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International Reflective Writing


Ashur Etwebi



Ashur Etwebi, born in 1952, is a poet, novelist and translator. He is a member of the League of Libyan Writers. His books include collections of his poems Balcony Poems (1993) and Your Friends Have Passed Through Here (2002), and the novel Dardanin (2001).


Because the Africa woman sang and wept,
Darkness retreats trembling
Her voice burns bit by bit
The heart’s core.
From a spot in the dark
Daylight emerges.
People are classes.

The upper is featureless,
The middle featureless,
The lower featureless.
Nonetheless they differ.

It’s beautiful to breathe this deeply.
It’s beautiful to say what I want.
It’s beautiful that you feel me from a distance.
It’s beautiful to love without stopping.

I bring a soul close to me
And distance myself from the commandments
That have accompanied me since the first cell split.

Before me the city that refused me blazes,
It’s cold essence scandalized.
I gather my conscience around me
And with a pronounced slowness rearrange my dreams.

Here our things scattered,
Our laughs were defeated.
Here we were stunned by the colors of the seasons,
And their meekness betrayed us.

Here we rank the same as the mouse’s tail.

Two lines of blood
On the dirt,
And an aged corpse
Under the coats
Of the midget.....................


Hisham Matar: Libyan Novelist

The Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, whose story “Naima” appeared in the New Yorker magazine, exchanged e-mails with me from London last week.

The last time we exchanged e-mails, Hosni Mubarak had just resigned and the mood in Cairo was jubilant. Libya, at the time, appeared to be relatively quiet. Now Muammar Qaddafi is facing similar opposition and refusing to leave office, and the situation in Libya is violent and chaotic. It appeared as though most of the world’s press was in Egypt covering the demonstrations. It’s been much harder to get news out of Libya. How are you managing to follow what’s going on?

So much has happened since we last corresponded. The events in Libya have entirely taken me over. Anticipating the revolution, the Qaddafi dictatorship constructed a wall of silence around the country: no news could get out and no journalists were allowed in. Like many Libyans living abroad, I, along with my wife and several friends, set up an ad-hoc “news room” in our London apartment. We had many contacts inside the country. We began gathering eyewitness accounts, checking them, and then passing them on to the international media. Today, several foreign journalists are in Libya and our work is no longer needed in the same way.

Hearing firsthand accounts of the scale and nature of the violence has disturbed and upset me. Qaddafi is like that savage husband who likes to beat his wife behind curtained windows then tell the world she slipped on the stairs.

Were you taken by surprise by the wave of revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East? Once you saw the first protests in Tunisia, did you imagine that similar demonstrations might eventually break out in Libya?

The speed and determination of the uprising took everyone by surprise. Even those so-called Libya specialists are playing catch up. Yet the most surprising thing about it is how foreseeable or familiar it all seems, like a dream. In the sense that: of course the people were going to rise, and of course Qaddafi’s forty-two-year project to remake the country in his image was going to fail, and of course it was the young who were going to do it. I sometimes feared, perhaps because an overwhelming majority of the Libyan population was born after Qaddafi assumed power, that most Libyans, particularly the young, would feel it to be inevitable that dictators will forever rule Libya. I was wrong. It is exactly because the lives of most Libyans have been affected so comprehensively by the dictatorship that they are more eager and able to revolt. They are snatching their freedom from the grip of a beast, a man who in his last speech vowed to turn “Libya into cinders.” Hearing that reminded me of Queen Margaret’s words in “Richard III”: “That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes, / To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood...” But he won’t succeed. He will cause more suffering, but he won’t succeed.

You haven’t been back to Libya since you moved to Egypt when you were nine years old. Do you still have relatives and friends there? Are you able to reach them?

Apart from my immediate family, all of my relatives are in Libya. I have been able to reach most of them. Some, however, I remain unable to contact. I have not spoken to those in Ajdabiya, the town where my paternal family is from and continues to live. It was the first town to be taken from Qaddafi. It has become the front line in the latest battle. Qaddafi wants to retake the nearby oil fields. Ajdabiya won’t let him. I keep thinking about my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Although they all have their own houses, for some reason I continue seeing them in my grandfather’s old house, which, the last time I saw it, in the late nineteen-seventies, was the largest in the town and occupied its center. To my child’s mind, it was the point from which not only Ajdabiya developed, but every town and city in the country, indeed the whole world. And now, in my imagination, that house occupies the focal point of the uprising against Qaddafi. Appropriate, because my grandfather, Jaddi Hamed, was a poet who had fought in the resistance against Mussolini’s army. I remember him once unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it over his shoulder to show me the small rosette where a bullet had entered.

