Book review: Translating Libya by Ethan Chorin opens a window into a diverse country
Posted to Tripoli as commercial and economic attaché in 2004, when the US and Libya resumed diplomatic relations after decades of hostility, he spent his two-year posting wisely.
Translating Libya: In Search of the Libyan Short Story, originally published in 2008 before the fall of the Muammar Qaddafi regime and now reissued with new material, is an extremely engaging form of literary archaeology. With the tenacity of a bloodhound in full pursuit of his quarry, Chorin has scoured bookshops, newspapers, websites, knocked on doors, chased down leads, interviewed writers and travelled from one end of the country to another to put together this splendid and very original collection of stories. Together they help to open a window onto a country that is less understood than any of its North African neighbours. In recent years the outside world has tended only to hear about Libya for the darkly clownish antics of the late Colonel or the violent tragedy of the years since his overthrow in 2011. A broader cultural perspective is long overdue.
Chorin's persistence is put to good effect. Writing in the foreword, the author and playwright Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih rightly welcomes this anthology as "an expression of Libyan culture, but also a lesson in how writers communicate in a repressive regime, where heavy censorship and random, severe punishment are common". It was Fagih's short story "Locusts", the tale of a village in the south on the brink of destruction by natural invaders, which first set Chorin off on what becomes a very specific and challenging quest, the search for the literature of place.
Tortured love looms like a dark shadow in these pages. "From Door to Door", a previously unpublished story by Maryam Salama, a leading light in the new generation of female Libyan writers, is set in the magical ancient oasis town of Ghadames, a jewel of the Sahara "thrashed by a wild desert". The young nurse Fatima finds her father standing firmly in the way of marriage to a Ukrainian doctor. "Our people don't marry foreigners," the older man tells the luckless suitor. Ghadames may be an out of the way bastion of tradition and social conservatism, but even in a metropolis like Benghazi, when men and women fall in love, personal tragedy ensues all too often as cultures collide.
In "Hotel Vienna" by Wahbi Bouri, the father of the Libyan short story, the woman has rather more agency, yet this is no guarantee of a happier result. Nouri falls in love with the beautiful Christina, daughter of a Polish count and manager of a bar in the hotel in Benghazi. To his shock she returns his feelings, but when it comes to religion the would-be lovers hit a rock. Christianity is as important to Christina as Islam is to Nouri. "Why is it not possible for two religions that live together in one world and in one city to do so in the same house?" she asks. A feverish Nouri takes to his bed, pondering the answer to a question as valid today as it was when Bouri wrote this story 60 years ago. By the time he has groped his way to some kind of response, it is too late. When, in Kamel Maghur's "The Old Hotel", we are introduced to a relationship between Muslim Miloud and Jewish Rubina in a richly atmospheric Tripoli, we inevitably feel it cannot end well.
A sense of gloom and despair surfaces intermittently in these short stories, which is perhaps not altogether surprising when one recalls the troubled history of the country. Libya lurched from a brutal Italian colonial occupation to a brief experiment with monarchy from 1951, cut short in 1969 by almost half a century of dictatorship under Qaddafi, which in turn ended in a revolution in 2011 that has yet to bring the security and stability Libyans so desperately crave.
Despair can still have a playful edge, or maybe - in Qaddafi's Libya - that should be rephrased as whimsy can be laced with hopelessness. In "Caesar's Return" Meftah Genaw imagines Septimius Severus, Rome's first African emperor, descending from his lofty pedestal in his once magnificent imperial capital of Leptis Magna for a visit to Tripoli, where he had formerly reigned supreme on another pedestal in Martyrs' Square.
The itinerant Roman emperor finds Qaddafi's Tripoli a forlorn, ugly, battered city, shorn of its former glory. Even the beautiful statue of the naked Girl with the Gazelle (of which more later) is cracked and neglected, covered in dirt and grime. In an unexpectedly surreal ending, the bronze statues shock Tripolitanians the following morning by turning up at the head of a queue outside the Libyan Maritime Transport Company, "waiting to buy tickets to Malta". They've given up on Libya.
For anyone who has been following the country's post-Qaddafi trauma, there are haunting postscripts to a number of these stories, some mentioned by Chorin, others left unsaid. The famous Italian-era statue of the naked woman caressing a gazelle was first damaged in fighting between rival militias in the summer of 2014 then disappeared overnight, likely victim of squeamish Islamists who had long condemned it as immoral.
The eastern port city of Derna is known today less as a literary setting than a jihadist redoubt with periodic news of executions, staged sales of foreign slaves and other ISIL delights. And Bouri's Hotel Vienna in Benghazi, which Chorin and his erstwhile assistant and sometime co-translator Basem Tulti laboured so hard to track down, ends up destroyed in recent fighting between the drearily ubiquitous jihadists and forces loyal to strongman General Khalifa Haftar.
Though it is only fair to observe that this collection is not laugh-a-minute literature, it would be unfair to suggest that the Libyan short story is without humour. Bureaucrats, grandees and journalists find themselves on the receiving end of some amusing satire. Ali Mustapha Misrati takes an entertaining poke at a self-important Arab journalist in "Special Edition", in which the associate editor is a loathsome, grubby character, forever sidling up to the powerful and ignoring the powerless. He does not venture into hospitals because "disease was definitely not his business" and he does not want his sensibilities offended. Then the killing sentence: "He didn't visit the hovels of which he caught an accidental glimpse from his car."
Interspersed among the short stories are dashes of thoughtful travel writing and the book concludes with an extended section of literary criticism. Much as he loves Libya, Chorin dutifully records the disappointing treatment of minorities in its fiction. Jews and black sub-Saharan Africans in particular get it in the neck, as they have done in real life. "The Good-Hearted Salt Seller" imagined by Sadiq Neihoum is a crude caricature, as is the character's wife, the archetypal nagging shrew. A minor cavil about this edition is that it is heavy on typos, which a more careful edit would have removed.
Translating Libya ends with a piece of journalism written in 2011 warning that "the worst of all outcomes would be a return to the past or a fractious future". The years since that article have witnessed a tragic slide into precisely such disarray and internecine disputes, a chaos from which only ISIL and assorted jihadists, installed in Sirte and Derna, have benefited. As an ending I prefer Chorin's beginning. "I believe in the need for irrational optimism," he writes. As Libya's rival parliaments in Tobruk and Tripoli at last agree on a tentative path to peace, let us hope that such optimism is not so irrational after all.
Justin Marozzi's latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, winner of the 2015 Ondaatje Prize.