Elbet El-Saada (The Joy Box) by Mohamed Al-Asfar, (Libya: Ibiidi Book Data Publishing Services), 2019.
Libya, culture, literature, Mohamed Al-Asfar, The Joy Box, Elbet El-Saada
The Libyan novelist Mohamed Al-Asfar in his tenth novel, Elbet El-Saada, or “The Joy Box,” decided to revisit the Gaddafi era and described in great detail the way the ruling class in the “revolutionary” era thought and behaved.
The story starts with the decision to burn all Western musical instruments, because they would corrupt the traditional music of Libyan society, destroy its past musical history and corrupt the future music of the proud nation of Libya. The writer explained in detail the ridiculous ideas that the revolutionary committee imposed on society. It gives the story of fascism without a national dream; in other words, the Arabic version of fascism mixed with dictatorship and holding to power no matter what the consequences for the people and leader alike.
Gaddafi and his men looked at audiences of the sports and arts as a useless weight on society with no contribution to make to the nation’s revival. The revolutionary society should amend this behaviour and stop the practice of sports on TV. Instead, society should participate in such activities under the supervision of “big brother.” The writer confirms what was considered a preposterous rumour spread in the Arab world in the 1980s that many nights TV showed a shoe on national channels instead of a show or a movie. The leader considered his shoe was entertainment enough for “his” people. An absurd way of leading society into a revolutionary way of life; a black comedy that continued for four decades in one of the richest countries in the world, which wasted its wealth, took away its freedom and enslaved its people. The Brother, Colonel Gaddafi — by his official title — called his political opponents outside his grip “stray dogs,” an expression that shows how a dictator looks at those who don’t agree with his methods. Away from the painful comedy, public executions were aired live on TV as well, with insults hurled towards the condemned for their crimes against the people. With this as a backdrop, Al-Asfar sets forth his novel.
There are a few main characters in the novel. Mabrouk is a music teacher who was forced by the authorities to fight in the Chad war. Rita, his Maltese fling at the beginning of the novel, is interested in Libya and its affairs and saw the massive fire that burned fueled by musical instruments and told Mabrouk about it. The mere existence of Rita’s character and her marginal role is an old trick that Middle Eastern writers use in any encounter with Western countries; all the men who travel to the West somehow have a girl that falls in love with them or lends a hand in their exile. It is rare that we find a Middle Eastern man — at least in fiction — who succeeds in the West on his own merits. Such stories of hard work end eventual success are not interesting for novelists. Going underground, joining gangs or finding the help of a woman is the norm. The second major character is Mabrouk’s friend, Abdel Wahab, another music teacher who had a guitar given to him as a departing gift from his German girlfriend Kristina, surviving the musical instrument holocaust orchestrated by the Gaddafi regime — an adventure by itself, and hence the novel’s title: the guitar is the box and joy is music. Abdel Wahab and Kristina played music together in Bonn, where Karl Marx studied law, in the park by the Beethoven Museum and eventually fall in love with one another. Abdel Wahab had to return to Libya and trying to find Kristina again added more flavour to the novel. She becomes a symbol for freedom and the love that all humans strive for. The story of the guitar continues through the novel and makes the reader root for music, and for freedom in general.
A Libyan going through the Chad war where he was taken prisoner ends as a condemnation of a war that had no clear reason for Libya or Chad — just the grandiose dreams of a dictator who wanted to unify the whole continent under his rule. Mabrouk describes the horrors of war, but with kid gloves, in order not to put dreadful images of the awfulness of military conflicts in the reader’s mind. A heroic story of saving a young Chadian girl is inserted into the story to play on the reader’s emotions, to show that even a normal person with no military training can be a hero in someone’s story, and can change the course of their lives.
Perhaps there is no task more difficult than assessing a political novel where reality is mixed with the writer's imagination. Al-Asfar inserted facts and real events into the novel, described how informants worked in a security state, how many of them enjoyed watching and surveilling the lives of normal people as a hobby, and how they did it for free, to satisfy their voyeuristic tendencies. The author works his way into the psyche of the security officers and asks a valid question: why should a writer document normal lives when the security apparatus documents them in a better and more efficient way?
The analytical, descriptive ability and the life experience of the author (living in Libya and Germany for extended periods of time) allows the reader to live in both countries through the novel. The places, the people and their behaviour toward foreigners are all important factors within the novel.
The writer took time and effort to compile footnotes explaining the Libyan dialect used in the narration or dialogue. Trying to destroy barriers among Arab readers is a trend that has been followed by many writers in the past decade — especially from North African Arab countries.
"The Joy Box” is a historical document against dictatorship, taking the Libyan case as an example.