‘Where did it come out?’ I asked, expecting him to point to another, identical rosette on his back.

‘It’s still inside,’ he said.

I remember how terribly upset I became, not at that moment, but a little while later, when I returned to ask again if there was no way of removing it.

Ajdabiya has always put up a strong fight. From my family alone Qaddafi had imprisoned five men. This is why, I think, it was amongst the first towns to rise. The extraordinary thing is that, like the rest of the country, this small town is suddenly making sense of its history, that apart from a short interlude under king Idris, Libya has spent most of the past hundred years fighting fascism: first Mussolini, then Qaddafi.

Twenty years ago, your father, Jaballa Matar, was abducted in Cairo and forcibly returned to Libya. Your family received a couple of letters that had been smuggled out of Libya and, once, a tape recording that your father once managed to make in prison, but you don’t know whether he’s alive or dead. Have you learned anything new in recent days? Do you hold out any hope that he may still be alive?

As soon as the revolution is complete, I will return to search for my father. For years after I lost him I wondered if all of his activism and sacrifice was for nothing. It was a terrible thing to carry around, this resentment. These days I can see that he and people like him were carving with their bare hands the first steps to this revolution. The protesters in the streets have not forgotten them. They carry their pictures above their heads.

Qaddafi has called on his supporters to “get out of your homes and fill the streets,” and to attack his opponents “in their lairs,” and mercenaries have been arriving in Tripoli to fight on behalf of the regime. How vicious could Qaddafi be as he attempts to hold on to power?

The laws of the lowly gangster govern Qaddafi and his sons. They are prepared to torture, terrorize and kill the defenseless. In short, they are prepared to do anything to win. It seems they have never stopped to ask: When they win, what is it exactly they would have won?

I will never forget speaking to one of the protesters who was among those who went, on Friday, February 18th, after the funeral of the first demonstrators killed, to demonstrate in front of the Central Security headquarters in Benghazi. They kept repeating: “We and the security forces are brothers,” a moving sentiment in light of the fact that it was exactly those security forces who had shot at the protesters. Security officers came out and said, “Yes, we agree. We were wrong. We have decided to join the people.” Then they let in a group of demonstrators into the courtyard, “in order to discuss what we do next,” the officers told them. The gate was shut and the protesters sprayed. Twenty-three men were killed.

Protestors have taken over the city of Benghazi, in the east, and, possibly, Misurata, in the northwest. Does Qaddafi have a stronger base of support in Tripoli? He’s threatened civil war. Do you think there’s substance to those threats? Are you able to think about what might happen to the country in the long term?

It is evident that Qaddafi is mentally unwell. Like Richard III, he has barricaded himself within lies. I remember my father once remarking about the “shamelessness” of Qaddafi’s lies, that he has always been able to lie without blushing. One should always be wary of men who can lie repeatedly without their face ever changing color.

The Qaddafis, father and sons, speak the grammar of dictatorship: threats and bribery. Civil war is one of their threats. I have not heard one compelling argument to suggest that the country is likely to go that way. Libyan society is cohesive and generally moderate.

As for what the future holds, I think we have to refer to the nature of the movement. Its character has been so far exemplary, showing maturity and good sense as well as a commitment to the rule of law. A provisional government has been set up, calling itself the “National Transitional Temporary Council”. It is, according to a statement issued, committed to “the establishment of a civil, constitutional and democratic state.” Obviously, there are reasons to worry; it would be unnatural not to be concerned when such a radical change is taking place. But I celebrate this uncertainty. For nearly half a century, we, Libyans, knew everything: we knew what to think, what to say, what to read, and how to live; every detail in our life had been decided for us. Now we can decide what sort of society we want.

I appeal to the international community to follow France and recognize Libya’s transitional government. This would help isolate the dictatorship even more and, more importantly, provide a logistical framework for Libyans to manage the needs of their people. We also need, desperately, medical and food supplies. Qaddafi is trying to starve the rebel strongholds.

Have you been able to sleep in the last few weeks?

Very badly: an hour here, an hour there. For some reason I perk up at around midnight. I am neither in London nor in Libya. Purgatory. The only thing I can read is poetry. Not Dante, you will be glad to hear.

