Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda | Book Review

“The soul of life is the little things, the minor events no one notices…. That’s where life is, the pleasure of being alive, otherwise there’s just this vast blueness casting its shadow over us.  (…) Take care of your soul as the wind does, have fun your own as a butterfly does and live within yourself as a mountain does. The others are just mirrors. They exist only if you let them inside you. The world is a land of strident sound and blindness, life is the home of silence and sight. In this world and in a dream, apart from the unforeseen, there is only darkness. (…) You are just a way of seeing things, open the windows to your eyes. (….) flying away, reaching that other country, changing your dreams, finding other shores….”.

Under the Tripoli Sky by the Libyan writer, Kamal Ben Hameda published by independent publishing house Peirene Press is a multi-layered, nuanced novel which provides a window into a pre-Qaddafi Tripoli in the 1960s Libya. This little novel is an unique literary gem, with poetic writing dressed in delicate nostalgia of the old era. Ben Hameda is an astute observer of human emotions and social patterns,  a great writer of profound sensitivity and understanding for people from all walks of life. By writing this book Kamal Ben Hameda has become a great chronicler of the Libyan society of the 1960s. Under the Tripoli Sky is a wonderful ode to Libya of the old times as well as a tremendous gift to his readership.  

In Under the Tripoli Sky we look at the Tripolitan society, especially women’s spaces, of that era in its complexity through the eyes of a young boy, Hadachinou who is on a cusp of adolescence.  He is observant, sensitive, extremely intelligent, with curious and inquisitive mind.

The book depicts the position of women in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, where both women and men live separate lives, with having very little respect for each other. It is also a story of growing up in this kind of society, especially from the point of view of a young boy, our narrator who himself is in search for his own identity as an Arab and Muslim boy about to enter next phase of his life, where some women and men do not appreciate his innocence and sensitivity and instead take advantage of him.

Hadachinou takes us on a journey through the labyrinth of Tripoli: houses of his parents, grandparents, multiple aunts, and neighbours, the outskirts of the city, mosques, and ancient synagogues, old markets and the port on the Mediterranean. We witness multiple examples of the North African hospitality, with vivid description of dishes and a beautiful tradition of sharing food with others:

“Delicious noodles cooked in spicy tomato sauce, swimming with broad beans, haricot beans, chickpeas, fennel and sun-dried mutton, all heightened with the sharp edge of a drizzle of lemon.”

Hadachinou spends most of his days on listening to the female members of his family, his mother, many aunts, cousins, his mother’s friends and other women he meets. Hadachinou hears the stories of pain and suffering experienced by these women including a story of forced marriage where a young woman he knows decided to commit suicide by setting herself alight with petrol in order not to marry the man she did not love. He learns about love from his elderly aunts. Hadachinou observes that women in his family do not have freedom to go out in the same way as adult men do.  Women introduce him to the world of literature and tales from Thousand and One Nights, songs of the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum or Andalusian songs. He often participates in the afternoon tea ceremony veiled in “full of warm, lush, perfumed, scented air” and in the atmosphere evoking the old times. During those meetings, women confide in each other, they talk freely about their traumas, hardships, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

“Aunt Nafissa and Signora Filomena had become friends the moment they met at my mother’s house.  Now whenever my great-aunt visited from Djerba she made a point of seeing the Signora: the two of them sat for hours drinking wine and holding hands. My great-aunt Nafissa understood her troubles. “

The boy hears the women’s portrayal of men where the men are always depicted as the ones who are only interested in “destroying with one hand what they’ve created with the other.”

Domestic violence is a recurring theme throughout the book where women are abused by their husbands, just for not adding enough spices to the dish or adding too much. On some occasions, young Hadachinou himself is a witness to the abuse that his aunt suffers at the hands of her husband.

“It wasn’t much fun seeing Aunt Hiba either. She too backed away from people in shame, even from me. She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband.”  

Through the eyes of Hadachinou, we observe that it is the women who are always taking care of the family and doing all household chores without men being involved:

“My mother made the noodles herself. She did it all, all by herself: preparing ilghidid, the sun-dried meat, doing the laundry by hand, kneading the bread dough (…), and tending the chicken and vegetables. She never stopped (…).”

On one occasion, his mother shares a story with Hadachinou about her childhood and how she wanted to stay in school and study to become an engineer or a teacher in order not to be dependent on anyone. But she could not fulfil her dream as her family was so poor that she had to abandon her education in order to earn money to support her family.

Hadachinou also hears women including his mother complaining about their bodies and looks which he did not understand as he perceives his mother and other women as beautiful the way they were. He was happy to listen to women talking about their Tripolitan lives and dreams while women shared afternoon tea ceremony at his mother’s house. He was mesmerized by their “kohl-lined eyes, and the pink make-up (…), and with their every move [he] inhaled the fragrances exuded by the gauzy fabrics they wore.”

There is a beautiful passage of Hafachinou’s observations of women at the tea ceremony:

“The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real time and tell their stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties all in the same breath, and their bodies were at peace. I wondered how these women who were so different were able to spend hours at a time, each talking about her own god, her own people, and thoughts, free to be wildly outspoken but without provoking any true conflict. It was because they had no power to preserve and no possessions to watch over. That was for the people on the other side of the wall: the mean, the sheikhs, the governors (…). Here with the women, my guardian angels, there were just words, spoken openly and easily (…). Without these moments of trusting abandon, they would have dried up with sorrow.”

This book offers an insight into the Libyan society of the 1960s, which was multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious with Arabs, Berbers, Italians, Jews, Africans, French and others living next to each other but “despite appearances, marriages between blacks, Berbers, Arabs, and other children of Tripoli were still rare”.  Although the Arab, Italian, and Jewish children played together and the Arab, Jewish, and French women would be going together to the beach where they would stand “with [their] feet in the Mediterranean drinking boukha or that delicious palm wine called laghbi”, the tensions especially among the Italian population who had been living in Libya for many generations are noticeable. At one point, one of the older Italian neighbours of the young boy, Singora Filomena shares with him her fears of having to leave Libya:

“(…) I am frightened. What if I have to end my days somewhere else? I’d die so far from Tripoli. My husband keeps saying we’ll be driven out of here one day.”

Young Hadachinou always being very sensitive and thoughtful tried to reassure his elderly Italian neighbour with the following words:

“Don’t be frightened, Signora Filomena. I’ll be here to defend you … And, anyway, why would anyone drive you away? Who would do you any harm? You were born here, you’re Tripolitan, you’re local. You eat Tripolitan food, you speak Tripolitan, you dream in Tripolitan.”

The innocence of a young boy, Hadachinou was often exploited by some females he encountered, including his own mother. She did not like Hadachinou‘s presence during her all female gatherings but his grandma and great aunt always defended his presence there. His mother at times humiliated him in front of her female friends without regard for his feelings.

There are also examples of the ostracism of those Arab and Jewish women who did not comply with social norms imposed by their religious communities, by both men and women of those communities.

Towards the end of the novel, Hadachinou also questions his own identity as an Arab and Muslim boy. He is on the quest for the meaning behind those words: a Muslin and an Arab but none of his religious teachers, nor his mother or others have satisfactory answers for him.  His deepest connection was his older great aunt, Nafissa and she is the only one who listens to this little boy inquisitive questions and tries to provide some answers to his curious mind.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. Some parts of it make it for uncomfortable reading but this is what literature is for: to make us uncomfortable and to reflect. I love the nuanced portrait of the Libyan society offered by the author. Highly recommended, especially when you look for little gems of the North African literature.

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