During the last few years few Libyan fiction writers, began tackling sensitive issues in Libya’s recent memory, which was full of pain and suffering. In his novel (The Coffin) Libyan novelist (Abdallah al-Ghazal) writes about the experience of a young Libyan man sent to the hells of Libyan-Chadian war, known also as the Toyota war, over the disputed Aouzou desert strip (1978-1987), one of the mad adventures of Gaddafi in Africa, which cost thousands of lives of young Libyans, and a whole generation of Libyans was traumatised and suffered physically and mentally. The novel was the first of its kind that tackled this sensitive issue and continues to give an intimate account on part of Libya’s lost history. This translation is a small effort to get this intriguing work into English, in the hope that one day it can be published in its entirety in the near future.
By: Abdallah al-Ghazal*
A new day and an old afternoon
The columns of soldiers wriggled on the baked tarmac with summer heat, they rolled from a distance like zombie lizards being grilled on a large hot iron sheet.
The sun was raging in the sky, throwing Earth with a barrage of blistering blaze like spewing lava.
The giant aeroplanes squatted with their open rear ends like dim caves; under the waves of heat they looked like embalmed mythical birds, their images blurred, trembling with the mirage, sweat, sense of departure, and the first horrific confrontation with war.
The shimmering mirage revealed blurry movements at entrances of those caves. Men with different figures, wearing hats with wide circular edges, with heavy boots, and pale military uniforms going in and out of the planes, carrying or dragging objects on the asphalt, while being eaten by the darkness of the open planes, they came out with military fatigues, emerging from the depths of darkness to the brightness of the day like sick ghosts merging with the scene, and lost in the mirage of chaos.
The scattered trees around the walls of the military base looked defeated, bowing to the ground. They appeared from a distance, broken and suffering under the torturing blaze. Molten falls of painful glimmer poured on the trees, and the ruins of buildings at the faraway town, which penetrated the sky’s arc from the walls, was dancing in the shining mirage and dead wind. They were tall, meagre, and desolate while keeping an eye on us from a distance. They were watching this mythical radiance, and bewildered midday pain.
The tarmac was brutally still, receiving the summer’s barrage with humility, while its pebbled surface emanated invisible smoke, spreading by the suffocating air, and slapped by the waves of noise.
The movement becomes vaguer, and the chaotic columns of soldiers wriggling while creeping towards the entrances, swallowed by the darkness, dragging or carrying military gear, their heads and shoulders glowing and burning by the midday sun.
The soldiers were piled up hither and thither with their gear in the barren air filed. The bags were large and long like sacks of sand; some were thrown on the burning asphalt, while others were held upright with sweaty hands, and other wretched legions disorderly gathered like panting herd of sheep without shade.
Chaotic movements and noises filled the scene. Military vehicles carrying boxes passed over the rugged asphalt, heading towards the aeroplanes, while other vehicles came back empty, scattering smoke and noise in the mirage behind it, heading towards buildings with large open doors, like gigantic caves, with soldiers standing in front of them, with eyes that looked like dark slits, they loaded the empty vehicles with boxes then retreated under their hats in the shade to smoke cigarettes.
Many soldiers entered the depth of darkness, and the columns kept marching.
The chaos began to settle down, and then it was followed by a rising roar, a mighty rumble as if coming from the depth of nonexistence. It echoed everywhere, scattering the layers of glaring mirage, mixing with the fitful roar from the far motorway where the heavy trucks passed.
Life suddenly started to creep in the giant embalmed bird.
The plane took off in the air.
The embalmed bird spread its rigid wings making slow circles on the tarmac, and then began to pant, running on the surface of the runway. Its head penetrated the sky like a mythical bird. Then another one took off, while the sun glowed in madness in the grey hot sky. It was raining molten copper on our heads, and the reflecting midday heat on the tarmac and walls of the steel buildings was crushing the eyes and nerves.
I stood there, crawling with the column, dragging my bag. My eyes were tired and full of tears, while blurring images gathered in their sides, burning things, moving, reaching my mind and then penetrates it like needles. My head was spinning; listening to voices mixed with the fever of the day, boiling and permeating its cavities, then spreads and splits ferociously like heavy bombs exploding inside it. I looked to my wrist watch, it was shining, and it shimmered in my face like the glare of a welder. I wiped the tears in my eyes. The heat, the shining, the summer’s sway and the idea of war, all these things made me watch the swelling and panting reality all over me as if I was following a hideous nightmare.