Read more:


Khaled Mattawa: Libyan Poet in Exile

Expat Libyan Poet: "The People Have Gone Through the Ultimate Dismissal of Fear by Offering Their Lives"

—By Ashley Bates

Tue Feb. 22, 2011

When Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa was 13 years old, Muammar Qaddafi's regime conducted public hangings of alleged traitors in Mattawa's home city of Benghazi. And he saw his independent-minded father, overcome by terror, plaster a giant picture of Qaddafi onto the side of the family car.

Thirty-four years later, Mattawa, 46, feels "complete and utter pride" as the residents of Benghazi have finally risen up—and launched the rebellions that are now sweeping across Libya. "This is the moment we've been waiting for," Mattawa said in a Monday phone interview. "Everything good about Benghazi that I know has appeared in the last few days."

But little in Mattawa's life story could have offered much hope for a scene like this week's.

Throughout his childhood in Libya, Mattawa was required to study the "Green Book"—Qaddafi's bizarre abridged version of socialism and so-called "democracy"—that banned all dissension. "My memories are tainted by this sense of raw fear," he says. "And there's an atmosphere of hostility that Qaddafi's regime has promoted among people. He's used Libya's tribalism to sow the seeds of division."

In 1979, on their parents' urging that they'd find better opportunities abroad, 14-year-old Mattawa and his 18-year-old brother set off alone for the United States. (His parents and four sisters remained in Libya.)

While attending high school in Louisiana and college in Tennessee, Mattawa often worried that he or his family would be targeted by Qaddafi's regime. Libyans living abroad were often suspected of plotting against the dictator, and Libyans in Greece and the US were purportedly assassinated by Qaddafi agents. Anyone who lived abroad and came back to Libya, Mattawa says, "would have been clearly tossed in jail, and probably not allowed to leave the country for quite some time."

As a result, Mattawa found himself "stranded in the US." Realizing that he'd "waited nine years and Qaddafi wasn't going anywhere," Mattawa began charting his American career as a poet, author, and literary translator. (He's since earned two master's degrees, published his poetry in prestigious literary journals, and won an American Academy of Poets award. He is now an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan.)

After Qaddafi's son, Seif, convinced his father to allow more freedoms in Libya, Mattawa and other expatriates began returning to the country. After 21 years away, Mattawa finally reunited with his relatives in 2000, and he made at least 10 trips since then. On one of these visits in 2004, Mattawa met his future wife; the couple now live in Michigan with their four-year-old daughter.

Relatives on both sides of the family have gotten nervous whenever Mattawa says or writes something that is critical of Qaddafi's regime. Yet Mattawa says he experienced little police harassment during his stays in Libya. This is presumably because he "never went out of [his] way to become an opposition figure or an oppositional intellectual." Mattawa says that, throughout his career, he's been honest but guarded anytime he criticized the regime.

But Mattawa "threw this cautiousness to the wind" when the Libyan uprisings began last week.

Initially, he posted information on Facebook and Twitter under an alias. But he quickly decided to reveal his identity. "I said, the hell with it! The time has come. The people have gone through the ultimate dismissal of fear by offering their lives...I really had no business being cautious." Mattawa recently took his activism a step further when he slammed the Qaddafi regime in an interview on Democracy Now.

While Libya's telephone lines are becoming increasingly unreliable, Mattawa is still speaking daily to his relatives. One of his nephews was shot in the leg, yet continues to demonstrate in Benghazi. Mattawa's close friend Idris Al-Mesmari, a famous Libyan novelist, surrendered and was taken into custody after Qaddafi thugs raided his home and attacked his family members with knives and machetes. And Mattawa's 65-year-old cousin has been missing for two days.

"Of course, we're very worried about [my cousin]," he says with a heavy sigh. "But what I keep telling myself is that it's not really about any one person. It's not even about the country, really. It's become something deeply human.

"It's not a great comfort to think this way, but, if something has happened to him, did I ever imagine [he] would meet his maker in this honorable way?"


The Poems

History of my Face


My lips came with a caravan of slaves
That belonged to the Grand Sanussi.
In Al-Jaghbub he freed them.
They still live in the poor section of Benghazi
Near the hospital where I was born.

They never meant to settle
In Tokara those Greeks
Whose eyebrows I wear
--then they smelled the wild sage
And declared my country their birthplace.

