Hosting Libya as guest of honour for the 44th round of the Cairo International Book Fair opened a world of discussion on how the Gaddafi dictatorship and regime wiped out the scope for creativity and writing.
Over two days, 30 and 31 January, Libyan novelists, writers and critics shared their testimonies with book fair visitors on the challenges of writing, publishing, analysing and reaching readers.
Mohamed Al-Tarhuny, writer and critic, described how authors had to keep inventing means to overcome the challenge of the regime that worked hard to destroy every creative pen in the country.
Mentioning big names of contemporary Libyan literature, he considers them examples of how the authors were able to overcome the suppression of Gaddafi's tyranny: Ibrahim Al-Koni, for example, spoke of a world of the Tuareg that was fading from existence, while Mohamed Al-Asfar escaped into fantasy.
"Mohamed Al-Amamy escaped to the world of the sea and sailors, while Al-Fakeeh wrote from the European world. None of them described reality or dealt with the social challenges of the moment. They had the capacity to write novels and stories, but were in constant search for a context that would allow them to express, without blame, avoiding the deeper questions and falling under the burden of the dictatorial culture that is largely superficial and peaceful," Al-Tarhuny concluded.
Ahmed Nasr, the esteemed Libyan author who graduated from Cairo University and started writing in the 70s, shared his opinion that the 1969 coup started eroding the writing and culture base, considering it of lower value and dedicating its resources instead for development.
As Nasr explained, in 1965, a literary competition that offered valuable prizes for young authors was established. It offered the perfect soil for new aspiring novelists, poets and writers. Starting in 1969 it was put on hold, replaced with a smaller competition and eventually it was cancelled altogether. The main entry point for young talent disappears.
Above all, Nasr shared the experience of young Libyan writers who were so eager to share their work that they would print at their own expense. Pre-1969 the Libyan state would encourage that effort by purchasing some 400 or so copies for the country's cultural centres and school libraries.
Unfortunately, this was all wiped out in the 1969 coup. The new regime took over cultural centres for state activities and school libraries for classrooms.
The last example Nasr mentioned was the founding of the Jamahyria Publishing, Distribution and Creativity Organisation that basically monopolised publishing since 1974. The organisation would pay very little for the manuscripts then print a few copies that would never be distributed. During the 80s he recalls that they only published material that related to Gaddafi's infamous "Green Book" (a sort of manual of his conclusions) and for a very limited number of authors.
"While manuscripts could be stored for five years without being published - or even rejected – other specific authors would publish four titles in one year. It was a battle against literature, culture and freedoms," Nasr explained. "They put the nail in the coffin by destroying the readers themselves, who stopped reading when they were students, failed to find good works to read afterwards and eventually gave up looking."
Yet Nasr wasn't pessimistic, for he saw the last twenty years of expansion in criticism and hoped that with the revolution, education would eventually also bring back books' lustre.
"True Libyan creativity isn't the monologue in books, but rather the online wide-open space where someone's idea receives input, criticism and updates," said Mohamed Al-Malky, head of the Benghazi office for discourse analysis, who chaired one of the sessions.
Not everyone was in consensus on the contemporary Libyan literature and writers. When certain names were mentioned, murmurs were heard and speakers had to keep uttering the disclaimer: "It's my own opinion" and "Whether we agree or disagree with the author's capacities," etc. to get past the disagreements among the Libyan intellectual community present in the hall.
Of course, with the changes going on in the country, many couldn't help but fall into the temptation to talk politics during the session, voicing their disagreement with the forces in power.