The Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa and I agreed to meet by the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, in the heart of Tripoli. I was there a few minutes early and walked toward the familiar structure in that invisible atmosphere that surrounds us when we find ourselves in a place that has meant a great deal but from which we had been separated. I had not been back to the city of my childhood in over three decades. I left a boy; returned a man.
The sun was sharp. The shade beneath the stone arch was as physical and reliable as a lake. The structure was built some 1,850 years ago, a year or two after Aurelius came to power. I remembered the opening lines from one of Khaled Mattawa’s poems—“East of Carthage: An Idyll”—when he addresses the Roman emperor:
I had first encountered the poet’s work more than a decade before. I got hold of his book Ismailia Eclipse. I was living in a tiny house in the English market town of Bedford. There was a river nearby—the River Great Ouse—and although the sun was hidden that day, it occasionally found a gap in the clouds. I wanted to be outside. But I could not leave my bed: a thin mattress on the bare wood floor beneath a large window that looked out onto an unkempt garden. I remember the emptiness of that morning: emptiness and these precious poems that alighted on delicate moments and gestures, unutterable shifts in private lives.
I remained there until lunch. I read Ismailia Eclipse cover to cover twice. There was a strangely familiar quality to the poems, as if they had been written by a sibling soul enduring similar burdens: exile (from country, family, and language); the need to take account of history, to attend to the merciless present; and, most of all, an ardent, humanist commitment to guard the spirit of the artist and the life of the mind from the usual urgencies: politics, money, and fear.
We read to discover the world—that is perhaps true—but we also read to encounter ourselves. And that Sunday I felt the world had been nudged a little by these poems, or had expanded ever so slightly that when I eventually did leave the house, I felt remembered. Someone had acknowledged my existence.
History can accuse Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime of a multitude of sins; indifference to literature is not one of them. The late Libyan dictator and his security apparatus had a deadly interest in writers. It regarded them with the superstitious anxiety a child might have for ghosts. Made up of loyal allies and family members, the organ of the Gaddafi regime grew, over the 42 years of the colonel’s rule, like a thorny bush winding up the trunk of a tree. It protected, but also isolated the leader. It acted upon his wishes, but also in anticipation of them. As a writer, you could never be certain whether something you had written was not going to offend the leader himself or one of his eager servants. There was plenty of evidence to support the paranoia. Writers had been imprisoned and killed, and often not for a clear reason. What was certain was that, notwithstanding the dictatorship’s low opinion of the high arts, the regime devoted serious resources and attention in co-opting or else silencing certain writers. And it did so with extraordinary success. At the expense of authentic artistic life, it created a poisonous atmosphere that reached you no matter where you lived, found you in your rooms even in Bedford, inviting you always to subservience or else to obsessive, rage-filled opposition. To resist both, you had to cut yourself off.
That same day that I read Ismailia Eclipse, I sat down and wrote Khaled Mattawa a letter. We met for the first time two years later, and continued to see each other wherever and whenever we could: in London, where I was living by then; in Ann Arbor, where Khaled is an English professor at the University of Michigan; at literary festivals in foreign cities; snatching walks, talking about our two obsessions: literature and Libya.
the daily beast
the daily beast