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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With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad