Sunday, April 10, 2011

libyan fiction writers in the international spotlight

Libyan writers raise their profile
Susannah Tarbush
[Saudi Gazette 10 April 2011]

The ongoing crisis in Libya is leading to an upsurge of international interest in various facets of Libya, including its literature. This has prompted the London Book Fair (LBF) which opens tomorrow to add to its program at short notice a seminar entitled The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

The five Libyan writers participating in the seminar will “talk about the unknown Libyan novels, short stories and literary life in Libya, and open a discussion on the ongoing struggle for freedom in their country.” Four of the writers – Ghazi Gheblawi, Hisham Matar, Giuma Bukleb and Mohamed Mesrati – live in the UK. The fifth, Wafa Al-Bueissa, settled in the Netherlands after leaving Libya amidst controversy over her debut novel “Hunger has Other Faces”.

Chair of the seminar is Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, editor of Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature. By what Shimon terms an “amazing coincidence”, at the very time the uprising in Libya is raging Banipal has produced its first-ever special feature on Libyan fiction. The major feature takes up 135 pages of the 224-page 40th issue of Banipal. It showcases fiction by 17 Libyan authors including the five who are taking part in the LBF seminar.

Banipal issue 40 had been planned long before there was a whiff of revolution in the Libyan air. Shimon writes that he met by chance the veteran Libyan writer Ali Mustafa al-Musrati at the Greek Club in Cairo in 2007. Shimon told the writer how saddened he was by the neglect of Libyan literature in the Arab world and in the West. “I promised him that Banipal would publish a special feature on the wonderful literature of Libya. How happy we are to fulfill this promise at this time in particular…”

Banipal 40 includes a profile of al-Musrati (now 85) written by Banipal’s publisher Margaret Obank. Al-Musrati’s stories draw on the oral storytelling tradition, and are characterized by humor and biting satire. A marked vein of humor also runs through a number of the short stories and novel extracts by other authors in Banipal’s Libyan special feature. Satire can be a potent weapon in a culture in which freedom of expression was curbed for much of the periods since the early 20th century by the Italian occupation and then dictatorship.

The special feature has two introductory essays. The first, on the short story, is by Libyan short-story writer and translator Omar Abulqasim Alkikli [pictured]. It is followed by the thoughts of short-story writer and literary editor Ibrahim Ahmidan on the Libyan novel.

Alkikli refers to the toll the Gaddafi regime has taken on writers. The short story has been “the strongest manifestation of the Libyan literary movement”, but in the 1980s “the presence of the short story was greatly reduced as a result of the arrests of young authors and intellectuals that had been taking place since the mid-1970s”.

Three short-story writers were among those detained: Abdelsalam Shihab, who stopped writing during his imprisonment, Giuma Bukleh, who only resumed his literary career some 20 years after his release, and Omar Abulqasim Alkikli himself. Alkikli spent 10 years as a political prisoner before being released in 1988 with other jailed Libyan writers.

A number of other authors, though not imprisoned, stopped writing. The short story was revived in the 1990s with the gradual release of political prisoners, and the provision of the “lowest possible level of freedom of expression”. In addition to Alkikli’s essay, there are two of his short stories in Banipal 40 translated by Elliott Colla, Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. The fine story “Leap” expresses a longing for freedom as experienced by a fenced-in horse.

Ibrahim Ahmidan [pictured] observes that with the short story and poetry for long the dominant literary forms in Libya, the Libyan novel took time to emerge. Trailblazers such as Ibrahim al-Koni, Ahmed Fagih and Saleh Snoussi helped develop the Arabic novel. Since the 1990s a stream of novels has appeared, including outstanding contributions from women such as Najwa Binshatwan, Wafa al-Bueissa and Razan Naim Moghrabi. Ahmidan writes: “We seem to be on the verge of a change that will push the novel to the forefront of the Libyan cultural scene…”

The 17 authors in Banipal 40 are varied in terms of their background, age and location. All but one write in Arabic and appear in Banipal in translation. The exception is Hisham Matar who writes in English. Banipal 40 reproduces the first few pages of his much-praised second novel “The Anatomy of a Disappearance”, published in early March by the Penguin imprint Viking.

The Libya special feature has a substantial section on the novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, born in 1948, whose Tuareg background is central to his highly original desert novels. Al-Koni lives in Switzerland and is the author of over 50 works. The extract, “The Winged People”, from his novel “New Waw” is a striking lyrical piece of writing that meditates on bird song and draws parallels between birds and tribes in the desert.

