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Touring Libyan Blogs: the price of fame

Categories: Middle East & North Africa, Libya, Arts & Culture, Breaking News, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Law, Literature, Religion, Women & Gender

During my monthly trip to Libyan bookstores or to whatever bookfairs there happens to be; I'm always pleasantly surprised at the actual amount of Libyan work on display. My reaction is to buy the books that I feel I'm interested in or those about which I know nothing.

In a recent event at the Faculty of Law ( El-Fateh University [1]) where being the bookworm that I was, I made sure to attend their book exhibition for the opportunity to buy at subsidised prices, I came across a novel called “Hunger has many other faces” (unofficial translation). Neither the quality of the paper nor the artwork did really catch my eye, but the fact it was by a female author did. She was an unknown quantity ( at least to me) but I decided to buy it nevertheless. I was more so encouraged since it was not too thick. Being among the first buyers the salesman had no change to give back, so he asked me to return in an hour's time when business would have picked up. An hour later to the dot, I'm happily back with a heavy load of books only to be greeted by an indifferent gaze from the guy. It was sold out!

What surprised me next was that this little novella by an obscure Libyan author seems to have raised quite a storm in the blogosphere on the one hand and in some Libyan regions on the other even warranting a mention in Aljazeera [2]which elicited six pages of comments.

Let's give the word to the Libyan bloggers. The debate unfolds first over at CNNLibya [3], where Khalid Jorni writes :

“Because she has been a trial lawyer for ten years, and because she knew the weak points and the gabs of the Libyan law, she refrained from attacking Islam by her own identity, she preferred to create an imaginary character, and to make it compare between Islam and Christianity in a prejudged unjust way, and as it has been already planned and expected, the book was unintentionally advertised by the spiritual leaders who fell into the trap by criticizing it in their Friday Sermons, subsequently demonstrations took place, petitions were signed, and shraga people of Benghazi went mad at the writer and her tale, thus and overnight she became a national celebrity, all libraries ran out of the book, and Libya's greatest religious scholars were brought to courts, just as criminals or thieves, to pay the price of messing with a law expert, and to be an example for whoever allows himself to defend the greatest and the world's fastest growing religion!”

Ghazi over at Imtidad [4] , took up the issue from another point of view, loudly asking ‘why don't we read? ‘ in which he explains the relationship between reading and being civilised and able to form critical opinions.

البعض سيتحدث عن الالتزام في الكتابة بقيم المجتمع وعاداته وتقاليده، وهو أمر مقبول ومريح، ولكن أين هي هذه العادات والقيم والتقاليد عند معايشتنا للواقع، البعض يقول لا يجوز السماح بنشر روايات تضم أقوال على لسان ابطالها يسبون أو يشتمون، ونحن نسمع كل يوم في شارعنا سباباً وشتماً بشكل معتاد، البعض يقول أن الكتاب الذين يتناولون الدين وتمظهراته الاجتماعية في كتاباتهم الروائية أو الشعرية يسعون بذلك إلى الشهرة السريعة من خلال ذلك، ولكنهم لا يتذكرون هذا الكتاب أو ذاك الكاتب إلا بعد عدة سنوات من صدور الكتاب أو بعد أن تسقط نسخة منه بالصدفة في حجر أحد مبتدئي القراءة والكتابة، فتقوم الدنيا على الكتاب ومؤلفه، ويصبح في يوم وليلة من المشاهير فمن يا ترى سعى للتشهير وللأشهار والدعاية للكتاب والمؤلف.

Translation : Some will talk about the non-commitment to the traditions and mores of a society when writing, which is something acceptable and one should feel comfortable with. However, where are these morals, principles and traditions in reality. Some said it is not permitted to publish novels that include insulting statements by the heroes, yet we hear insults on daily basis on our streets. Some say that writers that talk about religion and its social aspects in their fiction work or poetry are running after quick fame yet they only recall this or that book after several years of its issue or when a copy falls by chance in the hands of a beginner to the world of reading and writing. It is only then that heaven and earth are moved about this book and its writer and the author becomes a star overnight. Who is then striving for libel or publicity and advertisement for the book and its author.

Tasnim from Epiphanies [5], has a concise summary of Wafa Buessa's book:

” The novel, written in the first-person for “dramatic effect” as the writer says, tells the story of a girl who is forced by “living circumstances” to leave a stereotypically cloistered Libya and go live with her uncle's family in Egypt. Here, the protagonist begins to broadcast her rejection of and hate for Islam in no uncertain terms, seeing an alternative in the Coptic Church because the “doors are always open.”‘

Morever Tasnim argues that ” Because, when a lawyer who has just released her debut novel decides to take legal action against those who denounce her heroine, it does seem to indicate a slight jumbling of job descriptions. The words Publicity and Stunt also cross the conspiracy-addled mind.”

While I'm still waiting for my own copy almost regretting not paying the five extra Dinars to the guy who had no change I can already partially speculate that from her interview replies Wafa is pulling a stunt a la Ayaan Hirsi Ali [6] or acting like her trailblazing namesake Wafa Sultan [7], or the Bangladeshi Tasleema Nesreen [8].. Salman Rushdie's classic ” Satanic verses” comes to mind, but also the 2006 Danish cartoon crisis which earned fame to a number of unscrupulous bloggers who banked on their anti-Islamic sentiments.

This controversial novel has brought up a storm of protests and words in the comment sections and Tasnim's post reprinted on the Mideast Youth [9]website has raised further debates about the truly interesting nature of this case. But it's not about literary critique nor religious freedom, what is striking and different than Ayaan, Wafa and the usual anti-Islamic sentiments is made clear by Tasnim when she says that “it is like an inversion of the usual freedom of speech issue. It’s not the author but the critics who are in court for expressing their opinion[…]There’s no censorship involved here. No fatwas, no death threats and no apostates. The power, in this equation, is with the attorney turned author. “