Libyan novelist Ahmed Fagih (1942-2019), best-known for his twelve-volume historical epic Maps of the Soul, died Tuesday at a hospital in Cairo:
Fagih was, along with Ibrahim al-Koni and Khalifa Hussein Mustapha, one of the twentieth century’s most well-known Libyan novelists. He has been touted as “the author of the longest Arabic novel” for his epic Maps of the Soul, and he made the Arab Writers Union’s list of the “top 105 novels” of the twentieth century, with his Gardens of the Night trilogy. The trilogy also won the prize for best novel at the 1991 Beirut Book Fair.
Fagih — an author, technocrat, and scholar — was born in the village of Mizda, south of Tripoli, in December 1942, when WWII Axis forces were camped out in Tripoli. He began publishing stories as a teenager, in the late 1950s, when King Idris I was ruler of Libya. In 1962, Fagih got a scholarship to study journalism in Egypt. His first collection of stories came out in 1965: There Is No Water in the Sea, and this collection won an award from Libya’s Royal Commission of Fine Arts.
I was a newcomer to Tripoli from my remote desert village Mizda when I started writing stories. I had very little experience outside my life in that village, so I turned to the past and to my young life for inspiration and material to feed my creative writings. I was driven by a feeling of devotion to the village, and with some sense of being indebted to it. In fact, most of the stories I wrote at the beginning of my career were driven by the passion I felt for my village and its people. I appreciated their hardships and sufferings and the struggle for livelihood they had to endure in that hostile environment.
Fagih went on to study theatre in London, returning to Libya in 1972, shortly after Ghaddafi’s coup d’état. He was appointed editor of The Cultural Weekly and also directed a number of plays. He went back to the UK and finished his PhD in literature at University of Edinburgh in 1982. His thesis, on the Libyan short story, is available online.
He continued to work between the UK and Libya, including for the Libyan Embassy in Britain, although reportedly late last year he was denied a visa to come to the UK for medical treatment. Fagih also worked for diplomatic missions in Athens and Bucharest. For the last years of his life, he settled in Cairo.
Fagih published more than 60 books in Arabic, many of which were translated into other languages. The UK’s Darf Publishers brought out the first three volumes of his epic Maps of the Soul, and they mourned the passing of the author:
Rest In Peace Ahmed Fagih. It is with deep sadness to receive the news that Libyan author Ahmed Fagih passed away yesterday in Cairo. We send our sincere condolences to his family and friends. pic.twitter.com/Jqj07gGgvJ
— Darf Publishers (@DarfPublishers) May 1, 2019
He was also mourned by Darf editor and fellow Libyan writer Ghazi Gheblawi:
وداعا استاذنا أحمد إبراهيم الفقيه. خالدا ستحيا إلى الأبد في ابداعك وفي ذاكرتنا! pic.twitter.com/Y6gbLWCrRK
— Ghazi Gheblawi (@Gheblawi) May 1, 2019
And by his sometimes translator Ethan Chorin:
Extremely saddened by the passing of Dr. Ahmed Ibrahim al Fagih – the inimitable Libyan-Arab short story writer, novelist and playwright. His work was a big part of my introduction to Libya in the early 2000s. He will be sorely missed. Farewell, my friend.
— Ethan D. Chorin (@EthanChorin) May 1, 2019
Fagih also apparently supported younger Libyan writers:
شهادة أقولها للتاريخ، في فبراير 2010 أرسلت للروائي "أحمد إبراهيم الفقيه" عبر الإيميل مخطوطة رواية #كاشان، وكنت مبتدئاً أكتب رواية للمرة الأولى، لم تمضي إلا أيام حتى أرسل لي رسالة مطوّلة يشيد بالنص ويثني عليّ ويقوّمني بملاحظاته التي أستفدت منها، وكان لهذه الرسالة أثراً كبيراً لدي.
— Ahmed Elbukhari (@el_Bokhari) May 1, 2019
Fagih wrapped up his literary career with memoir, writing The Trilogy of Childhood and The Trilogy of Tripoli.