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5 Novels by :
Ahmed fagih

Translated from Arabic by :
Russel Harris
Soraya Allam
Chris Tingley And
The Author

Edited by:
Lamia Ahmed Fagih
“There is a sense of genius in what he writes”
The Guardian



Introduction

To the works of Ahmed Fagih

Among the large body of critical articles appearing in English on the works of the author we chose these articles to give the reader some insight of the literary out-put of this Libyan writer with international standing and humanitarian out- look
Dr Ahmed Fagih:

The Trilogy

By Professor Ali Ehmida

Literature, films, and oral traditions are important but often neglected resources for the study of social and political life in Middle East studies. These non-conventional resources provide a counter view to official state history.(1) The need for social sources is even more urgent in the case of Libyan studies in the United States, where most of the Journalistic and scholarly writings on Libya are characterized by a fixation on a state-centered perspective, especially the persona of Col. Muamar al-Qaddafi and terrorism. Yet no state exists without a society; and, unless one assumes that political leaders - like Qaddafi - are above society, then taking society seriously is an essential prerequisite for understanding any culture.(2)

Extending a study to include Libyan society and analyzing its diverse voices by exploring its literature Will shed new light on understanding where Qaddafi originates and how Libyan society has reacted to state policies. As a political scientist deeply involved with literature, one of my objectives is to recapture some neglected aspects of Libyan politics and culture. This essay attempts to introduce the magnum opus of the leading Libyan writer Ahmad Ibrahim al- Faqih and to analyze how he interprets questions of identity, cultural encounter, and social alienation in contemporary Libya.

The focus of this review is the most recent work of al-Faqih, his trilogy Sa Ahbiqa Madinatu Ukhra, Hadhihi Tukhum Mamlakati, and Nafaq Tudiuhu Imra Wahida (I Shall Present You With Another City: 1; These Are The Borders of My Kingdom: II; and A Tunnel Lit by A Woman: III). These three volumes won the award for best novel in Beirut's book exhibition of 1991.

Al-Faqih narrates the story of his childhood in the village of Mizda and in the city of Tripoli. The narrative reflects his perception of Libyan culture and politics under two regimes: the monarchy from 1951-1969 an the Republic/Jamahiriya after
1969. A review of Libyan literature since the 1960s is important to place al-Faqih's trilogy in the larger social and cultural context.

Al-Faqih is a middle class modernist writer who belongs to what is called in Libya the 1960s generation. This group includes prominent Libyan fiction writers such as Sadiq al Naihum, Yusif al-Sharif, Ali al-Rgaii, Muhammad al-Shaltami, and Ibrahim al- Kuni. These writers began to publish poetry and short stories in the early 1960s.(3) Recently, al-Faqih and al-Kuni have gained acclaim in the Arab world and some of their works have been translated into other languages, such as Russian, German, Chinese, and English.(4) Al-Faqih received critical acclaim as one of the most talented short story writers inside Libya. In 1965, his first collection of short stories, "Al-Bahr La Ma' Fib"

There Is No Water in the Sea,] appeared in 1965 and won the highest award sponsored by the Royal Commission of Fine Arts in Libya.

Al-Faqih's works reflect themes of tension and conflict between the rural village, patriarchal life and individualistic, urban values. These themes are not surprising because Libyan society had just begun to experience the process of urbanization and social change due to the impact of the new oil economy in the early 1960s. (5) Most Libyan writers of that period focused on the genre of the short story, and only when urban life became more complex in the late 1980s did the novel appear in Libyan literature. If the novel is the product of bourgeois capitalist society, then the emergence of the novel as a new genre in Libyan literature is a clear sign that a bourgeois middle class has developed in Libyan society.

The most prolific writer of his generation, al-Faqih has published eighteen books, ranging from plays and short stories to novels and non-fiction essays.(6) The trilogy under review is not only the culmination of his creative work and productive literary career but has many similarities to the author's life. In fact, the name of the main protagonist, Khalil al-Imam, resembles the author's name.

Khalil is the nickname for Ibrahim, and Imam is a synonym for Faqih in Arabic. Furthermore, Khalil al- Imam, the hero of the trilogy, like the novelist, was born in a Libyan village, moved to Tripoli, and studied theater and literature in Great Britain.