The Knights of St. John invaded Tripoli.
The residents of the city
Sought help from Istanbul. In 1531
The Turks brought along my nose.

My hair stretches back
To a concubine of Septimus Severus.
She made his breakfast,
Bore four of his sons.

Uqba took my city
In the name of God.
We sit by his grave
And I sing to you:
Sweet lashes, arrow-sharp,
Is that my face I see
Reflected in your eyes?



General Italo Balbo

Tripoli, 1937


The snowflakes landing on your shoulders
are a first in this city, in this colony you rule.
The guard who carries your briefcase
tells you snow had never fallen here.


You ask him to leave. It's safe to walk
the streets now, the rebels long subdued
by Graziani. In the square you stroll
he strung up hundreds, once leaving


five dangling for a week until a film crew
(experimenting with color) arrived from Rome.
This is not your method. The few
you catch now are shot far away,


two bullets to the head, unmarked graves.
Your mind drifts back to the snow.
You want a picture of it before it melts.
You want to show it to your fellow Ferraresi,


to the farmhands milling about Napoli
and Trieste. You want to tell them
there is enough water for their vineyards
and orange groves, enough grass for their sheep,


and trash for their pigs. You will have
to exaggerate about the brick homes
you will build them, and the natives'
helpful cowardly ways. And why


would they not believe you General,
their valiant hero who defended the Piedmont,
the fascist youth traveling the countryside
preaching Mazzini and Il Duce's New Rome,


the photogenic ex-veteran who rid Ferrara
of the Red Leagues' "other Austrians," harnessing
the "Bolshevic avalanche," a sapphire studded
dagger strapped to your waist? They will believe


you "Il Padre D'Aeronautica" who crossed
the Atlantic leading a fleet of hydoplanes,
star of the Chicago World's Fair. "Balbo,
Balbo," New York greeted you with downpours


of confetti in a Broadway ticker tape parade.
Roosevelt shook your hand firmly two days later,
poured your coffee, another medal on your breast.
Children are playing in the snow now.


They stop when they see you; the older ones,
who will polish the shoes of your countrymen
or become their hired men, their kitchen help
and part-time pimps, stiffen up in fascist salute.


Their fathers rush to greet you, brushing
snow off your shoulders and cap. You enter
one of the houses for tea, the house of the man
who felt no shame kissing your left hand.

Borrowed Tongue

Maybe I'm a fool
holding two threads,
one black, one white,
waiting for dawn
to tell them apart.
But I'm only practicing
my religion which
I neither borrowed
nor stole.
Maybe I'm a fool
thinking of a better answer
than the transplant patient
who said I'm sorry
someone had to die.

No, I haven't outgrown
my tongue. It's a coat
your mother gives you,
crimson or cobalt blue,
satin inside, the collar
wide enough to cover
your whole neck.
All winter you wear it
then spring comes
but never goes.
That's Arabic to me.
I wear a white shirt now--
thin gray stripes,
top button gone--
and it fits.

Fifty April Years

A soldier waved our bus
into the detour. We didn’t pass
by Parliament Square that day.
I’d hope to go to a pastry shop,
coins I’d saved for a week.
Southern winds, sun shrouded
in the dirty clouds, red tongues
of dust on windowpanes.
There’d been a hanging on the square.

Sixteen years later
I eat lunch at home,
afternoon light, the gloss
of olive oil on lettuce leaves.
On the radio, whistle and boom
of mortar shells, one landing
on a soccer field, forty boys dead.
And I’m trying to remember who wrote
"to die mid-sentence
was to triumph over dark.”

When I was seven
I spent days hiking
among the bean stalks, I heard
my name called and felt indifferent
to being wanted, unassured
that the world I lived in
would undo my foolish malcontent

It’s not as dramatic now.
I look out the window,
people in their rooms, reading
or thinking, or watching TV
as if the world had stopped calling,
as if we had emerged
from the whirlpool of its demands
with a wild mixture cowardice
and courage to say unto others
“I wish you did not exist.”

On the day of the hanging,
my father drove home,
a poster of the President
on the hood of his car.
He tried to explain
Over and over he said “survive.”

Once I believed forgetfulness
was a gift from the gods,
not an erosion of the soul.
Now I know enough to say
this has happened before,
and even crueler things—
the bombardment of the ghetto
as the republic ate its lunch
in the park, held its toddlers,
napped on lawns, smoked-sharp air
fevered with the hiss of a flute.

