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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 38, September 10, 2011

Speaking the Libyan Mind

Tuesday 13 September 2011, by Uttam Sen

A voice that informs several themes, at least in debate, is that of the Libyan novelist, Hisham Matar. Though an obvious empathiser of the anti-Gaddafi rebels, he has enunciated the idea of change in universal terms: “For the first time in our history the idea of democracy is a real, tangible idea, not a fairy tale. Revolutions aren’t about negative objectives, about simply getting rid of people. They are about discovering who we are; and what it means to be Libyans.” Gaddafi might have “got rid” of people by the dozen, but was being emulated by the rebels. Over and above, priceless historical and archeo-logical treasures were either being destroyed or looted by unscrupulous traders for export to Europe. Libyan self-discovery would be poorer for the wipeout of invaluable samples of Neolithic, prehistoric, Berber, Garamantian, Phoenician, Punic, Greek, Roman and Byzantine culture. Despite the inconsistency, the disposal of a dictatorship provided the stimulus for a sensitive projection.

Both dictator and writer had his story in mind but in his own indelible image: “One of the objects of dictatorship is to create a narrative that defines what it means to be in the present and what the future might look like; in fact it even tries to rewrite history. Dictators are involved in the same thing as novelists: they are involved in narrative.”

The critical difference was discernible in Libya’s defining moment, which was also a revelation of resilience within stereotypes. The urge for freedom and democracy had erupted against a nomadic, tribal authoritarianism, though the human stock at its cornerstone was the same.

THE purveyor of finer sensibility and feeling, the novelist, happened to be located amidst the putative usurpers. He saw their response as a reaction to a stagnant, single-minded perspective that militated against evolvement and therefore growth, necessitating the imposition of the ruler’s will on an alienated people. But before one jumped to the formulaic, conventional conclusion of substitution by brand pluralism, there was another point of departure, namely, an Islamic life and language anticipated to replace the outworn despotism (that had a socialistic component in principle). The promise was of democracy and dynamism within familiar, indigenous spaces, not to be mistaken for the shadow of fundamentalism.

“The difference is that novelists are interested in narratives that mirror life, narratives that express conflicting empathies, that express the contradictions of what it means to be human, that express emotions, psychology.

“Dictators, on the other hand, write bad novels that are intolerant of change, that are simple-minded. And they do that by entering the most private aspects of our lives, by trying to affect even how people love one another, how people read, think about the future, about their children’s education.”

“Islamism,” Matar said, “is a very important element of daily life, and part of our heritage... resistance has to find a language, and the Muslim language is a very compelling, powerful and effective language for many people. I would be very surprised if the Muslim element doesn’t form part of the eventual Libyan government.”

But with what relative degree of success (to the past) human aspiration and security could be translated into tangibles was open to question. The beleaguered Libyan mode has not been a constant and Gaddafi’s standing among his people had been higher in better times, despite prolonged neglect of the east. Protracted authority (assumed by a 27-year-old Colonel in a political coup 40-odd years ago) without accountability or significant subsequent upgradation were the problems and democratic institutions, the agency to meet them.

Matar’s prescription for regenerating the human condition was moving. But given the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip, his precocious sensibility was visibly ahead of a people billed to adjust their aptitude to the world, particularly if and when relieved of the idiosyncratic force that had sustained command over oil.

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