Libyan Culture on The Brink of Change

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: London-based writer, Hisham Matar, is hoping for good news from Libya. His father was a Libyan dissident who was abducted in 1990 and imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime. Matar doesn't know if his father is even alive at this point. Hisham Matar also has a new novel that's just been published in the US, it's called Anatomy of a Disappearance. Matar isn't surprised by the rebels gaining the upper hand this week.

Hisham Matar: Once people rise there's very little a totalitarian regime can do apart from all this massacring as many people as they can, which the dictatorship in Libya is trying to do over the last six months. And that's given everybody a sense of confidence and a sense of vitality, the sort of vitality you get when you suddenly understand and believe that what you do matters, that it has an affect on the world that you haven't been made impotent. The imagination, the collective imagination of Libyans has been trapped and suddenly the horizon has just moved to a different places, and the view of the future, it's very different. And exactly because Gaddafi didn't just die or didn't die of old age, but the fact that he has been pushed off his thrown by the same people who are going to make the future; it gives them a sense of ownership of it. And not only for Libya, I think what Gaddafi has been trying to do over the last six months is give a master class to people like Bashar al-Assad and other dictators, try to give them a master class on how you crush a civil uprising. And what the Libyan people have done is prove that he failed. And that's going to be a huge inspiration, it's going to be a huge source of anxiety for dictators, but it's going to be a huge source of inspiration and confidence for people.

Werman: You have a novel coming out today in the US. As a writer, Hisham Matar, I'm just wondering how you've been able to think about writing the last six months. You seem to track events on Twitter almost 24/7. Have you been writing? Are you able to think in that way?

Matar: Like my friends in Egypt and Tunisia, writers there, these events have presented a very profound challenge to us. We are by definition very private people. We are on the margins of society deliberately so; I think that all artists everywhere, we feel outsiders and our existential state relies on us feeling as outsiders, it helps us think, it helps us contemplate, it helps us question...it's one of the roles of the artist, I think. And these events push you into being closer, more involved, and at times they feel like they're going to obliterate you, as if history itself is fixed on destroying the artist. So it's a tricky thing and one has to be vigilant about it. But at the same time it's a hugely profound and moving event, intoxicating in many ways, that also has sort of the quality of almost like a spiritual moment. You know, there's something so deeply moving about the desire of a people wanting to see a different future, wanting to feel an ownership of their destiny, that it is hugely inspiring I think for artists. These things take a long time for us to really understand their effect, but I would wager that 50 years from now we would look back and see how these events have revived Arabic culture, has inspired it, rejuvenated it, and feeling that happen already. I've just come from Cairo today and the amount of magazines that are being issued, and literary journals and books about the events that have issued in Egypt are phenomenal. And you canjust see this kind of adjusters, like this sort of slight change of position of how people see themselves. Even their eyes look different, the mood looks different. And that is something I feel hugely privileged to witness and I feel very moved to count myself as part of.

Werman: Hisham Matar, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Matar: Pleasure, thanks.

Werman: Hisham Matar's new novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance is published in the US today. Thank you very much indeed.

Matar: All the best.