Preface to the Libya Issue
by Khaled Mattawa
Words Without Borders
When it comes to countries that have been locked away—or locked out of—the Western world, Westerners tend to believe that little happens there during the time that they are not paying attention. Like trees that fall in the middle of the forest without someone to witness them, third world countries like Libya must undergo some kind of comatose existence when the West stops looking at them, or so Westerners believe. The reader of these selections from Libya will quickly become aware that Libyan authors have been hard at work at making a national Arab-language literature.
An observant visitor to the country will note that Libya has a strong tradition of oral poetry. Ancient poems as well as the newly composed are recited on important occasions. The national radio devotes several weekly programs to recitals of oral poetry by members of the public and visiting poets. This oral poetic tradition stretches back to the beginning of time, and it has never stopped nourishing the country’s spiritual inclination.
Libyan literature in its written form began in the twentieth century. The late nineteenth century had seen the introduction of modernity and the importation of new modes of literary expression from Egypt and the Levant as an Arab renaissance took root in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut. During the Italian colonization of Libya from 1911-43, familiarity with European literature increased, and despite Italian censorship, so did exposure to modern Arab literature. Due to this censorship, the great Libyan voices were those of poets who went into exile in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Writing after the Second World War and before Libya gained independence, Ahmad Rafiq and Abdallah al-Gweiri, among others, made up the first generation of modern Libyan literature. Agitation for independence, increased educational opportunity, and an increased availability for publication ushered in new progressive voices that began to write in the mid-sixties. Here the list gets longer: Sadiq Neihoum, Khalifa al-Fakhri, Kamel al-Maghur, Ali al-Rigaei, to name but a few. In fact, the sixties saw more than a dozen daily newspapers published in a country with a population of hardly two million. Beginning with anecdotal prose pieces, by 1965 the short story had become the public’s favorite genre. Also, by then Libyan poets, like their Arab brothers elsewhere, had begun to write in new metrical forms. Newspapers were the primary means of publication while small print houses began to develop into publishing outfits. The era between the 1960s (the decade in which oil was first discovered) and the early 1970s (the early ears of the Qaddafi rule) was the golden age of Libyan literature.
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