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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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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