There is a review by Peter Clark of al-Koni’s novel “The Puppet”. In addition, Elliott Colla writes on his experiences of translating al-Koni’s novel “Gold Dust”. Colla writes: “It is hard not to be caught up in the beauty of Ibrahim al-Koni’s writing.”

Al-Koni's works have become increasingly available in English translation in recent years. And as a further sign of the intense interest in his novels, Georgetown's Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies is from 28 to 29 April hosting 'Tents in the Desert: A Colloquium on the Literary Imagination of Ibrahim al-Koni'. The symposium includes public readings by al-Koni himself, and presentations by translators and critics from the Arab world, Europe and North American.

Ahmed Fagih is represented in Banipal 40 through his vividly-realized short story “Lobsters” subtitled “In praise of lobsters and in mockery of men”. The story is rooted in an incident in which Jean-Paul Sartre took the hallucinogenic drug mescaline and suffered waking nightmares of crustaceans. In Fagih’s story a solemn Beirut philosophy teacher who wants to be like Sartre in every way tries but fails through the use of mescaline to replicate Sartre’s experience of crustacean hallucinations. Ultimately he succeeds all too well and is driven mad by battalions of lobsters.

Some of the 17 writers achieved recognition in the first decade of this century. Razan Naim Moghrabi is a prolific writer of short stories and novels, and nine of her works have been published since 2000. Her novel “Women of the Wind” was longlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

In the extract from “Women of the Wind” the Moroccan central character Bahija, who works in Tripoli, is hoping to arrange her passage to Europe through people smugglers. She talks to an Iraqi woman friend to find out all she can about the people-smuggling business.

Najwa Binshatwan [pictured], a lecturer at Garyounis University, is a poet, dramatist, novelist and short story writer. She was one of the Beirut39 authors chosen from across the Arab world by a panel of judges, whose work is compiled in the anthology “Beirut39”.

Binshatwan’s satirical short story “His Excellency the Eminence of the Void” takes aim at the regime’s system of patronage through a retired colonel. He dictates via his wife’s niece a petition to the Commander-in-Chief and Supreme Leader complaining that he has not been rewarded with the privileges of his former military colleagues.

In the extract from Wafa al-Bueissa’s debut novel “Hunger has Other Faces” a girl who is 15 but pretends to be older, falls in with a Turkish Cypriot man in Alexandria and embarks on “a phase of enjoyable delinquency”. In Azza Kamil al-Maghour’s story “The Bicycle” young girls liberate themselves by learning to ride bikes like boys.

Some of the authors write from the perspective of Libyans living in Europe. The youngest of the 17 writers Mohammed Mesrati [pictured], who is 21 this year, is represented through an extract from his novel-in-progress “Mama Pizza”. Mesrati gives an energetic, amusing account of a Libyan door-to-door menu delivery man in the English town of Runcorn, and his bearded, expansive mentor Ali Guevara.

The writer and award-winning blogger Ghazi Gheblawi [pictured] works as a medical doctor in London. In 2006 he founded the Arabic Imtidad Cultural Podcast. His short story “A Rosy Dream” is narrated in a direct, informal style by a young Libyan man travelling back to Libya from Paris via Malta in the days when travel restrictions on Libya were still in force. The story has a melancholy humor.

Two short stories by Giuma Bukleb are set in London, where Bukleb has lived since 1988. He brings a touch of exoticism to the city with “Tarzan of Palmers Green” and “The Good Woman of Turnpike Lane”.

The poet and short-story writer Omar el-Kiddi lives in the Netherlands. His warm, funny, well-constructed short story “The wonderful short life of the dog Ramadan” tells of a Libyan dog adopted by a Dutch woman and is taken to the Netherlands. From writer and painter Redwan Abushwesha there are five short tales, Borgesian in character, set in different countries and dedicated to different friends.

Some of the pieces in the Libyan special feature are set in the Libyan countryside. From Mohammed al-Asfar there is the delicately-written short story “The Hoopoe”, actually a chapter of his novel “Sharmoulah”. Mohammed al-Arishiya’s story “The Snake Catcher” resembles a folk tale.

Banipal will continue with the theme of Libyan literature in its next issue when it publishes work by Libyan poets including Salem al-Okaly, Abdelwahab Gringo and Sakeh Qaderbouh. The fate of the Libyan revolution is still uncertain, but whatever its outcome it looks as if 2011 will be a year in which the country’s literature comes out of the shadows in terms of international exposure.

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