Libya’s Censored Novelist, Mohammed al-Naas, Revealed

18 July, 2022
Mohammed al-Naas’s prize-win­ning Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table was banned in Libya (cov­er cour­tesy Rashm and Meskliani publishers).

 

Ghazi Gheblawi

 

In 2017, Darf Pub­lish­ers, a Lon­don-based inde­pen­dent pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny where I am a senior edi­tor, pub­lished an anthol­o­gy of writ­ers from Libya under the age of 30. The project was the brain­child of Libyan Amer­i­can poet Khaled Mat­tawa, through his non­prof­it, The Arete Foun­da­tion for Arts in Cul­ture. Launched in 2011 and fund­ed with­in a few years, the Arete Foun­da­tion has orga­nized and sup­port­ed a num­ber of cul­tur­al events and projects in Libya fol­low­ing the polit­i­cal upheaval of 2011. The anthol­o­gy, titled A Sun Shin­ing on Shut­tered Win­dows (Shams ‘ala Nawafidh Mugh­laqah), includ­ed 24 authors, many of whom began writ­ing dur­ing the thawra, and shone a light on new writ­ing by a wave of Libyan writ­ers who were break­ing the norms of soci­ety and cul­ture. Pejo­ra­tive­ly dubbed “The Yel­low Book” by its detrac­tors for the col­or of its cov­er, A Sun was lat­er banned in Libya, and its writ­ers faced abuse and harass­ment on social and main­stream media, which caused a num­ber of them to leave the coun­try or go into hid­ing until the smear cam­paign died down.

A Sun Shin­ing on Shat­tered Win­dows (Darf Pub­lish­ers).

Mohammed al-Naas, win­ner of this year’s pres­ti­gious Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion (IPAF) for his debut nov­el, Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, was among the writ­ers fea­tured in the anthol­o­gy. His nov­el her­ald­ed the birth of a ful­ly formed writer who had honed his skills for more than a decade, writ­ing short sto­ries, unpub­lished nov­els, and, most impor­tant­ly, cap­ti­vat­ing arti­cles of non­fic­tion and inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism that explored the social aspects of life in Libya before and after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

At the age of 31, Naas (born in 1991) is among the youngest writ­ers to win the renowned prize, which since its incep­tion in 2008 has become the most influ­en­tial lit­er­ary acco­lade in the Arab world, often accom­pa­nied by spec­u­la­tion, intrigue, and a fair share of the dra­ma that haunts sim­i­lar lit­er­ary prizes worldwide.

Naas rep­re­sents the post-2011 gen­er­a­tion of Libyan writ­ers, each of whom began to find his or her voice dur­ing the dra­mat­ic polit­i­cal events that set Libya on a course to many social and cul­tur­al turn­ing changes, but also ush­ered in a decade of insta­bil­i­ty, war, and chaos. In this upheaval, writ­ers found them­selves less bur­dened with a polit­i­cal sys­tem that was over­reach­ing, con­trol­ling, and repres­sive of indi­vid­ual free­dom of expres­sion, even though these repres­sive func­tions became the pre­serve of myr­i­ad local cen­ters of author­i­ty and pow­er, with many field­ing rogue mil­i­tant armed groups. Indeed, while the past decade has wit­nessed a flour­ish­ing of cre­ativ­i­ty in the fields of jour­nal­ism, media, lit­er­a­ture, and the arts, it has also seen repres­sion and violence.

As he was explor­ing ideas relat­ed to his first nov­el, Naas embarked on a soci­o­log­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­i­cal exca­va­tion of the Libyan psy­che and per­son­al­i­ty through a series of poignant essays and inves­tiga­tive arti­cles that were pub­lished on his blog (Out of Reach) as well as sev­er­al influ­en­tial online Ara­bic-lan­guage plat­forms. These arti­cles dealt with cul­ture in Libya, from folk music, say­ings, and dance to a cri­tique of the Libyan mind. His arti­cles were well-researched and writ­ten with the eye of a doc­u­men­tar­i­an, even as they main­tained a keen sense of humor.