It was a furious summer day; I knew that since dawn, the suffocating stillness since early twilight heralded a hot blazing day. The tale of the suffocating dawn was old. When the winds die, and tree branches in the streets and fields on the outskirts of the city become motionless, and one feels that stagnant heaviness full with humidity, set to perch on the chests, breathes and thoughts.
I woke up early today. The stress of leaving and facing war, made me anxious. I stayed up most of the night and slept for a while in the balcony. It was short and unsettled sleep. In the night I leaned on the wall that faces the street. There were two open balconies where human shadows sat in the dim light from the street lamp, chatting, moving and sometimes laughing. Another balcony was empty, and two windows in another building sent a yellow light. The walls of the buildings and their heights and impressive architecture of squares and rectangles intertwined harmoniously with the night fall on the city. The patches of light coming from the windows were squared like oil painted in the dim space. The dim street trees and the sounds penetrated my mind and intertwined with the weight of the painting.
My trance didn’t last for long before the current of time shrank, and the course between the caves and passages settled, and the idea of the surrounding place manifested itself and my body felt its place in the space. I woke up sad and tired. I felt the roughness of the wall on my back, leaving small indentations on the skin, I moved away from the wall, and I felt the granules coming out smoothly from my skin. The humid summer fog softened my skin and dampened my hair in wet sticky clumps. I found myself staring in the same direction and the fluid oily medium is still rippling around my morning eyes. I moved them around the soggy reality. The windows are still open and the city sleeping. And the liquid oil windows became large streaks of ashes with straight sides. I moved my head away from the buildings and the street trees. My neck was stiff but I roughly moved it. I saw my bag that looks like a sack of sand leaning on the wall of the glass door from inside. Relying on its bottom and leaning on the glass. My belongings are crammed inside the bag, two books my shaving kit and a blanket and other things (Batoul) put inside.
I stood up, and felt my joints rubbing against each other like the cold rusty steel joints of a machine, which I thought was because of the steel bars that penetrated my thigh bone as I felt coldness from inside moving in my flesh in numb impulses like cold gulps of water when it flows inside the throat.
The steel that was implanted in the bone above my knee was an important event in my life, but I couldn’t find and explanation to what happened years ago.
I tried many times to remember the old images of what happened, but I always end up in a state of inability in front the barrier of true understanding of things which would lead to a certainty to reach a decision that satisfies the state of confusion and doubt that haunts my mind.
I was driving my car in the city when a dog jumped in the road and then I crashed in a tree. The car rolled over many times before the impact. While rolling time became short, and the space expanded in quick cycles then it shrank suddenly. It squeezed my body till it became like a crushed tin can. I broke my arm and twisted my knee and broke a small piece from thigh bone, a bony piece the size of a sea shell broke above the joint but was attached to the flesh.
I spent days in the hospital before the surgeon put his scalpel in my thigh muscle to slice it into two soft masses of flesh and place pieces of moving steel in my thigh and fixed it with screws, then stitched the soft flesh back with a black nylon thread.
The metal nails in the x-ray didn’t convince the doctor on the health committee during my military examination that I wasn’t fit physically to be a man of war.
He told me, after examining my genitals while I was standing before him like a rabbit, that the military duty wasn’t limited to physical fitness only. He wrote with his left hand in his final report on my condition, that I can be useful in other fields like intelligence or office work, or cooking and cleaning in the restaurant. He was speaking to while pointing the pen in his left hand to convince me. Then lowered his solid gray spectacles and continued to write, concluding that I was fit for military duty in the third category.
Things were different in the army barracks; I was treated like a fully healthy soldier during the basic training period. I spent three months waking up early, performing military exercises, running and jumping over barriers, crawling in the afternoon under barbed wires, leaping through circles of smoke and fire, and suffering collective and individual punishments, while spending the evening training on weapons. I walked in straight queue to the restaurant, sitting like a corpse sipping soup. I put my spoon in the soup lifting it to my mouth; it drips from my lips and spoon like urine, while trying to ignore the little swimming creatures on its surface. Then I stood in the queue returning to my bed in the ward. Throwing myself obtrusively like a shoe, enjoying my full bladder and thinking about the nails that might have moved while running, listening to the soldiers’ clamour, and then sleeping like a grasshopper.
It was summer…
* Abdallah al-Ghazal: Born in Misrata – Libya (1965) The Coffin (al-Tabout) was published in 2003, his other works include The Shell (al-Qawqa’a) 2006, and Fear Kept Me Alive (alkhawaf Abqanee Haian) 2008.