Publisher Peirene Press tells us that author Kamal Ben Hameda was born in Tripoli in 1954. In his early twenties he moved to France. He now lives in Holland where he works as a Jazz musician and writer. Kamal has published several collections of poetry. In 2012 ‘La Compagnie des Tripolitaines’ (Under the Tripoli Sky) was nominated for a number of prizes, including Le Prix Ulysse and le Prix du livre Lorientales.
Lybian literature? A quick search on the internet doesn’t give away a lot, a tradition based on oral stories is what I would gather. Our story here being very much in the vein of an oral history.
This is a patriarchal story line from the get go, we have an introduction about the “savage, hairy, toothless barbarians” who ignore the grand priestess Maboula’s warnings and it leads to a ritual slaughter, women “now were merely bellies unto which they emptied their desires.”
We then open with a ritual slaughter of a lamb and the women serving the men the delicacies at our narrators circumcision ceremony. Our storyteller is a young boy, but the stories are the women’s tales. Very much in the vein of “Women of Algiers in their Apartment” by Assia Djebar, which I reviewed in August last year as part of the Women in Translation month. That work was a collection of short stories, snippets and in one case (almost) an essay. The book is that “one…way to unblock everything” it is the “talk…about yesterday and today”, a collection of stories from the mouths of the Algerian women. “Under the Tripoli Sky” is from the mouths of Libyan women (this quote is about our narrator’s great-aunt Nafissa):
She liked to sit on a rug in the sunlight, outside the house or on the terrace, chain-smoking and telling us about her past.
‘I’ve spent my life in Djerba, that really was the life! I captured plenty of hearts there. You wait till you grow up my little Hadachinou. But then one day a beautiful man managed to capture my heart, and that was when I knew what real love was. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t think about anything but him; I was possessed. But he didn’t love me, he didn’t want me. I was already a smoker then, and in the evenings I used to go down to the beach with the Jewish and French women and we’d stand with our feet in the Mediterranean drinking boukha or that delicious palm wine called laghhi. At the time I was devastated by the dismissive way he treated me, but I’m relieved now. If I’d married him I would have lost my freedom. He was a very devout Muslim. You’ll know what I mean when you’re older. And there it is. Since then everyone’s avoided me, looked down on me; they say I’m an easy woman. Even your family, my family, keep their distance, saying they’re ashamed. I want to go back to my Djerba. The people here in Tripoli are too hard; they don’t understand anything about love.’
This is a story of the women, although narrated by a young boy, it is not his story, he is not our hero, he is not the character we feel for, or think about, it is his journeys to meet the numerous women and retelling the conversations that reveals the core of our tale. The story of mistreated women, of prostitutes, victims of domestic violence, of ignorance, of love, of dreams for a better life, of working for the ignorant and ungrateful men:
Under a shameless, merciless sun, I trailed around like a lost Sloughi with nothing to relieve my boredom. So I set off in another direction and my feet took me down towards the sea, back to my usual refuge behind the rocks. I unbuttoned my short-sleeved shirt, folded it as I’d been taught to and laid it carefully by the water’s edge. Then I stepped out into the Mediterranean. I stood smacking the waters of that calm peaceful sea, trying to stir up some waves and unleash a storm. Eventually I returned to land exhausted; the sea in its serenity, witness to so much despair, had defeated me. And soothed me. But the sun was still hanging insolently in the sky and, lured on by tiredness, I headed home to my street. The door downstairs was locked. I gave a few hesitant little knocks. No one. My mother was probably visiting one of her friends, drinking tea and chatting ‘to last the time more quickly’, as she often said.
I went around to Signora Filomena to use the stairs which led up from her garden to the next floor and to our kitchen door, which was never locked. Signora Filomena offered me the ritual glass of chilled lemonade that I so loved, but the ready excuse of a migraine meant I could escape the obligatory conversation; I didn’t feel like talking. I opened the kitchen door a crack and heard laughter punctuated by whisperings.
I stepped forward cautiously and saw them through half-open curtains, in the muted light of the living room. Wrapped in a single peaceful moment, like a beautiful calm sky after whirlwinds and storms, wind and rain have cleared. Simply there together: my mother and her soul sister, her alter ego, Jamila. Two innocent, well-behaved girls who wanted nothing else than to spend time together uninterrupted, their bodies resting full length on a humble old carpet and their arms dancing about to articulate their words more fully. I instinctively knew I wouldn’t be welcome, so I went off towards the cemetery and sat down by the tomb of marabout Sidi Mounaider, watching the sparrows scattering into the wild raspberry bushes.
As our short book unfolds we learn more of the tribulations of these women, through their own words, we learn more of the Libyan plight, the occupation by the Italians, and the different ethnic groups all feeling unwelcome. Set in the 1960’s this is prior to the rule of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, the “de facto” ruler of Libya for forty-two years, after taking control of the country in 1969 via a coup d’etat.
The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real time and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties all in the same breath, and their bodies were at peace. I sometimes wondered how these women who were all so different were able to spend hours at a time, each talking about her own god, her own people and thoughts, free to be wildly outspoken but without provoking any true conflict. It was because they had no power to preserve and no possessions to watch over. That was for the people on the other side of the wall: the men, the sheikhs, the governors and their hunting dogs! Scheming and calculating, diplomacy and power struggles were their domains. Here with the women, my guardian angels, there were just words, spoken openly and easily, flitting and whirling about, a life force in themselves. Without these moments of trusting abandon, they would have dried up with sorrow. Or imploded as they toiled over their cooking pots.
An oral history put onto the page, this is not a book for those who like deep characterisation, it is for celebrating the day to day, the women of Libya, the ones who endured day after day after day. As our dedication in the front of the novel says:
I dedicate this book to the wives and mothers how, for years, have demonstrated once a week outside the state department buildings in Benghazi, Libya, asking for the bodies of their husbands and children who lost their lives on the night of 25 June 1969; women whose searing loss has gradually, imperceptibly, reignited the flames of dignity.