This social and cul­tur­al dis­sec­tion pre­pared Naas to delve into top­ics and ideas that were rarely men­tioned out­side casu­al social gath­er­ings and local cafes. It was his abil­i­ty to dig deep into the mean­ing of cul­tur­al atti­tudes that allowed him to lay bare some of the most sen­si­tive issues fac­ing Libyans, while main­tain­ing the style of a sto­ry­teller with con­densed sentences.

His first attempt at a nov­el, Ensan (Human), which he wrote in 2013, was an exam­i­na­tion of the his­to­ry of vio­lence in Libya through the eyes of a Gaddafi loy­al­ist sol­dier dur­ing the 2011 con­flict. It was post­ed online, but Naas nev­er man­aged to final­ize a man­u­script for pub­li­ca­tion. He recent­ly con­fessed that he can’t go back to it any­more. He con­tin­ued pub­lish­ing short sto­ries, and in 2015 won the Khal­i­fa Fakhri Award for Libyan Short Sto­ries, which rec­og­nized his skills as a storyteller.

Mohammed al-Naas.

That same year, he resigned from his day job as an engi­neer to become a full-time writer and jour­nal­ist, work­ing as the edi­tor of Huna Libya, an online plat­form on Libyan cur­rent affairs sup­port­ed by the Dutch pub­lic broad­cast­er Radio Nether­lands World­wide. In 2017, he was forced to spend sev­er­al months in Tunisia after a pub­lic back­lash against the afore­men­tioned anthol­o­gy of young Libyan writ­ers, which was sub­se­quent­ly banned in Libya. Sev­er­al writ­ers were harassed and dri­ven into hid­ing, threat­ened by rogue mil­i­tant ele­ments in the coun­try, lead­ing one edi­tor of the col­lec­tion to seek asy­lum in Europe.

Naas has empha­sized on many occa­sions that he began writ­ing drafts of sev­er­al nov­els before man­ag­ing to com­plete Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table (pub­lished by Rashm and Meskliani in 2021) in six months dur­ing Covid-19 lock­downs in 2020. The jour­ney began a decade ago when, like many emerg­ing writ­ers, he wrote short sto­ries, an essen­tial fea­ture of the Libyan lit­er­ary scene across the past sev­en decades. In 2019, he edit­ed and self-pub­lished his first col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Blue Blood, which dealt with the social and cul­tur­al chal­lenges fac­ing a gen­er­a­tion of Libyans com­ing of age after the 2011 uprising.


Libyan Stories from Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table


It was Naas’s fas­ci­na­tion with the Libyan psy­che, man­i­fest­ed in tra­di­tion­al say­ings and local folk trends and atti­tudes, that led him to begin writ­ing Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table. Gen­der roles, mas­culin­i­ty, and social changes in Libya became the main issues to which he turned his atten­tion. The nov­el hinges on a Libyan phrase of recent vin­tage, “a fam­i­ly whose uncle is Milad.” Naas explains the ori­gins of his fas­ci­na­tion with the image of the “man,” man­hood, and mas­culin­i­ty in the Libyan mind in an arti­cle he pub­lished just before the pub­li­ca­tion of the nov­el in 2021.

He admits that he failed to find any evi­dence of the phrase’s use before 2011, as inter­net ser­vices were not wide­spread enough in the coun­try for it to appear on any Google search result. He also unsuc­cess­ful­ly attempt­ed to uncov­er traces of the phrase in ref­er­ence books on pop­u­lar proverbs that he man­aged to find, the kind that details the rela­tion­ship between a man and a woman. He explains that the phrase claims that the root cause of women’s lib­er­a­tion is not the absence of male author­i­ty, rather that such author­i­ty encour­ages women’s lib­er­a­tion, which is con­sid­ered “debauch­ery” in the eyes of society.