Understanding that most readers are not aware of his work, brief biographical notes on al-Faqih are appropriate before analyzing the themes presented in his trilogy. Al-Faqih was born on 28 December 1932, in a small village in western Tripolitania, called Mizda, which is located one hundred miles south of the city of Tripoli. He studied in his village until the age of fifteen when he moved to Tripoli, the capital and largest city in the country. In 1962, he left Libya for Egypt to study journalism in a UNESCO program and then returned to Tripoli to work as a journalist.

Between 1962 and 1971, he was offered a scholarship to study theater in London. When he came back to Libya in 1972, he was appointed head of the National Institute of Music and Drama. In 1972, al-Faqih became the editor of the influential Cultural Weekly. After that, he returned to England as a Libyan diplomat and began to study for his doctorate in literature. In 1990, he finished his degree and returned to North Abica where he now divides his time between residences in Cairo and Rabat. (7)

This trilogy, al-Faqih's most ambitious and mature work, presents Khalil al-Imam, a Libyan student who goes to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to study for his doctorate in literature. His dissertation topic is based on the impact of Arabic myths on English literature, specifically sex and violence in the folk tales of the Arabian Nights. The first book of the trilogy takes place in Scotland where Khalil is thrown into a world of foreigners, especially women, and tries to find a way to deal with the new culture. In the second volume, Khalil goes back to his country, Libya, to teach at Tripoli University. There, as in England, he runs into emotional trouble and becomes severely depressed. With the help of a Muslim healer, he experiences an exciting Sufi spiritual journey to a utopian city of the past. But, because of his unpredictable hubris, he destroys his happiness by opening the forbidden door and hence finds himself back in the city of concrete reality, Tripoli, where he faces the actuality of Libyan society while vainly attempting to find his own identity. This trilogy dramatizes through fantasy the depth of the social and political alienation of some western educated Libyan intellectuals in the post-colonial period. (8) The issue of alienation from the west and their own societies is a commonly expressed problem among many Arab and third world intellectuals.

Al-Faqih begins the three books of his trilogy with the statement, "A time has passed and another time is not coming," and ends the third book with a pessimistic statement, "A time has passed and another time has not come and will never come."

The novelist is dubious about the possibility of a positive change because as long as the existing social and political conditions are reproduced, society, like Khalil, is stalled. The trilogy deals effectively with the social and political causes of such pessimism and the troubles experienced by Khalil al- Imam, between the values of a traditional, patriarchal life in the village and the contemporary individualistic life in the city. At the very beginning of the trilogy, Khalil enters a new city, Edinburgh. As he is looking for a room to rent, he comes across a couple, Linda and Donald. He rents a room in their house. One night Linda comes to his room, and they begin a love affair. Donald, who is interested in Eastern philosophies, does not mind sharing Linda with Khalil. To further complicate his personal life, Khalil meets another woman at the university, Sandra, who plays Desdemona to Khalil's Othello in the student theater. One night after rehearsal he and Sandra get drank and, the next morning, he finds her next to him in his bed. When Linda discovers the affair, she decides to end her relationship with Khalil. But Linda becomes pregnant and Khalil realizes that, because Donald is impotent, he, Khalil, is the father of the child.

Khalil tries to go back to Linda, but she refuses. He becomes tom between the two women. Linda decides to leave the house and go back to her parents with Khalil's child, Adam. In the meantime, Sandra is kidnapped by a gang which brutally rapes her and leaves her near death. Fortunately, she is saved and taken to the hospital. Only then does Khalil discover that Sandra's father is a millionaire who takes his daughter to his home.

Khalil finishes his doctorate on sex and violence in The Arabian Nights, which echoes the same disturbed emotions of his real life encounters with Linda and Sandra and the tragic rape of the latter. He remembers his family and country and decides to go back to
Libya, leaving behind his child, Adam, with Linda. The symbolic meaning of this section of the novel is the creation of a bond between Libyan and British cultures. The name of the child Adam signifies the common origins of mankind, the
prophet Adam. Khalil' s attempt to pursue love and adopt the values of Western society, however, fail due to his unpredictable cravings and his inability to make up his mind between Linda and Sandra. In the end, he loses both women.

