When it comes to countries that have been locked away—or locked out of—the Western world, Westerners tend to believe that little happens there during the time that they are not paying attention. Like trees that fall in the middle of the forest without someone to witness them, third world countries like Libya must undergo some kind of comatose existence when the West stops looking at them, or so Westerners believe. The reader of these selections from Libya will quickly become aware that Libyan authors have been hard at work at making a national Arab-language literature.
An observant visitor to the country will note that Libya has a strong tradition of oral poetry. Ancient poems as well as the newly composed are recited on important occasions. The national radio devotes several weekly programs to recitals of oral poetry by members of the public and visiting poets. This oral poetic tradition stretches back to the beginning of time, and it has never stopped nourishing the country’s spiritual inclination.
Libyan literature in its written form began in the twentieth century. The late nineteenth century had seen the introduction of modernity and the importation of new modes of literary expression from Egypt and the Levant as an Arab renaissance took root in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut. During the Italian colonization of Libya from 1911–43, familiarity with European literature increased, and despite Italian censorship, so did exposure to modern Arab literature. Due to this censorship, the great Libyan voices were those of poets who went into exile in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Writing after the Second World War and before Libya gained independence, Ahmad Rafiq and Abdallah al-Gweiri, among others, made up the first generation of modern Libyan literature. Agitation for independence, increased educational opportunity, and an increased availability for publication ushered in new progressive voices that began to write in the mid-sixties. Here the list gets longer: Sadiq Neihoum, Khalifa al-Fakhri, Kamel al-Maghur, Ali al-Rigaei, to name but a few. In fact, the sixties saw more than a dozen daily newspapers published in a country with a population of hardly two million. Beginning with anecdotal prose pieces, by 1965 the short story had become the public’s favorite genre. Also, by then Libyan poets, like their Arab brothers elsewhere, had begun to write in new metrical forms. Newspapers were the primary means of publication while small print houses began to develop into publishing outfits. The era between the 1960s (the decade in which oil was first discovered) and the early 1970s (the early years of the Gadhafi rule) was the golden age of Libyan literature.
The early 1970s saw increased publication, particularly in the genre of the novel, with a new, progressive-sounding regime in power. But as Gadhafi, the head of the regime, consolidated more power into his own hands, freedom of the press and free expression became even more restricted. In 1974, all newspapers were nationalized; in 1977, publishers and booksellers were forced to combine into a single government-owned entity; and by 1980, the majority of the country’s writers found themselves in prison. The writers’ union became part of the ministry of culture and lost much of its independence. The late 1970s were also the country’s richest years, which enabled the government to spend a great deal of money on cultural projects. Chief among them was the publication and translation of Gadhafi’s Green Book into dozens of languages, as well as free distribution of the slim volume. This repressive turn had a strong impact on the country’s cultural life. Intellectuals who could afford it left the country. Those who stayed out of prison languished in quiet desperation. Khalifa al-Fakhri, who had been one of the country’s premier practitioners of the short story and one of the country’s literary stars, almost stropped writing. His publication record from 1967 to 1975 was more than two dozen stories. From 1975 to the time of his death in 2001, he published six stories. He was not the only one.
An amnesty in 1988 resulted in the release of dozens of the country’s writers. While magazine and newspaper publication remained government-owned, editors began to allow the formerly imprisoned writers to publish their work, and indeed to start working at those publications. Seen from the outside, the effect on the freedom of expression would have seemed negligible, but many working on the inside felt a new wind of freedom blowing. A decade later, that wind had grown stale. The majority of the country’s intellectuals had opted to reform from within. Their patience and hard work did not pay off. The country continues to have no independent newspapers or magazines. Book publishers must submit manuscripts to government censors for approval. Books brought from abroad are also subject to censorship. Nonetheless, more books are being published. An independent Libyan journal published in Egypt makes its way into the country. Literary festivals and poetry recitals are becoming regular events in art galleries. Ten years ago, there were no independent art galleries.
Libyan writers who lived through the late sixties and early seventies tell me that the situation now, in this new century, resembles that golden age of the 1960s. Gadhafi has largely emptied his jails of dissidents, as part of gaining international acceptance. Lawyers speak publicly about human rights and putting an end to torture. However, the murder and mutilation of an active journalist, Dhaif al-Ghazal, gave writers much to talk about last year. Earlier, in 2004, a journalist was sent to jail on trumped-up charges and was sentenced to three years, though he gained early release. This time the government did not claim responsibility for the murder in the way it celebrated the death of its enemies in the past, and it did not prosecute the jailed journalist for opposing the regime as it had done in the past. The country’s laws still make it a crime to criticize Col. Gadhafi and his regime of so-called “direct democracy.” The laws are not likely to change, but the reality is different, changed with increased mobility, though not without an impending sense of menace.
Literature in modern Libya had always been affected by politics. The last twenty-five years have taught men and women of letters to make a distinction between them. Like their counterparts in communist East Europe, Libyan authors have developed styles and literary strategies to produce a literature that is not directly confrontational, but that remains artistically rigorous. In essence, it is a literature that sees beyond the quotidian limitations imposed by a thoroughly corrupt and now only moderately repressive regime. We see in the pieces offered in this issue writings that venerate personal realms. Al-Koni’s short stories riff on a dark philosophical strain that expresses itself through myth and superstition. Varied facets of interpersonal relations take up the concerns of the pieces by Al-Asfar, Etwebi, Al-Okli, and Neihoum. We read these well-crafted sentences and lyrical lines of poetry and discern in them triumphs of the human spirit, successes that never cease to be strange and familiar at the same time.