Non-political Stories of Love and Hardship

Hardly any Libyan literature has been translated from Arabic. Now, a former American diplomat to Libya has published a collection of Libyan short stories in English. The collection offers insights into a hitherto undiscovered literary landscape. By Susannah Tarbush

Hardly any Libyan literature has been translated from Arabic. Now, a former American diplomat to Libya has published a collection of Libyan short stories in English. The edition offers insights into a hitherto undiscovered literary landscape. By Susannah Tarbush

​​Ethan Chorin's book "Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story" defies being pigeon-holed within a particular genre. At its heart are 16 Libyan short stories newly translated by Chorin (in three cases jointly with Basem Tulti). But the book is at the same time a delightful mixture of travelogue, scholarly study, and a record of personal encounters.

Libya, after its long years of international isolation, still appears generally mysterious and little understood to outsiders. The title "Translating Libya" can be seen in two ways. One is the translation of Libyan literature, the other the "translating" of Libya itself. Through the stories and his accompanying jottings and commentaries, Chorin throws much light on different facets of Libya, past and present.

American enthusiasm

Chorin was a member of the small team of US diplomats that went to Tripoli after US-Libyan relations were renewed in July 2004. He remained there as Commercial and Economic Attaché until 2006.

When he asked his assistant in Tripoli, US-educated Basem Tulti, if he could recommend any good local authors, Tulti produced a paperback containing "The Locusts" ("Al-Jarad") by Ahmed Fagih. Chorin loved the story, and translated it into English. Thus was born the idea of collaborating with Tulti on a project to translate a number of stories.

The stories are interspersed with Chorin's vivid, often amusing, accounts of his adventures while travelling to far-flung places, or trying to track down particular writers or stories. He combed multiple sources for stories, including bookshops, newspapers, magazines, internet sites and personal contacts.

The stories are divided into three sections – eastern, southern and western Libya – corresponding roughly to the pre-independence provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. The eastern region is placed first, in deference to its "distinct role in producing Libyan writers and intellectuals."

Complex American-Libyan relations

How did Libyans react to Chorin as a US diplomat? "I found Libyans as a people – and Libyan writers and artists in particular – to be engaged, and extremely generous. I always got the sense that most Libyans felt very positive towards Americans, despite the past obvious tensions in the relationship."

Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi during the opening of a two-day special summit of the fledgling African Union in 2003 (photo: AP)
Chorin's book is published against the backdrop of U.S.-Libyan rapprochement. Nevertheless, in Colonel Ghadaffi's Libya censorship is omnipresent

​​Chorin reckons this is perhaps because "older Libyans generally had fond memories of interactions with Americans in the 60s and 70s, and Libya's international isolation shielded younger generations (somewhat) from the hot-button issues about which the rest of the region obsesses. This is no longer the case, and expectations are high as to what the rapprochement will produce."

The 16 stories are rendered in clear, flowing translation. Their authors range from Wahbi Bouri, born in 1916 and widely considered the "original" Libyan short story writer, through the next generation of writers such as Ahmed Fagih, Ramadan Abdalla Bukheit, Ali Mustapha Misrati , Sadiq Nayhoum and Kamel Maghur, to younger authors including Abdullah Ali Al-Gazal, Maryam Ahmed Salama and Najwa Ben Shetwan.

The role of female writers

Chorin notes that a considerable percentage of young Libyan writers today are women in their late twenties and early thirties, whereas in the previous two decades writers were overwhelmingly male. Some women write under male pen-names, however, as they do not feel the act of writing is yet a socially acceptable activity for women.

The stories include timeless fables such as Sadiq Nayhoum's stories "The Good-Hearted Salt Seller" and "The Sultan's Flotilla" ("Markab As-Sultan"). Others are social satires: "Special Edition" by Ali Mustapha Misrati, lampoons Arab journalism, while Lamia El-Makki's previously unpublished "Tripoli Story", set in today's consumerist society, portrays a monstrously materialistic wife.

Libyan love stories

There are several tales of thwarted love. Kamel Maghur's Tripoli story "The Old Hotel" centres on the relationship between a Muslim migrant from "the hopeless town" of Zwara and a Jewish woman. A nurse in the town of Ghadames falls in love with a Ukrainian doctor in Maryam Salama's "From Door to Door" ("Min Bab Ila Bab").

Two hauntingly poetic stories are set on the eastern Libyan coast. In Najwa Ben Shetwan's "The Spontaneous Lover" a young woman on vacation with her family in the village of Bauhareshma writes her lover a letter to be put into a bottle and tossed into the Mediterranean. "The Mute" by Abdullah Ali Al-Gazal is located in a mountainous verdant place where an abused mute girl succumbs to the call of the natural world.

While there is plenty to savour in the stories, there is also much meat in Chorin's accompanying material. The six concluding chapters cover the history of the Libyan short story; "three generations of economic shock"; migration; minorities; the Libyan psyche; and Libyan women.

Evading political realities

Ethan Chorin (private copyright)
Ethan Chorin: "I very much hope to return to Libya."

​​The stories do not directly confront the political realities of the four decades of the Qadhafi era. Chorin observes that in the "revolutionary years" from 1969 to 1986, the realist style of the 1960s was abandoned. A few committed writers with means fled the country. Those who stayed "nursed their hobbies more or less in private". Writers coped with censorship through allegory or "outright evasion". Some of the work from that time is only now seeing the light of day, more than 20 years on.

Chorin writes: "There are signs that with the recent economic and cultural opening, more people are reading, and short stories in particular." With the recent lifting of restrictions on certain forms of expression, and a new press law, "it will be interesting to see who will be among the next generation of Libyan writers and from where they will draw inspiration."

The effect of the Internet

He hopes that the trend will be towards more openness and creativity. "Most of my information now about Libya comes either directly through Libyan friends, or the Internet. Individuals like Laila Neihoum (a cousin of Sadiq Nayhoum) have done Libyan arts a tremendous service by publishing blogs describing what's going on in Libyan art and literature. Hopefully more of this sort of thing will start to appear in English." In the book Chorin mentions the effect of the Internet in encouraging writers to take some risks and self publish. "This is clearly having an effect in sharing Libyan arts with the world."

Chorin is currently on leave from the State Department and working as a senior fellow of the Middle East Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. "My passion is the Middle East, and I hope to be back living in the region soon," he says. "I most certainly keep in touch with my Libyan friends – this project has helped tremendously with that – and very much hope to return to Libya."

Susannah Tarbush

© 2008

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