The second book of the trilogy begins, again, with the statement, "A time has passed and another time is not coming." By repeating the same statement, the novelist wants to remind the reader that Khalil is still trapped in a continuous state of hopelessness. Khalil returns to Tripoli where he becomes a professor at the University of Tripoli. Because of Family pressure, he agrees to marry Fatima, a school teacher, to prove his membership in a society which expects young men and women to be married at an early age. However, after three years in this loveless marriage, he becomes very depressed. (9) He tries modem therapy, yet doctors are not able to figure out the cause of his severe psychological illness. Out of desperation, he accepts his brother's advice to go see a Muslim healer, a Sufi faqih, for treatment.

Desperate for a cure, Khalil goes to his childhood neighborhood in the old city of Tripoli to meet Faqih Sadiq Abu al-Khayrat which, literally translated in English, means "Truthful the father of good life." Notice the significance of this name for Khalil. Modern medicine cannot cure Khalil's depression because his illness is not physiological but emotional and spiritual. (10) Only a Muslim healer, whose name and specialty are "Truth and the meaning of good life," can help him. Faqih Abu al-Khayrat bums some frankincense and recites verses from the Qur'an. Suddenly, Khalil finds himself in a utopian city, called "Necklace of Jewels, "reminiscent of a city in "The Arabian Nights" of the Eleventh Century B.C.

This fantastic city has no prisons, no taxes, no police, no wages. Life is communal, and production is shared. This is a subtle critique of the Arab state which relies on secret police, as well as the repression of intellectuals and freedom of expression. (11)

According to tradition, he marries the princess, "Narjiss of the Hearts," and becomes the prince of the city. Yet, the princess warns him not to enter a secret room in the palace, as the ancestors have warned people about the curse of the room.

Khalil finds happiness and love in the city of dreams. Then, disturbingly, he meets Budur, a beautiful singer. He falls in love with her and as in the case of the first book, is torn between two women.Also, as in the case of Linda, Khalil discovers that Narjiss is pregnant with his child. One has to remember that Linda in the first book, and Narjiss in the second book, both conceived children with Khalil, while his Libyan wife, Fatima cannot bear children. Love seems to be associated with fertility
in the novel. And since Khalil does not love his wife, she cannot bear children with him, while in the first two books of the trilogy Linda and Narjiss both become pregnant after loving relationships with Khalil. Worst for him, his reckless desire leads him to open the door of the secretive room. A nasty yellow wind blasts from the room and he suddenly finds himself back again in the present in the city of Tripoli. He realizes he has been in a dream, a beautiful one which he has destroyed. Khalil is unable to commit himself to a normal loving relationship even when he lives in a dream- like utopian city. Therefore, he returns to brute reality and back to his life in Tripoli.

The third volume of the trilogy takes place in the city of reality, Tripoli. His wife, Fatima, wants a child, but he is not interested. Once again, he becomes depressed and alienated from his wife's family and from his boring job at the university. Before slipping into a deeper depression, however, he meets Sana Amir, a beautiful and intelligent pharmacy graduate student at the University of Tripoli. She becomes the woman who lights up his life as the title of the third book of the trilogy indicates. When Fatima discovers her husband's new love, Khalil insists on a divorce. He is even willing to relinquish their flat because he is so eager to be free from this union.

Khalil becomes a free and happy man in love with Sana. One day he meets his childhood friend, Juma Abu Khatwa, who goes to al-Azhar University but returned to Tripoli to become a singer by the name of Anwar Jalal.

Anwar invites Khalil to his night parties where he discovers the fun life of music, dance, sex, and drinking. Despite the fact that alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex are restricted by state laws, Anwar's parties are frequented and protected by state officials who seem to be alienated from the official claims of Islamic purity. (12) Khalil sarcastically chastises the hypocrisy of a society where "People in his city burn trees and replace them with pillars of cement, and where camels are slaughtered and replaced by big iron insects called cars."(13) Through Khalil's character, the novelist expresses his distaste not only for some of the tribal and Islamic laws, but also the new consumerism of the modern oil economy because it marginalizes individuals like Khalil who do not fit in. Khalil is now completely alienated from what he views as the rigid social values of honor and family. He finds the university restrictive and plagued by corruption. One day he drives his car around the city of Tripoli thinking: "My city is no longer a village but not yet a city not Eastern or Western; it does not belong to the past nor to the present, between the desert and the sea, between past time and a time that is not coming."(14) This is a significant statement as it expresses the middle class, cosmopolitan, and modernist views of al-Faqih toward his city, and the fact that Libyan society is dominated by hinterland rural forces. He straggles with his society's historical specificity, the hegemony of the rural and tribal forces of the hinterland over the weak urban centers.
This historical specificity in Libya is different from other Eastern Arab societies such as Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon where notables and large landowners in big urban cities such as Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut dominate the countryside. Libya has had two leaders after independence, King Idriss al-Sanusi and Muamar al-Qaddafi. Both came from and were supported by social forces from the hinterland. (15) This historical context is essential to understand the causes of alienation of a western educated intellectual such as Khalil al- Imam, who finds his escape in alcohol, sex, and music. The problem of intellectual displacement from the west and their own societies is not unique to al-Faqih and is shared by many in the third world. The causes of this displacement are cultural encounter and social class. Third world societies have experienced capitalist colonialization by European states and found themselves struggling to discover their identity. But many third world intellectuals have come from a middle- or upper- class background and therefore look down at their own peasant/tribal cultures using the language of modernity and progress.

