Libyan poets have been companions to the conflicts the country has experienced in the last century: folk poets constituted a major historical cohort in the documentation of Libyan struggles.

Libyan poets have been companions to the conflicts the country has experienced in the last century: folk poets constituted a major historical cohort in the documentation of Libyan struggles.

The epic poem My Only Illness by poet Rajab Abu Huwaish is perhaps the best known example. The poem was produced within the walls of Aqeela concentration camp, a centrepiece of the military machine of fascist colonialism, whose objective was to isolate people from the Mujahideen.

Many poets authoring in standard or colloquial Arabic have tried to replicate Abu Huwaish’s classic. Classic poetry remains more widely appreciated, yet folk poets have grown in public stature in recent years.

Carrot and stick

In 1981, an Arabic poetry festival entitled ‘A Fighting Poetry’ was organized in Tripoli. The slogan involved the paradox of somehow becoming a metaphor that could fit into the bustle of Colonel Gaddafi’s media, obsessed with the slogan industry. The irony was that two years earlier the regime’s security services and revolutionary committees had put most young writers in prison. Many were then sentenced to life imprisonment or death.

The festival brought together senior Arab poets, such as Mamdouh Adwan, Muzaffar Al-Nawab and Nazih Abu Afash, as well as young Arab poets, many of whom read publicly for the first time.

Festival blowback

Before the official opening date, a list of the imprisoned Libyan poets was leaked within the corridors of the festival. A group of guest poets, led by young Algerian poet Omar Azraj, collected the participants’ signatures and started a petition demanding amnesty for the poets.

The solidarity with the imprisoned poets was undoubtedly more than bold at the time. It both confused the festival program and embarrassed and provoked the regime. The festival ultimately backfired on the regime.

As a result of the scandal, Gaddafi’s regime no longer risked organizing such poetry events, and become more apprehensive while increasingly cracking down on poetry movements. The following ten years witnessed a severe shortage in the production and dissemination of literary works, especially poetry, since all publications were strictly and obsessively censored.

Preaching for converted

Even propaganda evenings that used to be held marking the First of September celebrations were limited, except in rare cases, to a group of panegyrists with an audience mostly comprised of the regime’s servants, informants and revolutionary committee members. Day-by-day this growing ferocity of repression caused much of what was authentic and genuine to become marginalized and excluded. In this miserable scene, only some clowns who earned a living through converting poetry into fawning platforms remained. The gap between poetry and its fans widened.

Libyan poets, as innovators, have persisted to address war and the ensuing chaos and have written texts with a great deal of novelty, boldness and diversity. These are mainly published on the Internet since newspapers stopped publishing poetry or ceased to operate and the space for poetry on forums narrowed. A poem without an audience makes the poet like a farmer ploughing water, a solitary figure in the scene.

Empty space to fill

This illustration will undoubtedly be at a glance ridiculous – at best a snapshot extracted from Don Quixote. From the vantage point of the poet, i.e. from the perspective of the placebo platform, the poem is preparing to express its imagination vis-à-vis the desolate stalemate of a deep, thick silence that fills the hall of vacant seats.

This poetic play, however, can soon turn into a spectacle of great beauty compared to what is happening at the same moment outside the hall. Gross devastation is killing people, destroying buildings and uprooting entire cities, displacing their families inside Libya and abroad. Here we realize that a poet in this situation is like a person holding hot coals in his hand while proposing such shelter for beauty.