Libyan ‘Prison Scenes’: ‘I Don’t Deny That a Part of Me Is Lost Forever’

Italian journalist Vittoria Volgare talked with the Libyan short-story writer Omar al-Kikli, whose work has appeared in English translation Banipal and Jadaliyya about al-Kikli’s 2012 prison memoir, Sijniyata testament to the years he spent in Ghaddafi’s prisons:

Photo credit: Vittoria Volgare.
Photo credit: Vittoria Volgare.

By Vittoria Volgare

TRIPOLI – The Libyan writer Omar Abu Al Qasim al-Kikli will never forget the date he was jailed: it was December 26, 1978. That day, Omar, 25 years old, was attending a cultural event in Benghazi, Libya’s second city.

“The conference was brutally interrupted by Gaddafi’s revolutionary committees, who beat and arrested me together with other writers, accusing us of plotting to overthrow the government,” recalls Omar.

Born in 1953 in the city of al-Kikla, 150 km southwest of Tripoli, al-Kikli was a student at the Art faculty of the University of Garyounis — better known as Benghazi University — and was starting to gain notoriety for his literary work. But he was also considered, together with other students and intellectuals, a Marxist by the revolutionary committees formed by Gaddafi at the end of the 1970s.These bodies were fighting freedom of expression and were notorious for their brutality in crushing opposition in Libya and even abroad. They attacked universities, where they hung students and purged faculty members. They also exercised strict control over the media and set up their own “revolutionary courts,” at which death sentences were passed against anyone daring to speak up against the regime. Intellectuals were among the favorite prey of these committees.

Al-Kikli and a group of other students and friends were put on trial and found guilty of forming a communist party aiming to topple Gaddafi’s regime. They were sentenced to life imprisonment. It was thus that al-Kikli found himself at one point in the notorious Abu Salim prison, one of the most evocative symbols of the colonel’s reign of terror, where in 1996 security forces tortured and killed more than 1,200 inmates.

Abdullah Senussi, the ex-spy chief and the dictator brother’s in law, is thought to be behind what has become known as the massacre of Abu Salim.

“My experience in prison included beatings and torture,” Omar recalls. “We were deprived of the most basic rights and the last four years we were not even allowed to see our families.”

17315894Fortunately, al-Kikli managed to keep his sanity by writing stories with pens and papers smuggled from outside.

After having languished in jail for more than nine years, Omar was released on the 3rd of March 1988, by virtue of a general pardon by Gaddafi. “It is extremely difficult to talk about my experience in jail, but I dealt with it and prevented it from destroying my identity. I however don’t deny that a part of me is lost forever,” Omar said.

After his release, al-Kikli went back to writing. He is the first Libyan author to talk about his prison years in Sijniyat, his latest book, written in Arabic and published with Dar Al Firjani in 2012. Prison Scenes consists of short stories where the jail experience is coated in satire but it is at the same time written in a very direct style that presents the terrible reality of life behind bars in a totalitarian state.

“The book shows how a person learns to live, or to survive, in a place that can destroy your identy,” Omar said. Only after the fall of the regime was Omar able to publish the book in Libya, altough some short stories were published in an Egyptian magazine in 2004 and in a Libyan newspaper in 2009.

Like al-Kikli, many other artists who were afraid of expressing their views are now starting to lift their heads and represent the hope of a new Libya.

Translated excerpts:

On Jadaliyya, trans. Sebastian Anstis 

On Imtidad, trans. Ghazi Geblawi

Vittoria Volgare is an Italian journalist and translator. Since 2005, she has lived in the Arab world (Damascus, Cairo, Beirut and now Tripoli), and she studied Arabic at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale.”  This article originally appeared in Italian.