Plagued by his conflicting desires in the real city, Khalil cannot wait to be happy with Sana, the woman who now lights his passage through life. But, in a wild destructive moment he tries to rape her in his apartment.

She leaves him, and he must now face himself and his troubles. Torn between dreams and reality, he can no longer teach, and the university fires him. He becomes a full member of Anwar's group, and the trilogy ends with the statement, "A time has passed, another is not coming and will never come." Although the ending is sad and pessimistic, it is nonetheless realistic. Khalil's life and his society are still full of contradictions, and there can be no change in Khalil's life as long as these contradictions exist.

Many other Arab writers have dealt with these questions, among them the Egyptian Tawfiq al-Haqim and the Sudanese al-Tayib Salih. (16) Like the Sudan, Libya was a colony of Italy from 1911 to 1943 and, from 1943 to 1951 it was occupied by the British and French armies who defeated the German and Italian forces in the destructive battles of World War II.In 1951, England and the United States engineered the creation
of an independent Libyan state in exchange for a political alliance with military bases. Therefore, Khalil al-Imam's trip to Scotland is the result of the colonial and cultural hegemony of Great Britain over Libya after 1943. Al-Faqih's Trilogy is similar to al- Tayib Salih's novel, Season of the Migration to the North. Both examine the dislocation and alienation of Arab men and their confrontation with westernization and modernity in different overtones: Sudanese and Libyan. Nevertheless, there are certainly differences between both works.

Salih's novel deals with the impact of colonial dislocation while al-Faqih's trilogy, two decades later, is concerned with post- colonial nationalist culture.

The roots of a torn personality such as Khalil's are not found in the traveling of the novel genre. (17) Most Arab novelists focus mainly on East/West encounters, but in the case of al-Faqih's trilogy, the protagonist's fundamental alienation is from his own society. Khalil is moody, unpredictable, and violent, like the topic of his doctoral dissertation. That is why this novel is as complex and multifaceted as al-Tayib Salih's Season of the Migration to the North. Like Mustafa Said, Khalil al-Imam faces violence and uncertainties in Great Britain and at home in northern Sudan and western Libya. Moreover, the Libyan novelist brilliantly adopts the style and narration of The Arabian Nights, especially in the first and second books.

But what are the roots of Khalil's troubles and unpredictability, especially his feelings toward women? The novelist suggests that the problem of Khalil is of culture and class. Al-Faqih gives the reader a clue from Khalil's childhood in the village. Khalil almost dies because the man who circumcises him uses an unclean knife which causes an inflammation of the penis. Due to the lack of medical care and rampant poverty in the village, Khalil cannot be treated before migrating with his family to the city of Tripoli. The physical problem of his penis carries with it the patriarchal wounded male identity to which Khalil refers in the trilogy: "This penis which I almost lost due to my circumcision is the only thing that Sana does not have."(18) Khalil uses violence and sex with women to assert his personality and male ego. He elaborates more by stating, "I know that sex is natural, but I pursue it with a psychology that carries with it old wounds of tribal societies that migrated to the cities. I love and hate every woman. I hold them responsible for the feeling of shame I felt after each time I masturbated. These feelings are the ones that destroyed my relationship with Linda and Sana."(19) This is the root of his sexual and social troubles. He becomes aware of it when he travels to Britain and becomes
distanced from Libyan culture when he is able to look back at his society.
Khalil's disillusionment is also political since he is alienated from his society, his tribe, his family, the university, and the State. He blames all of them for his emotional, sexual, and political alienation.

