"Over and Over He Said 'Survive'": the Poetry of Khaled Mattawa in Light of Libya

I was lucky, at Duke in the mid-1990s, to overlap for a few years with the Libyan poet and translator Khaled Mattawa, then enrolled in Duke's Ph.D. program. I don't think I really grasped the extent to which Khaled's experience as an expatriate (really, exile) would end up impacting me at the time. And I was also a bit too young to be able grasp the level of accomplishment and power of Khaled's first published book of poetry, Ismailia Eclipse. (Sheep Meadow Press, 1995. The book is difficult to find now, though Khaled has helpfully put many of the important poems online here.)

Since the recent uprising in Libya began, I've been slowly revisiting Khaled's work and using the poems, where possible, to help process the incredibly stirring -- but also distressing -- events that are taking place in that country. As one of very few Libyan intellectuals fluent in English living in the United States, Khaled has of course been in demand in the U.S. media in the past two weeks. He did a great interview on PBS's NewsHour, and another on NPR in the past few days. But the most moving statement he's made in light of the rebellion is to write a personal account of growing up in Libya (Benghazi) at the beginning of Qadhafi's rule: "Rising to Shake Off the Fear in Libya". (The essay has appeared as an Op-Ed in several newspapers today.)

Here is an excerpt from that Op-Ed:

A few months earlier on April 7, 1977, members of the revolutionary committees had plastered a poster of Gadhafi’s image on my father’s car. On that same day they had, under the dictator’s direct supervision, publicly hanged several dissidents in Benghazi. 
On the day of the execution, the Ghibli winds blowing from the desert filled the air with dust and turned the sky into a reddish-gray canopy. I’d taken a bus with a friend to catch a movie downtown. Nearing Shajara Square, the bus simply turned around and took us back to where we had come from. Later that evening, state television repeatedly broadcast the hangings. I went to our garage to peel the dictator’s poster off our car. It took an interminably long time.
Along with millions of other Libyans, I have never stopped trying to peel Gadhafi’s image from my life. Even after I came to the United States in 1979 to continue my education, the dictator seemed to follow me. He was the one Libyan most people had heard of, and they wanted to talk about him. I used to be enraged when women told me how handsome he was. To me he was the face of evil itself, the face of separation, exile, thuggery, torture and lies.
(Source: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/03/03/2096377/rising-to-shake-off-the-fear-in.html#ixzz1FeVTVOts )

Reading this, I couldn't help but think of Khaled's early poem, published in Ismailia Eclipse, describing the very same event, "Fifty April Years". Here is an excerpt from that poem, which Khaled has posted in its entirety on his website:

On the day of the hanging,
my father drove home,
a poster of the President
on the hood of his car.
He tried to explain.
Over and over he said "survive."

Once I believed forgetfulness
was a gift from the gods,
not an erosion of the soul.
Now I know enough to say
this has happened before,
and even crueler things--
the bombardment of the ghetto
as the republic ate its lunch
in the park, held its toddlers,
napped on lawns, smoke-sharp air
fevered with the hiss of a flute.

Don't ask. I too find myself
listening to gurus
who abhor coherence, who tell us
language is a bucket of slop
and we can only grunt and squeal.
I wonder if they say this to silence
the wretched who have found no words,
who wave their torn limbs at us.
(From Ismailia Eclipse. Source: http://www.webdelsol.com/mattawa/km-part6.htm)  

I find these lines (I would recommend you read the whole poem) especially poignant. They speak, first, to how and why a population could allow itself to be governed by a tyrant of a dictator for more than forty years. Khaled's father's response to having a poster of the President glued to the hood of his car -- after a public hanging -- is not and cannot be public outrage. Rather, his focus is on doing what is best for his family: "Over and over again he said 'survive'." Drive the car and the family home; put it in the garage; go on with life. I think for years millions of other Libyans also made that calculation and swallowed their anger and horror in order to survive. (No more.)

But there's another twist towards the end of the section I quoted, where Khaled asserts a strong ethical stance regarding the power and purpose of expressive language. Khaled seems to be invoking, with frustration, the "gurus" of a complacent kind of postmodernism, who devalue the efficacy of representational language ("who abhor coherence").  Against that complacency, he demonstrates the horrors produced by Qadhafi's Libya, mute but still expressive: "I wonder if they say this to silence/ the wretched who have found no words/ who wave their torn limbs at us."


Khaled left Libya around 1979, and wasn't able to return for more than 20 years (at the time I knew him, he was still effectively in exile). He began to make returns trips as of 2001, and in some of his recent interviews he's talked about his perception of the country in the 2000s, as Qadhafi's lunacy and corruption continued to deepen. (See the same Op-Ed, I quoted from above for instances along those lines.)

I should also say that most of Khaled's poetry doesn't really directly address Qadhafi or politics per se. Some of my personal favorites are actually more concerned with the intermingling of spaces and cultures -- the many ways in which memory and loss can operate. For much of his time in the U.S. Khaled lived in the American South, and sometimes there is a special kind of poetry born of the juxtaposition of that American landscape -- Lubbock, Wichita, Knoxville -- with the landscapes of Libya that has been relegated to memory. Here, for instance, are some excerpts from "The Road from Biloxi" (published in Zodiac of Echoes):

Were were stuck on the Biloxi highway, mid-July,
the AC Kaput, and what the radio played
didn't matter, Randy Travis on the rise,
the days of disco a buised heap, reagan,
meese, jane fonda, and the gain in the pain.
Of course, we all felt like burnign american flags
on behalf of a thousand justifiable causes.
But who cares? We were stuck for hours,
stuck in 1982, and what blocked the way didn't matter,
and the sea we went to see was no big deal,
a great disappointment in fact, an ocean
brow-beaten by a river, rumbling, moaning,
black-eyed, bruised, weighed by the Mississippi silt.

