Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Journey of the Libyan Novel through Struggles and Diversity

The revival of Libyan literature in the past decade has been challenged by threats, harm, intimidation and censorship. Yet, in 2022, a Libyan novel won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Libyan literature
Libyans attend a book fair with the parcitipation of more than 40 local and Arab publishing houses in the courtyard of the 17th-centunry Ottoman Atiq (Also known as Sahaba) Mosque in the coastal city of Derna. (AFP)

In the spring of 2011, Banipal magazine, the leading publication of Arab literature in translation, launched its 40th issue with a feature and focus on Libyan literature. This marked the beginning of the emergence of literary writings from Libya on the international scene after decades of marginalisation and neglect. The following decade, Libya witnessed a literary renaissance, characterised by an unprecedented surge in novelistic endeavours.

Libyan writers, particularly women, began reaching the shortlists of Arabic literary awards, and in 2022, Mohammed Na’as’s novel, “Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table,” won the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

Notably, translations into English broadened the reach of these narratives, making Libyan novels accessible to a wider international readership. This global recognition not only enhanced the status of Libyan literature but also fostered cross-cultural dialogue, enriching the literary landscape.

From poetry to novels

Poetry has long held the spotlight as the primary form of literary expression in Arabic culture, spanning nearly two millennia of rich heritage. However, the evolution of the novel as a medium of artistic expression in Arabic literature took decades, with experimental use of prose and narration gaining momentum in the mid-19th century and consolidating in the mid-20th century. The embrace of the Arabic novel by a new generation of writers and readers only truly manifested in the early years of the new millennium.

Libya’s proximity to Egypt, the cultural powerhouse of the Arabic-speaking world, has significantly shaped the consumption and production of literature in the country. While short and long forms of fiction began to emerge in the 1960s, poetry continued to dominate the literary landscape well into the 21st century. In 1961, the publication of what many Libyan academics consider the first Libyan novel, titled “Confessions of a Human Being” by Mohammed Farid Sayala, marked a crucial milestone.

Subsequently, the genre saw a gradual increase with noteworthy contributions, including the first novel written by a Libyan woman, “Some Warmth,” penned by Murdhia Na’as in 1972. The genre’s true consolidation, however, occurred in the late 1980s with the prolific works of writers like Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih, Ibrahim Kouni, Khalifa Hussein Mustafa, Saleh Senoussi and Sadiq Naihoum.

The turn of the century witnessed a paradigm shift in long fiction writing, mirroring changing attitudes in Arabic literature. Fiction emerged as the predominant genre, offering a liberating medium for a new generation of writers to express their lives under the oppressive social and political circumstances in late 1990s and early 2000s Libya. Experimentation remained a hallmark of Libyan novelists during this period, exemplified by the diverse styles and formats of writers like Mohammed Asfar, Mansour Bushnaf, Abdallah Ghazal, and others.

Mansour Bushnaf, a prominent Libyan writer, contends that fiction mirrors urbanization and cosmopolitanism, phenomena that began in Libya just after its independence in 1951. This trend initially manifested through short stories, favored by generations of Libyan writers, before gradually evolving into novels in the late 20th century, gaining momentum just before and after the 2011 uprising.

The post-2011 renaissance: liberation and challenges

The aftermath of the 2011 uprising brought a newfound sense of freedom and urgency to articulate the complexities of Libyan society. The novel, with its ability to delve into intricate narratives, became a vehicle for authors to dissect the layers of their nation’s history, identity, and aspirations.

The impact of literary awards, particularly the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, cannot be overstated. These accolades not only provided recognition to deserving Libyan authors but also acted as catalysts for a broader global audience to engage with Libyan literature.

Translation, notably into English, broadened the reach of these narratives, making Libyan novels accessible to a wider international readership. This global recognition not only enhanced the status of Libyan literature but also fostered cross-cultural dialogue, enriching the literary landscape.

A significant facet of this literary resurgence is the remarkable contribution of Libyan women novelists. These writers, often navigating the intersection of gender, culture, and politics, have emerged as influential voices in the ongoing transformation of Libyan fiction.

Razan Mughrabi, Wafa Albu’issa, Aisha Ibrahim, Kawther Jahmi, and Najwa Ben Shatwan have not only broken barriers but have also brought forth narratives that challenge societal norms and shed light on the unique struggles faced by women in Libya.

The thematic range explored by these women writers is diverse, reflecting the intricacies of Libyan society. Issues such as women’s rights, social justice, and the impact of political upheavals find resonance in their works. Their novels serve as a powerful testament to the resilience and creativity of Libyan women, as they navigate a complex socio-political landscape. In doing so, these authors contribute not only to the development of Libyan literature but also to the broader conversation surrounding Arab women’s voices in the literary sphere.

While the surge in novelistic output has undoubtedly brought attention to Libyan literature, it has not been without its challenges. The delicate balance between freedom of expression and societal expectations, particularly in a post-conflict environment, poses a nuanced challenge for writers. Negotiating the intricate web of cultural sensitivities while pushing literary boundaries requires a delicate touch, and Libyan novelists continue to navigate this terrain with resilience and creativity.

Despite the literary renaissance witnessed in post-2011 Libya, writers continue to grapple with significant challenges related to freedom of speech, posing formidable obstacles to their ability to navigate sensitive issues within the country.

Navigating threats and censorship

Libyan writers face the looming spectre of threats and intimidation, creating a stifling atmosphere that hampers free expression. The aftermath of the 2011 uprising has left a power vacuum, and various factions vie for control, often suppressing dissenting voices. Writers who dare to explore contentious topics, be it political, social, or cultural, find themselves in the crosshairs of threats, both implicit and explicit. The fear of repercussions has a chilling effect on the creative process, compelling writers to self-censor or opt for less controversial themes.

Banning books and inflicting physical harm on writers remain distressingly prevalent issues in contemporary Libya. The act of banning books not only stifles literary diversity but also curtails the dissemination of alternative perspectives. Mohammed Na’as’s award-winning novel, “Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table,” stands as a stark example.

The banning of this work not only restricts access to a significant literary achievement but also serves as a warning to other writers contemplating delving into contentious subject matter. Physical harm adds an alarming dimension, with writers facing the genuine threat of violence for expressing their thoughts, forcing some to choose the painful path of exile to preserve their safety and creative freedom.

For many Libyan writers, the stark choice between the freedom of exile and the stifling confines of their homeland is a poignant dilemma. Exile becomes a refuge for those seeking an environment where they can express themselves without fear of reprisal. The diaspora, while liberating, also marks a poignant departure from their roots, highlighting the tragic reality that some writers must leave their homeland to safeguard their ability to speak freely.

Publishing and distribution challenges further compound the struggle for freedom of speech in Libya. Writers who publish their works outside the country often encounter obstacles in distributing their books within Libya. The complexities of navigating bureaucratic hurdles, coupled with potential censorship, impede the accessibility of these works to local readers. The impact is twofold – it restricts the circulation of diverse narratives within the country and limits the global exposure of Libyan literature.

The challenges posed by threats, intimidations, book banning, physical harm, and publishing difficulties collectively create a stifling environment for writers in Libya. While the literary renaissance has brought forth a wealth of creative expression, the journey remains fraught with peril.

Writers find themselves at a crossroads, torn between the desire to illuminate the intricacies of their society and the harsh reality that doing so may come at a profound personal cost. As Libya continues to grapple with the complexities of its post-2011 reality, addressing these challenges becomes paramount for the preservation of a vibrant and diverse literary landscape.


This article was originally published by on March 5, 2024.

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Kawthar Metwalli
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