Books and Free Speech in Post-Gaddafi Libya

Last week, Tripoli, Libya saw its first major second-hand book sale since…well, at least since 2011:

Photo from the Libyan Street Art blog
Photo from the Libyan Street Art blog

Organizers of the three-day fair told Reuters that they plan to use the funds raised from book sales to build a mobile library for schools. They added that, fortunately and unfortunately, there weren’t enough books to go around. The Harry Potter books, for instance, sold out on the first day.

Reuters said: “After a busy first day, they had to cancel the morning opening hours of the fair to make sure there were enough books in the busier evening hours.”

Around 60 volunteers from various groups organised the fair by putting up posters and messages on Facebook. They managed to collect some 7,000 books.

One visitor who regretted coming late told the Libya Herald, “I had the impression that Libyans are not readers, so I am very surprised.”

Volunteer Jazea Omar told the Herald: “We have to share our books so we can spread knowledge, and lots of the books for sale here are from other countries and cultures. Knowledge of these is important for us.”

The story here seems unreservedly good: Libyans engaging in free speech, book-buying, knowledge growth, and more.

But also last week, Libyan poet-blogger Ghazi Gheblawi wrote, in a piece originally published in the Index on Censorship, about how lack of funding, lack of professionally trained journalists, and lack of security are hindering the development of free speech in Libya.

Gheblawi wrote: “An official at the Libyan Ministry of Culture told me that the current government is aware of this problem and how old laws are being used to censor, ban and confiscate books, newspapers and other printed materials. But he said that changing these laws is not a priority as the government struggles to build state institutions from scratch.”

He ended: “Libya ranked 131st in the World Press Freedom Index 2013, making the most gains in freedom compared to its Arab uprising neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt.

“But the challenges ahead are daunting and the concerns that those gains can be lost are real.”

Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, in “Gaddafi Is Dead. Long Live Art,” also wrote about the difficulties and possibilities of art in post-Gaddafi Libya. He attended an event with celebrated Libya poet Khaled Mattawa:

We doubted that anyone was going to turn up to the artist’s talk. It felt like we were just going through the motions. But a few minutes before the advertised time, people began to arrive at the gallery. They kept coming until every seat was taken. When the artist showed slides of her work and spoke, there was something nearly sacred about the quality of the silence: a determined and committed stillness.

Also from Libyan authors:

Hisham Matar: ‘Thinking is bad for writing’

Jadaliyya: Omar al-Kikli’s ‘Prison Sketches’


Libyan Street Art Blog