The trilogy explodes with all these contradictions and gives no direct clue as to how they can be resolved. According to the author, there can be no happy ending to this complex novel, not until Libyan society itself resolves these conflicts. The author does not apologize for these contradictions, nor does he create a happy ending for his novel. Indeed, these are not unique contradictions since other societies experiencing colonialism, economic transformation, and social and cultural dislocation suffer the same challenges. What seems unique to Libyan society is its persisting autonomous kinship and Islamic social organizations, its weak urban centers, and its reluctance to adopt the modem nation-state.

* A paper published in Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)) – Winter 1998 - on Ahmed Fagih`s Trilogy [I Shall Present You with Another City: Trilogy-I]. London: Riad al- Rayyas, Books,1991. 241 pp. Paper.

Ahmad Ibrahim al-Faqih dramatizes these cultural and social conflicts from a middle class modernist perspective and consequently brings Libyan society into contemporary history.

Notes

1. See Catherine Zuckert, "Why Political Scientists want to study Literature," PC: Political Science and Politics, XXVIII: 2 (June 1995), pp.189-190; and Bradford Burns, "The Novel as History: A Reading Guide, "in his book, Latin America, New Jersey, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 6th Edition, 1994, pp.355-362.

2. I relied on oral traditions in my study of Libyan social history. See my book The Making of Modern Libya, State Formation, Colonization and Resistance, 1830-1932, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994.

3. For an introduction to the modem Arabic novel see Roger Allen, The Arabic Novel, An Historical And Critical Introduction, Syracuse, New York: University of Syracuse press, 1982. On modem Libyan literature see Muhammad Ahmad Atiyya, Fi al-Adab al-Libi al-Hadith [On Modern Libyan Literature] Tripoli: Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, 1973; and for a survey of the Libyan novel see Sammar Ruhi al-Faysal, Dirasat Fi al- Riwaiya al Libiyya [Studies in the Libyan Novel] Tripoli: Al-Munsha al- Ama Li al-Nashir Wa Al-Tawzi Wa Illan, 1983.

4. Ibrahim al-Kuni's focus is the opposite of al-Faqih's. He writes about Libyan society from within. Al-Kuni's novels and short stories are about the Libyan Sahara, its people, animals and legends, not about urban life like al-Faqih's. For a good introduction to Ibrahim al-Kuni's work see Ferial J. Ghazoul, "Al-Riwaiya al-Sufiyya Fi al- Adab al- Maghribi," [The Sufi Novel In the Maghrib] ALIF, 17(1997), pp.28-53.

5. For an analysis of the impact of oil on Libyan society see A.J. Allan, Libya: The Experience of Oil, Boulder, Colo: West view Press, 1981: and A.J. Allan, ed., Libya Since Independence, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982. On migration to the city of

Tripoli see James Harrison, "Migrants in the City of Tripoli," Geographical Journal, 57(July 1967), p.415, and Yasin al-Kabir, Al-Muhajirun Fi Trabulus al-Gharb [Immigrants to the City of Tripoli] Beirut: Mahad al-Inma al-Arabi, 1982.

6. For an overview of al-Faqih's publications see Lee Rong Jian, "Mazij Min al-Hulm Wa al-Dhakira," [A Mixture of Memory and Imagination] Adab Wa Naqd, 1992, pp.110-113.

7. Despite al-Faqih's subtle criticism of Libyan politics, and his disillusionment with Pan-Arab politics, he has served as a Libyan diplomat, and wrote an epilogue to Qaddafi's collection of short stories, Al-Qariyya al- Qariyya, al-Ard al-Ard Wa Intihar Raid al Fada, [The Village the Village, the Land the Land, and the Suicide of an Astronaut] Zawiyya: Mataba al- Wahda al-Arabiyya, 1993.

8. See al-Faqih's interview in Al-Wasat, 815, 1995, pp. 60-65.

9. The character of Fatima in the trilogy is represented in a static way. For an alternative female perspective see the work of the Libyan writer Sharifa al Qayadi, Min Awraqi al-Khasa, [From My Private Papers], Tripoli: Al-Munsha al-Ama Li al-Nashir wa Tawzi Wa Illan, 1986.

