Two Essays on Hisham Matar’s Novels

Tasnim Qutait, “Like His Father Before Him”: Patrilineality and Nationalism in the work of Hisham Matar, Jamal Mahjoub and Robin Yassin-Kassab, Postcolonial Interventions 2/2, 2017, pp. 129–160.

Abstract: Despite recent increased attention to the study of masculinities in the Middle East, discussions of gender and nationalism in the Arab world tend to focus on the impact of the patriarchal nation-state on women. This focus, in part reflecting the persistence of essentialist discourses about the disempowered Arab woman, elides the centrality of masculinity and patrilineality to the narratives of the nation-state. In this article, I consider the implications of patrilineality in the work of three Arab British authors, identifying the centrality of the absent or distant father to the examination of nationalism and exile in this emerging literature. The article examines two novels by Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), alongside Jamal Mahjoub’s Travelling with Djinns (2003) and Robin Yassin-Kassab’s The Road from Damascus (2008). Matar, Yassin-Kassab and Mahjoub are three writers settled in Britain and writing in English, with backgrounds in Libya, Syria and Sudan respectively. I argue that all three writers employ a narrative of failed filial relationships in order to dramatize a sense of distance from the post-independence generation, and the growing awareness of the discontinuities between an emancipatory national project and the reality of state violence.

Christopher Micklethwait, “Zenga Zenga and Bunga Bunga: The Novels of Hisham Matar and a Critique of Gaddafi’s Libya”, in The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English: The Politics of Anglo-Arab and Arab-American Literature and Culture, edited by Nouri Gana, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, pp. 171–196.

From the essay: “The two novels of Anglo Libyan author Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), center on the abduction of their respective protagonists’ fathers at the hands of revolutionary dictatorships. In the former, the father, Faraj el Dewani, is seized by members of the Revolutionary Committee during the reign of political terror in Libya in 1979, viciously tortured in custody, and then released to his family after confessing and revealing the names of his co-conspirators. In the latter, the father, Kamal Pasha El-Alfi, an ex-minister and exiled dissident of an unnamed Arab country, is kidnapped from the home of his mistress in Geneva in the winter of 1972, never to be seen or heard from again. The thematic similarities of these plots have made it difficult not to relate them to the author’s family and personal experiences with the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, which ruled Libya from 1969 until 2011. As Matar has reported in several public interviews, his father, political dissident Jaballa Matar, vanished from Cairo in 1990 where he had been living in exile; he had been abducted by Libyan agents with the cooperation of Egyptian security forces and clandestinely repatriated to Libya where he was held, for a time, in Libya’s infamous Abu Salim prison, only to disappear completely in 1996…”


Garagoz and shadow theater | قراقوز و مسرح الظلام

Does anyone remember Garagoz?

In a book entitled North African Shadow-Theater*, Wilhelm Hoenerbach investigates the tradition of shadow-theater in Tunis and Tripoli, complete with texts from plays in each city as well as images of the cut-outs used in the plays in Tripoli. Hoenerbach worked in the Awqāf Library in Tripoli during the 1950s, and had the opportunity to see actual shadow-plays performed by a certain Muhammad al-Wāsṭi, apparently the last shadow-theater performer in the city. The texts in the book are in fact the entire repertoire of al-Wāsṭi’s. The book by Hoenerbach is, as far as I know, the only study of Libyan shadow-theater (or at least the only study published outside of Libya). Hoernerbach points to the connection between the forms of the plays in Tunis and Tripoli and their ultimate background in the Ottoman period.

In the hope that someone will find it useful for a study or will just read it out of interest, I scanned the text of the plays and have uploaded it here. The text is given in a Latin transcription with facing German translation, which means that it isn’t the easiest to read. I’d be very much interested in knowing more about this art form, and seeing old pictures.

*Hoenerbach, Wilhelm. 1959. Das nordafrikanische Schattentheater. Mainz: Rheingold. [Click here for PDF of the plays]

Cut-outs of the shadow play characters from Muhammad al-Wāsṭi’s collection (printed in Hoenerbach’s book): Garagoz (left), Hajiwan (middle), Baba Khwaneb (right). The originals were about 30cm tall.





Studies on law and custom in sedentarizing societies

This post draws your attention to three book-length studies published on Islamic law as preserved in documents from the courts of Ajdābiya and Kufra, two cities that are home to mostly sedentarized Bedouin. The cases preserved in those court archives date from the 1930s to the 1970s—thus the studies reveal the nature of the interaction between law and custom as it was in mostly nomadic but sedentarizing societies, as opposed to how it is now.

Layish, Aharon. 1991. Divorce in the Libyan Family. A study based on the sijills of the sharī‘a courts of Ajdābiyya and Kufra. New York: NYU Press.

Layish, Aharon. 1998. Legal Documents on Libyan Tribal Society in Process of Sedentarization. A selection of decisions from the sijills of the sharī‘a courts of Ajdābiya and Kufra. Part 1: The documents in Arabic with a glossary of Arabic legal terms and phrases, with an anthropological critique by John Davis. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Layish, Aharon. 2005. Sharī‘a and custom in Libyan tribal society. An annotated translation of decisions from the Sharī‘a courts of Ajdābiya and Kufra, with a linguistic essay by Alexander Borg. Leiden: Brill.



Article: Exported Urbanity in 1970s Libya

Sometimes I come across studies on topics I never even knew could be topics. Here, an essay examining the models  of urbanity ‘exported’ to Libya by Croatian architects working on the naval base in Khoms (الخمس), Libya.

