South of the Mediterranean: The Best Books on Libya

The Sahara Desert, Libya/Photo © Aleksandra H. Kossowska/Shutterstock

Located in Northern Africa, Libya has become familiar to many Americans in recent years first as one of the central countries in the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and later as the site of the infamous 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. More recently, Libya was one of the seven Muslim majority countries named in President Trump’s January 27 travel ban – a widely contested executive order that has since been replaced with a narrower order, although one that still includes Libya.

After decades as an Italian colony, Libya gained its independence shortly after World War II in 1951 and declared itself the Kingdom of Libya. However, following a military coup in 1969, Muammar Gaddafi became the country’s de facto leader and would retain iron-clad control of the nation until he was overthrown and eventually killed in 2011. Libya has been in flux ever since. Gaddafi proved a mercurial leader known for both his eccentric behavior and brutality.

Libya has a deep history that can be difficult to discern. Under the Gaddafi regime, information of any sort was strictly controlled by the government – libraries and cultural centers were shut down, the government took control of publishing and authors who criticized the Gaddafi government were often imprisoned, exiled, or killed. As a result, a strong literary community that had flourished between World War II and the 1969 coup all but died out. While a new generation of Libyan writers are beginning to find their footing, Libyan literature still has not quite recovered. Some of the books below represent a snapshot of Libya’s unfortunately scant literary offerings – both well-regarded classics and new voices. Others should provide insight into a country marked by turmoil and decades of oppression.