Modern Libyan literature often reflected the political and social changes of Libya throughout its modern history. Libya suffered years of wars, famines and poverty. A small number of Libyan elites were able to get educated in Turkey or Egypt, while most of the population were illiterate or acquired limited literacy through traditional Quranic schools spread all over the country.
After the defeat of Italy and Germany in North Africa in WWII by the Allies in 1943, many educated Libyans living in exile returned back to the country and began a long process of rebuilding Libya. With the help of the international community, Libya managed to declare independence in 1951. During the process many newspapers and magazines featured literary works by a small number of Libyan writers who in their writings reflected aspects of a country remerging from the smoke of war, like the late short story writer Wahbi al-Bouri who is considered the pioneer of modern Libyan short story.
Golden Age and Gaddafi
During the late 1950’s a generation of Libyan writers, who witnessed war and poverty in their childhood, and then the dramatic political and social changes in Libya, began refining their artistic style. They were influenced by the Arab literary powerhouse of their age, Egypt, but in the same time they addressed the main issues facing the Libyan society, mainly, social inequality, women rights and nationalism. Kamel al-Maghour, Khalifa Tekbali, Ahmed Fagih, Yousef al-Sharef, Mohamed Shaltami, Ali al-Rageay and later Ibrahim al-Kouni were major writers of their generation.
This generation of Libyan writers dominated the literary scene of the 1960’s. The period is considered the golden age of Libyan literature. Many new emerging writers began to publish their books. With the advance of education and literacy, the country experienced a gush of creativity in the arts, literature and journalism.
Right after the Gaddafi regime came into power in 1970’s, a generation of upcoming and politically motivated young writers began a new wave of Libyan literature. It was characterised by experimentalism, breaking the norms and traditions of Libyan classical literature, influenced not only by classical Arab literature, but also by international literature in translation. Omar al-Kikili, Mohamed Fagih Saleh, Giuma Bukleb, Idris Ben-Tayeb and Ahmed al-Faitouri were among a group of writers that emerged in this period and adopted the wave of new creativity.
The daring and often confrontational character of this generation of Libyan writers caused them to clash with main elements of the Gaddafi regime, that established control and domination over all aspects of life in Libya. Eventually the writers found themselves persecuted and imprisoned for a whole decade, which caused a major scar in the modern Libyan literature.
It wasn’t before the mid 1990’s that Libyan literature breathed a fresh air and managed to produce new kind of literature. This literature still dominates the current scene in Libya. The impact of political persecution and lack of freedom of speech in Libya made many Libyan writers, both from the old and new generations, change their style and find ways to escape censorship and above all break the isolation and marginalisation imposed on them.
The political tensions during the 1990’s in Libya, the economic sanctions and air embargo imposed on the country, coupled with the rise of unemployment and economic stagnation, reflected on the young generation of Libyans. They comprised more than 60 percent of the society. All these factors influenced directly the new generation of Libyan writers.
Writers like Muftah al-Ammari, Salem al-Okali, Abdulsalam al-Ajaili and Ahmed Yousef Agila reflected themes of daily struggle to secure livelihood, the urge to break taboos and old traditions of society, a new thirst to open up to other cultures, and to rediscover and redefine the Libyan identity, combined with more experimentalism, all became features of this new wave of Libyan literature.
Breaking the Isolation
The introduction of the internet in Libya in late 1998 had a major impact on new Libyan literature. The internet opened a new horizon, a wide window towards a vast number of audiences, and also the possibility of reading and learning about other cultures and to reintroduce the Libyan identity that believes in diversity and inclusiveness.
The internet was a crucial tool for majority of new Libyan writers in developing their skills and styles, as it made it easy for them to connect with the international literary scene. Especially in other Arab countries, where Libyan writers were absent expect for a handful of names from the earlier generation. The internet also made it possible for young writers to publish works outside Libya and escape the tight grip of state censorship and control.
With the advance of the internet, new tools and applications became readily available for many new writers to publish their works without having to fear being persecuted. Discussion forums, electronic newspapers and magazines, personal websites, blogs and recently social media, all contributed in getting Libyan literature known outside the reach of a regime that has been trying to control all aspects of society.
The main features of the new Libyan literature that became apparent in the last decade, is the emergence of fiction, short stories and novels, and prose as major forms of Libyan literature. As in all Arab countries, poetry is considered the main form of Arab literature in general, but many new writers began producing new works in fiction, especially novels. This is an indication that Libyan writers were looking for a form of literature that can describe the daily aspects of ordinary Libyans in their struggle to be recognised as respected citizens.
The other major feature was new styles to avoid censorship and breaking the societal and religious taboo. In a country which many would like to describe as conservative, many works of fiction and poetry began challenging the norms and traditions which were partly blamed for the current political and social stagnation, combined with the emergence of a new wave of Islamism and religiosity, a form of escapism from confronting the real problems of the country, dictatorship, corruption and inequality.
The other main feature that characterised new Libyan literature, was the heavy use of metaphors and the use of famous Libyan historical events. It was a way to rediscover the Libyan identity that suffered greatly under the Pan-Arab nationalism policy imposed by the Gaddafi regime. This in turn made new Libyan writers avoid adopting any ideological thoughts in their writings, especially nationalistic ideas, focusing mainly on presenting their personal intimate, and in some cases autobiographical, experience of the kind of life they were living in Libya. Abdallah al-Ghazal, Mohamed al-Asfar, Kahled Darwish, Ramez Enwesri, Saleh Gaderboh, Abduldaim Ukwas, Wejdan Ali, and Wafa al-Buissa were among these writers.
