Literature and silence

How Libyan writers thwarted the Gaddafi regime.

With the end of Gaddafi regime in sight, the consequences for the Libyan people remain uncertain. What the cultural life of a liberated republic will look like is difficult to imagine, because almost no Arab literature has been as heavily marked by the history of dictatorship as that of modern Libya.

This has been, in part, down to the limits on free expression under Gaddafi. But some writers have managed to break the silence. Ibrahim Al-Koni, born between the end of Italian rule and the founding of the kingdom under King Idris, is a Tuareg, one of the nomadic desert peoples that supported the revolution in 1969; a number of his novels have been published in English, mainly by smaller presses. They draw heavily on Sufi mysticism and Berber folklore, and are best compared with Latin American magical realism or Mikhail Bulgakov's fabulous satires under Stalinism: the pressure of dictatorship provokes odd invention and irony. Alongside al-Koni, a number of voices have broken through over the last few years. The English-language journal of Arab literature, Banipal, published an issue in the spring dedicated to Libyan fiction, and included work from a host of previously unheard voices, and excerpts from translation work apparently in progress. Some of the more promising voices in the issue live outside Libya, or first found recognition outside the country, often in other Arab countries - or they came from the more independent areas in eastern Libya, the parts that started the uprising against Gaddafi.

It included a short story from Ahmed Fagih, born near Tripoli in the last years of the Idris regime, and a major figure in Libyan cultural life as a diplomat and founder of the Union of Libyan writers. His trilogy The Gardens of the Night was published in translation by Quartet Books in the 1990s, and they are now bringing out an English edition of his 2000 novel Homeless Rats. The novel describes the teeming life of the Libyan desert and its population of desert rats, or jerboas, who are engaged in a constant struggle with nomads, metropolitan Libyans and various predators. As Susannah Tarbush of the Saudi Gazette remarks, "the novel's desert battles, alliances, war crimes, emergency meetings, tribalism and waves of refugees resonate curiously with the war currently raging in Libya. Even the title of the book has a new timeliness, given Gaddafi's propensity in his ranting speeches to denounce his enemies among his own people as 'rats' and 'cockroaches'". Homeless Rats and a 12-volume novel called The Maps of the Soul were both published outside of Libya, in Egypt. As the apparatus of censorship assembled by Gaddafi begins to be dismantled, it seems wholly likely that this strategy will become less and less necessary. The possibility arises that Libyan writing will again belong to Libya.

One of the few Libyan novelists who has achieved major recognition in Britain is Hisham Matar. The son of Libyan dissidents, he was born in New York in 1970. His two novels, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, have been published by Penguin, and their stories are marked by the shadow of the dictatorship. In the former, the nine-year-old narrator must cope with a father who is in and out of custody and an alcoholic mother, and a best friend whose father has been imprisoned for anti-Gaddfi activities; men as distant and cold as those who brought him up regularly search the house, and watch from the omnipresent images of the dictator. In the latter, the narrator looks back on his vanished father's affair with an older woman with whom he was infatuated. The difficulties and cumulative stress of everyday life under Gaddafi are brilliantly conveyed; Matar's own life was repeatedly touched by the regime even in exile. His father was disappeared by Libyan secret police in 1990. As he told the NS's Jonathan Derbyshire in 2010, his family feared that he had been killed in a prison massacre in the 1996; as he came towards finishing Anatomy of a Disappearance, he "was contacted... by a former prisoner who said he had seen my father at the high-security prison in Tripoli in 2002". The revolution spells the possible end for such agonies. As Matar wrote in the Guardian yesterday:

We got rid of Muamar Gaddafi. I never thought I would be able to write these words. I thought it might have to be something like: "Gaddafi has died of old age"; a terrible sentence, not only because of what it means but also the sort of bleak and passive future it promises. Now rebel forces have reached Tripoli, we can say we have snatched freedom with our own hands, paid for it with blood. No one now will be more eager to guard it than us.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage