Monday, May 27, 2019

Obituary of Libyan fiction writer, playwright and journalist Ahmed Fagih

Remembering Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih: b. 28 December 1942 d.28 April 2019 

by Susannah Tarbush London

The death of the Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih in a Cairo hospital at the age of 76 has deprived the Arab literary scene of a major and prolific figure whose work won recognition in his native Libya and far beyond.

Born in 1942 in the small oasis town of MIzda in the Nafusa mountains, south of Tripoli, Fagih pursued his literary ambitions from his teenage years. In a 60-year career he was variously a journalist, columnist, short story writer, essayist, novelist, dramatist, scholar, TV personality and diplomat.

Fagih never left his Mizda roots behind. On the contrary, his writing was often inspired by his intimate knowledge of rural life and by traditions of fable and folk tales. He was concerned with the animal kingdom and with mans relationship with animals and the environment.

Fagih was a master of both the short story and novel forms. His writing tackled with humanity and humour many themes of relevance to Libyan society: the legacy of the brutal Italian colonisation, urbanisation, social justice, the impact of oil wealth, tradition vs modernity, and the oppression of women. He pushed boundaries, in for example writing explicitly about sex.

His output was so prodigious that it was hard to keep a full tally. He told the Bookanista webzine in 2015: I have written 22 novels and 22 books of short stories, 40 short and long plays, as well as 20 or so books of essays. Even when seriously ill last year he continued his work routine and told me in an email from Cairo last September that he was writing away on my bits and pieces and published this year five books in Arabic. His works were translated into many languages, including Chinese (he was twice invited to China for academic events on his work). 

Fagihs many friends, readers and colleagues around the world now mourn the passing of a warm, original and highly talented character with an irrepressible sense of humour. There was something refreshingly unpretentious and down to earth about him.

Since his death many tributes have appeared in the mainstream and social media. The American scholar and former diplomat Ethan Chorin, author of Translating Libya: In Search of the Libyan Short Story, tweeted: Extremely saddened by the passing of Dr. Ahmed Ibrahim al Fagih - the inimitable Libyan-Arab short story writer, novelist and playwright. His work was a big part of my introduction to Libya in the early 2000s. He will be sorely missed. Farewell, my friend.

The Libyan lawyer and short story writer Azza Kamel Maghur (whose short story The Bicycle appeared in Banipal 40: Libyan Fiction) ended her eloquent obituary with: Faghih remained young in his heart, tender with his grandchildren, respectful with women and  their  status,  a lover of his homeland, suffering from its pain, and a loving man to his family.

Azza is from a younger generation of Libyan writers who were encouraged and influenced by Fagih. She is the daughter of the lawyer and fiction writer Kamel Hassan Maghur whose work was championed by Fagih in his writing and his PhD thesis on the Libyan short story.

Fagih will be missed by his many friends in London, which was to him a home from home. He had lived in the UK for two periods in the 1970s and 1980s and submitted his doctorate to Edinburgh University in 1983.  

Fagih visited London as often as he could. He loved to host mini-literary salons in cafés, with a succession of friends and acquaintances dropping by. He was particularly fond of the famous Whiteleys department-store-turned-shopping-mall in Queensway, a busy thoroughfare in Arab London where Arab émigrés, intellectuals, tourists and refugees congregate. For some years Fagih was a patron of the café in a large open space at the middle of Whiteleys ground floor. When that closed down he migrated to the Costa coffee shop on the corner of Whiteleys whose big windows allow one to see the world pass by.

After his return to Cairo last year from Tunis, where he had sought medical treatment, Fagih emailed that he was practising my life almost as normal, my daily session in Costa reading and writing.  The Cairo branch of Costa was wider and more elegant and more friendly than the one in Whiteleys. Its not far from where I live, with glass walls that overlook a large and modern street in Muhandisien area, in the middle of Cairo.

English translation of Faagih's novel Valley of Ashes (Kegan Paul International) 

Fagih was supportive of Banipal from its founding in London in 1998. An excerpt from his novel Valley of Ashes appeared in issue three and a lengthy interview, conducted by Banipals co-founder and then editor Margaret Obank, was published in the fourth issue, Spring 1999, under the headline Ahmed Fagih: A writer at night. Fagih explained that Arab authors often have to write at night because they cannot live from their writing alone and have to be otherwise employed during the day. Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, was never a fully-time writer until he retired. He was a government employee from the 30s until he retired. 

In the interview Fagih described how at the age of 14 he left Mizda for Tripoli which was a larger community, a place where I could find the books I wanted to read, there was theatre, music, shows films. There I was meeting people a little older than me who had already started writing and I took part in that literary world.

He started writing and by the age of 17 had a regular newspaper column. He went to Egypt on a scholarship when he was nearly 19. That put me in contact with so many Arab writers and the literary society. There I really set out on my literary career.

Fagihs talent as a fiction writer was recognised early when in 1965, aged 22, he won the first prize in a Higher Council for Literature and Art literary competition with his first collection of short stories The Sea Has Run Dry.

In 1968 Fagih travelled to the UK to continue his education. Like other Arabs of his generation, he had been traumatised by the Arab humiliation in the 1967 war and he wanted a change of scene. He attended a tutorial college in the southern coastal town of Brighton and then studied drama for two years at the New Era Academy of Drama and Music in London. Among the stage roles he played were those of Shakespeares Shylock and Othello.

After the 1969 revolution that toppled King Idris and brought Gaddafi to power Fagih returned to Libya. He would over the years hold various positions, including serving as director of the Institute of Music and Drama. He told Banipal I wrote a musical, Hind and Mansour, while I was there so that the students, male and female, could work and perform together.

At one time he was head of Arts and Literature at the Ministry of Information and Culture.  He founded the Union of Libyan Writers and was for a time its secretary general. And he was appointed as editor of The Cultural Weekly.  He wrote for many newspapers and spent four years working in Morocco.

In 1977 Fagih returned to Britain to do a PhD at Edinburgh University, but he put his studies on hold when he was appointed head of the press department at the Libyan Embassy (Peoples Bureau) in London. For four years I was a diplomat, he told Banipal.  It was only after this that he had time to study full time at Edinburgh University for his doctorate.

During his time in the UK a group of us formed what we called the Arab Cultural Trust. We put on a cultural season, produced a magazine called Azure. Fagih was editor-in-chief of this English-language glossy magazine, published first as a quarterly and then twice yearly. There were in all 14 issues before publication ceased in 1983.

Libyan Stories: Twelve Short Stories from Libya (Keegan Paul International)

Azure covered a spectrum of Arab arts, from fiction, art and theatre to civilisation and antiquities. It was an example of the way in which Fagih was a dynamic pioneer in bringing Libyan and Arab culture to the UK. At the time there was little translation of Arab literature into English. Azure published in translation stories by Libyan and other Arab authors. All the stories in the anthology Libyan Stories: Twelve Short Stories from Libya (Kegan Paul International, 2000) edited by Fagih, as well as his introduction, were first published in Azure.  The stories include Fagihs The Last Station, Kamel Maghurs Crying, Ali Almisratis Mussolinis Nail, Ibrahim el Konis She and the Dogs and Khalifa Takbalis Dignity.

The renowned Arabic translator Denys Johnson-Davies was among those involved with Azure. In his book Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature Johnson-Davies recalls translating and publishing in Azure part of an early novel by Lebanese author Elias Khoury. 

Among the contributors to Azure was the English poet, critic and editor Anthony Thwaite who had been a university teacher at the Benghazi campus of the University of Libya in 1965-67 (his acclaimed book The Deserts of Hesperides: An Experience of Libya was published in 1969 by Secker & Warburg.). 

Other contributors included the journalist and writer Peter Mansfield, the Young Liberal campaigner for Palestinian and gay rights Louis Eakes. critic and publisher Timothy OKeeffe and Arab writers and critics such as Sabry Hafez.

Alongside editing Azure, Fagih was making headway in the drama field. In 1982 his two-act play Gazelles was performed at Londons Shaw Theatre in an adaptation by the English poet, novelist and playwright Adrian Mitchell. The staging was part of a Libyan cultural season arranged by the Union of Libyan Writers and Artists.

Fagih first made his name as a writer of short stories: his novels such as Valley of Ashes came later. One of his most famous works, the trilogy of novels I Shall Offer Another City, These Are the Borders of My Kingdom and A Tunnel Lit by One Woman was published in 1991. The following year the trilogy won Lebanons premier literary award. The trilogy appears in 16th place on the Arab Writers Union list of 100 best Arabic novels.

The English version of the trilogy was published by Quartet in London in 1995, as Gardens of the Night, in translation by Russell Harris, Amin al-Ayouti and Suraya Allam. The trilogy traces the fortunes of a Libyan academic, Dr Khalil Al-Imam, from his days at Edinburgh University preparing a doctorate on The Thousand and One Nights, through a psychotic breakdown in which he embarks on hallucinatory journey in an Arabian Nights-type setting, to his obsessive love for a woman in modern-day Libya. 

Fagihs presence in English translation took another significant step forward in 2000 when London publisher Kegan Paul International produced simultaneously five books he had written or edited. The books were launched at an event with a panel discussion at the much-missed Kufa Gallery near Queensway, in those days a centre of Arab culture. In addition to Libyan Stories: Twelve Short Stories from Libya the books were the novel Valley of Ashes; two volumes of his short stories, Whos Afraid of Agatha Christie and Other Stories and Charles, Diana and Me and Other Stories, and Gazelles and Other Plays.

In 2011 Quartet published the English translation of Fagihs novel Homeless Rats. The Arabic original of the novel had started life as a serial in a Libyan journal before being published in Arabic in 2000 as Firan bila Juhur. The novel tells of a titanic struggle in the Libyan desert between humans in a caravan from Mizda and the hopping rats known as jerboas as they compete over scanty food sources during a drought.

Ahmed Fagih in Costa Cafe, Whiteleys, London with a copy of Homeless Rats

The translation of Homeless Rats happened to be publishing during the Libyan revolution. The books desert battles, alliances, war crimes, emergency meetings, tribalism and waves of refugees resonated strangely with the battles raging at that time in Libya. No translators name appears in the book, which was competently edited by the young novelist and travel writer Anna Stothard.

A landmark was reached in the publication of Libyan literature in English in translation when Banipal 40: Libyan Fiction appeared in spring 2011. Coincidentally the issue was published just as the Libyan uprising was erupting. In an essay on the Libyan Novel in the issue the Libyan short story writer and literary editor Ibrahim Ahmidan writes that Fagih opened the way for the Libyan novel to make a genuine contribution to the revitalisation of the Arabic novel through his own distinctive contribution, first with his trilogy of novels (published in English as Gardens of the Night) and more recently with his unique literary experiment Maps of the Soul.

Banipal 40 included Fagihs vividly-realized short story Lobsters subtitled In praise of lobsters and in mockery of men translated by Maia Tabet. The darkly comic story was inspired by a true incident from the life of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in which Sartre took the hallucinogenic drug mescaline and suffered persistent hallucinations of crabs. which triggered a nervous breakdown.

Fagihs most ambitious literary project, intended as his masterwork, was the 12-volume cycle of novels Maps of the Soul published in 2009 by Darf in Libya and al-Kayyal in Lebanon. Fagih saw this series as a Libyan counterpart to the famous 12-novel sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time by English novelist Anthony Powell.

In 2014 Darf Publishsers published the first three novels - Bread of the City, Sinful Pleasures and Naked Runs the Soul - in a bumper volume of 656 pages under the title Maps of the Soul.  The preparation of the English text was very much a team effort with the initial translation by Soraya Allam and Brian Loo revised and edited by Ghazi Gheblawi and Graeme Estry.

The first three novels of Maps of the Soul trace the life of Othman al-Sheikh, driven from his desert village by a sexual scandal in which he is fact innocent.  In Italian-occupied Tripoli Othman takes every opportunity to climb the ladder, using his charm and wits.

Fagih told the Tanjara blog that he envisaged the 12 books as four trilogies which deal with the life and soul of Othman through its ups and downs. One striking feature of the first trilogy is that it uses the second person you throughout.  Fagih noted that over the 12 books he used a variety of viewpoints including third person, first person, second person, and the all knowing god-like authority.

One of the most significant recent contribution sin recent years  to the body of Libyan literature in English translation is Ethan Chorins book Translating Libya, first published by Saqi in 2008 and republished by Darf Publishers in 2015, updated and expanded in light of the changes brought by the Libyan revolution.

In his introduction to the first edition Chorin explained that the idea for the book came after he arrived in Libya and asked his Libyan colleague Basem Tulti if he could recommend any good local authors. Tulti produced a paperback containing Fagihs story The Locusts (Al-Jarad) which Chorin loved and translated to English.

The first edition of the book consisted of 16 stories, newly translated by Chorin (in three cases jointly with Tulti), combined with Chorins accounts of his travels around Libya and his search for stories. It was a highly enjoyable mixture of travelogue, scholarly study and personal encounters.

second edition of Translating Libya 

For the revised second edition, Chorin invited Fagih to write a foreword. Chorin describes meeting Fagih for the first time, in a Cairo hotel in 2012. Fagih was more or less as I imagined him from his writing, and the occasional dust cover photo: a strong personality, witty and humane with an artists appreciation for the absurd.

In his introduction Fagih wrote: Translating Libya is an expression of Libyan culture, but also a lesson in how writers communicate in a repressive regime, where heavy censorship and random, severe punishments are common. The stories reflect society, past and present. One story was added for the second edition: Azza Kamel Maghurs The Olive Tree.

Over the decades, in tandem with his writing career, Fagih continued his life as a diplomat and in the 2000s was Libyan ambassador to Greece and then Romania. While ambassador to Romania he performed his one-man show A Portrait of a Writer Who Wrote Nothing at the 2009 Sibiu International Theatre Festival.  He dreamed of one day performing on a stage in London.

At the time of the 17 February 201 Libyan revolution Fagih was serving as part of the Libyan delegation to the Arab League. In the early days of the uprising the delegation denounced Gaddafi and Fagih defected to the rebel government.  Thereafter he wrote many articles and columns condemning Gaddafi and his regime.

Fagih told Bookanistas Freddie Reynolds in an interview to mark the 2015 publication of the second edition of Translating Libya: Now the country is liberated from the chains of dictatorship, and that should be reflected in the soul of every creative writer and artist. We all regret the aftermath of the revolution, yet there was a sense of relief at the ousting of the rule of terror, combined with a sense of achievement at being able to defeat it. As a writer, I felt like a long-distance swimmer who was restricted to swim in a little pond and suddenly saw that the ocean is open for him.

As for Libyan literature as whole, and how it is affected by these developments, it is perhaps too early to judge. But the new era should open new avenues for writers, and will definitely result in a prosperous literary movement in the near future.

Fagihs final book to be translated into English was the unexpected Lady Hayatts Husbands and other erotic tales, published by Quartet in 2016. The slender volume contains seven stories by Fagih plus a story from One Thousand and One Nights. The red cover of the book is an illustration by the English illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). Beardsleys distinctive erotic illustrations and decorative elements, influenced by Japanese woodcuts, are scattered throughout the book.

Last August Ahmed emailed me to say he was suffering from the serious lung condition pulmonary fibrosis. He had tried to come to London to see the doctors at the London Clinic who had first diagnosed his condition but the British had refused him a visa, despite his two periods spent living in the UK and his frequent visits there.

He asked me if I could find out information on possible new treatments for his disease. He wrote: Somebody says sharks are attacking fibrosis meaning that a medicine is taken from the fat of sharks. One can entertain himself with such news in order to absorb and take in the shock till he gets used to the illness. Some sort of psychological trick.

There was some irony in the thought that a shark might come to the rescue of someone whose writing had been so intimately linked with the animal world. Alas, although there is indeed research in Australia research on using substances found in sharks blood to treat pulmonary fibrosis, trials are only in their early stages.

Fagih was understandably frustrated and hurt by the refusal of the UK to give him a visa for medical purposes and he pleaded with the UK to reconsider. The Libyan authorities contacted the British embassy in Tripoli on his behalf and the Secretary General -designate of the Arab-European Center of Human Rights and International Law, Dr. Ramadan Benzeer, publicly urged the British authorities to grant Fagih a visa, but all was in vain.  

Fagihs literary legacy will endure. Much of his vast body of writing in Arabic has yet to be translated, or retranslated, into English. For example, it is an open question whether any of the nine as yet untranslated novels of his 12-volume Maps of the Soul will eventually appear in the English translation.

Fagihs works will continue to be an important source of information on Libya. The other day I happened to pick up a copy of the newly-published novel The Fourth Shore by the prizewinning British author Virginia Baily. The novel is centred around the Italian colonisation of Libya. Baily lists numerous sources in the acknowledgements section including just two novels by Libyans - one of which is Maps of the Soul. 

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