Many new Libyan writers published their creative works through state owned publishing houses or funds, or worked for state owned newspapers and magazines. But still they managed to publish other works, which were expected to be censored or banned, outside the country, especially in Egypt and Lebanon or through literary websites operating outside Libya. This phenomenon made many new writers produce two kinds of creative works: one self-censored and tamed for local publication and another daring and boundless for a wider audience outside the country.
Even with these ways to avoid censorship, Libyan writers continued to have their works banned and confiscated from the bookshops. Some of them had to leave the country to avoid persecution in the form of being banned to write in local newspapers, detention, or in some cases torture and death. In 2005 the Libyan writer and journalist Daif Al Ghazal was found dead in Benghazi with signs of torture after he wrote a series of articles in a Libyan website outside Libya criticising the government and Gaddafi’s notorious revolutionary committees.
Libyan writers were inspired by the wave of Arab revolutions that engulfed the region. The Tunisian revolution was influential in shaping a new atmosphere of hope to change the current situation, especially in a country that has close ties socially and culturally to Libya.
The issues of human rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech and democracy became the main focus of new literary works in the first weeks of this year. The Egyptian revolution paved the way for other Arab countries to demand the fall of regimes and reform. Libya was most in need for this long awaited change.
Many Libyan writers from different generations and across the country were in the forefront of the Libyan revolution when it exploded in 15-17th of February 2011. At least a dozen of them were detained and tortured by the Gaddafi regime because of their involvement in demonstrations and their reporting about the situation in Libya to the media. Some were detained because of their activities on the social media, like Twitter and Facebook, and others had to escape the grip of the regime as they refused the regime’s pressure to denounce the revolution and support Gaddafi and his brutal campaign on peaceful protesters and civilians.
Idris Musmari, Mohamed Suhaim, Atef Atrash, Moahmed Ben Lamin, Elhabeb Alamin, and Rabee Shrair: These are just a few of the writers and journalists that were targeted and detained by the regime for the their activities and writings supporting the popular uprising against the Gaddafi regime in Libya.
Freedom to Write
The Libyan revolution opened the door wide for endless possibilities and opportunities in creative writing, arts and the journalism. As state media and censorship became nearly obsolete in free Libya, many new publications sprang up. Pamphlets, newspapers and magazines began circulating in different forms and different languages.
It is estimated that of July 2011 more than 120 publications of different sizes, forms and languages circulate in free Libya. These give a wider opportunity for new Libyan literature and creative writing to flourish. The literature is expected to grow extensively when the conflict is resolved and with the anticipated liberation of the capital Tripoli.
Since the beginning of the revolution several months ago, a considerable amount of new Libyan literature has been published in local publications and other Arab publications across the region. There was also a gush of new creative writings published online.
Most of these works were either literary works with heavy revolutionary sentiments, especially revolutionary poetry. Some fiction literary works appeared to examine the period of oppression in Libya under the Gaddafi regime, and others drew on the suffering of Libyan people in refugee camps and in hospitals, like the works of Mohamed Mesrati, Azza al-Maghour, and Najwa Ben-Shatwan.
Many new Libyan writers found the new reality of freedoms daring and in some cases shocking, especially after decades of self censorship and thought control by the regime. Most adapt to the new reality and fight to prevent the emergence of social and political censorship. In the same time they expose Gaddafi regime’s atrocities and redefine the Libyan identity, celebrating its rich diverse history and stressing on social tolerance and cultural Libyan diversity. This diversity has been oppressed for decades, especially the recognition of other Libyan ethnicities like in the case of the Amazigh, Berber ethnicity with its language and culture.
The Amazigh, Berber culture suffered a lot under the Gaddafi rule. Its heritage and language were banned, and activists detained and tortured. After liberating the Nafusa Mountain Region in west Libya from Gaddafi rule, many efforts has focused on reintroducing the Amazigh language to the wider Libyan culture. Many works of forgotten Amazigh literature are being translated into Arabic and English.
It is expected that more Libyan writers from Amazigh background will find a place to publish their works in the different Amazigh publications already in circulation in Nafusa and all over Libya.
During the last several years many Libyan writers produced literary works that focused on the impact of the Gaddafi oppressive regime on the Libyan society. Some works were so daring that the writers never published them. Others had to leave the country to publish independently or through other Libyan and Arab publications outside Libya.
Many of these written works of literature, some of which are memoirs and autobiographies of known Libyan writers, reveal the reality of living under the Gaddafi regime. They are now beginning to be published in free Libya. Other unpublished works are also expected to be printed in books in the next few months inside Libya. A few new projects attempt to translate and publish some of these works in the near future.
After decades of oppression it is expected that new Libyan writers will find their way into literature and creative writing. They will enjoy more freedoms than before. The path towards building a tolerant diverse democratic society in Libya will be hard and marred with obstacles that will need all the efforts of Libyan writers and intellectuals to overcome.
Many years might pass before we witness the true and long lasting impact of the Libyan and Arab revolution on all forms of creativity, from literature to the arts. The stakes were never higher than now. Many writers are adamant that whatever outcome of these historical events in the region, we will witness a dramatic change in all aspects of society and a fresh new wave of literature.