10. On the influence of Sufi Islam on Maghribi literature see Ferial J. Ghazoul, ibid., pp. 28-53.

11. See the interview with al-Faqih in Al-Wasat, ibid., p.61, and his essay in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 5391, 1 September 1993.

12. On the politics of Islamic laws in Libya see Ann Elizabeth Mayer, "Legislation in Defense of Arabo-Islamic Sexual Mores," American Journal of Comparative law, 27, 1979, pp.541-559, and her chapter "In Search of Sacred Law: The Meandering Course of Qadhafi's legal policy," in Dirk Vandewalle, ed., Qadhafi's Libya, 1969-1994, New York: St. Martin Press,1995.

13. A1-Faqih, trilogy-III, p.256.

14. Ibid., p.235.

15. King Idriss's social base was in the Eastern region, Barqa, while Qaddafi was born in the central region, and went to school in the southern region, Fezzan.

16. For a comparative analysis of this genre see Mary N. Layoun, Travels of A Genre, The Modern Novel and Ideology,Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University press, 1990. On Arab intellectuals views of modernity and identity see the classical critique by Abdallah Laroui, The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual:

Traditionalism or Historicism?, trans. Diarmid Caramel, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, Issa J. Boulata, "Encounter between East and West: A Theme in Contemporary Arabic Novels," Middle East Journal (1976), pp.49-62, and on Tayib Salih' s novel see Saree S. Makdisi, "The Empire Renarrated: Season of Migration to the North and the Reinvention of the Present," Critical Inquiry, 18:4, Summer 1992, pp. 804-820. For a female Arab perspective on the western cultural encounter see the Egyptian critic and novelist Radwa Ashour, Al-Rihla, Yawmiyyat Taliba Masriyya Fi America, [The Trip, Days of an Egyptian Student in America] Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1983.

17. For an overview of the rise of the novel in Third World literature see Mary N. Layoun, ibid., pp. 3-20.

18. Al-Faqih, trilogy-III, p. 195.

19. Al-Faqih, trilogy-I, p. 150.Ali Abdullatif Ahmida is an associate professor of political science at the University of New England, Biddeford, Maine. He is the author of The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, And Resistance, 1830-1932 which was a finalist for the Albert Hourani book award in 1995.
Currently he is working on a manuscript, "The Nation-State In the Maghrib:
Rescuing History from Colonialism and Nationalism, 1879-
1956."
COPYRIGHT 1998 Association of Arab-American University
Graduates
Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif, Sa Ahibuka Madinatu Akhura.(book reviews)., Vol. 20, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), 03-22-1998, pp 105(9)


Gardens of the Night

By Prof. Aida Bamia

Gardens of the Night, Ahmad Faqih. Amin al-Ayouti and Suraya Allam trans. London: Quarter Books Limited, 1995. pp.488.

Gardens of the Night, written by the Libyan writer Ahmad AlFaqih, is a trilogy composed of the following parts: I shall offer another city, These are the Borders of my Kingdom and A Tunnel Lit by one Woman. The three parts published in a single volume correspond to the past, the present and the future of the protagonist. While the past has shaped the protagonist's personality and impacted his life, the present is divided between his waking state and his bouts with depression. The future remains unattainable and considered from a distance, like Moses overlooking the promised land .
The protagonist, Khalil al-Imam is poised, in Part I in the present, suffering from a nervous breakdown that makes him see black birds hovering over his head. He recalls the past when he was a doctoral student in London writing a dissertation on The Thousand and One Nights .

Ahmed Fagih:
A literary profile

By Susannah Tarbush

The recent publication by Kegan Paul of five books by the leading Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih was marked by a reception at London’s Kufa Gallery, a showcase for the arts and culture of the Arab world. Many testimonials were given by speakers who included Dr Salah Niazi, Mr Tahim Salaih and the Sudanese writer Tayib Salih whose novel Bandarshah was also published by Kegan Paul. The following is an excerpt from an address delivered at the reception by Susannah Tarbush.

‘It is a pleasure to be in at the birth of these five books - should it be a quintet, the Tripoli quintet perhaps? Or a pentad of books? For those of us who have followed the process since Peter Hopkins first announced that Kegan Paul would be publishing the five books it has been a long gestation, but having had the chance to have a preview of the books I can say the wait was worth it.

