strained, attempt to appear professional while trying to suppress the inherited madness of his father. But Gadhafi junior represented something else to Libyans in the country that was not seen by exiles; an opportunity for change, to finally throw off the Jamaheria and start to become a developing country. Inside Libya, we’re only now realizing how the country was changing before 2011. A friend of mine told me, “If we had waited three years, the revolution wouldn’t have happened, because the people would no longer feel a need to revolt.” I’m not sure how true this statement is, since it was more a revolution of anger than one of demands, but it highlights the noticeable difference between the false ideals of Al-Fateh to the new vision of Gadhafi junior.

Overall, this book is an emotional rollercoaster, and reading it as a Libyan definitely coloured my experience. But I still highly recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the situation in Libya, or to anyone really who really enjoys good prose. I was incredibly thrilled to hear that it had won a Pulitzer prize, and I hope this will motivate more Libyan writers to pick up a pen and share their own narratives. God knows we have such fantastic stories to tell.


The Year of Reading Libyan Literature

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.

cover (5)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.

Al-agaila: The Camp of Suffering: A Boy’s Tale by Ali Hussein

مابي مرَضْ غير دار العقيلة, وحبس القبcover (4)يلة, وبعد الجبا من بلاد الوصيله” – رجب بوحويش

“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 by Ahmed Fagih-

cover (3)

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”

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar-

cover (2)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.

coverA 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)

Short Stories and Innovations with the Internet

In order to stave off the creeping depression that threatens to engulf me after almost 40 days (argh!) of war, I will try to blog more often to retain these last beads of sanity before I start talking to the furniture. (I’ve met a really nice cabinet though)

The Young Writers of Benghazi has finally announced the winners of its online short story contest! Yes, we have been delayed, due to internet outages and being refugees and whatnot. But we figured, since everyone’s stuck at home complaining of boredom, why not publish the stories now?

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed with the writing contests we’ve held so far (online and at a local school) was the number of stories written in English. Now, we’ve made it clear that the story can be in either Arabic or English, but the majority chose English. I’m not sure if this is an additional challenge the writers chose to place on themselves, or whether it’s easier to express themselves and write in the English language. (I believe it’s the latter)

Arabic as a written language has been rather static. Because Arabic literature is still very limited in every aspect, the language hasn’t had a chance to grow and meet the contemporary needs of the people. What has instead happened is the development of local dialects; ‘slang arabic’, if you will.

I learned Libyan arabic (specifically, East Libyan, or ‘Shergawi’), from listening to my parents speak to each other. When I spoke it at university, they were amused that I could barely communicate and yet used ‘outdated’ terms that they hardly ever heard; the vernacular my parents had retained from our life abroad was the Shergawi of a different time, and had gone through changes. This kind of language development we see in individual countries with their colloquial local dialect isn’t happening to the formal Arabic that is the lingua franca of the Middle East and North Africa. It should be noted that it’s the youth who are responsible for this phenomenon. While I used to ask my parents to translate for me, it’s now me that’s translating the new ‘youthspeak’ for them.

Is that why Libyan youth prefer formal creative writing in English? It’s definitely something that should be investigated. I am toying with the idea of holding a writing contest that specifically asks people to write in informal Libyan Arabic. I think the results would be very intriguing.

But I bring this us up to segue into my next talking point, which is a blog called ArabLit. It focuses on Arabic literature and the issues related to reading and writing in the MENA, including the topic of language. I’ve been a fan for quite some time, because with the politics and unrest and numerous other issues in this region, no one has time to write about (or are uninterested in) its more human aspects. Recently it featured a post about the Young Writers of Benghazi, which was pretty awesome! Yes, the point of this entire paragraph was to brag, sue me.

As our little contribution to the world of Arabic literature (or rather, English literature written by Arabs. Huh.), we’ve posted the winning stories of our contest onto Wattpad, partly so we could have one place to keep the work we receive, and partly to nudge Libyans out of their Facebook cocoon into the World Wide Web. The condition for the writing contest was that the story have an underlying message or meaning, especially since the country’s going through such a rough time. Special thanks go to Wafia Sayf of the inspirational Volunteer Libya team for helping us to judge the stories (love you Wafia <3).

Alright, drum roll please. The winners of the stories are:

3rd Place: The Orphan Rami by Soliman F. Al-Faitouri from Al-Marj. The moral: Understand a person’s situation before you judge them. You can read the story here.

2nd Place: Why?! by Isra’a Faraj El-Sha’ri from Benghazi. The moral: Hard work is important if you want to achieve a fulfilling life. You can read the story here.

1st Place: Know Better by Safa Salah Hosson from Houn. The moral: Breast cancer awareness and why campaigning for it is important. You can read the story here.

Now, what is particularly awesome about the stories is that they came from different cities across Libya. The fact that our best story was sent to us from a small town in Southern Libya shows how much talent we have hidden here that can be unearthed through online initiatives. (You can check out the previous winning stories on our Wattpad page here).

Keeping in the vein of online initiatives is a project called Benghazi Skype School. Because the new school year in Benghazi hasn’t started due to the war (I cannot express how painful it was to write that sentence), a series of online lessons has been planned out by a group of Libyans. The kids at home watch lessons on their computer screens from teachers who have volunteered their time to teach them.

Another initiative is the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for supplemental education. This is being advocated for by FW:Knowledge, a project that aims to help Libyans utilize the internet for academia and general knowledge building. They recently set up a Twitter session to collect a list of online sites that offer free courses and resources, using the hashtag .

These type of projects do have their drawbacks. Internet access in Libya still isn’t widespread, and the slow speed makes livestreaming courses difficult. But it can help some people, which is important to recognize.

So I guess you could say the moral of this post is: internet access and more advocacy for open source education that targets Libyans has a lot of potential and should be looked into. Also, war sucks, make it end. Over and out.