[...] Next time, we promised, it'll be the Atlantic, next time
some salty immensity, some honest to goodness breeze,
the smell of the earth turning around itself,
a clear run to the horizon, a clean shot to Africa,
to something we could beckon and understand,
something te waves would release us from
now that we were stuck here on the Biloxi road
chained, and chain smoking, aware of the sea
we left behind, and the had left us,
the Mediterranean, that other swamp, too far
to touch us again, too far ever to matter. (Khaled Mattawa, "The Road From Biloxi")

The mingling of oceans and airs -- one in the poet's American present, and the other in the Mediterranean past -- has been a frequent theme in Khaled's poetry. That said, I think one also shouldn't forget some of the concrete historical and political references (1982 was also the year of the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, an event that left a big imprint especially on the Arab world. The part about wanting to burn American flags is not a joke, friends.). The helplessness of the group in the car, presumably a group of Arab expatriates, is only in a small way about being stuck in traffic; more than anything else, they are isolated and helpless to do anything about (or even connect with) the violence taking place elsewhere.


Khaled now teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. He has been incredibly prolific in the last decade, publishing numerous translations from the Arabic, as well as further collections of his own poetry. Of those collections, I have read and enjoyed Zodiac of Echoes and Amorisco. Of the translations, I have on my shelf Miracle Maker: The Selected Poems of Fadhil al-AzzawiWithout an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef, as well as Khaled's impressive recent translation of the Syrian poet Adonis.

All three collections are well worth exploring, as are Khaled's comprehensive introductions. The translations of Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef in particular have been influential, especially "America America" (which is Youssef's subversive reworking of "America the Beautiful" in light of firs Gulf War).

Here's a brief excerpt from Khaled's translation of Youssef's poem:

I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Islandand John Silver's parrot and the balconies of New Orleans.
I love Mark Twin and the Mississippi steamboats and Abraham Lincoln's dogs.
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.
but I am not American.
Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the Stone Age?
I need neither oil nor America herself, neither the elephant nor the donkey.
Leave me, pilot, leave my house roofed with palm fronds and this wooden bridge.
I need neither your Golden Gate nor your skyscrapers.
I need the village, not New york.
Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert, soldier armed to the teeth?
Why did you come all the way to distant Basra, where fish used to swim by our doorsteps?
Pigs do not forage here.
I only have these water buffaloes lazily chewing on water lilies.
Leave me alone, soldier.
Leave me my floating cane hut and my fishing spear.
Leave me my migrating birds and the green plumes.
Take your roaring iron birds and your Tomahawk missiles. I am not your foe.
I am the one who wades up to the knees in rice paddies.
Leave me to my curse.
I do not need your day of doom.
If one sees shades of Whitman in Saadi Youssef's response to "America," that's probably no accident -- Khaled mentions in his introduction that Youssef had published his own translations of Whitman into Arabic in Iraq, beginning in the 1960s. (I also see something of Allen Ginsberg, who also wrote an angry, dissenting poem called "America." But of course there is a deep kinship between Whitman and Ginsberg...)

Khaled spoke about this poem in an interview a little while ago, the transcript of which can be found here. Here are Khaled's comments from that interview:

I was translating Saadi Youssef (Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems, Graywolf, 2002) because I love his poetry, but also I felt like what he wrote would be a kind of knowledge that needs to be available.  I think of his poem “America, America,” which is a great poem. That poem, and also a poem by Fadhil al-Azzawi called “Elegy for the Dead,” that these poems were like visionary.  They saw what the course of relations between the United States and Iraq would take, possibly take, and they envisioned the horror to the end we have now.  [...] And it seems to me like, had that poem, or these two poems, been read or discussed or thought of or contemplated at any serious level, we wouldn’t have that mess.

So you can think of poetry in that very practical sense.  I know Saadi Youssef’s poem was being read in anti-war demonstrations and so on as a protest poem. It saw through.  One of the lines says, “America, take your stripes and give us the stars . . . Take Saddam Hussain and give us Abraham Lincoln or give us nothing at all.” And that may have been the real issue here, that the replacement of this terrible regime would have to be ideal, would have to be worked out. Otherwise, Iraq didn’t need anything, and maybe that was the verdict of history, that it would have been better not to have gone through this. (Source)

Of course, that was then, this is now. If people like Saadi Youssef (and yes, Khaled Mattawa) had been heeded eight years ago, the U.S. might have avoided the tragic waste of the second Iraq war (a tragedy that still makes me angry as I think about it, years later).

What is harder to know is whether a poem like Youssef's "America, America" can help Americans now, thinking about how to respond to what is happening right now in Libya. In my humble reading, the U.S. has been spectacularly effective at creating messes in the Middle East, but not very good at helping to solve them. Will it be any different this time?