When there is talk of Libya, you hardly hear anything about its culture. That's because many writers and intellectuals have lived there for years in a state of fear and afraid of being tortured. We hear nothing about Libyan culture because of the existing system in the country and also the total boycott of cultural activities.

I recently read the English magazine Banipal, which specialises in Arabic literature and is published from London. It had an article about the works of 17 authors from inside and outside Libya, as well as a profile of the pioneering literary figure, Ali Mustafa Al Misrati. It also noted that Libyan literature and culture is unknown.

I couldn't find that in Arabic. The hard-hitting and compelling short stories from these authors speak of their experiences in life, family ties, loss, emotion and fears, dreams, travelling, exploring different cultures, growing up and gender issues. They also have intriguing titles, such as Omar Al Kiddi's The Wonderful Short Life of the Dog Ramadan, Gazi Gheblawi's The Rosy Dream, Mohammad Al Asfar's The Hoopoe, Ahmad Fagih's pyschological drama Lobsters, Najwa Binshatwan's His Excellency the Eminence of the Void, Azza Kamil Al Maghour's The Bicycle, Mohammad Al Arishiya's The Snake Catcher, and Mohammad Al Anaizi's He was Holding a Rosary.

Besides, Giuma Bukleb gives us two tales set in North London, while Omar Abu Al Qasim Al Kikli and Redwan Abushwesha provide much food for thought with their very short satirical stories.

The excerpts and chapters from novels include Saleh Senoussi's historical saga Valley of the Wind, which is set in Ottoman times, Hesham Mattar's new English work Anatomy of a Disappearance, Wafa Al Bueissa's Hunger Has Other Faces, Ebrahim Al Koni's New Waw, which is about the birds of the desert, Mohammad Misrati's work-in-progress Mama Pizza, whose hero is Ali Guevara, and Razan Naim Mughrabi's Women of the Wind, which was short-listed for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Al Koni, who moved to Switzerland on a diplomatic mission, came to represent modern Libyan literature and that gave him an exposure to both the Arab world and beyond. They are a few more Libyan writers, including Ahmad Ebrahim Al Faqih, whose work has been published in several Arab nations.

Neglected sites

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the themes had been inspired by the bourgeois. The most prominent writers on this phase are Al Koni, Khalifa Fakhiri, Khalifa Hussain Mustafa Mohammad Salem Al Hajji, Mohammad Al Messallati Omar Abu Al Qasim, Abdul Salam Shahab, Mohammad Al Zentani, Tahir Aldwini and Fatima Mahmoud.

I must admit that Libyan culture is vast. The most amazing places to see are the museum of antiquities, which has artefacts dating back thousands of years. The Phoenician archaeological site of Sabratha by the sea is great, but has been neglected. There are a range of other sites and statues of Greek deities which are also suffering from neglect.

Libya is a beautiful and rich country, and even the descriptions about the country in the books of Al Koni are beautiful. What can one say about Al Koni and the great thinker Sadik Nayhoum? The young generation of intellectuals have been subjected to prison and torture since the mid-1970s. Some of them went into exile. Today's generation stayed away from the spotlight because critics and novelists in Libya were absent and marginalised. Maybe that's why Libyan literature has been ignored for so long.

A majority of literary figures have been marginalised due to a number of political reasons, and also because of the media. I feel that the absence of critics, apart from the dictatorship and scarcity of books contributes to the isolation of Libyan literature. Libya's creative elite have found refuge in various countries, and have left their mark not only on Arab culture but their works have also been translated into other languages, particularly English. Mattar and the excellent poet and translator Khalid Mattawa have done an immeasurable service in rendering numerous literary works and poems from Arabic into English.

Besides the fact that intellectual life and politics are completely without substance in Libya, one is left aghast at the incomprehensibly wretched state of education and culture in the country. Some intellectuals resigned themselves to silence in internal exile, while others left the country. The Libyan intelligentsia has disappeared. It is certainly impossible to hear their voices in the noisy and hollow chatter of panel discussions, where the thoughts of the revolutionary leader are showcased.

I think that literature will see a new dawn in Libya, and the turning point will be the words of Muammar Gaddafi, who called his people "rats and cockroaches".


Shakir Noori is a senior journalist and writer based in Dubai and Paris.