The Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa and I agreed to meet by the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, in the heart of Tripoli. I was there a few minutes early and walked toward the familiar structure in that invisible atmosphere that surrounds us when we find ourselves in a place that has meant a great deal but from which we had been separated. I had not been back to the city of my childhood in over three decades. I left a boy; returned a man.
The sun was sharp. The shade beneath the stone arch was as physical and reliable as a lake. The structure was built some 1,850 years ago, a year or two after Aurelius came to power. I remembered the opening lines from one of Khaled Mattawa’s poems—“East of Carthage: An Idyll”—when he addresses the Roman emperor:
Look here, Marcus Aurelius, we’ve come to see
your temple, deluded the guards, crawled through a hole
in the fence. Why your descendent, my guide and friend
has opted for secrecy, I don’t know. But I do know
what to call the Africans, passport-less, yellow-eyed
who will ride the boat before me for Naples, they hope.
I had first encountered the poet’s work more than a decade before. I got hold of his book Ismailia Eclipse. I was living in a tiny house in the English market town of Bedford. There was a river nearby—the River Great Ouse—and although the sun was hidden that day, it occasionally found a gap in the clouds. I wanted to be outside. But I could not leave my bed: a thin mattress on the bare wood floor beneath a large window that looked out onto an unkempt garden. I remember the emptiness of that morning: emptiness and these precious poems that alighted on delicate moments and gestures, unutterable shifts in private lives.
I remained there until lunch. I read Ismailia Eclipse cover to cover twice. There was a strangely familiar quality to the poems, as if they had been written by a sibling soul enduring similar burdens: exile (from country, family, and language); the need to take account of history, to attend to the merciless present; and, most of all, an ardent, humanist commitment to guard the spirit of the artist and the life of the mind from the usual urgencies: politics, money, and fear.
We read to discover the world—that is perhaps true—but we also read to encounter ourselves. And that Sunday I felt the world had been nudged a little by these poems, or had expanded ever so slightly that when I eventually did leave the house, I felt remembered. Someone had acknowledged my existence.
History can accuse Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime of a multitude of sins; indifference to literature is not one of them. The late Libyan dictator and his security apparatus had a deadly interest in writers. It regarded them with the superstitious anxiety a child might have for ghosts. Made up of loyal allies and family members, the organ of the Gaddafi regime grew, over the 42 years of the colonel’s rule, like a thorny bush winding up the trunk of a tree. It protected, but also isolated the leader. It acted upon his wishes, but also in anticipation of them. As a writer, you could never be certain whether something you had written was not going to offend the leader himself or one of his eager servants. There was plenty of evidence to support the paranoia. Writers had been imprisoned and killed, and often not for a clear reason. What was certain was that, notwithstanding the dictatorship’s low opinion of the high arts, the regime devoted serious resources and attention in co-opting or else silencing certain writers. And it did so with extraordinary success. At the expense of authentic artistic life, it created a poisonous atmosphere that reached you no matter where you lived, found you in your rooms even in Bedford, inviting you always to subservience or else to obsessive, rage-filled opposition. To resist both, you had to cut yourself off.
That same day that I read Ismailia Eclipse, I sat down and wrote Khaled Mattawa a letter. We met for the first time two years later, and continued to see each other wherever and whenever we could: in London, where I was living by then; in Ann Arbor, where Khaled is an English professor at the University of Michigan; at literary festivals in foreign cities; snatching walks, talking about our two obsessions: literature and Libya.
Weeks after Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in removing their dictators, the Libyan revolution broke out in February 2011. Over the long and uncertain months of struggle and war that followed, Khaled wrote and gave interviews articulating the plight of ordinary Libyans and the country’s raw need to live free from political oppression.
When the Libyan dictator was captured and brutally killed in October 2011, Khaled wrote “After 42 Years,” an extraordinary poem that captured the dark joy as well as the horror and savage complexities of the event. The poem is a rare literary example of how a poet can respond to a contemporary event and write from within the fervor and fire of the present. With composure and honesty—always wanting, always willing to feel for the other—the poet revealed and held for us the historical dimension of that moment. I remember hearing him read it on the radio. I found it difficult to breathe till that final line: “There is no ‘after’ until we pray for all the dead.”
And there we were, friends who had endured exile and revolution, meeting by the Marcus Aurelius Arch, back home in the “after.”
He walked toward me. His wife, Reem Gibriel, a Libyan artist, beside him. Their young, American-born daughter, Salma, sitting on Khaled’s shoulders, the heels of her sandals tapping his chest.
