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.
Prolific Arab novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni is arguably Libya’s best-known author. In The Bleeding of the Stone, Al-Koni uses the magical realism that defines much of his work to tell the story of a young shepherd whose traditional tribal existence is soon at odds with the encroaching modern world.
Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between
Hisham Matar is among a new generation of Libyan novelists beginning to make their mark. His new memoir, The Return, recounts his search for the truth behind his father’s disappearance. A prominent critic in exile of Gaddafi, Matar’s father, Jaballa, was kidnapped and placed in a secret Libyan prison when Matar was nineteen. Following the fall of Gaddafi, Matar and his mother returned to their home country with the hope of locating him. Hisham Matar’s novels, In The Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, are also worthwhile reads.
Ahmed Fagih is one of Libya’s more celebrated writers, and along with a few others, accounted for a good portion of Libya’s literary output during the early years of the Gaddafi regime. Homeless Rats chronicles the story of a group of Bedouins struggling for survival in the harsh desert environment.
This satirical novel by Mansour Bushnaf was first published in 2008 and promptly banned in Libya. At turns comical and poignant, Chewing Gum is a sardonic view into the ways a society operates under an oppressive regime.
Alessandro Spina is the pen name of Basili Shafik Khouzam, a Benghazi-born writer. The Confines of the Shadow charts the transformation of Benghazi from a small Ottoman village in 1910 to an oil rich city at the center of an uprising in the 1960s through a collection of short novels and stories.
The short story has a strong influence in Arab literature, including in Libya. In this book that is equal parts travel log and anthology, Ethan Chorin – a U.S. diplomat stationed in Libya from 2004 to 2006 – tracked down and translated a number of Libyan short stories with a sense of place.
Ronald Bruce St. John
For a broad understanding of Libyan history, Libya: From Colony to Revolution is a concise view into the turbulent North African nation. The book chronicles ten time periods including the Ottoman occupation, the Italian colonial period, and the Gaddafi Regime.
Libya in the Time of Revolution
This book from British correspondent Lindsey Hilsum is a definitive account of the 2011 Libyan Civil War and the fall of Gaddafi. Told through the stories of six individuals living through the chaotic and dangerous period, Sandstorm chronicles the war from the earliest protests through the toppling of Gaddafi’s government and the dictator’s violent death.