Libyan Writers in Danger Following Attacks on 2017 Collection, ‘Sun on Closed Windows’

More than two dozen Libyan writers — contributors to the collection شمس على نوافذ مغلقة (Sun on Closed Windows) — have been under a week-long wave of media and social-media attacks, including threats of death and physical harm, and calls for militias to interrogate all those involved with the book, following a literary event in Zawiya, Libya on August 26:

Yesterday, PEN International issued a statement expressing they are “deeply concerned” for the authors’ safety. “Fearing for their lives,” the PEN statement reads, “some are currently in hiding with their families.”

The collection was published late this spring, co-edited by acclaimed Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa and Libyan journalist Laila Moghrabi. It was co-published by Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture, of which Mattawa is a founder, and Darf Publishers of London. The collection, which is more than 500 pages, brings together the work of 25 Libyan writers and two essays by prominent Libyan critics.

Launch events were held in Cairo in May and Tripoli in July. But it wasn’t until an August 26 event at a public library in Zawiya, featuring several contributors, that problems arose. In her summary on Medium, Libyan Khadeja Hussein described Zawiya as “an ultra conservative city that is ruled by multiple militias and not really the place you want to be seen holding a book.”

It was an Islamic militia group that arrested event organizer Marwan Jbouda, according to PEN. Jbouda was released the following day. However, after that, the public library was shut down, apparently to prevent further literary events. The group managed to alarm some Libyans as to the collection’s dangerous content.

The online ire against Sun on Closed Windows has been primarily targeted at excerpts of Kashan, by novelist Ahmad al-Bokhari. The excerpts, of chapters five and six, have been characterized as immoral, spreading obscenity, and some have even claimed it offers a pretext to Islamists looking to crack down on literature. A number of users on twitter have written about the excerpt using شمس_على_نوافذ_مغلقة#.

The book was then retroactively censored and condemned by Libyans authorities, stating its content was against “public morality.”

However, as Mattawa has pointed out in a statement, the passages in question were taken from a novel, Kashan, that was published in Libya, and thus reviewed by the Ministry before its printing in 2012. Kashan was even at the Cairo International Book Fair’s official Libya pavilion in 2012.

Mattawa further clarified in his statement that he took full responsibility for the selections.

Photo from the Zawiya event via Khadeja Hussein.

Since August 26, co-editors Laila Moghrabi and Khaled Mattawa, as well as al-Bokhari, the other contributors, and even the London-based publisher, have been the target of large-scale media and social-media attacks.

This has particularly endangered and impacted young women writers, as the blogger “سيدة عادية” / “Normal Lady” writes in a post about events. She notes that when she read the text, she was “shocked by the author’s frankness,” in part because he wrote in colloquial Arabic. But the anthology, she noted, is an assemblage of more than 100 texts. She simply moved on to the next one.

Although the author of the text in question was male, she writes, many of the attacks have been on the women writers whose works were also in the collection, for allowing their work to sit alongside it. These writers were accused of “neglect,” told they should have read the full collection before agreeing to be in it.

Hussein added, in her post, that “A lot of the comments were inciting violence towards any woman who dared comment or defend the book.”

The net effect, “Normal Lady” suggests, is a chill on young women writers in Libya. The message, she says, is: “Don’t allow your daughters to write, even if they have nothing to do with the text in question.”

Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, wrote in a prepared statement:

“Through their actions and statements the Libyan authorities are undermining freedom of expression. Instead of supporting the writers and editors who are targeted by a religious group, the Ministry of Culture has condemned the contents of a book which is a work of literature. Libyan authorities should take all necessary measures to protect the life and the safety of the writers, editors, and all those involved with the book, and take effective steps to investigate and prosecute those who are threatening their safety, and uphold the writers’ right to write and readers’ right to read”.

On the positive side, Hussein wrote that, “Libyan women have started to react by getting together in groups and organising themselves to report all the online posts that are inciting violence against the authors. I myself have managed to report two links that were removed by Facebook today.”

Read the statement from PEN International at their website.

Read Khadeja Hussein’s “A short summary about the Libyan book outrage”