Naas adds that “Uncle Milad is a dan­ger to the iden­ti­ty and image of the man” — he is the man “who cooks for the woman in his life, dances with her, sings with her, irons her clothes, wash­es dish­es, lis­tens to her, and cries over her wounds and pain.” Naas points out that this sort of man reveals his fem­i­nine side, and that he “encour­ages his woman to be lib­er­at­ed from society’s author­i­ty.” He con­cludes that “Uncle Milad is a dis­graced man. The anti-man, a threat­en­ing image,” an image that Libyans agree shouldn’t rep­re­sent the Libyan man.

Milad in the nov­el is a con­flict­ed char­ac­ter who is shaped on the one hand by society’s expec­ta­tions and on the oth­er by his con­vic­tion that he has to break these soci­etal norms and tra­di­tions. Naas researched his char­ac­ter to the extent that he delved into the world of bread-bak­ing and pas­try-mak­ing, which Milad takes up as a pro­fes­sion. He man­aged to use all his knowl­edge and skills to hold a mir­ror up to soci­ety and make it see its reflec­tion. And as is often the case with expos­i­to­ry writ­ing, peo­ple didn’t like what they saw.

Shukri Mabkhout, Chair of Judges for the 2022 IPAF, described Naas’s nov­el as writ­ten “in the form of con­fes­sions of per­son­al expe­ri­ence. Its pletho­ra of details is deft­ly uni­fied by a grip­ping nar­ra­tive, which offers a deep and metic­u­lous cri­tique of pre­vail­ing con­cep­tions of mas­culin­i­ty and fem­i­nin­i­ty and the divi­sion of work between men and women, and the effect of these on both a psy­cho­log­i­cal and social lev­el. It falls into the cat­e­go­ry of nov­els which ques­tion cul­tur­al norms about gen­der; how­ev­er, it is embed­ded in its local Arab con­text, and steers away from triv­ial pro­jec­tions or an ide­o­log­i­cal treat­ment of the issues, which would be con­trary to the rel­a­tivism of fic­tion and its abil­i­ty to present mul­ti­ple points of view.”

Fol­low­ing the announce­ment that Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table had won the IPAF, and after a short-lived wave of praise and con­grat­u­la­to­ry mes­sages from the Libyan gov­ern­ment and pub­lic, Mohammed al-Naas found him­self at the cen­ter of a smear cam­paign by self-appoint­ed cus­to­di­ans of “moral­i­ty, tra­di­tions and norms,” who con­demned the book’s “explic­it” pas­sages and use of “inde­cent” phras­es. Short­ly there­after, the Libyan Min­istry of Cul­ture delet­ed its con­grat­u­la­to­ry note from its Face­book page and issued a state­ment ban­ning the sale and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the nov­el in Libya until it acquired the “prop­er per­mis­sion” from offi­cial bodies.

These days, Naas is work­ing from his tem­po­rary res­i­dence in Tunisia on a few new fic­tion projects, hav­ing hand­ed over for pub­li­ca­tion his sec­ond col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, A Place Where Dogs Dare not Roam, which is expect­ed to be pub­lished in the sec­ond half of 2022. As of this writ­ing, Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table has been pub­lished in sev­en Arab coun­tries in eight edi­tions, and is await­ing per­mis­sion to be pub­lished and dis­trib­uted in the author’s coun­try of origin.

Accord­ing to al-Naas and his pub­lish­er, the nov­el is being pitched to sev­er­al UK and US pub­lish­ers for trans­la­tion, but there are no deals thus far. The cost of the trans­la­tion will be picked by the IPAF, as part of its com­mit­ment to bring nov­els that win the award to an Eng­lish readership.

 

GaddafiInternational Prize for Arabic FictionKhaled MattawaLibyan literatureTranslation

Ghazi Gheblawi was born in Tripoli, Libya, where he studied medicine, and published his first works of fiction. He is the author of two collections of short stories in Arabic and has published various literary works in English in several publications in the UK. He hosted Imtidad Cultural Blog & Podcast, which focused on literature and arts in Britain and the Arab world. He lives in the UK, where he practiced as a physician for a number of years. In 2017 he was a judge of the Caine Prize for African Writing. He is currently a senior editor at Darf Publishers, an independent publishing house based in London, and is a trustee of The Banipal Trust for Arab Literature.