Conversation: Libyan Poet Khaled Mattawa
Khaled Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya — right now very much in the news — and came to the United States as a teenager in 1979. He’s published four collections of his own poetry, is a leading translator of Arabic poetry into English and has been co-editor of several anthologies of Arabic writing. Mattawa is also an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan.
I spoke to him yesterday about the uprising in Libya, and about the history of poetry and literature there:
[After the jump, find the transcript and read and listen to a poem by Mattawa.]
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat, I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me today from Michigan on the phone is Khaled Mattawa. He was born in Benghazi, Libya. He came to the US as a teenager in 1979. He’s published several collections of his own poetry, he’s a leading translator of Arabic poetry into English, and has been co-editor of several anthologies of Arabic writing. He’s now Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Welcome to you.
KHALED MATTAWA: Thank you, I’m glad to be with you, Jeff.
JEFFREY BROWN: First what I want to know is, you know, in personal terms almost, what this uprising mean to you?
KHALED MATTAWA: Well, it means everything, because what I’ve been noticing in my own life is a realignment. Cynical optimist. I see like the cynicism is really taking a beating, quite a bit. This is something that Libyans for decades have hoped for. It is something that made me leave the country. This regime had made me, as a teenager, welcome the idea of leaving the country and continuing studies elsewhere to wait out Col. Gadhafi. I waited for 21 years. It didn’t happen. I started going home. There was beginnings of hope for the first few years of the 2000 and then hope was being immediately crushed or quickly— and cynicism as far as the regime was concerned and corruption took over in a more aggressive form. And so, to witness this change, your sense of despair, which you’ve tried to push in a corner and to sort of live your life around, or to walk around it, that that roadblock to how you perceive life and perceived it for a long time, is not there anymore.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know I wanted to ask you about the atmosphere of despair, fear, hostility that you grew up in as a teenager there. I read that you were required to study Gadhafi’s green book. Describe a little bit what that was like.
KHALED MATTAWA: I remember in my last year in Libya we had a subject called development for which we had one class a week on. And I remember never studying for that subject. Never at all. I wanted to pass science, and so on, and so on, and math — I had a tutor in science, as many people had at the time. My family could afford it. And then when it came to development, I remember going back through the book and just not caring. The regime had demanded in universities and elsewhere that you must take this other green book or revolutionary thought, etc., these courses. And people did, but it didn’t care that you did well in them, and whether you cared or not, or whether you paid one moment or ten hours to study for development or revolutionary— you had to do it because your life depended on it. It was like saying ‘uncle’ and saying ‘master,’ and just acknowledging the power of this regime to command your life and to show you who’s boss.
JEFFREY BROWN: I was going to ask you about the role of literature and poetry in a regime like that.
KHALED MATTAWA: Well, they basically put a generation of writers and poets who were in their 20s in the late ’70s, they put them in jail. Whole generation of them who were in their 20s, they got out of jail in their late 30s. They tried to promote their own poets; they never got any measure of poets to work for them. The compromise they made with some writers was to guarantee them some degree of independence, to write about subjects that are far away from the current situation. Whether it is about the desert, or about relationships— just stay away from realism in the real sense. Basically writers were imprisoned for most of the ’80s. When they started getting out, they began to publish. The ’90s in poetry is the generation of symbolic poetry. Clearly the poetry was unhappy, but it never got very specific. By the 2000s, people could write about the time when they were in prison, just dating the poem and the place of it, written in 1981 in such and such prison. Putting that as a tag in the bottom of poem was a revolutionary thing, because it had never happened to Libya before.
JEFFREY BROWN: How much of all of that history — your own personal history and the life of your country — how much does that get into your work do you think either overtly or just somehow being there?
KHALED MATTAWA: It contributes a great deal. I mean, I never write a poem about an event immediately that’s happening before my eyes. I find myself just wanting to tell people about what’s happening, forwarding stories and so on. But it takes me time to process events. My first book of poems, “Ismailia Eclipse,” has a lot of Libya in it, addresses an incident that happened in my childhood — a hanging of dissidents that I saw that happened when I was about 12 or 13. That’s a major event in my life, to be so frightened by this, and also to really decide that this is a regime that I will never forgive, and I will never cooperate with in anyway. Now it has informed my creativity, if you will, and I think it allowed me to be sympathetic. Being very Libyan and very touched by that experience has actually made me feel that one needs to act upon these situations and express them, and work one’s art to address the tragedy that’s happening to many other people all of the world. It hasn’t made me a national writer, but maybe a more empathetic person and artist I hope. My last book was on the United States, and globalization, and the lost lives in some of the African states that are now actually contributing mercenaries to come and kill Libyans. So my sense of the collapse around the world of the nation state, and also of this economic system that fostered poverty and deprivation around the world, is coming to haunt us. If there is anything to be learned about Gadhafi, is that globalization is there, it’s actually true, and whether it is the Wisconsin folks being inspired by Egypt, or the Libyans by their next door neighbor — that’s one good side perhaps of it — but also with money, with capital, that goes unreported, we have somebody bringing mercenaries from Africa at the drop of a hat. He’s got Serbian pilots and Ukrainian pilots. He’s got Chinese bullets, American jeeps. We need to really keep an eye on the whole world because as much as the whole world is allowing us to operate within it, so are very evil people like Gadhafi. The world is theirs as well, and vigilantes and empathy are the way to go because we are really, really all connected, and I hope my poetry has contributed to that sense of global human connection.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alright. Khaled Mattawa speaking to us from the University of Michigan. Thank you very much.
KHALED MATTAWA: Thank you, Jeff, that was great. Thanks.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alright. And thank you all for joining us again on Art Beat I’m Jeffrey Brown.
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?