Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

24394558Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. Peirene Press, 2014. Originally published 2011. 128 pgs. Purchased.i

In the 1960s, a young boy named Hadachinou moves between the public streets of Tripoli and the private spaces inhabited by his mother, her best friend, and other women of his acquaintance. His age and size means he isn’t viewed as a threat in Libya’s patriarchal society, allowing him to blend in and go unnoticed in female spaces.

It also means the women in his life are willing to be frank with their assessment of men. His great aunt Naffia characterizes Libyan history as men — the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Turks, the Italians — abusing women to prove their virility and value. She complains that the men are still doing it now even as society is changing, as Libya changes from an Italian colony to a kingdom ruled by King Idris.

“After the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Arab tribes and the Turks, it was their turn to try out their virility on our bodies. And they’re still at it now, they’re just wearing different clothes. Sewer rats, the lot of them. They swagger about in front of their wives and children, but when they get together in their bistros and their mosques they draw in their horns. They’re deceitful and servile when they don’t have any power, and depraved and offensive when they do.”

In this society, though, women have to carve out their own spaces and relationships. In these spaces, the physical abuse they suffer at the hands of their husbands is forgotten for a moment because they are among those who understand. In these spaces, the emotional abuse they suffer in a society that does not value them beyond their ability to bear children is forgotten for a moment because they can discuss their thoughts and views on the world. Because, during the tea ceremony, “at last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties all in the same breath, and their bodies were at peace”.

The most beautiful example of this is the relationship between Hadachinou’s mother and her best friend, Jamila. These women could be friends or lovers or sisters; their relationship runs so deeply that those ‘or’s could be switched for ‘and’. For Hadachinou, it’s a relationship that isn’t easy to define — he doesn’t always know why his mother shoos him from the room when Jamila visits. Yet it is one that he describes so beautifully that I found myself highlighting passage after passage about this friendship.

“There they both are, smiling as they gaze into each other’s eyes, then laughing and laughing again. Their eyes, their whole bodies, say how happy they are to be together, lying on that carpet in their light clothes, just there, with no need for words, blessed by dancing light filaments bouncing off the walls of their refuge. The softened brilliance of late-afternoon sunbeams caresses their faces, two women restored to a childish, carefree state, transformed by the joy of being reunited.”

This is a slow, meandering novel were grouped passages — it’s difficult to call the chapters given how short this novella is — do not always weave together seamlessly. And as a coming of age story, I felt Hadachinou’s story was underwhelming. But the glimpses into women’s spaces in pre-Gaddafi Libya were poignant and made for a wonderful surprise for someone who purchased this novella on a whim.

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