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Libyan Lit: Authors Freed From Four Decades Of Repression Find New Voices

The country’s best writers were long forced to rely on metaphor and symbolism to express their art and avoid the wrath of the regime. Now, with Gaddafi driven from Tripoli, a new world is set to open up.

Hisham Matar's latest work is 'deftly written...careful'
Hisham Matar's latest work is "deftly written...careful"
M. Lynx Qualey

With Muammar Gaddafi's four-decade dictatorship coming to an end, Libyan authors have begun sharing both joy and relief in public – and online. Novelist Hisham Matar took to his new Twitter account: "We got rid of Gaddafi. I never thought I would be able to write that sentence." On the blog "Imtidad", short-story writer and poet Ghazy Gheblawy wrote about how Libyans have been "liberated from their fear." It was a fear, says Gheblawy, that penetrated deep into the language.

"Libyans like me who opposed his regime (whether subtly or overtly) had to develop a dual personality," Gheblawy wrote. "Learning how to talk and write publicly in code became a vital skill to avoid persecution, not only of yourself but your family and friends."

Over the years, a large swath of Libyan fiction internalized this code.

While Egyptian authors embraced social realism in the 1960s and 1970s, many Libyan writers shied away from it. Some authors did write in a realistic style, such as Abdallah al-Ghazal in his "Toyota War." But many others continued to rely on symbolist techniques, from metaphor to animal fables. Unlike the 1990s generation of Egyptian authors that rebelled against social realism, in Libya "the 1990s generation literature was born from fear of punishment. They just needed to…avoid putting themselves in trouble with the regime," says author Mohamed Mesraty.

It was only in 2003, Mesraty said, that young Libyan authors began to re-emerge, adding that Libyan authors who live and write abroad have experienced greater creative freedom.

But even novelists who write in English seem to have been affected by a fear of Gaddafi. Hisham Matar's second novel, "Anatomy of a Disappearance" released earlier this year is a deftly written realist work abouta kidnapping by the Libyan regime. Still, there is something exceptionally careful about the way "Anatomy" is written, as though the narrator were afraid of turning over too many stones, naming too many names, asking too many questions.

Philosophical fabulism and animal tales

Ibrahim al-Kony is one of the most celebrated of Libya's older generation of authors. This December, he had the dubious distinction of being the last to win a Mubarak-era "Arabic Novel Award."

Kony's work largely shies away from engagement with the contemporary urban world. His novels are mostly fabulist-philosophical works set in the Hammadah al-Hamra desert. Some of his best are "Bleeding of the Stone" (translated by Chris Tingley and Maya Jayyusi), "The Animists," and "Gold Dust" (translated by Elliott Colla). These novels tell us little about life in present day Libya. But, at their best, they draw a vivid portrait of the clash of humans, power, and animals and of humans' violent destruction of our environment.

One of the hallmarks of Kony's work is his sympathy for the wild sheep, camels, and gazelles that populate his novels.

Things are clearly changing for Libyan letters. In the months since February 17, new newspapers and poetry have appeared. But Mohamed Mesraty says that there is still a long way to go.

"Even after the fall of Gaddafi's regime, we still need to fight for freedom in a society that never had it," Mesraty said. "The fear starts from the family, neighborhood, and general readers. ... The liberal Libyan author in Libya is also afraid of the other authors who won't understand his writing."

Revolutionary poetry has been the first post-Gaddafi writing. But Gheblawy feels that this sort of poetry will die out relatively soon, making way for a new style of poetry, which, he has predicted, "will become more descriptive, with a sense of narrative and detail of the daily life of Libyans, and less focus on language and style."

Gheblawy hopes that many authors will also bring out works they've been unable to publish during the Gaddafi years. Gheblawy and Mesraty both lauded new, more realist tendencies in Libyan fiction. Younger authors - such as Beirut39 winner Najwa Binshatwan and Razan Naim al-Maghraby, who was longlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction - have begun writing scenes of ordinary city life.

Read the full version of the article in Al-Masry Al-Youm

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