At a recent conference in London on Arabic literary translation, the Director General of the British Council, David Green, said that although Arabic like English is a great diaspora language that is now spoken in every continent, simple observation in any book shop in London shows that there is far less Arab work on the shelves than there should be. I would guess that these five books will comprise a good fraction of the literature translated from Arabic into English published in London this year.
If we look at the Arab map of translated fiction then some countries are much better represented than others. From North Africa, works by many writers from Egypt, Morocco and Algeria (sometimes writing in French) are translated, as are some writers from Tunisia. In the Mashreq, Lebanon has probably been better represented so far than Syria.

Unfortunately, little fiction by Iraqi writers seems to be translated into English at the moment. Libya is one of those Arab countries that is as yet poorly represented in translation into English, so these books help fill that gap.

Ahmed was a key figure on the Arab cultural scene in London in the 1970’s and early 1980’s when he was Editor-in- Chief of Azure - a glossy English-language magazine covering all the Arab arts including theatre, heritage, civilizations, antiquities, art and literature - and when his play Gazelles was put on at the Shaw Theatre in 1982. Ahmed came to England first in 1968. Like so many others of his generation, he had been deeply shocked by the 1967 war, and coming to Britain represented a change of scene. He first went to a tutorial college and then studied drama in London. After the revolution in Libya he held various positions, including being Director of the Institute of Music and Drama and Head of the Department of Arts and Literature at the Ministry of Information and Culture. Some years later he did a doctorate at Edinburgh University on the Libyan short story. Ahmed has been a prolific writer since his teens. He has worn many hats in his time - short story writer, novelist, journalist, academic, diplomat, actor, dramatist, playwright, TV personality.

A few biographical notes. Ahmed was born in Mizda, an oasis village south of Tripoli. This rural background and his knowledge of village life, its rituals, gossip and hardships is an important element in his writing. Many of Ahmed’s works also have ecological and environmental components. A recurrent theme is women and the relations between the sexes. Ahmed’s stories often start with a premise which is then developed with some kind of logic into a more and more fantastic scenario, and yet the whole exercise is carefully controlled and well crafted. Although Ahmed’s stories are engaging and often very comic with a well-developed sense of the absurd, they have disturbingly dark undertones. In the stories there is a world of floating people, often in transit, suffering alienation and isolation. Several of the stories published here tell of journeys,of a man and a woman and of the gulf of understanding between them.

One of the five books published here is a collection of twelve short stories by Libyan writers edited by Ahmed. In the introduction to this volume, Ahmed describes the dire impact of the Italian occupation on Libyan literature and culture, and how after independence in 1949, at which time the United Nations described Libya as the poorest country, a new literary era started. As he writes, ‘ the short story, a form newly introduced to the literary scene in Libya, provided a suitable and convenient medium to express the anger and grievances of the writers and to convey their strong indignation against a backward and unjust social system”. The advent of large-scale oil revenues in the 1960’s brought new issues and social and cultural upheavals, which were reflected in the writing of the time. Then in the 1970’s after the revolutions there was state subsidizing of publishing and new types of material started to appear and new types of issues emerged, all captured by Libyan writers.

These five books are a superb introduction to the work of Ahmed Fagih and I hope this brief survey has given you an appetite to read some of these stories, plays and the novel for yourself."

Charles, Diana and Me and Other Stories
Ahmed Fagih
(Kegan Paul, £19.95)

This is one of five slim books by Libya's greatest living writer,published by Kegan Paul - a distinguished imprint for more than 100 years, but now rather caught in the interstices of international publishing. There's real literary quality in the tales themselves, the title one about Diana (written before her death) being the ironical address of an obsessive to the princess. The effect is rather as if a British writer had written a similar story about Colonel Gadafy.

The other books in the series are: Valley of the Ashes (a coming-of-age novella), Who's Afraid of Agatha Christie?

(more short stories), Gazelles (plays) and Libyan Stories , a collection of the work of others edited by Fagih.Fagih is clearly quite brilliant, but the translation feels bad: it is
a further mark of Fagih's abilities that his merit shines through nonetheless. In other words, you get a sense of genius brought low. And by itself, too: Fagih reportedly translated the works himself with the help of friends.Nor, alas, have the books been packaged in a very attractive way – it doesn't inspire confidence that the publisher misspells its own name on the cover of Libyan Stories. But Kegan/Keegan Paul is to be congratulated for bringing Fagih's intriguing work to Britain.

