Khaled Mattawa on the Next Steps for Libyan Arts and Literature

Poet, translator, and human being Khaled Mattawa recently spent some time in Tripoli, Libya helping to organize an international poetry festival that will be held in Libya next month.

Upon his return, he spoke to PRI about the situation of culture in Libya and spoke generally and movingly about the path he hoped it might follow.

Referring to the problems that still exist in the cultural realm, Mattawa said that “it’s the dependency that hasn’t ended.” Many artists and writers received salaries from the government, and waited to be called upon to perform by the government. “But there are many others who are going off and doing other things,” Mattawa added.

As a next step, “The government should not try to do culture. The government should let culture happen.”

For the artist:

I think the next step is for the artist, I think, to exercise the freedom he always wanted. What some artists have done post-revolution is to create paintings and plays and so on that support the revolution and show the artist really glad to see that the revolution has happened. I find that to be quite boring.

I think the next step would be for artists to express things that are beyond the political moment and to express themselves, the issues that are at the core of their being, or that are at the core of our culture — the Libyan culture, the Arab culture. The problems that led to Ghaddafi leading us for 43 years have not gone away.

And for the artist to celebrate the revolution as if it’s the end of all things is really to lie. Because we didn’t get to be a population dominated by one man for so long .. and for him to be gone, that’s not the only thing that we need done. The culture needs rehabilitation. It needs to really get democratized in a deep way.

Mattawa spoke very movingly about his respect and appreciation for those who had stayed in Libya and fought for a space for culture over the last 43 years.

I feel great appreciation for the people … those are the real heroes. I have nothing but the deepest gratitude and appreciation for what they’ve done.

They managed to create a sphere for independence. Their voice — for culture, not politics — was the clean slate that they maintained for themselves. People knew that if you could speak about art and culture, you really do provide an open space for freedom in Libya. And they did it year after year during Ghaddafi’s time. They talk poetry, they talk about the nation’s history. They provided an ultimate vision for the country in subtle ways, that as soon as people in Benghazi realized that this regime could actually fall, or that they decided to [make it] fall… It was that imaginative space of possibility that these writers have created that people went to.

I have nothing but purest gratitude and thanks for them.

Listen also to Khaled Mattawa’s poem “After 42 Years.


  1. He makes a very strong point. I think, however, that the kind of reflection required to go beyond the revolution in order to explore the past on which it was predicated takes time. One needs distance – look at Lebanon: some artists are still exploring the Lebanese war 20 years after it happened.

    1. Yes, some of the most meaningful explorations of the Lebanese civil war have come out quite recently. I think Jabbour Douaihey said that he was finally able to write about the *first* part of the civil war.

      But I think in any case people will have to write through what is closest to their heart, and what animates them, even if it isn’t “good” art. Although certainly artists shouldn’t feel compelled to write about revolution if they want to write about their parents or gas shortages or a historical moment from 50 years ago….or science fiction.

  2. The mother of one of my Moroccan friends is a teacher and accepted some Libyan students into her class that had come to Morocco after the Revolution. She told me she was shocked because they “know nothing” about culture, literature, etc. as a result of Qaddafi’s oppressive control of education and intellectual life. I think the point about allowing culture to grow freely is essential if Libya is to recover from that experience. And this kind of criticism is essential because Libyans are used to ‘culture’ coddling government. I remember reading that after liberation a huge number of literary and intellectual journals were founded in Benghazi. I wonder how they’re doing now? And by extension, what will be the cultural/intellectual ramifications of the Arab Spring? A second Arab Renaissance?

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