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Ibrahim al-Koni Libya literature
Ibrahim al-Koni

Libya does not have the same intellectual history as other Arab countries: it was for too long a remote and underpopulated place. The Karamanli period produced one major chronicle account by the court historian Muhammad ibn Khalil ibn Ghalbun (d. 1737), al-Tadhkar fi man malaka Tarabulus wa-ma kana bi-ha min akhbar (On who holds power in Tripoli).

Another political writer was the late-19th- and early-20th-century political leader Sulaiman al-Barouni, an Ibadi from the Jebel Nafusa region. His father was a theologian, jurist, and poet who taught at a zawiya (Sufi lodge) near Yafran. Sulaiman himself studied in Tunis, at the al-Azhar in Cairo, and in the Mzab in Algeria. Throughout his life he was committed to the Ibadi cause and was persecuted by the Ottoman authorities as a result, although he served in the Ottoman parliament after the Young Turks’ revolution of 1908, as a deputy from Jebel Nafusa. He worked with the Ottoman government, before and during World War I, to resist the Italian conquest of Libya.

After the war, he helped establish the Tripolitanian Republic and subsequently sought to set up an autonomous Berber emirate in the western Jebel under Italian protection but fell out with the mainstream Sunni Arab population, who accused the Ibadis of heresy. He fled first to Europe, then to the Hejaz, and then to Muscat, as a guest of its sultan. He then moved to the interior of Oman as the minister of the small Ibadi state of Nazwa before returning to Muscat 1938, as adviser to the sultan. Al-Barouni wrote a multi-volume account of Ibadi rulers (al-Azhar al-riyadiya fi aimma wa-muluk al-Ibadiya, of which volume 2 was published in Cairo in 1906-1907). A small museum in Jadu, in the Jebel Nafusa, is dedicated to his memory.

The real blossoming of Libyan literature came in the Gaddafi period. Of the authors who lived through the regime, some were more supportive of it than others. Ahmed Fagih (born in Mizda in 1942) was educated in Libya, Egypt, and Scotland; he received his doctorate in literature at the University of Edinburgh in 1982. On his return to Libya he was a newspaper columnist, diplomat, journalist, and director of an institute of music and drama in Tripoli. He was also a novelist and playwright; five of his novels have been translated into English. His trilogy Sa-ahabuka madina ukhra (I’ll give/offer you another city) (London, 1991) was translated into English as Gardens of the Night (London, 1995) and was listed sixteenth in the Arab Writers’ Union list of the hundred best Arabic novels of the 20th century.

Libya’s most famous author from this period is Ibrahim al-Koni. He was born in 1948 in Ghadames, studied comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, and worked as a journalist in Warsaw and Moscow. He now lives in Switzerland. He writes with nostalgia about the past and the nomadic Tuareg culture from which he hails. In 2010 he received the Arab Novel Award in Cairo and donated the value of the prize to the children of the Tuareg tribes. He has also received several other awards, including the Swiss State Award for his novel Bleeding of the Stone (Nazif al-hajar) in 1995, the Libyan State Award for all his work in 1996, and the Japanese Translation Committee Award for Gold Dust (al-Tibr) in 1997. His novels include: al-Majus (The Animists; Libya and Morocco, 1990), which was listed as eleventh in the Arab Writers’ Union list of the hundred best Arabic novels of the 20th century; Anubis (Beirut, 2002; translated as Anubis: A Desert Novel by William M. Hutchins, 2005); al-Dumya (Beirut, 1998, translated as The Puppet by William M. Hutchins, 2010); al-Bahth an al-makan al-dai (Searching for a lost place, Beirut 2003, translated as The Seven Veils of Seth by William M. Hutchins, 2008).

Another member of this post-independence generation of writers is Khalifa Husseinn Mustafa (born in 1944), whose novel Eye of the Sun (Tripoli, 1983) was also listed in the Arab Writers’ Union’s list of the top hundred Arabic novels of the 20th century. Poets include the men Gillani Trebshan and Idris Tayeb, and women Mariam Salama and Khadija Bsikra. Lutfia Gabayli is an editor and writer of short stories.

Despite this appearance of energy, cultural life was very limited under Gaddafi. The writer Hisham Matar has described how the army went to every bookshop and library in Tripoli and took away thousands of books to be burned in one of the public squares. All that remained on the shelves were ‘educational’ or ‘revolutionary’ books. The biggest bookshop and publishing house in Tripoli, Dar Fergiani, which was set up in 1952, moved to London in 1980 and remade itself as Darf Publishers, concentrating on English-language books on Libya, the Middle East, and the Arab world.

It was a similar story in other aspects of cultural life. Numerous associations and societies were founded, such as the Ibn Muqla Institute for Calligraphy, the National Institute for Music, and the National Association for Theatre, Music, and Folk Art, but these were agencies of restriction rather than facilitators of cultural experiment. In the 1980s there was a ban on Western musical instruments, which were deemed to spoil the sensibilities of pure Jamahiriya society. The Committee for Theatre dictated which plays were to be staged. In film, there was a National Cinematographic Organization and a State Organization for the Production of Feature Films. The regime financed several propaganda films (produced abroad) on the Libyan resistance against the Italians, such as Omar Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert (1981), a film about Omar Mukhtar starring Anthony Quinn as Omar and Oliver Reed as the Italian general Rodolfo Graziani. It was directed by Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who also directed Mohammad, Messenger of God (European title; US title The Message, 1976) chronicling the birth of Islam, which was funded by the Saudi and Libyan governments. He also produced the American slasher movie Halloween (1978) and seven sequels.

Sometimes these state-sponsored bodies did great work beyond their immediate briefs. One such was The Institute for the Study of the Jihad of the Libyans against the Italian Invasion, established in 1977. Muhammad Jarari, its director, described himself as ‘a person who trained to run across minefields. I had to manipulate the patronage system of Gaddafi’s rule to succeed in promoting scientific historical research’. His centre built an impressive archive of Libyan history, including an oral history project that amassed 10,000 interviews with Libyan participants in the struggle against the Italians and several million documents concerning Libya’s 20th-century history, including collections of photographs, newspapers, and personal correspondence of prominent Libyans. These have all survived the war, although the centre has been renamed the Libyan Centre for Manuscripts and Historical Studies (al-Markaz al-Libi li-al-Makhtutat wa-al-Dirasat al-Tarikhiya).

The Libyan writer most famous in the West was a clear opponent of the regime. Hisham Matar was educated in London and writes in English. He was born in 1970 in New York City, where his father worked for the Libyan delegation to the UN. He returned to Libya at the age of three and spent his early childhood there. In 1979 the regime accused his father of being a reactionary, and the family fled to Egypt, where his father worked among the exiled community against the regime. In 1986 Matar moved to London to study architecture and design. In 1990, his father was kidnapped in Cairo and transported to Libya and has never been traced, although he was reportedly alive in Abu Salim prison in 2002. Hisham Matar’s two novels, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, are based on these events. In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and won the 2007 Commonwealth First Book Award for Europe and South Asia, the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the Italian Premio Vallombrosa Gregor von Rezzori, the Italian Premio Internazionale Flaiano (Sezione Letteratura), and the inaugural Arab American National Museum Book Award. It has been translated into many languages. He lives in London.

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