Small press corner
Guardian Unlimited
Saturdyay, August 19.2000

And here is an article by professor of Arabic in literature in praise of Ahmed Fagih's contribution to the progress of the Arabic novel

Gardens of the Night

By Prof. Aida Bamia

Gardens of the Night, Ahmad Faqih. Amin al-Ayouti and Suraya Allam trans. London: Quarter Books Limited, 1995. pp.488.

Gardens of the Night, written by the Libyan writer Ahmad AlFaqih, is a trilogy composed of the following parts: I shall offer another city, These are the Borders of my Kingdom and A Tunnel Lit by one Woman. The three parts published in a single volume correspond to the past, the present and the future of the protagonist. While the past has shaped the protagonist's personality and impacted his life, the present is divided between his waking state and his bouts with depression. The future remains unattainable and considered from a distance, like Moses overlooking the promised land .
The protagonist, Khalil al-Imam is poised, in Part I in the present, suffering from a nervous breakdown that makes him see black birds hovering over his head. He recalls the past when he was a doctoral student in London writing a dissertation on The Thousand and One Nights .

Part III tackles the solution to the protagonist's depression whereas the actual depression is related in Part II. His vagabond mind takes him to an ideal but imaginary city, a utopia that offers all forms of freedom lacking in his native city Tripoli, the Libyan Tripoli not the Lebanese Tripoli, as some tourists had thought.
It is obvious that the protagonist is in search of an elusive happiness symbolized by an ideal woman that he fails to keep. Both in reality and in the dreams of his delirious world, he succeeds in conquering the most sought-after woman but ma..._ages to lose her, driven by a tendency for self-destruction and a feeling of doom.
The novel is written against the backdrop of the well-known book The Thousand and One Nights. The main characters of the Nights, Scheherazade and Shahrayar serve as symbols and points of reference with which the protagonist and the people in his society are compared and contrasted. Moreover, the events of the folk stories of the Nights serve to feed the hallucinations of the protagonist's sick mind. In many ways, the reader feels as if The Thousand and One Nights never loses its actuality and is filled with
lessons and hints that should help in the understanding of the human psyche.
Faqih seems extremely concerned with human nature, the capacity of people to lead a double life and the manifestations of hypocrisy in public and private life. It is obvious that Khalil al- Imam seeks frank, open and sincere human relations where people practice what they preach, and defend their ideals and ideologies at any cost. Yet he reveals in Part I, the fate of those who apply this principle through the English student Sandra who paid a high price for her position.

The protagonist, however is able to live in an ideal world only in his imagination, and describes in great details, a model country called Coral City. Yet he does not achieve happiness. He searches in vain for an unattainable goal that remains elusive and undefinable. Overcome by this obsession, he opens the locked room (a must in most fairy tales) in the palace where he lived, in spite of all the recommendations to the contrary. This act marks the beginning of Khalil's destruction and that of his dream world. But the room is nothing more than the invisible side of a person I s nature, the one hidden from others to safeguard appearances.A similar room is described in Part III, in the seaside resort where Khalil's friends from different walks of life, used to meet and show a side of themselves that was not known or even suspected by the public. Those who preached morality,faithfulness, family bonds, conducted themselves in total contradiction to their words. Through the protagonist's contacts with this group he discovers and reveals for the reader, the corruption of his society, particularly in the spheres of power'. with his efforts to escape from this hypocritical life and remain
in the shadow of his fiance Sana, a double of Budur whom he met in Coral City, fail. He is defeated by his weaknesses and the satisfaction of a moment of pleasure as he tries to rape his fiance The novel ends on a pessimistic note conveying a feeling that nothing would change no matter how much a person tries. Happiness is short lived and consists of fleeting moments that slip through one's life like water through the fingers of one's hands. Creatures are in fact driven by optimism. The author stresses the fact that the future is a time that" ... has not yet begun" and that it "will never begin" Gardens of the Night, is beautifully rendered in English. In spite of some spelling mistakes and missing articles, it reflects the assiduous efforts that the translators put into it. They particularly succeeded in conveying the emotions of the characters, the variety of sounds and intonations reflecting stresses and mood changes that only enlightened translators, with a native speaker's knowledge of the language, can achieve.

Aida A. Bamia
Professor of Arabic Language and literature
University of Florida Gainesville, Florida.


 
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