Wednesday, July 11, 2012

libyan writer mohamed mesrati discusses libya and its revolution at gate theatre

 Mohamed Mesrati at the Gate Theatre

The 22-year-old Libyan writer Mohamed Mesrati (who was interviewed on this blog last October), a resident of London, appeared at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, West London, on Monday night for a reading from his essay "Bayou and Leila", and to discuss the Libyan revolution with the Gate's artistic director Christopher Haydon. Haydon is currently directing The Prophet, a play on the Egyptian revolution by the London-based Iraqi playwright and scientist Hassan Abdulrazzak, running at the Gate from 14 June until 21 July. Monday event, held  after that evening's performance of The Prophet, was one of several post-performance happenings during the play's run.

The event took place just two days after Libya's historic first free elections in half a century, which gave it an added piquancy. The media was abuzz with news that, contrary to predictions of many, Libya  had surprisingly "not gone Islamist".

"I am very optimistic about Libya" Mesrati said. Asked by Haydon about the role of Libyan authors, especially fiction writers, in the revolution Mesrati said we need "still more shocks to change the society... as a secular liberal person I believe that we still have to change people from inside and build a new generation. And this is my next battle. As a writer or as an activist or as a blogger that’s my goal, that’s my dream - to write to celebrate freedom, also liberation. That's what we get from writing, that’s what makes us satisfied."

"Bayou and Leila" is due to be published next spring by London publisher I B Tauris in a book entitled Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus. Introducing Monday night's event from the state, Mesrati's literary agent Nemonie Craven Roderick - of the Jonathan Clowes agency - said the book is "an anthology of new writing from The Middle East and North Africa. I've been working with Matthew Cassel and Layla al-Zubaidi, editors of the book, since February 2011". (Cassel is a journalist and photographer living in the Arab world. Al-Zubaidi is a Beirut-based activist, writer and editor).

Nemonie added: “We’re very grateful to the Gate for giving an additional platform to what is already supposed to be a platform for outstanding new writing and essays, moving between the personal and the political." The majority of the pieces in the anthology are translations from Arabic by Robin Moger." Moger is "the translator, and a great supporter, of the work of Mohamed Mesrati whose essay you’ll hear a reading from tonight."

Moger, who has a degree in Egyptology and Arabic from Oxford University and is at present living in South Africa, is translating Mesrati's debut novel-in-progress Mama Pizza. An excerpt of Mama Pizza appeared in spring 2011 in Banipal issue 40 as part of the magazine's 135-page first-ever special feature on Libyan fiction. Coincidentally the feature on Libyan fiction appeared just as the unanticipated Libyan revolution was erupting. The April 2011 London Book Fair marked the momentous developments in Libya by adding to its programme a seminar on "The Hidden Face of Libyan Fiction" with a panel comprising four London-based Libyan writers including Mesrati. Mesrati emerged in the broadcast and printed media as a commentator during the Libyan revolution. For example and after Gaddafi's death he was commissioned to write this article for the Telegraph newspaper: My family and friends in Libya did not die in vain. Mesrati's memories of his childhood friends from schooldays, and his anguish over the death of several of them during the revolution, is one theme of "Bayou and Leila".

Christopher Haydon

Mesrati and his family came to the UK from Libya in 2005 as refugees seeking political asylum and settled in the northern English city of Manchester. Along with completing his school education Mesrati determinedly followed his vocation as a writer, and by the age of 16 his short stories were appearing on the prestigious Kikah literary website of the Iraqi author and journalist Samuel Shimon, co-founder and now editor of Banipal. Mesrati has lived in London since 2009, writing, studying, and working part-time in a bookshop.

The actor Scott Karim [pictured left], who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), read  from "Bayou and Leila" seated alone on stage. He delivered Misrati's eloquent essay in a tone that that reflected the author's characteristic blend of sharpness, tenderness and humour. 

Mesrati was born in Tripoli in 1990, at a time when the country was under a severe sanctions regime as a result of the 1988 Lockerbie aircraft explosion. In "Bayou and Leila" he recalls classroom pranks with his friends, but also reflects on how the brutal dictatorship of Colonel Gaddafi affected his parents, who witnessed the craven brutality of the regime in for example public hangings of students.  His father was an actor and dramatist with a collection of books filled with notes in the margin on stage adaptations he hoped to  make, but he had to suppress his talents in the repressive climate. Mesrati recounts his favourite boyhood tale "The Elephant O Ruler" of Time which his father would tell on Eid nights.

In his essay Mesrati vividly recreates his feelings during the various stages of the revolution. He re-established contact with his childhood friends in Libya in the heady early days of the uprising, getting through them daily information on what was happening and then spreading it on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. His friends fought for the revolution for which, like so many young Libyans, they ultimately sacrificed their lives.

Christopher Haydon told Mesrati: "What I think is beautiful about your writing in those extracts is the way you combine humour and a sense of the absurdity of the situation under Gaddafi... and then the real sense of emotion and tragedy as to the human effects."

Mesrati had seen a performance of The Prophet earlier that evening, and was asked whether he had felt this play on the Egyptian revolution related to him. He said he had related to it in some ways: "All that happened was like a dream. I've been through that nightmare, so I felt especially at the end that there was something of me there in that play."
But he added "it's very difficult sometimes to compare Libya with Egypt and Tunisia. It's completely different, and people could not understand that." He finds it frustrating when people say things such as "'look at Tunisia, it's much better than Libya or Egypt.' It is very difficult to say that."

Haydon said it had been interesting to find how many of the people he and his colleagues had spoken to in Egypt while preparing the play  "really hated the phrase 'the Arab Spring' precisely because it grouped together a lot of things which actually, when you look at them in detail, differ."

Mesrati said the common factor in the Arab revolutions is that it is "all revolution, an uprising and asking for your rights." The Prophet had been about him in that it portrayed people asking for their freedom and human rights. "I followed the Egyptian revolution from the beginning and the day Husni Mubarak fell I went to a pub and got drunk and was so happy." The play had brought back those hope-filled days.

Asked about media coverage of the Libyan revolution, he said that in the beginning he had been extremely happy with it. "It was the first time I saw a Libyan who is not Muammar Gaddafi appear on the front page of the Guardian and the Times. It was a great experience." He still has those issues of the newspapers. But on the other hand he had not liked the way in which leftists in talking about Libya would liken the NATO intervention to the invasion of Iraq. "That's what I don't like at all, because there is nothing to compare between Iraq and Libya." Some pundits described Libya as "the new Iraq" in terms of outside intervention, a comparison he rejected. "We know that intervention is not something good, but sometimes we need it." Some of the media, especially the Western media, "didn't give Libya its own right to the revolution - they didn't even call it a revolution, they called it a war against Colonel Gaddafi."

Mesrati said that when the revolution began "we all knew it would be very difficult to take Gaddafi down because, as I say in my essay, the whole country was controlled by militias and not the army as for example in Egypt or Tunisia."  (In his essay Mesrati explains how Gaddafi had divided the armed forces into security militias commanded by his sons.)

After 40 years of Gaddafi's rule they had thought it might take "maybe a year, two years, four years, five years - but we were full of hope it was the end of Gaddafi." After Tripoli fell in August and Gaddafi fled to Sirte, and then was killed in October,  "I was with my friends and we said well, it didn't take that long actually. To take down 40 years in eight months is a big achievement."

When asked by a member of the audience about struggles between armed militias, Mesrati said it is "not a fight between militias, it's a fight between mafias." He said there had been such violence in Libya under Gaddafi - sometimes related to alcohol or drugs - but it was never reported in the local media. He pointed out that during the revolution even when Libya had no government and  no law "people still opened their shops until 2 or 3 in the morning and nobody came to rob them".

On the question of why the Islamists and the Musllim Botherhood, had not done as well as anticipated in the parliamentary election, whereas the National Forces Alliance of former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril appeared to have done well, he said that Libya is "a 100% or 99% Muslim country...   and it’s not like in Egypt for example where the Muslim Brotherhood has been there 40 to 50 years or 60 years. In Libya it’s still new and the people themselves always think that they are Muslim and they don’t need somebody to come to them and control them in the name of Islam."

People in Libya may say "OK I’m Muslim, sometimes I drink, sometimes I smoke - but I still go to pray, I still fast in Ramadan and so I am Muslim and so you are not going to come, get the government, and tell me you are better than me."

One member of the audience was keen to visit the remains of the Roman city of Leptis Magna and wondered if he will have to wait a year to do so. "You can go tomorrow if you like, Mesrati said. He was encouraing on the subject of  tourism in Libya. His relatives tell him that tourists are going to the coast at Misrata, and there is tourism in the beautiful Libyan mountains.

"You can go there, you can look, nobody is going to touch you." Perhaps partly because of tribalism Libyans are not scared of  foreigners but want to respect foreigners, and hope that when tourists return back to their own countries they will talk well of Libya  "and give it the bright face that Gaddafi always tried to hide."

report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

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