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Benghazi-Born Poet Mattawa Reflects on Growing up Under Gadhafi

March 2, 2011 at 6:23 PM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks to Libyan-born poet Khaled Mattawa about life under Moammar Gadhafi and the recent crisis in his homeland.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we come back to Libya.

Jeffrey Brown gets some personal reflections on the crisis there from a Libyan-born poet. He recorded this conversation yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: Khaled Mattawa was a child in Benghazi, Libya, when Moammar Gadhafi first came to power in 1969. Gadhafi, of course, has held power ever since.

Mattawa eventually came the U.S. and made a life as a writer and scholar. He’s published four collections of his own poetry and translated and edited numerous volumes of Arabic writing for English readers. He’s an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, and joins us now.

Khaled, Americans know very little of life inside Gadhafi’s Libya. Tell us a bit about what it was like when you were a child. What was the atmosphere?

KHALED MATTAWA, University of Michigan: I remember, in 1979, that our school was all of a sudden doing the — the hot winds from — coming from the desert in the spring was all filled with dust, two or three inches of red dust.

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And the reason was that Gadhafi had declared that students and faculty and so on should clean their schools and so forth. That’s a nice idea, but certainly the system was collapsing. The glass in the windows of our classrooms was broken. It was utter chaos and fear, that you couldn’t challenge these notions in any way.

A few — a year or so after I left and came to the United States, five of the students that I was sitting with in the same classroom, that same classroom filled with dust and broken windows, went to jail because they were suspected in being in some kind of coup attempt or assassination attempt of Gadhafi. These are 16-, 17-year-old kids, and they were thrown in jail for life sentences and were released in 1988, just because Gadhafi decided to forgive them.

But that’s the — sort of the malfunctioning society that he had put in place, and also the capriciousness and utter fear that he had imposed on the population. That’s — these are my memories of Libya as I was leaving.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you — you left Libya. You weren’t able to go back for a long time. And then you did beginning in 2000, I gather. Had anything changed?

KHALED MATTAWA: Yes. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you see signs of growing dissent and opposition that was showing itself in some way?

KHALED MATTAWA: Yes, I remember going to a literary conference in 2001. It was a conference in honor of one of Libya’s best-known authors, Khalifa al-Fakhri.

Just to tell you about who he was, he was a very well-known author who had written maybe about 63 short stories from ’64 to 1970. And was — had become a very well-known author and established. Then, from 1970 until he died, he wrote six stories. So, you could tell that the Gadhafi regime had impacted him, his creativity, had sapped his life.

But in 2000 there was a conference on him. This was the first time that a conference was devoted to the country’s author, one of the nation’s authors, just that — just that someone other than Gadhafi got to be in the limelight.

By 2000, 2001, people were just trying to broaden the space before them. And — and it did sort of happen. Conversation about corruption, about fat cats began to appear in the newspapers. In 2004, of course, they saw the danger, Gadhafi’s people saw the danger, and they decided to create a whole union for writers which would not allow any of the formerly imprisoned writers to be involved in it.

They basically said, OK, that’s it, no more participation in the country’s cultural life. So, signs were there. But ultimately, the promises that Saif had given the people about a cultural life and a rejuvenation never materialized. And that is why the revolution did take place, because the last 10 years were the years of big promises and also huge thefts.

And that’s — these contributed to the fall of the regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, to the extent now — and it’s, of course, a very fluid situation — but to the extent that you’re able to contact family and friends there now, what do they say this uprising means in personal terms to them and for you?

KHALED MATTAWA: It means the world to them. I think people were kind of scared at the beginning, but things happened so fast, that if you had any iota of caution, lots of people just threw it away, because it became a decisive moment for a lot of people.

“I have to join this great cause” is what people told themselves, and in an individual fashion. And they did. They events — from within hours, it turned from people being afraid to saying, the moment of truth has come; I have to join this effort.

So, there’s great relief in Benghazi. There’s great relief all over Libya. A friend told me that he took his 80-year-old father to the courthouse in Benghazi, and he saw the flag, the independence flag, flying over it, and the old man broke down in tears, thinking that he would never live to see this moment.

So, people are feeling a great relief at having this dictator out of their lives. They’re worried, of course. They’re worried about what he might do, what Gadhafi might do. Will he hit them with airplanes? Will he manage to bring more mercenaries to Africa to hit them? They’re worried about how things will gel up as far as even the administration of their own cities.

The chaos is wonderful, in the sense of all the strictures are gone, but a kind of order needs to emerge. And the people that are being put in charge in the city right now, these committees that are running the cities, are — are exhausted. They need to establish structure, as well as to make sure that security is maintained.

But the — to tell you the truth, this country, Libya, is being created anew. People are having a national moment, the moment of themselves as being Libyan, neither western nor eastern. And so every event that is positive, that is strengthening them, is making them feel much more united and — and actually feel a sense of a new life in them, a new lease on life in them as — to them as individuals and as a nation.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Khaled Mattawa, poet, translator and professor at the University of Michigan, thanks so much.

KHALED MATTAWA: Thank you, Jeff. It’s great to be on your program.