Smode Cvitanović, Mojca, Smokvina, Marina, Kincl, Branko. 2016. “Maritime Ports as the Testing Field for a New Urbanity. Centroprojekt Zagreb Design for Naval Base Homs, Libya, 1976.” In Urban Planning in North Africa, ed. Carlos Nunes Silva, Routledge, pp. 145–155. [Link to partial preview]

“Drawing on experience gained through the modernization of their own country after the Second World War, Yugoslav experts made their mark applying their expertise in many African and Asian countries, thereby taking part in the creation of those continents’ modern societies in the years that followed. A large field of expertise was as a consequence applied including civil engineering, architecture, and urban planning. A specific professional sector among Yugoslav ‘exports’ was the design and construction of port facilities. Depending on the developments adjacent to the ports, different expertise in urban planning and architecture was needed within this multi-disciplinary task. Architectural developments, as support to a port facility, were usually planned in empty areas and without a previously established analogous architectural or urban typology in the local tradition. This chapter follows the particular case of the Naval Base Homs (Khoms, Al-Khums) in Libya which received a significant contribution of urban and architectural design, the task having been assigned to the Centroprojekt Zagreb company in the mid-1970s. The chapter examines the models of urbanity ‘exported’ by Croatian architects engaged in a task whose primary function was to support the adjacent port facility.”

Book: Desert Borderland

Matthew Ellis, Desert Borderland: The making of modern Egypt and Libya, Stanford University Press (coming 2018).

Publisher’s blurb: “Desert Borderland investigates the historical processes that transformed political identity in the easternmost reaches of the Sahara Desert in the half century before World War I. Adopting a view from the margins—illuminating the little-known history of the Egyptian-Libyan borderland—the book challenges prevailing notions of how Egypt and Libya were constituted as modern territorial nation-states.

Matthew H. Ellis draws on a wide array of archival sources to reconstruct the multiple layers and meanings of territoriality in this desert borderland. Throughout the decades, a heightened awareness of the existence of distinctive Egyptian and Ottoman Libyan territorial spheres began to develop despite any clear-cut boundary markers or cartographic evidence. National territoriality was not simply imposed on Egypt’s western—or Ottoman Libya’s eastern—domains by centralizing state power. Rather, it developed only through a complex and multilayered process of negotiation with local groups motivated by their own local conceptions of space, sovereignty, and political belonging. By the early twentieth century, distinctive “Egyptian” and “Libyan” territorial domains emerged—what would ultimately become the modern nation-states of Egypt and Libya.”

Open Access: The Archaeology of the Fezzan

The Archaeology of the Fezzan series is now available open access from the Society for Libyan Studies. Descriptions and download links are below.

The Archaeology of Fazzan, Volume 1: Synthesis
Edited by D. J. Mattingly (2003)

‘An extraordinary civilisation emerged on the very margins of the Classical world in the remote Libyan desert. This is a vital study of a society at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and continental Africa.’ (Professor Michael Fulford, University of Reading)

‘The Garamantes have emerged from the shadows. This study of the Fazzan from remotest antiquity to the present day is striking for the extent and range of the enquiry, the meticulousness of its documentation, and the clarity of its exposition. The completed volumes will immediately become the standard work on the region, and seem unlikely ever to be superseded.’ (Professor Roger Wilson, University of Nottingham)

This is the second volume detailing the combined results of two Anglo-Libyan projects in Fazzan, Libya’s projects in Fazzan, Libya’s southwest province. The late Charles Daniels led the first expeditions between 1958 and 1977, with David Mattingly directing the subsequent Fazzan Project from 1997-2001.

This second volume presents some of the key archaeological discoveries in detail, including a richly illustrated gazetteer of sites discovered and the first attempt at a full-scale pottery type series from the Sahara. In addition, there are separate reports on the programme of radiocarbon dating carried out, on lithics, metallurgical and non-metallurgical industrial residues and various categories of small finds (including coins, metal artefacts, beads, glass and stone artefacts).

This volume contains reports and analysis on a series of excavations carried out between 1958 and 1977 by the British archaeologist Charles Daniels, lavishly illustrated by site plans and numerous colour photographs – particularly of the rich artefact assemblages recovered. The publication is a high-profile and significant landmark in work seeking to record information about Libya’s long-term Saharan heritage. It is an indispensable reference work to the nature of Libya’s Saharan archaeology.

Article: The Origins and Development of Zuwila

raza_a_980126_f0008_bDavid J. Mattingly, Martin J. Sterry & David N. Edwards. 2015. “The origins and development of Zuwīla, Libyan Sahara: an archaeological and historical overview of an ancient oasis town and caravan centre.” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 50(1), 27–75

This article is open-access and can be read by everyone for free by clicking on the above link!

Abstract: “Zuwīla in southwestern Libya (Fazzān) was one of the most important early Islamic centres in the Central Sahara, but the archaeological correlates of the written sources for it have been little explored. This paper brings together for the first time a detailed consideration of the relevant historical and archaeological data, together with new AMS radiocarbon dates from several key monuments. The origins of the settlement at Zuwīla were pre-Islamic, but the town gained greater prominence in the early centuries of Arab rule of the Maghrib, culminating with the establishment of an Ibāḍī state ruled by the dynasty of the Banū Khaṭṭāb, with Zuwīla its capital. The historical sources and the accounts of early European travellers are discussed and archaeological work at Zuwīla is described (including the new radiocarbon dates). A short gazetteer of archaeological monuments is provided as an appendix. Comparisons and contrasts are also drawn between Zuwīla and other oases of the ash-Sharqiyāt region of Fazzān. The final section of the paper presents a series of models based on the available evidence, tracing the evolution and decline of this remarkable site.”