Don’t ask. I too find myself
listening to gurus
who abhor coherence, who tell us
language is a bucket of slop
and we can only grunt and squeal.
I wonder if they say this to silence
the wretched who have found no words,
who wave their torn limbs at us.

This too happened before:
My brother and I snuck to the car
the night of the hangings.
We intended to tear the President’s poster.
But something held us,
not a policeman’s shadow
or the neighborhood spy.
Not even my father
who hours before
had gone to sleep.

Mohamed Shaltami: The Accusation

Mohamed Shaltami (1945- 2010) Benghazi-Libya: A renowned Libyan poet, his early works of poetry was published in 1960’s and became very popular among university students and political activists in Libya. He was imprisoned for his opinions and political activism during the late years of the monarchy era and again in the early years of the Libyan revolution. He has six collections of poetry.

It is often said that true inspiring poetry transcends time and place, and outlives its creator, and this can be truly said about the epic works of the late Libyan poet Mohamed Shaltami.

His defiant poetry of resistance, confronting oppression and calling for freedom was ever inspiring to many generations of Libyans throughout the years. In his poem (The Accusation) possibly written in political prison in the early 1970’s, Shaltami defies time and describes in vividness the fate of the dictator, and oppressor. It is a testament that despite all the dictators weapons of mass oppression, the people will rise to win their freedom and the words of the poet will outlive the tyrant.

-Ghazi Gheblawi

The Accusation

You issued your verdict,
Thus, the morning will dawn after the night
And despite your vile informant, our great mother the sun rises in glowing red
And let me shout that our great world moves in time
Without your command
The door slams,
And I can feel the morning arriving
As a fist breaking in the night
The walls of despair, as if the laughter of the ages
Threatens to wailI see your sceptre is your crucifix, and your ending is your beginning
And I see you reaping, in the fields of death, what your hands sowed
There you are now, like me, waiting in horror for the cross
Waking up on the delusion that a force is preparing your annihilation
And your fortress is tumbling and crowding with followers... ending at dawn
With a bullet blowing up your savage head
Forever seeing in the mirror the sombre face of your killer
There you are now, like me, in horror waiting for the cross
Repeating yourself, whenever night falls, the echoes of your broken record
You are a traitor,
O, perhaps the worst thing is treason!


Jelani Trebshan: Afflictions

The late Libyan poet Jelani Trebshan (1944 – 2001), embodied in his works the suffering of many Libyan writers and intellectuals under the Gaddafi regime, he was considered in the early 1970’s one of the most distinguished new voices of a new generation of Libyan poets, but as the Libyan regime persecuted and imprisoned many writers in the late 1970’s, he found himself living as bohemian homeless writer on the streets of Britain and Ireland, Morocco, and Iraq, running away from the shadows of death and longing for his homeland, until he came back to Libya in 1988 full of frustrations and wishes.

In this poem (Afflictions) he tries to come to terms with a Libya that he couldn’t recognize, a Libya that became rife with ‘snakes’ on the streets, full of sadness and despair, his frustrations and hopes for a new Libya became the main theme of his works until his sudden death in 2001.

It has been many years since we lost Jelani Trebshan, and as a tribute to him and to the Libya that he longed for as it is embracing freedom, I present this English translation of this poem, and will be working on more translations of the best of his poems.

-Ghazi Gheblawi


What did you come to do, in a country where you don’t know anyone?
It is time for you to rest.
What did you come to do?
The circles are not as they should be
And the streets are rife with snakes
And the girls call for duty in the morning at the barracks
And the tribes are preparing to dance at the festival of the new regime.
You are sitting this hour at a hotel,
Facing the Mediterranean
That doesn’t have any hotel pleasures except the noise!!
Before twenty yearsThe trees at the foothills recognised youA little childChasing flocks of pigeons
Building sand castles and a homeland
Dreaming to share its duties
And now here you are on a mountain, that doesn’t have anything from the Atlas except the rocks.
Waiting for poetry,
Creating a ritual of illusion,
Searching in the memories of long nights
Was I really that giant gushing with wishes?
Oh poetry, I ask you now
How can small wishes fade away?
Did the flower of the heart wither?
Oh poetry:
If only, you came back before this silence,
When the shirt was colourful.




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