Hisham Matar knows what it means to be persecuted by a dictatorial regime. His Libyan father, Jaballa, a vocal opponent of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, was kidnapped while living in exile in Egypt in 1990. Just as NATO bombs were hastening the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime this summer, Mr. Matar, who spent most of his childhood in Libya and Egypt, published his new novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance. Written from the perspective of a teenage son, it tells the story of a political exile who is kidnapped.
The lives of Arab authors are frequently as dramatic as the accounts that they describe in their books. While reflecting on what life was like under Qaddafi, Mr. Matar said the three overwhelming feelings were pain, fear, and embarrassment. “Pain, because everybody knows somebody who is either in prison, but also pain through humiliation and restriction and interference into private life; fear, because no one is immune, you know, even the people very close to Qaddafi are always looking over their shoulder; and embarrassment, because it’s embarrassing having these idiots represent you,” he said at an event on September 15th.
On the other side of the Arab world, in the Gulf of Aden, Ali Al-Muqri of Yemen has also experienced the unjust and repressive hand of dictatorship. He began writing avant-garde poems and short stories at the age of eighteen, but the then-Ministry of Culture of North Yemen banned his work for being too erotic. In 2007, he published a book about alcohol and Islam which caused outrage among religious leaders; he and his family have been marginalized and threatened because of it.
The prevalence of intense political repression and social taboos in many parts of the Arab world make it difficult for authors to write freely. Still, many writers consider it their duty to push these boundaries. That is, the political often supersedes the purely aesthetic.
This is not to say that most literature by Arab writers is political; far from it. Since Arabic literature is extraordinarily rich, one is hard pressed to divide it neatly into two categories, political and aesthetic. However, there is a trend today among Arab writers to be politically and socially engaged, and the existence of censorship—whether actual state censorship or social reprobation—makes their work difficult, but also particularly interesting.
As millions across the Arab world struggle today for change and against repression, literature plays a key role in providing a space to express ideas or feelings that are otherwise prohibited, and that allow people to imagine a better future. We see this in both formal literature, like the novels of Mr. Matar and Mr. Al-Muqri, and informal poetry used in people’s everyday lives. In her seminal study on the semi-nomadic Bedouin communities living in northwestern Egypt, Veiled Sentiments, Lila Abu-Lughod describes how women use poetry—and the ambiguity of its literary form—to express feelings that the conservative society they live in would otherwise not allow them to in a normal conversation. The courage and importance of these writers cannot be overestimated.
Above: Ali Al-Muqri and Hisham Matar. Photo by Elliot Moscowitz