Peirene Press is known for publishing contemporary European literature in translation, but its latest offering takes us a little further afield, to Tripoli in the 1960s. Author Kamal Ben Hameda lives in Holland and writes in French, but this novella is set squarely in the Libya of his youth.
As a child growing up in England in the 1980s, the only time I ever heard about Libya was in news stories about Colonel Gaddafi. These days the news stories are different, but still it’s a country I know very little about beyond the truncated and sometimes distorted view presented by foreign media outlets.
So this book was something of a treat. For 104 pages I felt as if I really were living under the Tripoli sky, following the boy Hadachinou as he travels around from aunt to aunt, from shop to shop, eavesdropping on the adults’ stories and taking in the sights and sounds of the city along the way.
It was one of those late afternoons that I spent watching the clouds dance across the sky. In Tripoli these accumulations of condensation stretching across the horizon are a rarity, so I followed them until they almost disappeared, then turned to find new ones and drifted along with them. At that time of day, when the sun was more bearable, I enjoyed watching their shapes until the last rays of sun died.
When you read a passage like that, you can feel the glow of nostalgia, and for a while it feels as if Ben Hameda is viewing his childhood city through rose-coloured glasses. But then you get a passage like this:
Do you know what one local man did to his wife when she went to hospital to see a doctor without his permission? She was having trouble breathing, poor thing, and was often terribly out of breath. Every time she complained about it to her husband, he brushed her aside with a ‘stop being such a pain! I’ve got better things to be doing…. Go on, piss off, filthy thing!’ And when he found out that she’d dared to go to the doctor, he sliced off her nose and rejected her, saying, ‘Now you’ve got no nostrils you’ll be able to breathe perfectly well.'”
The book follows this pattern throughout, lulling you with charming anecdotes and beautiful descriptive passages before shocking you with a sudden burst of violence or injustice. We learn about Zaïneb, who falls in love with one man but is forced to marry another, and sets herself alight with petrol to escape it. Then there’s Siddena, born into slavery like the other abids (black people). Her father had spilled wine on someone’s hat during a festival, and as a result his master had decapitated him with a huge knife used for butchering sheep, and thrown his body to the dogs. There’s the woman whose husband beat her so badly that one day she replaced the turmeric in his couscous with rat poison, and more. Lots of horrific stories, and yet the book doesn’t feel overloaded with horror because the bulk of the narrative is still devoted to those harmless childhood anecdotes and descriptions. The violence only surfaces briefly, and then disappears again.
The book starts and finishes with an extract from the same bedtime story that Hadachinou’s Aunt Fatima used to tell him.
Seven girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and twirls and eats one of the girls.
Six girls inside a flute…
This evokes a feeling of circularity, and creates the impression that the world described in Under the Tripoli Sky will never end. But we know it will, of course, not only from our knowledge of Libyan history but also from those brief moments of violence in the book. The peace of Hadachinou’s childhood is an illusion, and can’t continue forever. Behind the scenes of this stable, unchanging society are terrible stories of forced marriage, domestic violence, oppression and injustice. The glimpses we see through the eyes of Hadachinou and the women telling the stories are both glimpses of what lies beneath, and of what is to come.
The result is a fascinating portrait of a society on the brink of change. It seems this is a type of book I like – it reminded me of two of my favourite novels, John Banville’s Birchwood and Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance. They’re very different from this one (and from each other) stylistically, but deal with that same theme of social change, and how it provokes both a sense of loss and an understanding that what was lost was also in some way illusory.