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July 2006

The Magic Lanterns Of Libyan Literature


Like a bottled genie, Libya's literature whispers to us mysteriously, until those moments when its container is buffed properly, its luster blazes and the spirit within reveals marvels and wonders beyond the imagination. It happened when Libya discovered oil in the 60s, and it struck a well of poetry, prose, and press that its fearful master soon bottled up.

Libyan storytellers have conjured literary styles and strategies to outwit dull-minded and tin-eared bureaucrats, revealing the magic words of free artistry. Ibrahim Al-Koni's "Right Course" shows the downside of desert-style finance. In Sadiq Neihoum's "The Sultan's Flotilla," the nail-biting ruler of a city fears its coming doom and manifold misfortunes, and in Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Fagih's "The Locusts," villagers join forces against a horde of insects while they sleep. And Mohammed Al-Asfar addresses life and loss in "Wet Sleeves," where elderly men observe the cycles of mourning, and in his "Mint Flavored Hiccups," where a fugitive's family revisits the past while awaiting the future.

Our poets echo the oral tradition while venerating the personal, in the intimacy of Salem el-Okli's love lyrics, Laila Neihoum's wry notes on modern life, and Ashur Etwebi's snapshot of a spot of time at a café.

Finally, we thank our guest editor, Khaled Mattawa, for collecting the work of this issue, and for his brave and shimmering introduction to contemporary Libyan literature.

Preface to the Libya Issue of Words Without Borders, July 2006

When it comes to countries that have been locked away—or locked out of—the Western world, Westerners tend to believe that little happens there during the time that they are not

The Right Course

1 The Camel He adopted the jenny as his mount after a disastrous experience with the malice of camels. In fact, it was the spiteful behavior of this species that drove him to the

The Sultan’s Flotilla

In ages of old, Jalu was a port city. People called it the "jewel of the seas." Its waters teemed with the ships of pirates and traders. Caravans arrived at Jalu laden with elephant tusk;

The Locusts

The village follows a never-changing script: Things are today exactly as they were yesterday, which is the same as they were the day before, and a year before that. There is Omran, dutifully

Wet Sleeves

They meet every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday morning in front of the newspaper shop, where they discuss concerns of the day, most of them too old to remember their exact age, the years only

Mint Flavored Hiccups

To Jean Genet I was anxiously staring at the walls in a room with drawn dark curtains. Father lay on the bed, his blind eyes peering into the ceiling, his hands searching for the pillow

Reckless Habits

The candlewick is close to my match, And the heart's eye Is startled of every shadow, So let me in slowly. A flung off illusion, The question no longer robs me of my alertness. I

Butterflies of Meaning

A poet's horizon Is filled with butterflies That's Afaf And Sakina, sending Her early morning messages To my sleepy day, Yussef the nonchalant Do worry at last When doing the

Sabratha Fleeing

Here you are now sitting in a cafe in Sabratha


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