Translating Libya: stories of love and hardship

by Susanna Tarbush
30 September 2008
Bonn, Germany - Ethan Chorin’s book Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story defies being pigeon-holed within a particular genre. At its heart are 16 Libyan short stories newly translated by Chorin (in three cases, jointly with Basem Tulti). But the book is at the same time a delightful mixture of travelogue, scholarly study and a record of personal encounters.

Libya, after its long years of international isolation, still appears generally mysterious and little understood to outsiders. The title, Translating Libya, can be seen in two ways. One is the translation of Libyan literature, the other the “translating” of Libya itself. Through the stories and his accompanying jottings and commentaries, Chorin throws much light on different facets of Libya, past and present.

Chorin was a member of the small team of US diplomats that went to Tripoli after US-Libyan relations were renewed in July 2004. He remained there as Commercial and Economic Attaché until 2006.

When he asked his assistant in Tripoli, US-educated Basem Tulti, if he could recommend any good local authors, Tulti produced a paperback containing The Locusts by Ahmed Fagih. Chorin loved the story, and translated it into English. Thus the idea was born of collaborating with Tulti on a project to translate a number of stories.

The stories are interspersed with Chorin’s vivid, often amusing, accounts of his adventures while travelling to far-flung places, or trying to track down particular writers or stories. He combed multiple sources for stories, including bookshops, newspapers, magazines, web sites and personal contacts.

How did Libyans react to Chorin as a US diplomat? Chorin said he “always got the sense that most Libyans felt very positive towards Americans, despite the past obvious tensions in the relationship.”

He reckons this is perhaps because “older Libyans generally had fond memories of interactions with Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, and Libya’s international isolation shielded younger generations (somewhat) from the hot-button issues about which the rest of the region obsesses. This is no longer the case, and expectations are high as to what the rapprochement will produce.”

The 16 stories are rendered in clear, flowing translation. Their authors range from Wahbi Bouri, born in 1916 and widely considered the “original” Libyan short story writer, to younger authors including Abdullah Ali Al-Gazal, Maryam Ahmed Salama and Najwa Ben Shetwan.

Chorin notes that a considerable percentage of young Libyan writers today are women in their late 20s and early 30s, whereas in the previous two decades writers were overwhelmingly male. Some women write under male pen names, however, as they do not feel writing is yet a socially acceptable activity for women.

The stories include timeless fables such as Sadiq Nayhoum’s stories, “The Good-Hearted Salt Seller” and “The Sultan’s Flotilla”. Others are social satires: “Special Edition” by Ali Mustapha Misrati, lampoons Arab journalism, while Lamia El-Makki’s previously unpublished “Tripoli Story”, set in today’s consumerist society, portrays a monstrously materialistic wife.

Two hauntingly poetic stories are set on the eastern Libyan coast. In Najwa Ben Shetwan’s “The Spontaneous Lover” a young woman on vacation with her family in the village of Bauhareshma writes her lover a letter to be put into a bottle and tossed into the Mediterranean. “The Mute” by Abdullah Ali Al-Gazal is located in a mountainous verdant place where an abused mute girl succumbs to the call of the natural world.

The stories do not directly confront the political realities of the four decades of the Qaddhafi era. Chorin observes that in the “revolutionary years” from 1969 to 1986, the realist style of the 1960s was abandoned. A few committed writers with means fled the country. Those who stayed “nursed their hobbies more or less in private”. Writers coped with censorship through allegory or “outright evasion”. Some of the work from that time is only now seeing the light of day, more than 20 years on.

Chorin writes: “There are signs that with the recent economic and cultural opening, more people are reading, and short stories in particular.” With the recent lifting of restrictions on certain forms of expression, and a new press law, “it will be interesting to see who will be among the next generation of Libyan writers and from where they will draw inspiration.”

He hopes that the trend will be towards more openness and creativity. “Most of my information now about Libya comes either directly through Libyan friends, or the internet. Individuals like Laila Neihoum (a cousin of Sadiq Nayhoum) have done Libyan arts a tremendous service by publishing blogs describing what’s going on in Libyan art and literature. In the book Chorin mentions the effect of the internet in encouraging writers to take some risks and self publish. “This is clearly having an effect in sharing Libyan arts with the world.”

Chorin adds, “I hope to be back living in the region soon. I most certainly keep in touch with my Libyan friends – this project has helped tremendously with that – and very much hope to return to Libya.”


* Susannah Tarbush is a freelance journalist. Ethan Chorin is currently on leave from the State Department and working as a senior fellow of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). The full text can be found at

Source:, 29 September 2008,
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