In 1979 at the age of 15, Khaled was sent by his family to complete his studies in the United States. He never returned. He became an acclaimed poet, a successful university professor, and one of the best translators of Arabic verse to English. Among his prizes are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets award, and a PEN award.
After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Khaled and Reem believed the new Libya offered a rare opportunity for civic society. They detected an appetite, particularly among the young, for free exchange and culture. They were convinced that a liberal and authentic engagement with the arts would help Libyan society toward its path to democracy.
In January 2012, the couple took Salma and relocated to Tripoli. They set up Arete, an NGO supporting grassroots arts and culture events and projects. The word, arete, is from the ancient Greek, meaning knowledge, excellence in work, or living up to one’s highest human potential. The progress Arete has accomplished in such a short time confirms Reem and Khaled’s faith in the potential of young Libyans.
In April 2012, Arete helped set up and organize the inaugural Tripoli International Poetry Festival. Plans were under way for an ongoing, year-round cinema club. A video art exhibit, the first of its kind in Libya, was going to be staged in El-Madina El-Kadima, the old Ottoman heart of the capital. The video installations were going to be projected on the walls of the historic buildings. Art and music workshops were being planned, and an artist-talk series, inviting artists from around the world to show and speak about their work, had just been launched.
Such initiatives would be extraordinary anywhere after a revolution and a bloody war, and where basic security remains a challenge, but more so when you consider the dictatorship’s systematic destruction of Libyan civic society. This is a country where, for much of the past four decades, setting up a publishing house, a cinema, or a magazine could be, and on a whim, regarded by the authorities as a crime or a challenge to its supremacy. Most Libyans born after Gaddafi had seized power in 1969, which is to say the majority of Libyans, have never been to a literary or arts festival.
Tripoli is a layered city: Italian town planning and architecture on top of Arab and Ottoman; the Romans built over what the Greeks left behind; the Greeks on top of the Phoenicians. It is a city where civilizations had erased and followed one another. You often encounter different epochs on the same street corner. It is as if the city remains undecided, or open to claim, or uncertain about its direction. It is young yet ancient, veteran yet novice. A capital city, a port, and a crossroads. It sits at the center of the southern Mediterranean coast, clutching the northern lip of the African continent, looking out at the immeasurable blueness of the sea. A city cased in light, and what unusual light it is: white and brilliant, it does not so much fall on things as it holds them. A capturing, fervent light that seems governed by an eternal and indifferent temperament. Nature is the only true heir here. Everything man-made—even the glorious Arch of Marcus Aurelius—seems innocent and passing.
Reem and Khaled took me through the streets of El-Madina El-Kadima. The narrow alleyways kept off the fierce sun. The modest exteriors of the houses were so understated that when a door opened and I caught a glimpse of the interior, it was as indiscreet an act as catching a neighbor undressing. A dark hall leading through to the inevitable promise of a courtyard: a fountain, plants, the shadow of someone passing. I had studied such buildings at architecture school. I know, for example, that there is nothing accidental about the dimensions of the width and height of the courtyards. Their proportions were decided by the scientific intention of bringing into the heart of the home warmth in winter and coolness in summer. This might be partly why when you look in from outside—as I was secretly persisting to do—and catch the agile sport of the light, the mysterious dark and the shameless white, one feels a longing to enter. Most of the families who own these houses have lived here for generations. They are traders, with shops or businesses in the area. For centuries, even through the worst of times, this heart of the city pulsed.
Every so often we encountered one of Reem and Khaled’s new friends or acquaintances. The couple have become well known, particularly among artists and intellectuals. In an incredibly short time, they and Arete have become central to cultural life in Tripoli. Little Salma was transported onto my shoulders. I asked her how she liked living in Libya, and whether she missed Ann Arbor. She thought for a minute then said, matter-of-factly, “Libya is where Grandma lives.”
Later that day, we went together to attend the first of the artist-talk series that Arete had just established. It was to be held in a small gallery in the center, not far from the new Parliament building. We found the road blocked. There was talk of trouble, of armed men trying to break into the Parliament. We took a different route and reached the Parliament. We saw members of an armed militia surrounding the building. We were told that the militia had broken in, gone up to the office of the prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, attacked him, and tore off his shirt. The declared reason was that this particular militia had not received the funds it had demanded from the government.
We drove in silence to the gallery. News of the attack was on the radio. Outraged commentators spoke about “decorum,” “the honor of the Parliament.” We doubted that anyone was going to turn up to the artist’s talk. It felt like we were just going through the motions. But a few minutes before the advertised time, people began to arrive at the gallery. They kept coming until every seat was taken. When the artist showed slides of her work and spoke, there was something nearly sacred about the quality of the silence: a determined and committed stillness.